The principle of catastrophism states that all of the Earth’s surface features and topography were produced by a few great catastrophes throughout history. These catastrophes were thought to have been so enormous in scale that no ordinary process could have initiated and supernatural forces had to be invoked. However, this was the philosophy of scientists in the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas the modern understanding of the principal relies very little on biblical providence. Not only were these land-altering catastrophes believed to be the fabricators of all the mountains, valleys, seas, and deserts, but the original catastrophism concept also implies that they need to have occurred in the relatively recent history so that they would fit the scriptural chronology of the Bible. The contemporary concept of catastrophism now allows for its rival principal, uniformitarianism, to overlap and combine to form a more accurate portrait of geologic change. Although the slow, uniform processes that operate in an almost regular, cyclic manner are responsible for most of the geology we observe on the planet, improbable and unique catastrophic events can and have radically altered this path of slow change.
When geologists study the vast extent of time recorded in the rock layers, evidence for catastrophes that would be improbable in the span of human history becomes highly abundant in the nearly 4.6 billion year history of the Earth. Evidence for such great catastrophes includes giant meteor impact craters from large bolide objects that have impacted the planet. This caused the vaporization and upheaval of large portions of land and earth that then fraught the atmosphere with accumulated soot and covered the earth, choking out the sunlight and slowly raining back down to earth. Another example would be huge volcanoes that have belched enormous amounts of noxious gas and dust into the atmosphere. It’s easy to see how calamities such as these created havoc and instantly, in terms of geologic time, forced the extinction of entire ecosystems and many forms of life on Earth. Such events would assuredly bring about global change and permanently affect the course of geology and speciation on the planet. However, when catastrophism was first proposed as a singular reason for all the variety of land forms we see on Earth today, there was no evidence, aside from biblical accounts, for any such devastation having occurred. In the 17th century, there was little reason to worry about this void, simply because the secular view and the spiritual view of Earth were one and the same.
The leading champion, defender, and primary composer of the principle of catastrophism was Baron Georges Leopold Chretien Frederic Dagobert Cuvier (1769-1832). The French Cuvier was one of the leading geologists of his time, the foremost pioneer of comparative anatomy, as well the father to an entire branch of geology known as vertebrate paleontology. Although he did not accept evolution, but rather favored catastrophism, Cuvier was the first to authoritatively insist that species can go and have gone extinct. His high esteem in scientific society allowed Cuvier to suppress opposition to catastrophism while he was alive. He believed that the Earth was extremely old and that the conditions had changed relatively little since its formation; however, periodic “revolutions” would disturb the harmony and cause all of the changes we see in the fossil record. Living at the time he did, Cuvier was familiar with “revolutions,” whereas he disliked the term cata-strophism because of its supernatural distinction. Although he was a lifelong member of the Protestant church, Cuvier never identified any of his “revolutions” with acts described in the Bible. He regarded the turnovers as events with natural causes, but considered their causes a mystery and a geologic puzzle. Many later geologists, including the famous Rev. William Buckland from England, concluded from Cuvier’s work that the most recent “revolution” must have been the biblical flood. This hypothesis was enjoyed until a former protégé of Cuvier, Luis Agassiz, determined that the “flood deposits” were actually glacial deposits from the last Ice Age. Cuvier’s impact on geology, and science as a whole, can never be overestimated. Cuvier brought catastrophism to its height in the annals of science, where another student of his, Léonce Élie de Beaumont, carried it to nearly the end of the 19th century.
The harsh lack of evidence for these catastrophes has plagued the theory from its conception. The paradigm of uniformity held from 1850 to 1980, as most geologists supported catastrophism’s rival, uniformitarianism, largely due to the lack of verifiable, concrete evidence for sudden devastation on a global scale. A dinosaur paleontologist named Walter Alvarez helped forge the ideas of uniformitarianism and catastrophism into the modern synthesis that is learned today. Alvarez was curious about a distinct clay layer a rough centimeter thick at Gubbio, Italy. The layer was highly enriched with a rare noble metal Iridium, which is normally completely absent from the crust of the Earth. This layer appeared nearly everywhere at what is known as the KT boundary. This boundary marks the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago at the end of the Mesozoic and can be identified at over 50 separate locations on Earth. The source of such a concentration of this element could only be from the Earth’s core or from a cosmic source such as a meteor. Alvarez eventually determined that the layer was created from an impact of a 10 km asteroid that accompanied the extinction of the dinosaurs. Soon after this discovery, a hunt for impact locations was launched that scoured the globe. Known meteor sites yielded evidence such as tektites (glass balls), stishovite, and shocked quartz grains, which were used to identify new impact craters. After several new impact craters were uncovered, the true culprit and murder of the Mesozoic was discovered at Chixculub of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. This was a defining moment for catastrophism and for all of geology.
The modern synthesis of catastrophism has a history that stretches back to when humans first wondered why the land looks the way it does. Catastrophism has masked many philosophies and hidden agendas of persons from before geology was even a science. For 130 years, catastrophism has been shamed as religious fallacy and has now come full circle to be appreciated and accepted as part of Earth’s geologic cycle.
- Ager, D. (1993). The new catastrophism. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Albritton, C. C. Jr. (Ed.). (1975). Benchmark papers in geology (Vol. 13). Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross.
- Berggren, W. A., & Van Couvering, J. A. (Eds.). (1984). Catastrophes and earth history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.