Frederick Wollaston Hutton was born, probably on 16 November 1836, at Gate Burton, Lincolnshire, England, and baptised there on 25 January 1837. He was the second son of Henry Frederick Hutton, vicar of Gate Burton, and his wife, Louisa Wollaston. Hutton was educated at the grammar school in Southwell, Nottinghamshire and at the Naval Academy at Gosport in Hampshire. He served for three years in the India mercantile marine, and then from 1854 to 1855 studied in the applied science department of King's College, London. He was commissioned as an ensign in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, serving in the Crimean war and in the Indian war of 1857–58. Following his return to England, about 1860, he rose to the rank of captain, a title by which he was later known in New Zealand.
During his army years Hutton was already devoting attention to geology and became associated with officers involved in the geological survey. In 1860 he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London and two years later published The use of geology to military officers. In 1861 Hutton favourably reviewed Charles Darwin's On the origin of species in the Geologist. He remained a consistent and able exponent of evolutionary theory, and received a letter from Darwin expressing high appreciation of his sympathetic interpretation of the theory.
Hutton married Annie Gouger Montgomerie in London on 4 February 1863. He resigned his commission in 1866 and with his wife and their two children (four more were born later) travelled to New Zealand. The family settled initially in Waikato, where Hutton engaged in flax-milling. He soon joined the Geological Survey, and carried out field work in lower Waikato, Thames and Great Barrier Island. In 1871, at the request of the minister for colonial defence, Donald McLean, he reported on the defence needs of the harbours at Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton, Port Chalmers and Nelson. From 1871 to 1874 Hutton was assistant geologist to the Geological Survey Department of the general government based in Wellington, and in 1874 became provincial geologist of Otago. His field work in Otago, Southland, Stewart Island and south Westland involved reports on the economics of the goldfields, the general geology of the province and the systematic description of shells, both fossil and extant. In this work he was associated with G. H. F. Ulrich, lecturer in mining at the University of Melbourne, who later became the first director of the Otago School of Mines. In his reports he corrected the earlier geological classifications of James Hector and the Geological Survey Department.
In his capacity as provincial geologist, Hutton lectured in both geology and zoology at the University of Otago. He was also curator of the Otago Museum; in this capacity he supervised the design of the building and the assembling of much of its natural history collection. In 1877 he was appointed professor of natural science, the first addition to the three original chairs at the university. His stay was not long. The total number of students attending lectures in 1880 was only 110, of whom 49 were pursuing degree courses, and Hutton's tenure was too brief to leave a significant mark. His exposition of the doctrine of evolution caused offence in some quarters; indeed, opposition to Hutton's views had led the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland to decline funding for the chair, and the council of the university was obliged to fund it. On one occasion he applied to the university council for protection against remarks made against him by the deputy chancellor from his pulpit. In fact, Hutton stressed that evolution was not a finished process but a continuing one which would ultimately raise man to new heights. In his book The lesson of evolution (1902) he summed up his conclusions: '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.'
In 1880 Hutton became professor of biology at Canterbury College, and was responsible for teaching zoology, geology and palaeontology. The college was only seven years old, and had 57 students enrolled with 26 pursuing degree courses. For his small share of students he produced Zoological exercises for students in New Zealand, based on the instructional methods employed by T. H. Huxley in the University of London. On the death of Julius von Haast in 1887, Hutton became temporary curator of the Canterbury Museum, a position he held until the following year; in 1893, he resigned his chair to become permanent curator, although he continued to lecture in geology until 1902.
Frederick Hutton was a scientist of great versatility. His outstanding contributions to the advancement of biology and zoology in New Zealand were published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute and in the New Zealand Journal of Science. His earliest papers were catalogues of New Zealand fauna including birds, fish and marine molluscs, and articles on bats and lizards. He published several catalogues on molluscs, the most important being Manual of the New Zealand Mollusca (1880), and wrote an important paper on the moa. He also became a leading authority on the origins of the flora and fauna of New Zealand. Hutton's systematic work was summed up in Index faunae Novae Zealandiae published by the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury in 1904. His interest in Darwinism continued: a pamphlet, Darwinism (1887), was followed by Darwinism and Lamarckism: old and new (1899) which defended Darwin against growing dissatisfaction among scientists. He also wrote two popular books with James Drummond, Nature in New Zealand (1902) and The animals of New Zealand (1904). His scientific standing was recognised by his election as fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1892.
Hutton was very active in local scientific societies wherever he worked. He was a member of the institutes of Auckland, Dunedin and Christchurch and of the Wellington Philosphical Society; a fellow of the Geological Society of London; a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London; and an honorary member of the Linnaean Society of New South Wales. He was general secretary of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science for its Christchurch meeting in 1891, and president for its Hobart meeting in 1902, his presidential address being published in The lessons of evolution. In 1903–4 he was president of the New Zealand Institute (later the Royal Society of New Zealand). He is commemorated in the Hutton Memorial Medal and Research Fund, awarded usually at intervals of three years for scientific work of great merit bearing on New Zealand zoology, botany or geology.
In 1905 Hutton took leave to visit England. On the return journey in the Rimutaka he died on 27 October, and was buried at sea in the South Atlantic Ocean, near Cape Town.