New Zealanders and Science
6 — Hutton
Hutton differed somewhat from Haast and Hector in that the study of science was for him not so much an end in itself as a means to a greater end—the discovery of a rational theory of life. Hutton was a scientist and a philosopher. He was profoundly influenced by Darwin, and he rejoiced at every advance in geology, biology, and zoology as adding yet another link to the long evolutionary chain. But he was not content with the material record of life alone, and sought in the light of what he knew of the progress of this world to reflect on the possible climax of that progress, and on the existence of a world of the mind.
Captain Frederick Wollaston Hutton was born in Lincolnshire in 1836. His father was the Rev. H. F. Hutton, vicar of Gate Burton, Lincolnshire; but his mother was one of the Wollaston family, a clan with the proud record of having provided more Fellows of the Royal Society than any other family. His uncle, Thomas Vernon Hutton, was a close personal friend of, and co-worker with, Darwin. These scientific associations account for Captain Hutton's early interest in biology and the theory of evolution. He was educated at Southwell and the Gosport Naval Academy. He served for three years in the India page 62Mercantile Marine and then in 1854 entered the applied science department of King's College, London, to qualify as a civil engineer. On the outbreak of the Crimean War he received his commission as ensign in the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers. After active service in the Crimea, he went as lieutenant to India, there to survive the perils of the Mutiny. He served under Sir Colin Campbell at the relief of Lucknow and the battle of Cawnpore. Those were stirring days indeed for young lieutenants. After a period of service in Malta he returned to England to complete his training at Sandhurst and Woolwich, specialising in geology and mineralogy. He had always been interested in geology, and in 1860 he was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society.
In 1860 occurred the event which coloured all his later life—his conversion to Darwinism. While he was on a scientific excursion to the Isle of Wight, Sir Andrew Ramsay, director of the geological survey of Great Britain, convinced him of the qualities of the Origin of Species. He studied the book for six months, at the end of which he published a review in The Geologist during 1861. This article, whose faults the author keenly realised later, showed such a remarkable comprehension of the attainments and the limits of the evolutionary theory that Darwin himself sent Hutton a letter of appreciation. And, in writing to a friend, Darwin commented on this article by an unknown Lieutenant Hutton: 'He is one page 63of the very few who see that the change of species cannot be directly proved, and that the doctrine must sink or swim according as it groups and explains phenomena.'
Hutton's studies were still predominantly military however. In 1861 he passed out of the Staff College at Sandhurst, sixth in his year, being gazetted captain in 1862 and placed on staff duties. In that year he married Annie Gouger Montgomerie, daughter of a dabbler in science who had been presented with the gold medal of the Society of Arts for having been the first to introduce the practical use of gutta percha into Europe.
During his five years in England and Ireland spent on routine military duty, Hutton devoted a considerable amount of time to geology and biology. This and the fact that war was temporarily a thing of the past were probably the reasons for his decision to leave the army and emigrate to New Zealand, where he could follow pastoral pursuits in peace and comfort. He arrived in Auckland with his wife and two children in January 1866 and settled in the Waikato. He started flaxmilling, but as he was not a conspicuous success in this trade, he soon found employment as a civil servant. He examined the coal deposits in the lower Waikato area on behalf of the provincial government, and then spent two years under the colonial government reporting on the Thames and the geology of the Great Barrier. At the request of page 64McLean, the Minister of Colonial Defence, he reported on the defence of the harbours of Auckland, Nelson, Wellington, Lyttelton, and Port Chalmers.
When, in 1868, the Auckland Philosophical Society was instituted as an affiliated body of the newly-organised New Zealand Institute, Captain Hutton took an active part in its proceedings. His contributions were mainly of geological and biological interest, but included mathematical papers on The Flight of the Albatros and Sinking Funds. These would suggest that he was already devoting more time to science than to farming.
In 1871 Hutton removed to Wellington with a position as assistant geologist in the Geological Survey Department. Under instructions from Dr Hector he examined the Southland district. In 1873 he became provincial geologist for the province of Otago, lecturer in geology, and first curator of the Otago Museum. Hutton did very valuable work in the sorting and mounting of the numerous specimens that had been jumbled together in an old galvanised iron building ever since the exhibition of 1865. When a museum building was opened in 1877, Hutton had the material in fit condition to be displayed to the public.
As provincial geologist Hutton did some very useful work, although he was not so competent a field geologist as Haast or Hector. In the summer of 1873-4 he rode over the north-western part of the province from the Waitaki to the Clutha, and in page 65March 1874 visited the northern part of Stewart Island and several of the West Coast sounds in the government steamer Luna. In the summer of 1874-5 he examined, principally on horseback, the remaining part of the province from the Clutha to the Waiau, thus completing the survey. The account of his observations, Report on the Geology and Goldfields of Otago, published in 1875 in collaboration with G. H. F. Ulrich and other Otago scientists, is a book noteworthy for the authoritative manner in which the geology of the province is systematised and classified. Hutton was a good palæontologist, and while Hector and his officers in the Geological Survey Department were able to point out many errors in his field observational work, Hutton was their superior in the laboratory, and in his book neglected no opportunity to point out their mistakes in the field. The Cretaceotertiary classification of Hector, which was defended so strenuously by the survey geologists, offered Hutton an opportunity for such exercises, one which he exploited in a logical style, restrained but effective.
