Crustal Poleshifts: Gradualism v Catastrophism


Quote #1

These repeated irruptions and retreats of the sea have neither been slow nor gradual; most of the catastrophes which have occasioned them have been sudden; and this is easily proved, especially with regard to the last of them, the traces of which are the most conspicuous.  In the northern regions it has left the carcasses of some large quadrupeds which the ice has arrested, and which are preserved even to the present day with their skin, their hair, and their flesh.  If they had not been frozen as soon as killed they must quickly have been decomposed by putrefaction.  But this eternal frost could not have taken possession of the regions which these animals inhabited except by the same cause that destroyed them; this cause, therefore, must have been as sudden as its effect.  The breaking to pieces and overturnings of the strata, which happened in former catastrophes, shew [sic] plainly enough that they were sudden and violent like the last; and the heaps of debris and rounded pebbles which are found in various places among the solid strata, demonstrate the vast force of the motions excited in the mass of waters by these overturnings.  Life, therefore, has been often disturbed on this earth by terrible events – calamities which, at their commencement, have perhaps moved and overturned to a great depth the entire outside crust of the globe, but which, since these first commotions, have uniformly acted at a less depth and less generally.

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), “Revolutions and Catastrophes in the History of the Earth[1]

Quote #2

“The fact of the bones occurring in great caches or deposits in which various species are mixed pell-mell is very important, and it is a fact undenied by geologists that whenever we find such a locality in which animals have suffered together in a violent and instantaneous
destruction, the bones are invariably mixed and, as it were, ‘deposited’ in a manner which could hardly be explained otherwise than by postulating the action of great tidal waves carrying fishes and all before them, depositing them far inland with no respect to order.”

Howorth, Sir Henry, The Mammoth and the Flood: Uniformity and Geology, London, 1887, p.180.

Opposing Views

Not everyone aggress on the processes at work upon our planet.  The new theory of uniformitarianism currently prevails, but the ancient concept of catastrophism is still alive and kicking.

  • Uniformitarianism/Gradualism: A theory that says the natural processes that change the Earth in the present have operated in the past at the same gradual rate, and that geological formations and structures can be interpreted by observing present-day actions. 
  • Catastrophism: A theory that says the geological features of the Earth were formed by a series of sudden, violent catastrophes rather than a gradual evolutionary process.

Since the 1830s conventional geological theory has revolved around the concept of uniformitarianism (or gradualism) – that the processes of the Earth have always been the same as we can observe today. The originator of these ideas was Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726-1797), although it took the efforts of Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and his Principles of Geology (1830) to enable the theory to become widespread.  This new gradualist viewpoint, involving time-spans of millions of years, gave rise to the modern ideas of continental drift, the ice ages and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Gradualism is obvious with any visit to a beach or canyon – the actions of nature changing the face of the planet.  Waves gently move grains of sand about, and rivers slowly but surely carve great gashes into the earth.  Although gradualism is forced to permit small-scale catastrophes such as volcanoes and hurricanes that we can easily witness, larger activities such as continental drift, the formation of mountains, and ice ages are judged to be non-catastrophic, and must happen gradually over many millions of years.  The strength of the uniformitarian convictions can be seen in the words of James Hutton:

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Not only are no powers to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action to be admitted of except those of which we know the principle, and no extraordinary events to be alleged in order to explain a common appearance, the powers of nature are not to be employed in order to destroy the very object of those powers; . Chaos and confusion are not to be introduced into the order of nature, because certain things appear to our partial views as being in some disorder.  Nor are we to proceed in feigning causes when those seem insufficient which occur in our experience.[2]

In my opinion, this is as preposterous as a child who closes his eyes, and declares that what he cannot see, cannot exist!

Popular for the millennia prior to the 1830s, is the more obvious idea of catastrophism. Unfortunately it has been discounted by modern scientific techniques, which require processes to be recreated in a laboratory, or at least viewed in nature within a recent timeframe.  The art of making educated guesses based on the physical remnants of ancient disasters is no longer acceptable. 

Even Charles Darwin, a staunch uniformitarian, upon his visit to South America, noted how global catastrophes appear to have occurred previously..

“The greater number, if not all, of these extinct quadrupeds lived at a late period, and were contemporaries of most of the existing sea-shells. Since they lived, no very great change in the form of the land can have taken place. What then, has exterminated so many species and whole genera? The mind at first is irresistibly hurried into the belief of some great catastrophe; but thus to destroy animals, both large and small, in Southern Patagonia, in Brazil, on the Cordillera of Peru, in North America up to Behring’s Straits, we must shake the entire framework of the globe.”[3]

Note to self – add quotes from each side & my idea that both can co-exist???

In the 1800s, when scientists changed allegiance from the old theory to the new, an important consideration was neglected – that extraterrestrial agencies could affect changes upon the Earth.  Interaction between our planet and the heavens
was unheard of.  A classic example comes from one of the early American presidents, Thomas Jefferson, in 1807.  When told that two Yale scientists were claiming that meteorites had recently struck the ground at Weston, Connecticut, he replied:

It is easier to believe that two Yankee Professors would lie, than that stones would fall from heaven.”

Similarly, the meteor crater of Arizona, with a width of 1.2 kilometers, was only determined to be created by a meteor in the last century.  In the 1800s, it was considered to be a volcanic remnant.  It is apparent that the new theory of gradualism was formed without consideration of extraterrestrial agencies, and may never have developed at all if meteors and supernovas had been taken into consideration. 

The hypothesis of Luis Alvarez and colleagues, that a large asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, has recently been accepted by academia.  This is obviously catastrophism, yet it survives the tests of uniformitarianism due to two facets: it is a brand new idea (untainted by previous arguments), and we can observe asteroids on a regular basis.

Old ideas, previously rejected, are very rarely, if ever, successfully brought back to life.  Yet in recent times the Catastrophists have staged a comeback, due in part to the works of Immanuel Velikovsky, author of three controversial science books in the 1950s.


[1] Sourced from A Source Book in Geology, ed. K. Mather (New York and London: Hafner Pub. Co. 1964)

[2] James Hutton, as quoted in J. Bowles’ The Gods, Gemini and the Great Pyramid, from Theory of the Earth (1788)

[3] Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, entry dated Jan 9 1834, p178.