The other skeptic was Sir James Hall. A thin blade of a man, with a pleasant face and small features, the twenty-seven-year-old had inherited a substantial fortune while still a teenager. The coastal estate that served as the home base for this excursion was part of that inheritance. Hall also supplied the boat and the additional hands to help sail it. Though still quite young, Sir James was already an accomplished scientist. His grand-uncle and guardian, Sir John Pringle, was president of the Royal Society, the most esteemed scientific body in the world and the former intellectual home of Isaac Newton. Hall was particularly fascinated by chemistry and had recently become acquainted with the great Antoine Lavoisier in Paris. Visiting the continent when Hutton gave his controversial lectures, Hall nonetheless read a printed thirty-page abstract of the talks that had found its way to him. His reaction mirrored that of the audience: He rejected it.
To call Playfair and Hall skeptics is a bit misleading. By June 1788, after countless face-to-face discussions with Hutton, they had slowly been persuaded that the doctor's theory was plausible. But at the time of Hutton's explosive lectures, the announcement that the earth was ancient was startling. It would be akin to being told today that the sun is not really the source of the earth's heat and light, or that there actually is complex life on the moon. Though other natural philosophers had intimated that the earth was not as young as six millennia, and one famous French scientist had recently argued that the earth was 75,000 years old, no one had ever gone as far as Huttonor been so direct.
Also, a rigorous theory of the earth's history and workings that most scientists found compelling already existed. This theory was promulgated in the 1770s by a talented German mineralogist named Abraham Gottlob Werner, who was a professor at a renowned German university. Werner argued that a "universal ocean" had once blanketed the earth, creating all the formations that now existed. This was acceptable to the established religions because the universal ocean harkened back either to Noah's Flood or to Creation itself and the very first passages in the Book of Genesis: "And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," and "God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so." Werner's theory also appealed to the scientific community because it seemed to account for all the visible features on the earth.
Hutton's general theory of the earth's history was the opposite of Werner's, as different as heaven from hell. Werner believed that the mountains, deserts, and farmlands had precipitated out of the receding water of the universal ocean; that is, as the ocean slowly evaporated or was drawn into the earth, the land on which humans now lived formed and was revealed. This process had happened only once. Hutton, in contrast, saw new land springing from below the already existing oceans, pushed up by the caldron of extreme heat found within the earth. And he saw it happening over and over, the earth following a constant pattern of erosion followed by new land rising up from below the seasthe planet an efficient land-regenerating machine. Hutton reasoned that this cycle had occurred at least three times during geologic history.
For Hutton there was no need to call upon unseen and unknowable catastrophes from the past, such as the Deluge or the universal ocean, to explain geologic formations; they were all understandable through the knowledge of processes still occurring. The inexorable forces of wind and rain, tides and waves, volcanoes and earthquakes, which the earth still experiences every day, formed the world we inhabit. All that was required, as Hutton stated, was "immense time."
Excerpted from The Man Who Found Time by Jack Repcheck. Copyrighted by Jack Repcheck 2003, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Perseus Publishing.
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