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Open letter to science editors
1, No. 3
JAMES HUTTON: A NON-INDUCTIVE,
"And after all, what is a
lie? 'Tis but the truth in masquerade';
and I defy historians, heros, lawyers, priests to put a fact without some
leaven of a lie." --Lord George Byron, Don Juan
Anything but history, for history must be false. --Sir Robert Walpole,
It has been said that "history is the lie agreed upon" and that "the victors
write history." This is especially true with respect to the doctrine of
uniformity, promulgated in the last century by James Hutton and Charles
Lyell. With the acceptance of their doctrine came a historical revision in
science--from catastrophism to uniformitarianism--that directed research
along gradualist paths which admitted no major violent breaks in the
geological record. The concept, in 1950, was so deeply entrenched that,
when Immanuel Velikovsky offered his catastrophic theory in Worlds
in Collision it was met with a belligerent outcry of passion. What
Velikovsky had revived was the old debate which, in establishment
uniformitarian circles, was regarded as settled for all time. Every piece
of evidence presented by Velikovsky in Earth in Upheaval to support
his concept was explained away by his uniformitarian opponents as they
invoked ad hoc gradualist models. When this could not be done, as, for
example, to explain away a 1300-foot beach in the Andes mountains and other
high beaches elsewhere, without numerous intermediate beaches between them
and the sea, the geologist and geophysicist critics ignored this evidence in
unison--thereby denying the facts to themselves. Velikovsky's correct
celestial predictions, which ran counter to the prevailing expectations of
the astronomical community, were also treated this way.
How, then, did this uniformitarian concept grow to be so influential? In
all geology classes taught at universities, this gradualist interpretation
is presented (as it was when I studied geology) as the only correct,
permissible approach to evidence. The work of catastrophists like
Velikovsky is remarked upon as beyond the pale, if mentioned at all, while
James Hutton is promoted as a paragon of the scientific method. But, just
how accurate is the history presented and promoted in these texts?
The aim of this paper is to briefly explore the foundation of this outlook
and examine the history of its first proponent, James Hutton, who has been,
and still is, presented and promoted as a Baconian ideal. What I submit is
that Hutton, like Plato and Aristotle, derived his theory from a basic a
priori assumption that was divorced from the clear evidence known to
geologists of his own time.
Professor Lynn E. Rose has summed up the nature of this assumption
regarding Charles Darwin, who theorized that the "geological and
paleontological record was really incomplete and compressed and
abbreviated, so that what is continuous only appears discrete,
and what is slow only appears fast, and what appears non-simultaneous
only appears simultaneous."
Darwin had taken his assumptions from Charles Lyell, who had taken his
assumptions from James Hutton. Lyell believed that he had found four
principles of science which proved valid for any examination of the
processes going on in the Earth:
1. There is a fundamental uniformity of natural laws.
All laws of nature are real and do not change. Science must, therefore,
be based only on known natural laws.
2. There is a fundamental uniformity of process. The
past is also subject to natural laws; therefore, what we observe
occurring by way of natural processes, which are natural laws in nature
operating in the present, are the same processes that operated
throughout the past. These observable processes are the only ones that
may be invoked to explain the past.
3. There is a fundamental uniformity of rate, of
gradualistic change. Since all the changes observed on the Earth are
gradual, all changes in the past must also have been gradual.
4. There is a uniformity of state of changelessness.
The Earth, because it changes so slowly, had always looked very much the
way it presently appears.
In 1832, William Whewell reviewed Lyell's views.
He stated that when Lyell
considers it a merit in a course of geological speculation, that it
rejects any difference between the intensity of existing and of past
causes, [and] we conceive that he errs no less than those whom he
censures, [and] the effects must themselves teach us the nature and
intensity of the cause which have operated; and we are in danger of
error if we seek for slow, and shun violent, agencies further than the
facts naturally direct us, no less than if we were parsimonious of time
and periodical of violence. [Whewell wondered if man could assume he had
been] long enough an observer to obtain the average of forces which are
changing through immeasurable time.
