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What is Uniformitarianism and how did it get here?
by Alex Marton

When Charles Darwin published his now classic On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, he was riding the crest of a long wave of scientific speculation regarding the history of the earth and its inhabitants... I have called attention to the word scientific not to demean its value, but to highlight the fact that that was just one side of the on-going controversy about the Creation and the level of interest that the Almighty might have in the affairs of men. This last point was one that preoccupied many in the nineteenth century; in addition to scientific curiosity and the drive to discover the real nature of things, the truth of the Biblical story was directly connected to a highly political issue: the legitimacy of the Monarchy.

Almost thirty years earlier, Charles Lyell had paved the way with the publication of his Principles of Geology, in three volumes, between 1830 and 1833. Geology was in its infancy, but Lyell and others had labored diligently to lay the foundations of the new science and, to the extent that success is the approval of later generations, they succeeded with honors.

In 1807, a small group of amateurs had formed the London Geological Society. In the words of one of its founders, they were starting "a little talking geological dinner club." Of the original group of thirteen, four were doctors, two booksellers, one an ex-minister, two amateur chemists who were also independently wealthy, and so on. Only one member had training in geology, but did not pursue it as a livelihood. In fact, an amazing aspect of the London Geological Society is that none of its founders were geologists experienced in or prepared to do field work, but gentlemen inclined to meet for dinner and talk.

Even so, in its second year, the London Geological Society was joined by two dozen Fellows of the Royal Society. Its growth accelerated so much that within ten years, its membership was in excess of 400; in 1825, the year of its incorporation, it was up to more than 630. Though England was going through a busy period of canal building and mine exploration (so that there was plenty of digging going on), the number of active geologists who were members of the London Geological Society was very close to zero. The amateurs who were members were interested in geology not so much because of its practical applications or even for the theoretical speculations of a new science, but because of the religious and political consequences it might have.

In the 18th century, the winds of democracy from America and the attacks of thinkers like Locke and Rousseau, among others, questioned the Monarchy as the natural form of government. Liberalism was moving, and its method was to go after Biblical Geology (specifically the Flood) in order to disarm the Monarchists. The social context in which these political-religious-scientific battles came to a head in England was the popular restlessness of the early nineteenth century. After defeating Napoleon, England fell into a severe depression. The army was demobilized, throwing almost half a million men into unemployment; the overseas market for British exports dried up; the government's need for war supplies evaporated. A set of laws (the Corn Laws) passed to protect farmers against cheap imported grain resulted in prices so high that workers were unable to buy it. The effects rippled through Britain's farms and industry alike, creating starving workers and bankrupt businesses.

Incidents of popular unrest led the (monarchist) government to enact laws curtailing certain rights. Free speech was one of them. There were those who smelled revolution in the air, but the liberal middle class could still remember the ravages of the French Revolution. That's not what they wanted. What they wanted was reform in Parliament, but traditional theological doctrine stood in the way. Paley's Natural Theology claimed that sovereignty descended from God to the King; if he was satisfied with it, there was no need to reform it.

Paley's doctrine was required study in the universities, and was the received wisdom in society. There was only one way to reform Parliament, and that was to destroy Paley's Natural Theology - and the only way to do that was to discredit the catastrophist notions of its religious defenders who sought to reconcile the geological evidence with the story of Genesis.

Scientists in Britain and on the Continent had been making discoveries in the geological record that strained the literal interpretation of the biblical story, while others tried to save it by reinterpreting the words (six days were really six eras, and so on). Many scientists who were also religious tried to find solutions acceptable to the churches, to the people who were increasingly confused, and to themselves as honest individuals laboring to establish the truth. Others wanted nothing less than to destroy once and for all the connection between science and religion. And those who were politically motivated wanted to bury forever the notion of the divine right of kings. If the scientific evidence denied the truth of the Bible, then it also denied any connection between God and the Monarchy, thus freeing Parliament and the people to redefine the political equations.

So science, its methods and its scope, in the formative beginnings, was very much a creature of the times, unabashedly enlisted in the service of political causes by those who sought to affect political and social developments in their own favor. It is in this context that we must view the formation and growth of the London Geological Society and its vast influence on the parameters within which geology was to develop into a respectable science. The society succeeded in recruiting influential members - doctors, lawyers, members of Parliament, and eventually even geologists. One member, a young whig lawyer named Charles Lyell, decided to take a novel approach: in his Principles of Geology, he argued against the catastrophists by saying that the diluvial theory was, in effect, mythological, and that it stood in the way of progress in geology. He concentrated on the gradual effects of erosion and volcanic uplift to rationalize the geological observations, completely ignoring all evidence of catastrophism. The liberals were delighted, and they elected him secretary, and later president of the Geological Society.

Catastrophism was dead, and the principle of Uniformitarianism was established: geological changes took place slowly, over extremely long period of time, free of widespread catastrophic changes. The Society grew powerful: it was able to prevent publication of material favorable to catastrophism, and to arrange evidence so as to satisfy a uniformitarian view. Similarly, the political battle was won by the liberals, and the power flow between the King, the Parliament, and the People changed direction.

It was in this atmosphere that Darwin made the headlines, and the rest is history. After some early skirmishes, Darwin's "theory of evolution" won the day - a mechanistic theory of evolution subservient to and dependent upon geological uniformitarianism: gradual change over eons, with no violent jumps. Discontinuities in the fossil record, evidence of mass extinctions - all this was swept under the carpet. The new picture was one of long-term stability and imperceptible change. There was no evidence of and, indeed, no need for a divine presence.

It is unfortunate that these crusty notions have shaped the present dilemma of geology. The political issues were settled long ago, but geology is still committed to a paradigm established primarily as part of a political front that is no longer relevant. It is also unfortunate that catastrophism is linked to biblical fundamentalism because that association has inhibited the evolution of catastrophism as a legitimate avenue of scientific inquiry, without reference to religion or politics. What has happened in geology, and is happening in evolutionary biology, is that the 44 classic" principles are still being taught and accepted, but the mounting body of evidence for events that don't fit the theory is swelling up from the museum basements onto the main floors, where they cannot be ignored anymore.

Political Geology? Is this really how we got here from there intellectually? Yes. And catastrophism is still viewed as an enemy, rather than as a potential partner. This will change. In addition, catastrophism doesn't have to represent a religious viewpoint: Religion may have needed, or may still need catastrophes, but catastrophism doesn't Religion. Where there is evidence of catastrophe, that information should be described and studied, as the Scientific Method counsels us to do. If overwhelming evidence argues in favor of new theories, so be it. If overwhelming evidence argues in favor of catastrophic occurrences within the memory of humankind, well, there is a test for openmindedness. Those who defend a posture established one hundred and fifty years ago against today's evidence are only ironic reminders of the victims of Uniformitarianism itself.

The arguments against the occurrence of global catastrophe as the source of ancient stories about such events have carried the day, at least in part, because of the historical influences on our interpretation of knowledge. After generations of formal education, the bedrock status of this view- that ancient testimony of world disaster is not to be taken literally - is so firmly engrained in the sciences that the alternate possibility is almost completely ignored.

Yet we are faced with an ancient history in which the principal memories of the race seem to involve the occurrence of world -shattering, natural disaster. This is the real issue at hand here. How can we reconcile the traditional scientific conception of uniformitarian evolution with the obsession of the ancient mind that celestial catastrophe was the agent of change?

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