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Uniformitarianism Vs. Catastrophism - Theories of Geological Evolution

Uniformitarianism Vs. Catastrophism - Theories of Geological Evolution
The two main theories of geological evolution of the earth are uniformitarianism and catastrophism - the constant war between science and religion! There are facts, examples and explanations of the former Vs. the latter differentiating the two theories that run completely opposite to each other.
Christina Andrew
Last Updated: Dec 09, 2017
Solving a mystery... bit by bit.
Evolution of the earth will always be a mysterious maze of imaginations and theories. It has indefinitely been an intriguing question for all of us. Paddling between the two boats of the mystical creation of God and that of the scientific explanations, man has now an increased curiosity to reason his existence and that of the beautiful planet he lives in.
Who are we? Where are we living? What's with our planet earth? How did it even come into existence? And what's with these dinosaurs? Where are they now? Suddenly vanished into thin air? How old is our earth anyway! Where did these huge mountains and oceans and the animals in it come from? What is the reason of our existence?

These are only few of the many questions that come to our mind, well, at least once in lifetime! These are a bunch of serious questions on the existence of our whole being, that bother us. While some questions cannot really be answered with facts, and they leave us unsatisfied with stories and different prophecies about life and existence, some can be answered with proofs or a trail of evidences to go back into time, and assume theories according to the present laws and their deductions.

Turning our attention towards the bigger picture now, from the questions of our existence to that of the earth, and viewing this from a geological point of view, there are two main theories that have been there from the past 3 centuries now - Uniformitarianism and Catastrophism. The two theories that we are going to discuss in detail. We are not biased, and we will consider both the theories rationally, and try not to give a prejudiced opinion!

The evolution of the earth is a mystery, since none of our ancient ancestors have lived to tell us anything about it! It's only the theories and stories that we've been following that were formulated by our ancestors and scientists who were the first curious people to question how the earth came into existence and how it has been evolving since then. As we go deep into studying the earth, new things add up to the old, giving a better explanation of how and why and when!
Before the 17th century, people believed that the evolution of the earth and its present state was due to massive but short-lived and sudden catastrophes that probably occurred worldwide, which explained the formation of strata layers, erosion, polystrate fossils, etc. All the living beings and creatures, including men, animals, and plants at the affected area withered off in the process.
Some of the catastrophists related the change in the geological structuring of the earth to the biblical flood, as they interpreted from the Bible, which drowned the entire world, excluding Noah's family and a pair of each animal that then lived, to reproduce and refill the world, whom he accommodated in a huge ark, to survive the floods that continued for 40 days and 40 nights. They believed that as the flood water receded, mountains were formed, and the fossils of plants and animals that we have been discovering were of that time.
The biblical flood was a true event. It really did happen in an era called the 'bronze age' when things were made from bronze. This age was somewhere between 3000 B.C. to 1200 B.C. There is recorded history of many civilizations at that time, and the city ruins provide evidence for the floods.
History of Catastrophism
Until the 19th century, Christians had an adamant belief in the universal flood. On the basis of this flood, a few creationists explained the formation of huge mountains, frozen mammoths, salt domes, coal formations, the extinction of dinosaurs and a lot of other species, and many other geological features of the earth. This means, that before floods, the features of the earth were different, and after the flood, it is what we are living in today.
Georges Cuvier, a French scientist of the early 19th century, proposed that after the 'local' floods which washed away the life from that region, new life forms started to come in from those areas that were not affected by the flood. Cuvier believed in catastrophism, but he didn't mention Noah, or that the entire world was wiped off in the flood. In this way, he made his point, and stayed away from religious controversies.
Cuvier was researching on the extinction and succession in the patterns of fossils that were being discovered at that time. He believed that a catastrophe, mainly a flood, played a significant role in the extinction of many species. The earth had been many times affected by such kind of catastrophes in different regions over a substantial period of time, which contributed to its geological changes. This made him reach a conclusion that the earth was in existence from a very long time, over millions of years.