The first two principles, that natural laws are real and, when applied
to processes of geology, have been going on throughout all time, were
accepted by all the geologists of the 19th century. These are concepts
fundamental to all science. However, the second two principles, that
all changes arc gradual and that the Earth has always looked as it does
presently, are clearly a priori assumptions. The rate of change
today is indeed slow, but how can anyone prove that this must always
have been the case? Let us submit this to a test with respect to raised
beaches all around the world, outside glaciated regions.
Wave-cut beaches, hundreds of feet high, are found above and also below
sea level. What is most striking about these terraces is that they tend
to correlate with each other in height and depth across broad
geographical regions. Charles Lyell argued that
episodic uplifts of the coast of Chile attending earthquakes of
historical record [explained these beaches]. One of these quakes may
raise the coast by an average height of about 3 feet (1 meter) over a
stretch of 100 miles (160 kilometers). Two thousand such shocks might
produce a mountain range 100 miles long and 6,000 feet (1.8 kilometers)
high. If only one or two events occurred during a century, the
situation would be the same as [that which] the Chileans had managed to
If the land rose gradually from the sea, then a whole series of beaches
would have followed one above the other. This has, indeed, been found
in certain glaciated areas and is Prima facie evidence of gradual
change. However, this is not the case in Chile or in all regions
outside the icecap cover. Beaches are found over the globe at high
altitude without numerous, intermediate ones present. This clearly
indicates that the changes were not all gradual but sudden and,
therefore, catastrophic. Darwin admitted that an earthquake of immense
magnitude was required for their formation when he saw the South
Yet, he and other geologists have suggested that these raised beaches
are only local in origin and unrelated to the others. However, Reginald
Daly saw through this uniformitarian scheme to limit catastrophes to
unique, local events.
It is derived from the theory that these beaches, all over the world,
have been raised by forces shoving up from below. At each place the
receding waters left an abandoned beach line, the raised beach theory
postulates a local uplift. This theory requires uplifts, not only
around all the world's oceans, but around all the world's lakes, and
also along the banks of all (or almost all) the world's rivers; for
there are raised terraces along the banks of all major rivers and
abandoned shorelines around the world's lakes...... Often the highest
terraces of such rivers as the Seine or [the] Elbe, when followed down
to the mouth, are seen to blend with old shorelines which border the
oceans at levels considerably higher than [those of] the present
beaches." This blending of river terraces with ocean shorelines
established the fact that the general recession of water levels [or
rising of the land] is a worldwide phenomenon common to both rivers and
oceans, which cannot be reasonably attributed to a multiplicity of local
Many geologists, when faced with this evidence of global catastrophism,
simply ignore this finding, which is contrary to their uniformitarian
belief system. Since they cannot admit that something tremendous has
created these upraised beaches all over the Earth, they cannot follow
the evidence to what it catastrophically indicates. Thus, when we test
the gradualist concept that all changes are slow and find a global
contradiction to it, the belief system comes into play and the evidence
is ignored. What would create such a global phenomenon except a global
catastrophe? The catastrophe has to be of either internal or external
origin. To date, only Charles Hapgood has suggested an internal
mechanism that, if valid, could generate the world's raised beaches.
All other mechanisms are external and require major celestial
catastrophes, even though we have not experienced one in our time.
Those geologists and astronomers of this century who understand this are
beginning to move toward just such a position as a history for the Earth
and the solar system.
Lyell, himself, had been aware of the celestial catastrophic concept; he
had written about William Whiston's theory that "he retarded the
progress of truth, diverting men from the investigation of the laws of
sublunary nature and inducing them to waste time in speculations on the
power of comets to drag waters of the ocean over the land,"
in his Principles of Geology.
Nonetheless, Hutton and Lyell, in essence, made the very same assumption
that had been made by Aristotle, namely that the Earth was separated
from events originating in the heavens. The Earth was sealed off from
any contact with large celestial bodies, even though it was then known
that meteorites were real, solid objects. Hutton and Lyell's theory
excluded the Earth from any significant interaction with the celestial
environment in which it existed.
