October 2003

Michael Farrelly

nonfiction

The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity by Jack Repcheck

When I was a kid all I wanted to be was a paleontologist. I was fascinated by the concepts of epochs, millions of years of evolution, fossils, and dinosaurs. I never took to the children’s books recounting smiling dinosaurs at play in the fields of the lord. Rather I liked hard science, biology, atmospherics and pale botany. I vowed, at the age of seven, to uncover what really killed the dinosaurs by the time I was thirty. I’m still working on it.

James Hutton, an 18th century Scotch farmer and scientist, was fascinated by the past. But unlike a young chubby Chicago boy three centuries later, Hutton’s fascination was actually heresy.

Repcheck’s The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity chronicles Hutton’s exploration of geological antiquity in a time when the biblical interpretation of the creation of earth placed the formative years of the planet at about 5,000 years ago. Hutton’s work consisted of careful observation of the rock layers and fossil findings on his property in Scotland. Simple deduction and observation led him to inescapable conclusions about the age of the earth, and the veracity of the church’s dogma.

Repcheck has no kid gloves when it comes to religion and its chilling effect on science. In point of fact Repcheck gives a good thwack to the religious shenanigans that led to the church’s dogma of a 6,000 year old earth.

The book is not so much a biography of Hutton, about whom little is known save some correspondence and some journals, as it is the story of his time and culture and how that limited his work. In some sense Repcheck is introducing Hutton to the broader scientific community. Hutton’s work is largely overlooked in modern scientific history, the bulk of the credit going instead to Darwin and his evolutionary theory which came along a century later. But it was Hutton who looked at the geological make up of his native Scotland and ascertained that millennium was far to brief a time for all of God’s earth to grow.

Repcheck also uses the backdrop of the Scottish Enlightenment to discuss the gravity of Hutton’s accomplishment. I was in Scotland just over the summer and was overwhelmed at how many members of the “English Enlightenment” were in fact Scotsmen who had been misfiled by American scholars. The fertile ground of this period is where Hutton is able to make his assertions without being trussed up and burned for them. While philosophers and theologians debated the nature of man, Hutton was focused on the nature of earth.

Repcheck draws these two threads together to show how intellectual curiosity will not be limited by theocracy. James Hutton, gentleman farmer, may not be the Scottish Rogue of the William Wallace mold, but he was certainly a man ahead of his time.

The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity by Jack Repcheck
Perseus Publishing
ISBN: 073820692X
256 Pages