Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's a Catastrophe

One of the great controversies regarding the history of the earth is whether everything took place gradually or if there were one or more abrupt catastrophes which formed the world as it is now. Another issue, if the gradual explanation will not suffice, is whether there was a series of catastrophes or only one major catastrophe, with perhaps other secondary catastrophes connected to it. Underlying this is the question of whether or not there could be divine intervention in history. The idea of gradual change is the basic principal of modern geology, but does it fit the evidence?  The fossil record, even as it currently understood by those who hold to a gradual-change position, would tend to suggest a series of  catastrophes; perhaps only one big catastrophe would simplify things.  Mass extinctions (with various explanations) and ice ages are catastrophes needed to make the gradual outlook make sense.  One of the early geologists, Georges Cuvier, came to the conclusion that there had been a series of catastrophes from the fossil record.  That this came from his piety is questionable, I have not seen any evidence he had any.  He did try to put something similar to the Genesis flood as the last catastrophe, not because he believed the Bible, but because some form of a flood story seems to be constantly found in many ancient cultures.

As for the question of one catastrophe versus many, this depends on whether the rock layers were deposited gradually.  But what fits the evidence?  There are giant fossil graveyards where multitudes of creatures died together all at once.  There are coal fields where tree trunks pass through several geologic layers.  There are woolly mammoths frozen with daisies in their mouths.  All these speak not of something that happened gradually over time, but of  something that happened suddenly. One catastrophe or a set of related catastrophes (say a universal flood followed by an ice age) seems to simplify things.

Nor is the idea of things happening gradually over time a result of observation, but an assumption brought to the examination of the evidence.  This concept (called uniformitarianism) is attributed to Charles Lyell, but it is better assigned to James Hutton, though it is not clear he originated it.  The underlying assumption is that all past events must be explained in terms of what we observe in the world today.  This is a philosophical conclusion and not something derived from the evidence. Lyell knew about trees going through more then one strata in coal seams and maintained his view anyway. Does not a universal flood which suddenly deposited sedimentary layers that became rock, followed by a catastrophic period of mountain building and an ice age, fit the evidence better?

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