Book review: James Hutton - The Genius of Time, by Ray Perman

This engaging biography offers a rich and sympathetic account of one of the most important intellectual stars of the Enlightenment, writes Allan Massie

James Hutton is one of the greatest figures in the Age of Enlightenment, the extraordinary flowering of intellect and science which makes the 18th century the most remarkable in Scottish History. He has been called “the Father of Geology”. Yet even in Scotland, even in his native Edinburgh where he spent most of his life, he is one of the least well-known of the intellectual stars of his day. His most important work, Theory of the Earth, is now read by few but geologists. I am not among that enterprising few. Indeed, to my shame, I found no space for Hutton in 101 brief biographies of “Great Scots” published 35 years ago. I have no memory of even considering him for inclusion, and did not mention him in my piece on his friend James Watt. In short, I was sadly ignorant.

Ray Perman’s biography means that there would be no excuse for such ignorance now. It gives a rich and sympathetic account of Hutton’s life, thought and work. It helps – for the general reader at least – that Perman is not himself a geologist but has been a journalist, writing mostly about finance and economics. He has, however, devoted years to Hutton and been chairman of the James Hutton Institute.

There are difficulties about the biography. Almost all of Hutton’s private papers have disappeared. Nevertheless, Perman gives us a remarkably full picture of the man, his life and his work – an agreeably sympathetic one too. The biography is also an evocation of his milieu, when it was said that a man could stand by Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross and “in a few minutes take 50 men of genius by the hand”.

Detail of a portrait of James Hutton by Henry Raeburn. PIC: Wikicommons

Hutton was an Edinburgh man born and bred, and lived most of his life in the city. However, he studied medicine for some years in Paris, farmed in Norfolk and Berwickshire, travelled all over Britain engaged in practical research, and was active in the construction of the Forth & Clyde Canal. Edinburgh was a hothouse of ideas, argument and intellectual speculation, and Hutton seems to have had a gift for friendship. He had a son, who may have been illegitimate, who lived in London and whom he supported but scarcely saw. Two of his sisters kept house for him.

Theory of the Earth and his other surviving writings are not easy reading, uphill work indeed. Though Hutton was apparently an engaging conversationalist and his letters to friends are lively, his works are long-winded, repetitive, often clumsy; some of his papers delivered to learned societies by his friend Joseph Black read more easily – perhaps, Perman says, because Black pruned and edited them. Perman suggests that the clumsiness and long-windedness of Hutton’s published work may have come from the fact that he habitually spoke in Scots rather than “polite English” and had not, like David Hume and Adam Smith, schooled himself to correct this. Perhaps so; yet his private letters, written in English rather than Scots, even to friends like Watt, are lively.

Hutton was not of course the first to challenge the Biblical version of Creation – almost all intellectual and scientific advances are developed in a vital and sympathetic culture. Nevertheless, Hutton grew up in a society where the authority of the Bible was only cautiously, if daringly, questioned, one in which Archbishop Usher’s calculation, based on Old Testament figures, that the Earth was just over 6,000 years old was still believed and its authority defended.

Despite the paucity of biographical material, Perman gives an engaging picture of Hutton, making him better-known and more accessible than he has been till now. His explanation of Hutton’s work is detailed, lucid and of great interest. This biography may not lead many but students of geology to turn to Hutton’s own writings, but for those as ignorant as I was 30 and many more years ago, it is surely as agreeable and enticing a picture of the man and his milieu as could be wished for. Those who are already better-informed will surely also find much that is new, much also to make them think, in this intelligent, copious and always engaging biography.

James Hutton: The Genius of Time, by Ray Perman, Birlinn, 290pp, £25.