Theory of the Earth


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HUTTON, James. Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe. BOUND WITH: The Theory of Rain. [Edinburgh: Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1788]. Quarto, modern marbled wrappers, original printed paper label laid down; pp. [209]-304, [2 plates]; [41]-86. Housed in a custom clamshell box.

First edition of Hutton's landmark paper, the foundation of modern geology, excerpted from the Transactions of the Edinburgh Royal Society, with two engraved plates. Bound with another Hutton paper from the same volume, "The Theory of Rain."

"His fundamental conception—now accepted as a matter of course, but then entirely new—was the doctrine of uniformitarianism. The formation of the surface of the earth is one continuous process which can be studied entirely from terrestrial materials without cosmological or supernatural intervention" (PMM). "The first full-dress presentation of Hutton's revolutionary theory of the earth, which formulated for the first time the general principle of what, some fifty years later, would come to be known as uniformitarianism… The revolutionary content of Hutton's theory lies in its recognition of the cyclical, 'timeless' nature of geologic processes. In the most famous words ever written by a geologist, Hutton concluded his paper as follows: 'Having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end'" (Norman).

"Hutton's theory ran counter to the belief then widely held that the present world was created by a divine being, fully populated by animal and plant life, at a time that could be measured by human records" (DSB). His theory also directly contradicted the belief, widely held at the time by naturalists, that every major geologic feature of the earth was formed abruptly by "catastrophic" forces, rather than more gradual and continual forces such as erosion and sedimentation. "The most important advance in geological science embodied in Hutton's theory was his demonstration that the process of sedimentation is cyclical in operation, a principle now accepted as axiomatic. Hutton's cycle involved the gradual degradation of the land surface by erosion; the transport of eroded matter to the sea, there to be deposited as sediments; and the consolidation of the sediments on the sea bottom, followed by their elevation to form new land surfaces, which in turn were subject to erosion. Hutton showed that this cyclic process must have been repeated an indeterminate number of times in the past, and because he could find no evidence to suggest that it might cease, he assumed that it would continue indefinitely… It was not until after 1830 that his theories began to gain general acceptance, largely because of Playfair's Illustrations [1802] and the publication of Lyell's Principles of Geology (London, 1830-33). Lyell accepted most, although not all, of Hutton's views, and expounded them fully in his book" (DSB). "Hutton's theory… was first made public at two meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, early in 1785. The society published it in full in 1788, but offprints of this paper were in circulation in 1787, and possibly in 1786" (DSB). With eight-page Strahan and Cadell publisher's catalogue, dated 1788, bound in at rear. (Hutton went on to expand this paper into a two-volume work with the same title, published in 1795.) Pastiche of title page, with mounted title and engraved vignette preserved. Bound with half title and four pages of contents for Volume I. Norman 1130. See PMM 247.

Occasional spots of foxing to text, especially to first few leaves; plates clean. Near-fine in later wrappers.

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