The solar system is not divorced from the galaxy. If a very
tiny, ancient, brown dwarf star, such as Jupiter or Saturn, was to be
attracted to the Sun, why should we assume as a fact that this has not
occurred before and wreaked havoc among the planets? Such a body or
bodies passing through, or being captured by, our system could certainly
generate Velikovskian-type scenarios. To reject Velikovskian
catastrophes, one must isolate the solar system from interacting with
the bodies in the galactic environment.
A school of geological thought based on catastrophism had existed prior
to and during the time in which Charles Lyell lived. This school was
represented by such eminent figures in science as Georges Cuvier, the
father of paleontology, and Louis Agassiz, the discoverer of the Ice
Ages. Other notables of this school were Adam Sedgewick, William
Buckland and Roderick Murchison, whose contributions explained the
stratigraphical column. Like his predecessors, one of the most
outspoken of the catastrophists, Henry H. Horworth, maintained that, in
the age of man, the Earth had experienced a global catastrophe which
destroyed the megafauna. Each of these scientists had done extensive
geological field work and reported their evidence as support for their
conclusion that the Earth had a catastrophic past.
Stephen J. Gould, the Harvard science historian who has reintroduced
minor catastrophes into the concepts of evolution and geology, states:
Read literally, then and now, the geological record is primarily in a
state of abrupt transitions at least in local areas, If sediments
indicate that environments are changing from terrestrial to marine, we
do not usually find an insensibly graded series of strata, indicating by
grain size and faunal content that takes and streams have given way to
oceans of increasing depth. In most cases, fully marine strata lie
directly atop terrestrial beds, with no signs of smooth transition. The
world of dinosaurs does not yield gradually to the realm of mammals;
instead, dinosaurs disappear from the record in apparent concert with
about half the species of marine organisms in one of the five major mass
extinctions of life's history.
Gould's statement is merely a subdued echo of what the 19th century
catastrophists had documented again and again. Velikovsky presented
Georges Cuvier's words, which long ago said what Gould proposes, in a
more honest, catastrophist manner:
The breaking to pieces, the raising up and
overturning of the older strata [of the Earth] leave no doubt upon the
mind that they have been reduced to the state in which we now see them
by the action of sudden and violent causes; and even the force of the
motions excited in the mass of waters is still attested to by the heaps
of debris and rounded pebbles which are in many places interposed
between the solid strata. Life, therefore, has often been disturbed on
the Earth by terrific events. Numberless living beings have been the
victims of these catastrophes; some, which inhabited the dry land, have
been swallowed up by inundations; others, which peopled the waters,
have been laid dry, the bottom of the sea having been suddenly raised;
their very races have been extinguished forever and have left no other
memorial of their existence than some fragments which the naturalist can
Then, as now, the stratigraphical record did not exhibit evidence of
gradual change. The concept of the present as the key to the past made
no sense at all when what should be found in the strata--gradual
insensible change--was simply not found. The record in the rock
contradicted the uniformitarian explanation attributed to it. Any axiom
is inherently reversible; thus, "the past is the key to the present"
must also be considered. Cuvier had, indeed, sought gradualist
explanations for what he discovered in the Earth, based on
uniformitarian processes, but found them totally wanting.
The thread of operations is here broken, the march of nature is changed,
and none of the agents which she now employs would have been sufficient
for the production of her ancient works....
In short, all [now operating geological] causes would [neither] change
in an appreciable degree the level of the sea nor raise [its surface a
single stratum above] .... It has been asserted that the sea has
undergone a general diminution of the waters; that the temperature of
the globe is diminishing or increasing. None of these cases could have
overturned our strata; enveloped in ice large animals, with their flesh
and skin; laid dry marine [life] ... and, lastly, destroyed numerous
species and even entire genre.
