CATASTROPHIST GEOLOGY 1975
Circulated among the participants of the Charles Lyell centenary symposium, London.
A magazine to be dedicated to the study of discontinuities in Earth history
Uniformitarianism holds that the processes governing the Earth's organic and inorganic past were the same as those apparent today, and that they operated then at the same intensity and rate as now. When they consider this definition thoughtfully, many geologists realize that they do not really agree with it. Too many events in the Earth's history do not fit a uniformitarian system - enormous calderas, plateau basalts, ice ages, alpine nappes, bone breccias, the sudden appearance of diversified life at the close of the Precambrian, the abrupt extinction of dinosaurs and ammonites, and so on. In a uniformitarian system the sedimentological and paleontological records are contradictory; if we assume uninterrupted sedimentation, we have to accept catastrophes in evolution; if we do not accept catastrophes in evolution we have to postulate major gaps in the sedimentary record.
We can of course, by retrograde extrapolation over millions of years, relate geological features to the cumulative effects of now active small-scale agents such as the raindrop and the sandgrain. Without this method of research geology cannot exist. But to state that it is the only one we are allowed to use without becoming "unscientific" is clearly reductionism, a nineteenth-century spook haunting geology just as it haunts history or psychology. Uniformitarian thinking has led to the assumption that discontinuities always require "a few million years" of gradual change between two more stable states. This assumption overlooks two facts. First, since we are using a time-scale a million times greater than Bishop Usher's, a catastrophe might last a million years. Second, weak and uniform causes can lead to sudden discontinuities, as anybody can observe by placing a pan full of milk on a stove. We should investigate the geological evidence for or against the relative suddenness of discontinuities, and not simply assume for them a time-scale which satisfies our preferences or assuages our hidden fears.
In non-English speaking countries, the term actualism has been preferred over uniformitarianism. It implies that "actual" (present-day) causes are sufficient to explain what happened in the past, but not necessarily that they have operated then with the same intensity as now .
But what are actual causes? Two centuries ago, when scientists did not accept the existence of meteorites, the astrobleme hypothesis would have been unactualistic. During the last century Lord Kelvin, not acquainted with radioactivity, was right - actualistically speaking - when he maintained that the Earth could not be more than 100.000 years old. In this century, geophysicists were also right - from an actualistic standpoint - when they said that Wegener's hypothesis was an impossibility: seafloor spreading was only measured after its existence had been suggested by the magnetic zebra-striping of the oceanfloors. We even see here an inversion of the actualistic method: investigation of the geologic record has led to the discovery of plates and plate movement. The past as the key to the present.
These examples illustrate that actual geological causes must be discovered and divulged, meet the consensus of geologists, and not be forgotten again. At a given moment in the history of geological investigation, actual causes are divided into at least two groups: the known and accepted, and the unknown. Actualism as a method is a function of our ignorance and our prejudices, and can only be applied to a restricted number of phenomena. Applied uncritically, it has done extensive harm.
The examples also illustrate that geologists are overly afraid of physicists; meanwhile they continue to adhere to a natural philosophy which physics has discarded since Einstein's youth. If there is an inconsistency between geological features and accepted physical laws, we should not wait for the physicist's approval, but should notify them that there is something missing in their system. Both geology and physics could benefit thereby.
Catastrophism admits the occurrence of discontinuities in Earth history - because we observe them now and because we are forced to infer them from the geological record. Even such Lyellian agents as the raindrop and the sandgrain often do their work in discontinuous manners: the catastrophic erosion after a lake-spill for example, or sedimentation by turbidity current. In spite of our proclaimed uniformitarianism, catastrophist hypotheses abound - the capture of the Moon, astroblemes, bursts of cosmic rays, natural nuclear reactors, the breaking up and the collision of continents. When proposed by geologists of non-catastrophist persuasion, such hypotheses are taken seriously, but when similar ideas are forwarded by less conditioned outsiders, they are regarded as evidence of lunacy simply because they violate uniformitarian dogma. Mainstream geologists often do not even try to formulate clearly their own ideas; while they are cheating, somebody relegated to the lunatic fringe may be exposing the fraud .
Catastrophes do occur. The dinosaurs did die out - whether it took a million years or a day - either through the cumulative effect of continuous causes, actualistic or not, or through a unique, sudden, terrestrialor extraterrestrial event. Should such riddles ever be solved, the solutions will come from an inspired search for clues and not through application of the methods of medieval scholastics or nineteenth-century rationalists.
"CATASTROPHIST GEOLOGY" will be devoted to the study of discontinuities in Earth history. Papers are invited on topics such as (in alphabetic order): alpine nappes, atmospheric history, the appearance of new life forms, astroblemes, astronomical influences, bone breccias, calderas, the capture of the Moon, climatic change, comet flybys, continental break-up, continental collision, earthquakes, extinction of life forms, guide fossils, historical catastrophes, the history of evolutionary thought, the history of geology, ice ages, lake spills, lunar volcanism, magnetic reversals, martian volcanoes, the Mesozoic-Neozoic boundary, meteor impacts, mudflows, natural nuclear reactions, the origin of life, orogenesis, the Permo-Trias boundary, the philosophy of geology, plate tectonics, plateau basalts, the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary, prehistoric catastrophes, pre-plate-tectonic crustal processes, regressions, sealevel changes, the survival of "living fossils" , tektites, transgressions, tsunamis, turbidity currents, volcanic eruptions.
"CATASTROPHIST GEOLOGY" is intended to be of academic level, but it is a counterculture magazine which also wants to explore possible aspects of reality that have been kept outside the walls of Academe because of their clash with the reigning preconceptions of the scientific establishment. What scraps of Earth history might be preserved in myth and legend? Has evidence for a worldwide flood been suppressed, deliberately or unconsciously? Many millions of people accept Atlantis as a historical fact: must geologists tell them that they are hopelessly wrong? Is Velikovsky a charlatan or a genius, or both? The case for Ufo's has been reopened, this time by astronomers of repute: if aliens interact with mankind, what might be their role in Earth history? If telepathy and telekinesis occur, what are the implications for evolutionary theory? Can the claims of water and ore diviners be verified through scientific methods?
Special issues will be devoted to such topics, giving space to both proponents and critics.
It is intended to start with a quarterly journal, hopefully at a relatively low price - that is, if enough subscribers turn up. Ideas and suggestions are solicited, as well as criticism.
Manuscripts are invited.