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James Hutton: Scotland’s forgotten genius

James Hutton by Sir Henry Raeburn (c) Scottish National Portrait Gallery
“Hutton’s approach epitomises the Institute’s purpose, intent and values. He was willing to stand up to dogma, based on the rigorous pursuit of observation and science.

Two hundred and ninety-three years ago today, one of the most influential Scots ever was born: a man whose influence on our understanding of the earth was revolutionary at the time and has unlocked vast areas of related knowledge since then. He successfully challenged the then-accepted idea that the Earth was only thousands of years old. And yet his name is barely known in his homeland, despite his worldwide impact and reputation elsewhere.

Born in Edinburgh in 1726, James Hutton was a geologist, physician, chemical manufacturer, naturalist and experimental agriculturalist. He is internationally regarded as the founder of modern geology and the first scientist to describe the Earth as a machine in which constant erosion is matched by the uplift of ocean floors to form new mountain chains. These ideas paved the way for the concept of “deep time” in geology which in turn informed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Professor Colin Campbell, the Institute’s Chief Executive, said: “Few figures of the Scottish Enlightenment have had such a wide-ranging impact as James Hutton. A world-renowned scientist, he was willing to challenge accepted wisdom to create a new vision of how the world was formed and how it is constantly evolving.

“Hutton’s approach epitomises the Institute’s purpose, intent and values. He was willing to stand up to dogma, based on the rigorous pursuit of observation and science. He actively sought out and fostered opportunities to engage and collaborate with others across a wide range of disciplines. He was, by nature, highly creative and driven by curiosity about the world, but he also had a practical mindset and sought uses for his ideas around agriculture.

Professor Alan Werritty, Emeritus Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Dundee, commented: “Hutton's thoughts about soil management and plant breeding are remarkably insightful and closely aligned with present-day thinking. His ingenuity as an experimentalist is illustrated by his determination of the rate at which air temperature decreases as you climb a mountain. Repeated ascents of Arthur’s Seat measuring the temperature at the base and on the summit and averaging the result, yielded a value very close to the 9.8° C per 1000 metres used today."

James Hutton Institute Honorary Fellow, Professor John Hillman, added: “Hutton clearly thought deeply about issues such as plant breeding and selection systems and the relationship between rootstock and scion. His interest in the soil and climate predate modern agroecology and genotype-environment interactions.

“Without access to modern experimental techniques, he was only able to comment on ‘degeneration’, a phenomenon reflecting factors such declining resistance to pests and diseases, gene flow, and parental variability. Crucially, he decried the lack of interest and enquiry into crops.

“In all respects, James Hutton was a remarkable polymath, a man of great intellectual originality.”

As its namesake did during the Scottish Enlightenment, the James Hutton Institute translates Scottish science to the wider world. Basic concepts, ideas, methods, theories and hypotheses are shared across systems and places and with collaborators internationally.

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Bernardo Rodriguez-Salcedo, Media Manager, Tel: +44 (0)1224 395089 (direct line), +44 (0)344 928 5428 (switchboard) or +44 (0)7791 193918 (mobile).

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.