Catastrophism: Discussion of Its Current Status in Geology, and a Prediction

In the last two centuries catastrophism has had its ups and downs in the scientific world of geology.

At the time of Charles Lyell and before, many geologists explained geological history in catastrophist terms: geological processes were often described as rapid and cataclysmic. Some of these geologists derived their catastrophist ideas at least partly from the Bible. Others who did not introduce biblical ideas into their science also saw evidence for catastrophic processes in the rocks.

Lyell’s geological synthesis did not allow catastrophist explanations, but maintained that geological processes were uniformly slow and gradual. His gradualist view of geological history held sway for a century, until the paradigm-challenging work of independent thinking geologist J. Harlen Bretz.

Bretz’s research on the Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington State finally broke down the strong bias against catastrophic geological explanations, and now the reality of meteorite impacts and other catastrophes are accepted by mainline science.

In this note we will consider the current balance between Lyell and Bretz in geological interpretations. Has geology gone back to pre-Lyellian catastrophist views, or to what extent is catastrophic thinking still banned?

The reality of catastrophic events like impacts of extra-terrestrial objects, floods like the Spokane Flood in the scablands, and major storms are recognized and accepted. In fact it is common for geological deposits to be interpreted as a record produced by major storms or other significant, even rapid processes, while it is assumed that the record of more normal, slow processes have been mostly removed by erosion, leaving little or no record. The hypothesized sediments that have been removed are needed because there is not nearly enough sediment to account for the millions of years of geological time. This interpretation is the accepted one, even if adequate evidence for those multiple erosion events is lacking. There certainly are plenty of erosional unconformities in the rocks, but not nearly enough to account for the lacking sediment.

I suggest that at least two types of hypotheses should routinely be compared and evaluated when interpreting the rocks. One category includes the view described above, with long series of erosional events that have left no record, while the other category of hypotheses accepts the visible evidence as sufficient to indicate a much shorter series of depositional and erosional events. In other words, the second view suggests that perhaps what we see is a record of reality – the geological record has been much more rapid and catastrophic than is generally believed. Why should these two possibilities not be openly considered and evaluated against the existing evidence?

As science currently functions, that open comparison is often ruled out, because the second category may eliminate the long time periods necessary for large-scale evolution processes to occur. Of course it also goes against the radiometric time scale. But what if our interpretations of radiometric phenomena are not correct? Some of the geological evidence suggests that, if we accept the evidence at face value.

To consider a much more rapid, catastrophic geological past challenges the naturalistic origin of life and of major categories of life forms. Do we want to know if that naturalistic interpretation is really correct or not? As scientists, are we open to consider what really happened in the past, or are we satisfied to limit our explanations to fit a pre-determined set of assumptions?

One likely response to this suggestion is that a theory of more rapid, catastrophic geological history has no chance of success. If that is really true, than those who advocate the long, naturalistic view have nothing to lose by allowing active research under a more catastrophist theory. In fact such an active research effort would only strengthen the more naturalistic view by documenting the lack of rapid geological processes. On the other hand, based on my personal faith commitments and my experience in geological research, I predict that a theory of geology that is open to more significant catastrophism, and a shorter time for the Phanerozoic will, in the long run, be the more successful one, that will explain more of the geological evidence. A successful scientific theory is expected to make predictions of discoveries that will result from the theory, so we will see what the future of this prediction will be.

Leonard Brand, PhD

Loma Linda University