This is Part 6 of a series of posts that outline evidence, support, and explanations for naturalistic evolution. To receive notification of future posts, and for all posts from You Woke Up Breathing, just enter your email address in the pop-up or at the top of any page.

Copyright 2021, Dennis Mitton

Grand Canyon

The glorious Grand Canyon. Catastrophe or gradual change?

When you venture outside, it’s easy at first glance to agree with Dr. Paley – it does seem as though an mysterious watchmaker had a hand in creation. Everything appears to line up just right. Trees need water and – viola! – there is water. And that water must be in liquid form and wouldn’t you know it? We are just the right distance from the sun that most water on the planet is liquid. Temperatures stay just about right for mankind to be relatively comfortable. But if you pull back the carpet of dirt, it’s just as easy to discover that everything is not as calm and well planned as it appears. Lake beds, built up over years of calm sedimentation are upended, breaking through the earth like a tibia jutting out from a shin. Scrape around a bit and you might find stone relics of plants and animals that no man has ever seen. Where did they come from? God’s experiments?

These two pictures – on the one side a world of apparent premeditated order and calm juxtaposed against tumult and decay – grew into a natural philosophy called catastrophism. It’s champion was a grouchy Frenchman named Georges Cuvier who dared all others to prove him wrong. He was indeed proven wrong, but only partly so. We will explore that in the next post.

George Cuvier

Cuvier, thinking hard.

His contributions to the emerging fields of comparative biology and paleontology are immense and seminal. He rejected biological change as a means of speciation, believing instead that the body functioned as a single unit and change to any part would render the whole unusable. His most notable contribution to animal science and evolution was the firm proof of the extinction of species. Before his arguments, fossils were confusing and often regarded as remnants of living animals gone awry (think of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man). Some believed that they never were animals but were fakes left by god to test the faith of believers. Cuvier worked with living and fossil elephant species and relatives and finally proved that modern elephants are different than fossilized elephants. This revolutionized paleontology, showing that other species had lived before the present age and were no more.

Cuvier rejected gradual change in either animals or geology. He believed the earth to be old and earth history to be punctuated by periods of extreme upheaval. Massive floods, rapid mountain building, and geological tumult defined the end of each age. These catastrophes changed the landscape and displaced animals and plants. Cuvier called these periods of rest followed by catastrophes ‘historical revolutions’ and used them to explain extinctions and the appearance of new species. I’ve so far been unable to figure out how he believed new species rose. Without a god involved – Cuvier was adamant in avoiding religious overtones in his work – I’m not sure what he thought drove the rise of new species. The Encyclopaedia Britannica makes an interesting observation that, in many ways, Cuvier represented the pivot between two eras. While basically inventing comparative biology and paleontology, his strong rejection of totalitarianism and gradual change placed him firmly in the eighteenth century.

Rejecting catastrophism as a primary geologic model does not deny that the earth has seen cataclysmic changes. But a defining tenet of catastrophism is the denial of gradualism. It’s an argument that nothing changes, nothing moves, no geologic formation grows higher or is cut lower on a day-to-day, year-to-year, age-to-age basis. We understand now that this simply isn’t true. The one single universal idea in geology is that the forces that we see shaping our world today are the same forces that have been at work for millennia. That the earth has periodically seen rapid and tumultuous change doesn’t alter the plain fact that the laws of nature driving geologic and biologic changes don’t change and have been moving along quite nicely for a few billion years now.

Next, we will look at the idea that supplanted catastrophism and is the basis of all scientific inquiry today – uniformitarianism.

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