Thus, we repeat, it is in vain that we search among the powers which now
act at the surface of the Earth for causes sufficient to produce the
revolutions and catastrophes, the traces of which are exhibited by its
Singly, or all together, the gradualist processes of the Earth failed to
account for what was observed in the strata. Thus, the catastrophists
of the 19th century had abounding evidence of gigantic catastrophes but
lacked a plausible, scientific cause. It was Velikovsky who, like
Ignatious Donnelly and William Whiston before him, reintroduced an
extraterrestrial mechanism to explain the catastrophic nature of the
crust. Ever since he reintroduced this concept of massive
extraterrestrial catastrophes in 1950, that theme has grown among the
establishment scientists so that, today, they grudgingly admit that the
Earth has a history of extraterrestrial impact events with comets,
asteroids and meteorites; but they fail to admit the enormous, global,
geological changes found on the Earth, the Moon, Mars and Venus that
could never have been created by such small bodies. Like the
uniformitarians of last century and much of this century, they see the
global catastrophic phenomena through
The great founder of seeing the Earth through a uniformitarian filter is
James Hutton. However, the evidence below will show that his view is a
historical myth. The real founder of gradualism was Charles Lyell, who
denied catastrophism as, itself, a religious-geological myth.
One of the great concepts of the Hutton legend is that he was the
earliest figure who applied the "scientific method" to the Earth--that
he was a strict empiricist who patiently went into the field, examined
the evidence first hand, took careful notes of his observations, and, by
methods of Baconian induction, derived his conclusions as presented in
his Theory of the Earth. Stephen J. Gould discusses the
emergence of this legend and cites texts that were, or are, influential
in promoting this view:
The elevation of Hutton achieved its canonical form in the same work
that classified [Thomas] Bumet [a biblical catastrophist] among the
villains and presented the empiricist myth in its most influential
form--Sir Archibald Geikie's The Founders of Geology (1897).
Geikie's Hutton is a paragon of objectivity, a cardboard ideal. "In the
whole of Hutton's doctrine, he vigorously guarded himself against the
admission of any principle which could not be founded on observation.
He made no assumption. Every step in his deduction was based upon
actual fact and the facts were so arranged as to yield naturally and
inevitably the conclusion which he drew from them." ([Geike] 1905,
314-315) Bowing to the primal mystique of geology, Geikie identified
the sources of these rigorous observations in field work: "He went far
afield in search of facts .... He made journeys into different parts of
Scotland .... He extended his excursions likewise into England and
Wales. For almost 30 years, he never ceased to study the natural
history of the globe," (288) Geikie then labeled the theory of his
fellow Scotsman as "a coherent system by which the Earth became, as it
were, her own interpreter." (305)
Geikie's mythical Hutton has been firmly
entrenched in geological textbooks ever since.
Modern geology texts, cited by Gould,
that echo the heroic legend which Geikie presented, state:
"The first to break formally with religion-shrouded tradition was James
"Modern geology was born in 1785, when James Hutton ... formu
principle that the same physical processes that are operating in the
present also operated in the past."
"He made it his task to clear the geological Augean Stables of the
encrusted catastrophist doctrine of over [1,0001 years."
"'Throughout Hutton's 'Theory,' the inductive method of reasoning alone
is used. He made the Earth tell its own story."
"Even though Hutton's ideas were backed by careful field observations,
his paper was written in such a difficult style that it was not widely
Wherever he had been, he found himself drawn to riverbeds and cutbanks,
ditches and borrow pits, coastal outcrops and upland cliffs; and if he
saw black, shining cherts in the white chalks of Norfolk, fossil clams
in the Cheviot hills, he wondered why they were there. He had become
preoccupied with the operation of the Earth and he was beginning to
discern a gradual and repetitive process measured out in dynamic cycles.
This, then, is the story presented in practically every secondary school
and university geology class in the world. But what is the reality
regarding this story? Gould tells us that "[t]he traditional argument
that Hutton induced his cyclical theory of the world machine from field
observations, particularly of granite and unconformities, becomes even
harder to understand when we recognize that Hutton's own record clearly
belies his legend prima facie."
Simple chronology, says Gould, is evidence enough. Hutton had observed
granite at only one uninformative location in the field by the time of
his presentation. He presented his theory of the Earth before the Royal
Society of Edinburgh on March 7 and April 4, 1785, publishing an
abstract later that year which described the theory essentially in its
final form. That summer, he visited several better field sites,
including the outcrop at Glen Tilt, where he made a key observation.