Catastrophism in the 19th and early 20th century was always related to religion and the facts were religion based rather than natural and provable events.
Principle of uniformitarianism geology - Present is the key to the past.
Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon
In the 17th century, scientists started reasoning for a different explanation of the evolution. They didn't want to believe on catastrophes based on the account of the Bible. They believed that the earth today is because of the gradual changes that kept happening right from the beginning of its existence, in the formation of strata layers, degradation, and deposition that still continue today, and will further continue to happen.
In the late 17th century this idea sprung in the minds of the then scientists, about the gradual change resulting in evolution. James Hutton was the source from where it all originated in 1785. He brought a different theory than the one that people were referring from the Bible. He believed that the soil that is present now, was not always there, but is a result of years of slow changes. There had always been an earth of ocean and land, with tides and currents, where the present land lay beneath the oceans. So, when the oceans started to shrink, lands came up, and flora and fauna started dwelling on the land.

For this theory to hold true, two things were a necessity -
  1. The land masses to be formed as a whole from the collection of fragments over time.
  2. The level of these land masses to come up from that under the ocean to where it is today.
Hutton started researching for evidence that would prove his theory right. He found at Glen Tilt in the Cairngorm mountains, granite penetrating metamorphic schists. With this information he assumed that the earliest rock had been molten after the strata had formed. Further evidence showed that the angular unconformities (the surface separating the old layer in a strata from the new one) were tilted so much that they were almost vertical, showing how the land had shifted over time.
This concept was given the name of 'uniformitarianism' and the opposite of it (catastrophes) that evolved the earth as 'catastrophism' in 1832 by William Whewell, as a review to Charles Lyell's book, 'Principles of Geology'. His book was based on uniformitarianism, that explained that the gradual changes that are still at work today, were responsible for the early evolution of the earth.
According to Reijer Hooykaas (1963) a historian of science, the theory of Charles Lyell was not based on a single idea, but a combination of 4 propositions.

▶ Uniformity of law
▶ Uniformity of process
▶ Uniformity of rate
▶ Uniformity of state
These propositions were then explained by Stephen Jay Gould, an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science. He stated that Lyell's uniformitarianism were composed of a pair of methodological assumptions with a pair of substantive hypotheses.
Methodological assumptions (Unfalsifiable axioms)
▶ Uniformity of law across time and space - Natural laws are constant across space and time.
Uniformity of law is an important aspect for every scientist to extend the present assumptions and logic to penetrate into the past. In order to understand the unobservable past (that which is gone and cannot be studied), we must take into account the observable present (that which is now, which can be observed and studied). This means that if we do not assume the constancy of the laws of nature, we might not be able to study the past effectively.
In other words, our current observations about the present can be proven wrong by other observations, but for the unobservable past, there is no chance of proving things wrong by observing, since it's already gone. This is the principle of falsifiability. So, we must assume that the laws of nature are invariant. Since there exist no human who can claim the surety of any theory that explains the past, this assumption should be held on to, till any evidence shows up that would reject the uniformity of laws of nature.
▶ Uniformity of process across time and space - Natural processes are constant across time and space
If there are processes in the present that explain the past, and that satisfyingly suffice, then unknown or extinct processes should not be brought into picture, however logical the cause might be. Also, how one should not create unobservable causes when there are sufficient observable ones, one should also not neglect the unobservable causes when there are insufficient observable ones. This is known as parsimony or Occam's razor.
Substantive hypotheses (Falsifiable)
The next two propositions of Charles Lyell were hypotheses, which meant that they could be proved right or wrong on the basis of empirical (observational) or scientific grounds.
▶ Uniformity of rate - This hypothesis says that change is slow, gradual, and steady.
The rate of change has been gradual like it is in the present. No catastrophe was or will ever be so great that can change the whole structure of the world. So the mountain ranges or the Grand Canyons are a result of gradual accumulation of little changes that made them what they are today, and these changes that are still taking place today will just keep adding to them.
▶ Uniformity of state (Nonprogressionism) - Change is evenly distributed throughout space and time.
The state of earth has been the same since forever. Even though it changes little by little but the progress leads to nowhere. The look and behavior of the earth today, is how it was at the beginning.
Lyell tactically put forth his hypotheses of rate and state, since all the scientists agreed with him on his uniformities of law and process. These hypotheses remain controversial to this day. This led to a partial interpretation and transfer of knowledge of diluvialism (the theory of the biblical flood) from the catastrophists of Lyell's time.
The fight between religion and science has been there since a long time now, but there are many things that scientists cannot prove and most of them do believe that there is a powerful source controlling it all. And so, even the religious reasoners should understand that, science is only a way of understanding things why they are the way they are. For evolution to take place, the things that evolve should be present at the first place. And where is the beginning of it all? No one knows this.

