Uniformity and Catastrophism

Uniformity and Catastrophism (Part 1)

DURING the Dark Ages the state of science was both at a low level and static. To the modern mind it is difficult to understand how the peoples of those times could be so devoid of curiosity, so ignorant of the role of direct observation in the establishment of truth. Arguments over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse led the participants to study the classics of Aristotle, Galen, et cetera, but no one thought to look in the mouth of a horse!

DURING the Dark Ages the state of science was both at a low level and static. To the modern mind it is difficult to understand how the peoples of those times could be so devoid of curiosity, so ignorant of the role of direct observation in the establishment of truth. Arguments over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse led the participants to study the classics of Aristotle, Galen, et cetera, but no one thought to look in the mouth of a horse!

With the enlightenment of the Renaissance and the Reformation, direct observation and experimentation began to assume importance. During the period called the Dark Ages and well into the sixteen hundreds, the curious designs called fossils, some familiar and others unfamiliar, that were found in the earth were not understood but were considered freaks of nature, products of mystical substances or processes, seeds of living things that sank into the earth and produced fossil forms, or results of other strange circumstances. Why did the strong religious environment not help the people toward a true under standing of the identity of fossils? The people, although controlled by the church, were ignorant of the Scriptures because the Bible was rare and generally not avail able to the people, who were mostly illiterate.

It was Nicolaus Steno who was the first to apply the empirical method to the study of the earth. His paper published in 1669 really marks the birth of geology as a science. In addition to firmly believing that fossils were the remains of former living organisms, he stated that sediments were laid down by water and was the first to state the law of superposition; that is, that a series of water-laid sediments must have been deposited in the order of their vertical sequence, provided no disruption had occurred since the sediments were dropped. Steno firmly stated that the fossils were the relics of the Genesis flood as recounted in the Bible. Thus he revived the understanding of the role the Flood played in the history of the earth, which had been lost in the preceding centuries. It is correct to say that Nicolaus Steno is the father of modern deluge geology. A careful reading of his "Prodrome" leaves one with the opinion that his study of, and belief in, the Bible aided him in coming to the bold (for those times) conclusions on fossils and sediments. A number of the outstanding men of science in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were believers in catastrophism as described in the Bible.

John Schauchzer, who may have performed the first recorded experiment in geology, was one. John Ray, well-known for his work in the biological science, also gave attention to the earth itself. His discussions in geology were based on a careful and literal reading of the Holy Scriptures. It is difficult to know to what extent a be lief in catastrophe as outlined in Genesis guided the early researchers in their studies of the earth. Personally, I firmly believe that a careful study of the Bible, accompanied by a strong belief in it, will enhance a scientist's ability to arrive at important scientific truths.

George Fairholme, another deluge geologist, objected to the long ages' being marshaled for the development of strata and initiated direct observational research to determine rates of sedimentation. (Rupke, 1966).

Some of the early students of the earth unwittingly set the stage for later repudiation of the Flood as a geological process, although they themselves were deluge geologists. Perhaps the most notable person in this category was Georges Cuvier. His study of the Paris basin led him to the opinion that many catastrophes had occurred in the past history of the earth and that the last of these was Noah's flood. The theory of multiple catastrophes had a profound influence on the educated world of the early eighteen hundred's.

This stretching of the age of the earth to include many creations and destructions set the stage for rapid changes in thinking regarding the Genesis flood with in the next fifty years. William Buckland (1823) interpreted masses of animal bones found in caves as the ravages of the Gene sis flood, the last of the many catastrophes. This diluvium theory did not last long, however, even though widely held. About 1830 the tranquil theory was presented and became popular. This view effectively re moved the Flood from being a force need ful of consideration in the study of the earth. The theory stated that although the flood waters covered the earth, the action was so gentle that no effects of it could been seen on the earth.

The concept of uniformity, which plays so prominent a role in the thinking of geologists today, had already been presented by James Hutton in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but it was left to Charles Lyell to embellish it in his popular book, Principles of Geology, and make it a dominant view among geologists. Lyell readily accepted the tranquil theory because it gave no contradictions to his ideas of uniformity. Thus even as early as 1830 the way was cleared for the Biblical flood to be laid aside and for gotten in the study of the earth.

Following very closely on the heels of the tranquil theory was the local flood theory of John Pye Smith (Morris and Whitcomb, 1961). Thus, Biblically oriented Christians now had a choice of two possibilities, neither correct, for resolving the conflict between nature and Scripture.