Hutton saw his first unconformity at Loch Ranza, then another at the
Tweed Basin, in 1787, two years after he first presented his theory. In
1788, at Siccar Point, he found what became his most famous
unconformity. That same year, the first, full, written version of
Hutton's theory appeared in volume I of the Transactions of the
Royal Society of Edinburgh. The two-volume Theory of the
Earth with Proofs and Illustrations followed in 1795.
Gould concurs with G. L. Davies, who wrote The Earth in Decay. A
History of British Geomorphology, in believing that "Hutton
developed his theory in its final form before he had ever seen an
unconformity and when he had observed granite in only an inconclusive
In fact, Hutton himself openly admits that his theory was not derived
through induction but from a priori premises, i.e., armchair
deduction. He states, "I just saw [granite], and no more, at Petershead
and Aberdeen, but that was all the granite I had ever seen [1788
version]. I have since that time, seen it in different places; because
I went on purpose to examine it."
The concept that Hutton's uniformitarian theory was based on inductive
science is sheer myth. The accusation that has been brought against the
catastrophists, that they derived their concept by deduction, is also a
myth. The catastrophists did the field work! In spite of the exposure
of this uniformitarian myth, it probably will still be presented and
promoted in classrooms and textbooks that Hutton built his theory from
observation in the field. Tragically, some of those indoctrinated into
this error will become teachers and journalists, continuing to believe
and promulgate this historic, uniformitarian lie.
Catastrophists like Cuvier were the empiricists. They, not
Hutton, went into the field, examined earth strata in detail and based
their conclusions on reading the geological record. Hutton's theory and
conclusion that earth strata were produced only by gradual processes
were based on an assumption, not on data derived from field work.
The second myth about Hutton is that his theory was an attempt at a
break with tradition shrouded by religion. That is, his theory
precluded any attempt to interpret the strata as support for a biblical
catastrophe, and, thus, he was responsible for removing religion from
geological analysis. Again, this is contradicted by Hutton's own
writings and the assumption underlying his concept. If all processes on
Earth were essentially gradual, then the Earth could not have been
created by God for man, but was generated from natural phenomena and was
indifferent to the human species. Gould, however, shows that
[f]or the purpose of this cycling, [Hutton] advances an unswerving
conviction that we might brand as crass hubris today, but that seemed
self-evidently true in his age. The Earth was constructed as a stable
abode for life, in particular for human domination. (Emphasis
added.) [U]niting means and ends, Hutton speaks of "this mechanism of'
the globe, by which it is adapted to the purpose of being a habitable
world. (1788, 211.) Extending the argument to human life, he writes of,
"a world contrived in consummate wisdom for the growth and habitation of
a great diversity of plants and animals; and a world peculiarly
adapted to the purpose of man, who inhabits all its climates, measures
its extent and determines its production. (1788, 294-295.)
According to Hutton, the breakup of rock by, and the creation of soil
from, weathering produced the layered strata found in the Earth and were
contrived for plants and animals to develop in abundance. This same
geological process which caused flora and fauna to thrive was contrived
for man to farm, so that he could dominate the Earth at his pleasure.
One can almost hear the Bible echoed by Hutton, as God said to Adam:
Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth and subdue it; and have
dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over
every living thing that moves upon the Earth. And God said, "Behold, I
have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all
the Earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them
for food. And to every beast of the Earth and to every bird of the air;
and to everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green
plant for food." And it was so.
When Hutton was accused by Richard Kirwan that his thesis smacked of
he replied that the abyss of time he needed was based on evidence, as
opposed to ignorance. Claude C. Albritton, Jr., defends Hutton: "A
theory built on the premise that the Earth was designed to sustain life
he [Hutton] protested, can hardly be branded as atheistic."
