How did James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth influence Sir Charles Lyell?
Did James Hutton’s 1785 paper “Theory of the Earth” influence Sir Charles Lyell? Yes, it laid the foundation upon which Sir Charles Lyell built the science of geology.
James Hutton was a well-educated scientist with education and/or experience in chemistry, medicine, agriculture, husbandry, and geology. The word geology had just been coined seven years earlier. Hutton’s theory was in opposition to the popular Neptunists who believed rock layers were formed in a great flood. His theory was also in opposition to the Plutonists, which believed that all rocks are of igneous origin. He proposed the theory of uniformity of causes, concluding that the earth's history can be explained by observing the geological forces presently at work, because these forces are identical to the ones that operated in the past.
Hutton’s theory really didn’t take hold immediately. It wasn’t until 45 years later that Sir Charles Lyell used Hutton’s work to build the science of geology. One thing that prevented rapid acceptance of his work was his heavy and obscure style of writing. However, John Playfair, professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, was instrumental in making Hutton’s work recognized and accepted. Playfair’s enthusiasm for the spread of Hutton's doctrine, combined with his gift of writing, propelled Hutton’s theory. It is interesting that this is a similar situation to Thomas Huxley being Darwin’s bulldog.
This belief not only laid a foundation for Sir Charles Lyell, but ultimately for Charles Darwin, resulting in a complete worldview paradigm shift. This shift was away from a biblical creationism, young earth and catastrophism to a humanistic, evolutionary, uniformitarianism old earth belief.
Scientists have learned recently from the effects of the Mount St. Helen’s eruption that deposition and rapid canyon formation can and does happen in a catastrophic fashion. Scientists also know that fossils do not normally get preserved under any slow uniformitarianism scenario. In addition, scientists know that the concentration and configuration of some fossil beds could only have been deposited by a catastrophic event.
Consequently, even though Hutton’s “Theory of the Earth” did influence Lyell, Darwin, and our current postmodern beliefs, the question is, are these beliefs true or false?
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