An Excellent Point About Uniformitarianism

One of the lectures I listened to during costume making madness last year is Dr. Eugenie Scott’s “What Would Darwin Say to Today’s Creationists?” One of the things I like about Dr. Scott is that she doesn’t just stop at evolution when it comes to fighting religious nonsense pawned off on the public as “science” – she’s also aware of Flood geology and takes time to debunk it, too. And she knew Darwin started his career in science as a geologist. Also, if you head to round the 25 minute mark in that video, you’ll get an excellent description of what uniformitarianism is – and isn’t.

Most of us know the basics of uniformitarianism: processes we see acting today acted in the past, and explain what we see in the geologic record. It includes the concept of gradual change over time (which is one of those things that got Darwin thinking along the path that led him to evolution). But Dr. Scott makes an excellent point that states more clearly than any other source I’ve heard why Flood geologists and other creationists are so very wrong when they point to events like the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the spectacular erosion seen in its aftermath, and claim this as proof that the Earth’s geology was created in catastrophe instead of forming gradually over time:

“Uniformitarianism, by the way, does not mean that everything that happened in geological history is slow and gradual. Lyell and Darwin and the other scientists of the day knew that there were catastrophic events that produced geological changes, but it’s the process that is the uniformity, as it were, from one time to another. The rate doesn’t have to be the same.”

Keep that quote handy. If you spend much time round Mount St. Helens, you’ll eventually run into flocks of creationists who love to misunderstand uniformitarianism. Their misunderstanding may be willful – but they’ll have a much harder time confusing innocent bystanders if you explain catastrophes (though not worldwide floods) are very much a part of genuine geology.

Handy, eh?


Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

An Excellent Point About Uniformitarianism

4 thoughts on “An Excellent Point About Uniformitarianism

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    If you spend much time round Mount St. Helens, you’ll eventually run into flocks of creationists who love to misunderstand uniformitarianism.

    Wait, wut? I knew about the Grand Canyon, but does Mt. St. Helens have some special significance to cdesign proponentsists too? Do they come in organized groups? Tell us more!

  2. 4

    As I understand it, from Lyell’s time until roughly the mid 20th cy., geologists were unwilling to accept the occurrence of any catastrophes much larger than well-documented ones, like floods much larger than any that were well-documented. J Harlen Bretz’s hypothesis of the Columbia River giant floods was rejected for some decades before it became accepted. A certain crater in Arizona had a lot of controversy over how it was formed. An impact? A volcano?

    I think that a reason was that giant catastrophes seemed too much like hand waving, too much like that famous cartoon that features “and then a miracle occurs”, too poorly defined.

    But over the mid to late 20th cy., geologists succeeded in making some giant-catastrophe hypotheses testable.

    About the Columbia River giant floods, their water source was located: a former lake near Missoula, MT. The flow features along the Columbia River resemble those in various rivers, but much larger.

    That Arizona crater was identified as an impact crater from the shock metamorphism of some of its rocks, as if those rocks had been hit by some super hammer. Shock metamorphism has been discovered at various other places, and there are nearly 200 impact craters now recognized on our planet. However, many of them are heavily eroded and difficult to recognize.

    More recently, geologists have discovered evidence of catastrophes associated with some mass extinctions, like the K-T and P-Tr ones.

    The nowadays favorite hypothesis of the origin of the Moon involves a big collision early in the Solar System’s history, a collision that spewed lots of fragments that went into orbit and condensed into the Moon.

    This revival of catastrophism was not the result of armchair philosophical debates but a result of testing hypotheses about specific possible catastrophes. It wasn’t the result of armchair pontificating and philosophizing.

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