CATASTROPHIST GEOLOGY 2000
Uniformitarianism as an a-priori statement about what happened in Earth history is utterly idiotic: in science no a-priori statements should be made about subjects of investigation. Though it is difficult not to harbour implicit assumptions about the world we live in, it is exactly by making explicit one of those assumptions and then dropping it that scientific breakthroughs are made. By making an assumption explicit and then formulating it ex cathedra we construct a prison for our mind. As a hypothesis defended by James Hutton during the last decades of the 18th century uniformitarianism may sound original and daring, in the historical context of the neptunist-vulcanist controversy, and perhaps even Lamarck could be condoned for adhering to it as late as 1809. If after 1800 field evidence had been forthcoming substantiating the hypothesis, it could have been transformed, very cautiously, into a theory - though always subject to falsification by evidence to the contrary. But no such evidence came forth. Quite to the contrary, the hypothesis was rapidly falsified by the work of William Buckland, George Cuvier, Hugh Miller and many others, who presented a surabundance of field evidence from all over Europe and from outside Europe, from Devonian sandstone to Pleistocene sand, proving beyond doubt the importance of sudden and unusual events in Earth history. That Charles Lyell defended uniformitarianism in the 1830s, and that it was adopted, after Romanticism, as the leading doctrine by most academic geologists, meant a setback for science of more than a century. New discoveries between 1860 and 1980 were made in spite of it, and came mostly from outside geology: radioactive dating, continental drift, palaeomagnetism, astroblemes. A half-exception forms the discovery of Alpine nappes, generally accepted by geologists about a century ago. But then, there were always some geologists less dogmatic than others. Joseph Prestwich was an outspoken catastrophist, Eduard Suess less openly so, just like Marcel Bertrand, Louis de Launay, Pierre Termier (De Launay and Termier were not only leading geologists but also Atlantologists). Even so, the fact that palaeosols were found under nappes was passed under silence, except for the protests of Oulianoff (Nicolai, not Ivan Ilyits) and Tazieff, the only ones as far as I know who advocated the possibility of sudden emplacement.
Actualism, the backward extrapolation of presently known and accepted processes, is a method we use, one amongst several. It is the easiest, and as such a temptation and a pitfall. To transform one restricted method into a holy virtue and let it, like the cuckoo's young, push the other chicks out of the nest, is no less idiotic than parroting Hutton's hypothesis over and over again, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Actualism as a method should be applied with much caution. Actualism as a principle should never have existed.
Catastrophist geology, the special study of discontinuities in Earth history, will be needed yet for some time to come, in order to restore a balance. Later it can be dropped, and our descendants will be able to study just Earth history, a succession of more or less quiet periods and sudden disruptions.
After 1980 I see appearing, in titles of symposia, books and articles, nonsensical concepts such as catastrophist uniformitarianism. For such meaningless juggling with words I have no words, at least no printable ones. Derek Ager, a native English-speaker, coined "catastrophic uniformitarianism", and with that I heartily agree - but he didn't mean it like that.
To prefer the simplest-sounding hypothesis over the best-fitting has had just as pernicious an effect in geology as in other fields of enquiry. Together with the statement to the contrary, that reality is always more complicated than we imagine, or can imagine, it gives a knife with two cutting edges in the hands of academic authorities too lazy to think.
One authority, Leonard Krishtalka in his 1989 book Dinosaur Plots, shows himself to be full of spite after the K-T discoveries, very much like Ager. He sneers at the "impact buffs" and the "asteroid hoopla" (p. 26). But unlike Ager, who tried to sell us his opinions as scientific obtainments with Occam's razor in his hand, Krishtalka tries to force upon us these same opinions menacing us with Haldane's razor (p. 27): "I am wary of simple theories. They may have appeal, but one difference between nature and its interpreters is that nature is not simple."
People, readers, scientists, researchers, throw your bloody razors on your kitchen middens, and don't trust anybody who brandishes them unparcimoniously or otherwise. And do not forget that even the "best-fitting" hypothesis is most paradigm-dependent.
PS. Speaking of perniciousness, I come upon the anonymous "peer" review system. Anonymous should be the author(s) when submitting a manuscript, giving the editor and the reviewers the opportunity to judge that manuscript on its contents and not on the author's qualifications, titels, functions and fame. The reviewers should have the courage to sign their verdicts.
Also seriously hampering research is the habit of leading scientific journals to "save space" by not printing the titles of articles in the bibliography. A short and succinct title is a nutshell summary of an article, and researchers need it for making the decision whether they have to read that article or not.