In spite of his activities as geologist, lecturer, and curator, Hutton found time for extensive research especially in connection with marine mollusca. In 1871 he published his catalogue of New Zealand birds, to be followed by a catalogue of fishes in 1872 and by one of mollusca in 1873. The latter he expanded into a Manual of the New Zealand Mollusca, a valuable treatise with which his name will always be page 66associated. It was an extraordinary feat virtually to complete his study of this branch of New Zealand natural history in the few busy years he had spent in this country.
In 1877 Hutton was appointed professor of natural science at the University of Otago, transferring three years later to Canterbury College where he became professor of biology and lecturer in geology. At last he found the niche he had been seeking. For twenty-five years he laboured in the laboratory at the college, or in the nearby museum of which he was made curator in 1893. This was the work in which his soul delighted. He resigned from the chair of biology, but remained attached to the college as lecturer in geology until 1902. He published several textbooks on geology, zoology, and biology, his magnum opus being the Index Faunae Novae Zealandiae, published in 1904.
Hutton was a prolific writer. He read many papers before the Canterbury Philosophical Institute, published articles of first-rate scientific importance in the journals of various societies abroad, as well as in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, and corresponded with men of science throughout the world. In 1891 he was awarded the Clarke medal of New South Wales for scientific research, and the following year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. By 1900 he was recognised abroad as the leader of scientific thought in New Zealand. In that year he was made president of the Australasian Association page 67for the Advancement of Science, and his presidential address at Hobart was a resume of his work and thought on evolution. He had always been preoccupied with Darwinism, and some of his early lectures had shocked the orthodox of Otago. An address on Darwinism delivered at the Canterbury Philosophical Institute in 1887 was expanded into a small book, Darwinism and Lamarckism, which created a stir in 1899. He realised that the principle of natural selection did not account for transmission of character, and that the large field of heredity had still to be investigated. In The Lesson of Evolution, first published in 1902 but republished by his widow in 1907 in an enlarged memorial edition for private circulation, Hutton summed up the principal tenets of his thought. This book comprises the most scholarly contribution to scientific philosophy made by any New Zealander.
I think it was Laplace who said that if any scientist once thoroughly solved his problem he would write about it clearly and in such a manner as to be understood easily by his readers. Hutton's problem is mainly that of the evolution of mental processes, and particularly of the extent and influence of inherited memory. His writings on the theory of science, on what is known and what unknown to the scientific world, appeal both to the intellect and to the literary sense. He realised the significance of the advances in scientific knowledge in his day, as well as their limitations. Although he was able to reconcile page 68Darwinism and religion, he conveyed a fairly clear idea of where science ended and faith began. He systematised and classified the assumptions and the evidence. He gave in part, as Cotton was to do more completely for geomorphology, a framework for future workers to build on. If, as seems unlikely, the problem of the evolution of mental processes is solved by this civilisation, Hutton's work will be a useful factor in its solution.
Hutton envisaged the progress of the material universe from the beginnings of whirling cosmic dust through the many stages until animate life became possible, and so on until, with all its energy dissipated, there would remain only space and myriads of dead stars. No scientist could know when and how inanimate life had given place to living organisms. Hutton considered that evolution was due to intelligent design, and that, at a certain stage in its development, matter had been acted on by mind, for mind and matter were essentially different. As through the ages lower forms of life had given way to higher, the scientist philosopher trusted that a body would eventually become unnecessary to the existence of mind. Thus he states in The Lesson of Evolution: 'I cannot believe that the process of evolution is meaningless. I cannot believe that evolution will have no permanent effect. I cannot believe that after the material universe has passed away, the universal mind, which ordered it, will be exactly as it was before page 69psychological evolution began. If mind is indestructible, the evolved human mind must react on the universal mind and change it. And thus I feel constrained to believe that psychological evolution may continue after the death of the body, in which the mind is temporarily encased.'
After twenty-five years of thought and labour in the seclusion of his study in Christchurch, Hutton left for a holiday trip to England in the S.S. Rimutaka in March 1905. On 27 October, while on his return trip in the same vessel, he died and was buried at sea somewhere west and north of the Cape of Good Hope. 'Life,' he had said, 'is merely the action of mind on protoplasm; it has no distinct existence in itself.' And again: 'So we come to recognise that the ultimate purpose of evolution cannot be fulfilled on the earth; and we are thus led to believe that our spirit will not perish with the body, but will, in some way or other, lead a new existence. And, as we know that on the earth better has constantly succeeded better, so we may hope it will be in the spiritual world.'