There is no war to win here. Just sensible human beings who have been given that kind of curiosity and a brain to understand and create and evolve. We are made to reason, to investigate, to extract, to understand and to implement.
▶ Catastrophism is true. It was true for a particular region, and for many other such regions throughout the world that contributed towards its evolution.
Noah's Ark
Noah's Ark
▶ Noah's flood occurred only in his local region, which was a true event, with historical evidences. This doesn't mean the flood was small, it could be as big as covering 3 huge states, or a whole country.

▶ Noah couldn't bring in animals from all over the world, since there are thousands of species which live in their own climatic region, for example, a polar bear, or a penguin. He wouldn't find these animals near his place unless he was in a snow-clad area.
▶ Noah had only three sons who could reproduce human life again after the flood. If the flood was worldwide, there wouldn't have been people of different origins today. There would be no Negroes, Indians, Chinese, Polynesians, Pygmies, etc., because a group of white people cannot evolve into different races.
▶ The extinction of animals was not due to the flood. If we talk about the dinosaurs, they were in a different era altogether. Man couldn't have been a part of the earth at that time, since dinosaurs would anyway eat them. The earth was probably different than what it is now. The trees, the environment, the atmosphere at that time was probably all made according to the habitat of dinosaurs and other animals that have gone extinct now. The flood cannot be an explanation of the extinction of all the animal species. It was either due to some other catastrophe, years before man came into existence, or it was a gradual process, like now we see animal species getting extinct by the years.

For religious, mainly Christians, who blindly follow what they are being preached, and do not get into the depth of matters and research for themselves, should follow what Pope Francis, who believes in The Big Bang Theory, has to say about evolution -
"When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so..."
"He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment."
"God is not a demigod or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life," the pope said. "Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve."
Another reason for contemplating on this -
In Exodus 10:13, during the plagues in Egypt, the Bible says, - "the locusts went up over all the land (erets) of Egypt." Erets is a Hebrew word, the literal translation of which is 'earth' or 'land'. Here, the translation is land.
In Genesis 8:9, the Bible says - the flood waters "were on the face of the whole earth (erets)".
There's a difference in the interpretation. So, is it probably just assumed by the translators that in Genesis (the time period that does not have a proper recorded history), Erets meant the whole earth, while in Exodus it meant a piece of land.
The scriptures were written by enlightened men, and it is known as the Word of God. But since then, it has been translated into several languages, and has traveled down a long way to reach here, with several copies. Can there not be a possibility, that those who translated the Bible misinterpreted few of its writings? To err is human, and every copy that was made, was made by a human. Also, the Word of God does not have literal meanings for every word that is written in it. They have deeper meanings, and if every word is translated in a literal sense, the whole Bible would be interpreted very poorly and not mean what it was meant to be.
To conclude, I would say, God and science both go contemporaneously. He has given us the brains to apprehend that science is nothing but a medium to understand with what depth and complexity he has made a system so beautiful, that has taken millions of years to evolve into the people that we are today.