Today the tranquil theory has faded away, but the local flood theory is still very much in vogue in certain quarters. The current state of affairs regarding the thinking on catastrophism both inside and outside church circles would appear to be the result of two major concepts. Herein lies a warning that we should not neglect to notice. The two concepts are the stretching out of the history of life into long ages of time, and uniformity, which removed the Genesis flood as a force in the shaping of the present structure of the earth. Progressive organic evolution was able to find a ready place in human scientific theory only because the book of Genesis had been discarded or neglected. The concept of long periods of time made the flood of Noah insignificant and difficult to interpret. The loss of the Flood as a prehistoric event in turn removed the force that could have been involved in rapid geological processes. Thus there was no recourse but to fall back on long time periods and slow processes to produce the present structure of the earth's crust. Uniformity became the guiding principle in the study of the earth.

On what evidence is the theory of uniformity based? What great proofs did Lyell gather to substantiate his bold theory for interpreting the past? Is this theory that has been so universally accepted bolstered by a great mass of supporting evidences?

People who study the earth are constantly confronted with evidences that can be com pared to the pieces of an unassembled jig saw puzzle. As a jigsaw puzzle is more difficult to assemble when no picture of the finished product is available, so the events and processes resulting in a geologic structure are hard to determine because no one was present when it happened nor are there any pictorial records of the area from that time. It is a most natural and often useful process to draw from one's personal experience and observations of the modern earth and its shaping forces to find clues for fitting the pieces of the ancient puzzle together. The study of active modern glaciers helped greatly in interpreting the evidences where no glaciers now exist. No person should refuse or neglect to compare the present with the past to help with interpretative solutions. However, despite the usefulness of the present to interpret the past, what compelling reason exists for setting up as a primary working rule the assumption that all the past can be explained by the present, especially as regards speed and rates? Are there strong reasons of logic? Does the earth itself indicate clearly uniform conditions through all time? The answer to these questions is No. There is no great array of incontrovertible evidences.

The working hypothesis of uniformity is not basically sound, because it predetermines the results of research. If we study unknown past events, using as an undeviating basis of interpretation events and rates of the present, we have introduced into our research factors that limit the interpretative possibilities available to us for understanding these past events.

But someone will say, Doesn't everyone have a hypothesis as he conducts his re search? Yes, that is generally true, but the holder of the hypothesis should be alert to the possibility that his hypothesis is wrong, and be willing to discard it if necessary. Uniformity, however, has be come through the years an inflexible and controlling element in geological research, not a hypothesis that can be discarded if the facts don't fit. It is my firm opinion that geological science has been greatly delayed by the concept of uniformity. It has stagnated in some areas for years with little progress compared to other sciences. This condition has been noted by some geologists, but the reason has not been apparent.

One example will be given of how uniformity has slowed the correct under standing of geological phenomena. In eastern Washington State a vast panorama of sculptured basalt channels and water courses have become known locally as scablands. Harlan Bretz came to the conclusion after his studies in 1923 that large amounts of water must have been involved and that the erosion occurred catastrophically. These conclusions were based on evidences such as the sizes of gravel bars, the interconnecting nature of the channels, depth of plunge pools, et cetera. The publishing of these results brought skeptical reception from many quarters. Several geologists examined the area with an eye to re-interpreting the evidence on a more uniform basis. One lengthy alternate view was published in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America in 1938, and shorter accounts of other theories appeared elsewhere. To Harlan Bretz's credit, he kept plugging away and bringing out more evidences, some of which were very difficult to interpret without recourse to catastrophic action of water.

In the introduction to a summarizing paper in the current issue of the Journal of Geology on the channeled scablands, Everett Olson (1969), of the University of Chicago, said, "During its not always calm history, the story of the Channeled Scabland was thought by some to have brushed beyond the dividing line in flaunting catastrophe too vividly in the face of the uniformity that had lent scientific dignity to interpretation of the history of the earth."

When he first studied the area Bretz had no explanation for the source and cause of the great flood. More recently it has become apparent that a large lake (Lake Missoula) broke through an ice barrier and spilled over the panhandle of Idaho and across the Columbia River plateau of eastern Washington until it drained into the Columbia River. This undoubtedly happened a number of times in a way somewhat similar to the self-draining Lake George in Alaska today. When I first heard this theory and examined the evidences I had no difficulty accepting this interpretation of the scablands, because I was not inhibited by the concept of uniformity. But only slowly has Bretz's theory been accepted in geological circles. In 1965 the International Association of Quater nary Research held one of its field trips in the scablands. The next day they sent a telegram to Bretz, who was unable to attend, in which they conveyed greetings and added, "We are now all catastrophists" (Bretz, 1969). After forty years what should have been relatively self-evident has now become generally accepted among geologists.

(To be continued)

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July 1970

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