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Catastrophism vs. Uniformitarianism: Competing Geological Theories

Joseph Comunale, April Koch
  • Author
    Joseph Comunale

    Joseph Comunale obtained a Bachelor's in Philosophy from UCF before becoming a high school science teacher for five years. He has taught Earth-Space Science and Integrated Science at a Title 1 School in Florida and has Professional Teacher's Certification for Earth-Space Science.

  • Instructor
    April Koch

    April teaches high school science and holds a master's degree in education.

Understand what catastrophism is. Know what uniformitarianism evolution is and learn the difference between uniformitarianism and catastrophism. Discover Charles Lyell's contribution to evolution. Updated: 10/05/2021

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What is Catastrophism?

Catastrophism is a previous geological paradigm and theory that explains Earth's current landscape and shape as forming out of abrupt, violent, short-lived, and maybe even global events resulting in mass extinction and the changing landscape. Under catastrophism, for example, mountain ranges result from the sudden and massive uplift of the landscape by earthquakes. This theory was postulated when the culture surrounding the scientific community largely needed to factor in and reckon with the Bible and its stories of catastrophes such as Noah's flood. Additionally, the astronomy community largely imagined the universe as static and unchanging. In the early 19th century, a French paleontologist Georges Cuvier promoted the idea of catastrophism, supporting it with his observations of the fossil record. The fossil record is preserved in geological time or layers of rock. Cuvier noticed that fossils of organisms seemed to cease immediately above some geological epochs and strata. This led him to believe that Earth's history of life comprised long periods of stability that were interrupted abruptly by catastrophe, some of which Cuvier imagined as recurring. He elaborated from this that the Earth must be several million years old.

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  • 0:05 Introduction to…
  • 1:12 Catastrophism
  • 2:46 Uniformitarianism
  • 4:54 Modern Consensus
  • 5:53 Lesson Summary
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A portrait of Georges Cuvier, the French naturalist and paleontologist that first popularized catastrophism.

What is catastrophism. The theory of catastrophism was first popularized by Georges Cuvier. It was a theory in geology that was eventually overtaken by uniformitarianism evolution.

Uniformitarianism Evolution

Prior to Georges Cuvier, a Scottish geologist named James Hutton wrote a different explanation for some of Earth's landscapes, such as sedimentary rock processes. Seen in the 18th century as the father of geology, James Hutton's ideas were adopted and expanded upon by the geologist Charles Lyell. Publishing these ideas in the 1830s in his Principles of Geology, Lyell popularized the theory of uniformitarianism, sometimes called gradualism.

A book showing a portrait of Charles Lyell. Charles Lyell popularized the theory of uniformitarianism.

A book showing a portrait and describing the Charles Lyell contribution to evolution and geology.

Lyell explained that Earth's current geological processes are the key to understanding Earth's past. He denied that cataclysms such as massive earthquakes, floods, or volcanic eruptions could explain the Earth's landscape because no such events seem to occur on a large enough scale in the present. Lyell instead argued that Earth's surface was shaped by long-term and gradual actions through earthquakes, volcanism, and weathering and erosion. Since these processes can easily be observed today, geologists endorsed uniformitarianism from the time of Principles of Geology into the late 1970s.

The paradigm shift toward uniformitarianism led scientists to postulate that Earth was much older than previously thought. In 1956, Earth's age was determined to be ~4.5 billion years old through the work of Clair Patterson and his use of uranium-lead dating.

Charles Lyell's Contribution to Evolution

The geological timescale outlined in a clock pattern.

The geological clock, a representation of geological history.

Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology became the key text referenced by uniformitarian geologists and even influenced evolutionary theories concerning the fossil record. However, Lyell initially rejected long-term evolutionary theories within biology when first writing Principles of Geology. But, through reading the writings of Charles Darwin, Lyell eventually accepted natural selection as an explanation and mechanism contributing to the origin of species and wrote of it in his 10th edition of Principles of Geology.

Uniformitarianism vs Catastrophism

The theory of uniformitarianism is in contrast with the theory of catastrophism. Catastrophism regards Earth's geological history as being relatively stable with intermittent and abrupt events of cataclysms. On the contrary, uniformitarianism explains that actions that change Earth's crust are continuous and uniform processes such as weathering, sedimentation, erosion, continuous and periodic volcanism, earthquakes, and other events associated with the theory of plate tectonics.

When uniformitarianism was popularized, scientists essentially wanted to distance themselves from religion and theories concerning cataclysms. Within the scientific culture, it became difficult for any new theories or geological explanations connected to catastrophes to be taken seriously during the early 1900s.

In 1923, the American geologist J Harlen Bretz published a theory regarding the geological processes that contributed to the formation of the channeled scablands in Washington State. Bretz hypothesized that the glacial Lake Missoula had a glacial dam that burst, resulting in massive floods spanning 5,000 square kilometers some 14,000 years ago. The geological community initially rejected Bretz's explanation, but he was eventually rewarded the Penrose Medal for his work and contribution to geology. Additionally, Bretz initially argued the channeled scablands were the result of one cataclysmic flood but having to reckon with the paradigm of uniformitarianism, he settled with several large floods spanning a longer period of time. Scientists debated the number of floods for years and still do today, some arguing one flood, several floods, and up to 40 floods.

A possible vortex pot hole in the channeled scablands created by massive amounts of turbulent water carving into the rock.

A vortex pot hole in the channeled scablands.

A portion of the channeled scablands that had been analyzed by J Harlen Bretz.

A portion of the channeled scablands.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between Uniformitarianism and catastrophism?

The difference between uniformitarianism and catastrophism is how each theory views and describes Earth's geological history. Uniformitarianism suggests that Earth's surface, such as mountain ranges, are shaped by long-term, uniform processes such as weathering, erosion, plate tectonics, and volcanism. A uniformitarian believes that the processes observed today are key to understanding Earth's past. Catastrophism describes Earth's history as being stable with intermittent, short-lived, and cataclysmic events drastically shaping the surface.

Modern geologists accept a mixture of uniformitarianism and catastrophism, describing Earth's geology as being shaped mainly by long-term processes such as weathering, erosion, and plate tectonics, with occasional, abrupt, and global cataclysmic events that change Earth's crust and result in the extinction of species.

What is the catastrophism theory?

The theory of catastrophism is the idea that Earth's surface and landscape can largely be explained by sudden, short-lived, and violent events such as cataclysmic earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. The theory explains that Earth's history goes through long periods of stability interrupted by sudden cataclysmic events, which could explain extinctions events observed in the fossil record.

What is an example of catastrophism?

A common example of catastrophism is the biblical story of Noah's flood. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, geologists felt they had to reckon with the Bible and imagined Earth's surface as being shaped by such events. However, modern-day catastrophism examples include the cretaceous extinction event caused by an asteroid impact.

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