Although Hutton is regarded as the man who took geology out of the realm
of Bible-believing catastrophists, his basic assumption that the
cycles of the Earth were created for the well-being of humanity is
little different from what was preached every Sunday from pulpits in
Hutton's time. Mott T. Greene restates G. L. Davies: "Each of Hutton's
great theories--infinite time, cycles of erosion and deposition and the
secular power of those cycles--was a repetition of geological ideas
widespread in the [17th] century and their combination was based on a
Because Hutton understood that weathering and erosion, over great
stretches of time, would wear down continents and deposit continental
detritus in the oceans, he realized he also needed a process to raise up
the continents every once in a great while. His solution to the problem
was to invoke volcanic catastrophism on a level even more violent than
that invoked by the catastrophists of the 19th century, whose work his
theory is said to have replaced.
He conceived that the continents normally waste away gradually. On the
other hand, he granted the possibility that the continents may have,
sometimes, been destroyed suddenly in the course of a single event. If the
lands are uplifted from the sea by thermal expansion, the expanded matter
must have become less dense than before. [Hutton wrote,] "We may thus
consider our land as placed upon pillars which may break and cause the
continents to collapse back upon the sea floor." Furthermore, the uplift of
the lands no less than their foundering, Hutton thought might be
catastrophic, considering the "violent fracture and unlimited dislocation"
of the uplifted strata.
His gradualistic phase of geological development, though a major aspect of
his theory, was counterbalanced by unabashedly violent catastrophes.
Hutton had written, in Theory of the Earth
(in a passage expunged by John Playfair), that "the theory of the Earth that
I would here illustrate is founded on the greatest catastrophes which can
happen to the Earth, that is [continents] being raised from the bottom of
the sea and sunk again." (Hutton, 1795: [Vol.] 11, [p.] 124.) To say that
Hutton banished catastrophes from his theory is technically correct, for he
refused to discuss them on the grounds that evidence was lacking. But it
should be clear that very few "catastrophists" in the history of geology
ever invoked anything more violent than Hutton did himself. The cataclysms
were, for Hutton, part of the history of the Earth, but not part of his
theory of it.
Hence, in retrospect, three major concepts presented over the past century
are myths. Hutton, contrary to what is taught, did not develop his theory
along inductive lines of research. The assumption underlying all his
thought was, essentially, a theological concept and had been envisaged by
others at least a century before Hutton adopted these ideas. Finally, in
order to offset the processes of weathering and erosion, he raised and
lowered his continents by cataclysms of almost unparalleled violence.
The question that deserves deeper investigation is, How did this erroneous
legend manage to survive among academics for almost a century?
E. Rose, 'On Velikovsky and Darwin," KRONOS VII: 4 (Summer
Whewell, "Review of Lyell's Principles of Geology" vol. II,
Quarterly Review, Vol. 93 (March, 1832): 103-132.
C. Albritton, Jr., Catastrophic Episodes in Earth History
(London, England, 1989), pp. 4748.
Darwin, Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands and Parts
of South America, Pt. II, Ch. 15, ff.
Daly, "Rise and Fall of the Floodwaters--Historical Record,"
Earth's Most Challenging Mysteries (Nutley, New Jersey, 1975),
New York Times (November 1, 1988): p. C 1.
Lyell, Principles of Geology, first ed. reprint (Chicago,
1990), vol. 1, p. 39.
J. Gould, Time's Arrow, Time's Clock (Cambridge,
Massachusetts. 1987), p. 133.
Velikovsky, Earth in Upheaval (New York, 1955), pp. 13-14.
op. cit., pp. 67-68.
Today (Del Mar, California, 1973).
D. Leet and S. Judson, Physical Geology, 4th ed. (Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey, 1971), p. 2.
Marvin, Continental Drift (Washington, DC, 1973), p. 35.
J. Bradley, The Earth and Its History (Boston, 1928), p. 364.
K. Seyfert and L. A. Sirkin, Earth History and Plate Tectonics
(New York, 1973), p. 6.
McPhee, Basin and Range (New York. 1980), pp. 95-96.
op. cit., p. 70.
Bible, Revised Standard Version Genesis 1: 28-30.
Kirwan, "Examination of the Supposed Igneous Origin of Stony
Substance." Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 5
Jr., op. cit., p, 28.
T. Greene, Geology in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca, New
York, 1982), p. 30.
Jr., op. cit., p. 31.
op cit. Pp. 24-25