Catastrophism and Related Arguments in Geology

HIST 255

Dr. Lewis

Fei Luo


Catastrophism and Related Arguments in Geology

1. Introduction

In understanding of how the earth and its creatures changed over time, there was a debate in the 19th century among not only geologists, but also the intelligent, from other related disciplines (such as evolutionists and creationists), was an arguments about their different approaches and understandings.

Catastrophism was, a theory first introduced by the French paleontologist Georges Cuvier, which described that Earth has been in changed much more in its past, by geological forces in great magnitude, such as earthquakes, major flood, and volcanic eruption (Appleman 35). Catastrophists believed that, recent changes were gradual, which have been declined, from earth's initial violent state (unstable) to current peaceful (stable) state. In this way, Earth's history was considered as results of accumulations of catastrophic events over a relatively short time period. In contrast, the other geological theory was later known as uniformitarianism, which argued that explanations and evaluations of geological events could be interpreted with reference to physical processes that have been operating on earth since its past, at about the same intensity and quantity. These different understanding was divided into two schools, namely catastrophist and uniformitarian, based upon how geologic forces, rate of changes and developments were evaluated differently.

Argument on Force and Cause

What the geological forces and the intensity have been, and what the causes were, arose in first place to the arguments. The uniformitarian insisted on uniformity of causes, stated in Lyell's principle of geology in 1830, suggested that for absolute gradualism, it required vast amount of geologic time to process natural selection (Bowler 130). Additionally, Lyell pointed out that in earth's history, the overall development could not be directional and therefore, an initial state of the earth would not be traced back to. A. Sedgwick and W. Whewell, from the catastrophes camp, soon came to attack Lyell with their two hypotheses: (i) greater magnitude and intensity of geological forces existed in the early periods and (ii) there were gradual developments from the violent primitive stage in earth' history, to its current stable condition. Nevertheless, new physics came in to the aid of the catastrophists. W. Thomson (Lord Kelvin) used the law of thermodynamics, to challenge the steady state view of Erath history proposed by the uniformitarian. Equipped with new physics laws, Kelvin showed, the amount of energy required for infinite active-state, could not be allowed, shortening the time span of earth history was to about 100 million years old, which was just a small fraction of what required in Darwin's theory. Under this condition and estimation, evolution would not be impossible, but must progress at a faster rate (Bowler 234).

Darwin, through his observation during the 1835 Chile earthquake, provided firm evidence for Lyell's gradualism. He found out the formations of Andes and coral islands, by examining the coral reeves that grew inside out upon the dead ones on the Andes (under the condition that coral reeves could not live too deep from the surface), he concluded that the mountains and coral islands elevated from under the sea level in similar mechanism.

Fossil problem

However, the large scale of discontinuities at geological record could not be explained. Other evolutionists came with other evidences to give ground support to the steady state theory. Darwin showed the limits of fossil record: it was discontinuous resulted from its rareness and tendencies to difference species at various environments (Johnson 47). By showing that, fossils only formed under certain conditions (sudden burial, high pressure, and appropriate temperature) at low possibilities over time, and formed fossil record may not be preserved over time, resulting fewer and fewer amount remaining in terms of geological time (Johnson 46). Lyell also gave explanation for the steady-state, that earth need not be exactly the same in every period, but must have had changes small and slow enough such that the total changes was not cumulative. Moreover, Lyell brought evidence against the sudden extinction, as assumed by the catastrophist, from discoveries of reappearing species in the fossil record. He believed that species followed the climate change rather than being suddenly extinct (Bowler 134).

To Cuvier, His starting point was to find an explanation to the patterns of extinction and faunal succession that were observed in the fossil record. While he examined the fossil evidence, that the catastrophe which is responsible for a recent extinction in Eurasia may have been the result of the possible flood of low lying areas by the sea, while never making any reference to Noah's flood, he did not make any reference to divine power from biblical belief. Cuvier also believed that, the geological record may indicate that there could have been several times of these revolutions, which he considered as recurring natural events, towards long intervals of stability within the history of earth's life (Bowler 109). Therefore, Cuvier concluded that Earth was just about several million years old.

In early 19th century Britain, Cuvier's theory of catastrophism was welcome for it provided theoretical framework for major development in ocean and stratigraphy, which then allowed the retreating ocean theory to be replaced by molten globe theory. With the assumption that changes had been more violent in the past of earth history, the predicted claim of earth began as a molten globe of rock could have agreed with the description for the biblical creation (Bowler 115). Before Buckland accepted the theory of cooling earth to explain the decreasing trend of violence of geological activities, he believed in regional catastrophism and creationism. In his book Reliquiae Diluvianae (1823), he described that he had found the evidence of record of recent geological deluge. In a cave in Yorkshire, bones of hyenas buried in harden mud had been found to show the trace of deluge responded to the climate change. Furthermore, to confirm the truth of the Biblical account: "had we never heard of such an event [Noah's Flood]. . . Geology of itself must have called in the assistance of some such catastrophe to explain the phenomenon". However, Buckland did not believed that the cause of such catastrophe was supernatural, and the deluge was only one of those catastrophe happened in early history that punctuated the history of the earth.

Even before Lyell published his Principles, a group of geologists, known as "Scriptural" geologists, arose to challenge the gap theorists and other theological compromisers. This group insisted on a recent six-day creation and a worldwide Noah's Flood, according to biblical creation. Granville Penn, in his book published in1822, Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaic Geologies, argued with rather shrill logic views being hardly distinguishable. George Bugg's two volume opus, Scriptural Geology; or, Geological Phenomena Consistent Only with Literal Interpretations of Sacred Scriptures, was published in 1826. Bugg abused Buckland and distinguished between even the pious Cuvier and "Christian" writers. Among those responding was Adam Sedgwick, who with Buckland first espoused but later, abandoned diluvialism. In his 1830 presidential address to London's Geological Society, Sedgwick replied to the "Mosaic" geologists with a devastating broadside.

When the first volume of Lyell's Principles was published in 1830, the Scriptural Geologists declared a plague on both houses as the great controversy between uniformitarian and catastrophists began. Since then, the issue has been still alive in the continuing debates about the rates of change and time spans in the history of the development of species (Appleman 36).

The American Response

In advocating Cuvier's claim that catastrophes similar to the biblical flood repeatedly destroyed life and blossomed out species, Thomas Jefferson, referred to the fossil bones of mastodon and rejection its proposed extinction, wrote, "Such is economy of nature, that no instance can be produced, of her having permitted any on race of her animals to become instinct; of her having formed any link in her great work, so weak as to be broken (Appleman 35).

Agassiz believed that life progressed in steps periods of discontinuity, in the thrust of supernatural force. In each period, it required geological catastrophe until the population of some species was wiped out (Bowler 123). In 1842, he postulated his own type of catastrophe: Ice Age. Moreover, to the opposite of what evolutionists insisted, Agassiz insisted that the location of the first member of each class in fossil record would be found at the highest level, not the lowest suggested by the law of geology (Bowler 121).

Summary and Conclusion

Works cited

Appleman, Philip: Darwin. Norton: 2001, 3rd Ed.

Bowler, P. J.: Evolution, the History of an Idea. Univ. of Calif. Press: 2009, 3rd Ed.

Johnson, P.E.: Darwin on Trial: the Fossil Problem. Inter-Varsity Press: 1991, 45-62.

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