HUTTON, James (1726-1797). The theory of the earth, from the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. [Edinburgh, 1786?]. Offprint from the Transactions, Volume I, Edinburgh, 1788.
4o (273 x 216 mm). s1 A-M4 s1. 50 leaves. Half-title, text with caption title "Theory of the earth; or an investigation of the laws observable in the composition, dissolution, and restoration of land upon the globe... [Read March 7. and April 4. 1785]", 2 engraved plates, by F. Baine and D. Lizars respectively. (Occasional very faint marginal discoloration.) Contemporary marbled stiff wrappers (rebacked in paper); modern morocco-backed folding case.
Provenance: PRESENTATION COPY FROM THE AUTHOR to Lord Daer (1763-1794), second son of the Fourth Earl of Selkirk (presentation inscription on half-title); Archibald Geikie (1835-1924), historian of geology, editor of the third volume (1899) of Hutton's expanded Theory of the Earth [see lot 541] (long note authenticating the presentation inscription and describing Daer on a sheet mounted inside front wrapper).
FINE ASSOCIATION COPY OF THE VERY RARE FIRST COMPLETE PUBLICATION OF HUTTON'S REVOLUTIONARY THEORY OF THE EARTH AS A UNITARY SYSTEM. "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 [in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh], but offprints of this paper were in circulation in 1787, and possibly in 1786" (DSB). D. R. Dean states that the offprint was published at some time after January 1786, and cites "a small number of copies dated 1786," of which only one is presently known, as well as a few dated 1788 (James Hutton and the History of Geology, p. 25). This undated copy is most likely from the earliest issue, intended for private distribution by the author. Hutton's theory "first appeared in print in a condensed form, in a thirty-page pamphlet entitled Abstract of a Dissertation... Concerning the System of the Earth... which Hutton circulated privately in 1785" (DSB). According to Hutton's biographer E. B. Bailey, the abstract was written by John Playfair, author of the Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth, 1802 (see lot 727), a work that served to disseminate Hutton's ideas.
Hutton's theory -- which he invariably referred to as a "system," the title "Theory of the Earth" having been applied to the work by the editors of the Edinburgh Transactions -- postulated a cyclical history of the earth in four stages, consisting of erosion, deposition of the eroded land as strata at the bottom of the ocean, compression of the strata under the heat which lies beneath the earth's crust, and the fracturing and re-emersion of the fused sediments to form new continents. The revolutionary nature of Hutton's system lay in its cyclical view of geologic processes - "a principle now accepted as axiomatic" (DSB), in its rejection of the catastrophic view of the processes of geological evolution, and in its focus on the materials of the earth itself as adequate testimony to a continuous and uniform process of change. Hutton's methodology reflected this view and was of nearly equal import for the development of geology. He had formulated his theory by employing essentially the same methods used by modern field geologists: "He examined many different types of rocks, paying attention to their structural relations one to another; and he considered in detail the mineralogical and chemical composition of individual rocks. He also studied intensively the physical processes now operating on the earth's surface... In constructing his theory, Hutton had used as a working hypothesis the assumption, based on his own observations, that the geological evidence provided by surface rocks provided both a key to the past and an indication of the future course of events. His theory forumulated for the first time the general principle that some fifty years later came to be known as uniformitarianism" (DSB). Hutton's theory was met with widespread criticism, and it was to defend himself against charges of atheism that he published the expanded two-volume version of his work in 1795, which consists largely of supporting proofs that had been omitted from his succinct initial presentation. His theories did not begin to gain general acceptance until after the publication of Lyell's Principles of Geology (London, 1830-33), although it was another 30 years before Hutton's theories of the role of erosion were proven correct.
The recipient of this copy, the short-lived Lord Daer, was a close friend of Hutton's, a fellow member of the "Oyster Club", and a fervent supporter of Hutton's theories. Archibald Geikie, in the note pasted inside the front wrapper, describes Daer as a man of generous disposition and liberal social views, and quotes a laudatory poem by Robert Burns "who was captivated by his unassuming manner and modesty".
Dibner, Heralds of Science 93 (the journal article); Norman 1130.