Catastrophic earth science: a realistic science

It is very interesting to note, that during the 18th and 19th centuries, the so-called ‘catastrophists’ or ‘diluvialists’ or earth scientists, working under a ‘catastrophist’ paradigm, conducted their geological science in a most ideal way even though modeled by religious beliefs,: they practiced a natural science, in tune with nature, whereby, in Agassiz’ view, scientists would learn the lesson that nature has to teach (Baker 1998:179).

This view was replaced by the advancements of Hutton and Lyell (1930s) with the principle of uniformitarianism—the idea that processes in the past occurred at the same rates as they do in the present (the notion of actualism). This principle became so prominent and dominant in the geological community that geologists became accustomed to rejecting any hypothesis that included processes of a cataclysmic nature. This opposition continued well into the 1960s when scientists came to accept the idea that the Spokane Flood (J Harlen Bretz had proposed, in the 1920s, that many features in the rocks of the Channeled Scabland of the Pacific NW could be explained by an  “outrageous hypothesis”: the occurrence of a cataclysmic megaflood, the Spokane Flood) indeed produced those features by megaflooding processes

According to Baker (1998): “Uniformitarianism is a regulative principle or doctrine in geology that unfortunately sometimes conflates (a) the pragmatic application of modern process studies to understanding the past (actualism) with (b) substantive presumptions that deny effectiveness to cataclysmic events. As recognized by William Whewell, who invented the term, meaning b is contrary to the logic of science”.  In Baker’s view, the stronghold of uniformitarianism on the geologic community has hindered the advancement of science.

The eventual acceptance of Bretz’s hypothesis resulted in a resurgence of geological catastrophism (Baker 2009), and in the last decades there has been a trend in allowing catastrophes into geological explanations. Examples of catastrophic features include recognition of well-documented megaflood events (Lake Missoula, Mediterranean Sea, English Channel, central Asia, Mars, among others); recognition of turbidites (rock units resulting from high speed subaqueous flows); rapid accumulation of rhythmites—layers of sedimentary rock laid down with an obvious periodicity—which were previously interpreted as result of slow multiyear deposition or attributed to yearly seasonal deposition, such as varves (layers of sediment deposited in a body of still water in a single year); the influence of large-scale volcanism in rapid burial events (for example, sedimentary accumulation of volcanic ash); the large-scale effects of bolide impacts—a meteor that hits Earth (an amazing number of asteroids have hit Earth and exploded, causing environmental disruption and destruction of life). One must keep in mind that the fossil record is embedded in rock units possessing these features, showing that the fossils accumulated in catastrophic conditions.

Associated with this evidence of rapid geological activity are many non-uniformitarian features, such as large-scale sedimentary processes (e.g., Jurassic Morrison Formation and associated rock units); global distribution of marine rocks (with extensive strata bearing fossils such as trilobites and ammonites); continent-scale patterns of paleocurrents (e.g., Chinle Formation); discontinuities in the stratigraphic record, such as paraconformities—gaps in the record with no apparent evidence for the amount of time supposedly represented; large scale volcanism (e.g., Deccan basalts, India; Columbia River basalts, NW US); global/regional tectonic events (e.g., mountain uplifting, plate movements, basin subsidence, massive sediment supply for basinal infilling); bolide impacts—more than 175 structures of possible extraterrestrial impact origin since the Precambrian, some of which measure up to 250-300 kilometers in diameter (e.g., Vredefort in South Africa, Chicxulub in Yucatan, Mexico). In addition we can include many evidences that relate to the preservation of fossil remains (e.g., mass mortality and extinction events that require rapid sediment accumulation for burial and preservation).

Perhaps it is time for present-day geologists to return to practicing a more natural science, a realistic science, not an actualistic one, in which research is led through coherence and consistency of observation with hypothesis, even if it were an”outrageous hypothesis” such as a global planetary flood of the likes reported in ancient history.


Roberto Biaggi

Geoscience Research Institute

February 13, 2013


Baker, V.R.  1998. Catastrophism and uniformitarianism: logical roots and current relevance in geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, v. 143, p. 171-182

Baker, V.R. 2009. The Channeled Scabland: A Retrospective. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci., v. 37, p. 393-411.

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