Charles Darwin

Early Evolutionists

James Hutton


Painted by R. Cosway

Engraved by J. R. Smith

Published February 22, 1786 by J. R. Smith

Etchings by John Kay


John Kay (1742 - 1846) was a barber in Edinburgh who eventually went on to make almost 1000 caricature etchings of local figures. Three of his prints depict James Hutton. Left: John Davidson, Lord Henderland, George Paton, Lord Monboddo and James Hutton. Center: James Hutton with his tricorner hat and geological hammer. Note the three faces in profile in the rock wall. Right: James Hutton and Joseph Black (physicist and chemist).

James Hutton (1726 - 1797) is best known for his important contributions to the science of geology (uniformitarianism and the great age of the earth). However, Hutton was also the first person to propose a mechanism of natural selection to account for evolutionary change over time. In his book, Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge (1794), he lays out a clear argument for a process of transmutation by natural selection, and does so through analogy with the process of artificial selection (click here to link to the relevant passages). Hutton argues that members of species vary, and that when the environment changes over time, those individuals best adapted to the new environment will survive, while those poorly adapted will perish. Thus, a process of natural selection (Hutton did not use this term) inevitably leads to change within species over time.