Uniformitarianism and Catastrophism

In perusing the comments after DaveScot's predictable attack on me, I noticed a comment from Bombadill that I'm going to reprint here and answer simply because I think it offers a good opportunity to spread a little reality around. If Bombadill himself is interested in understanding something about basic geology and about the meaning of terms he is throwing around, perhaps he'll even benefit from reading it. He writes:

I spoke with Ed on the Panda's Thumb, in my only post there (on that hotbed of loving encouragement and grace ;) ). I found him to be fairly respectful, though perhaps it was because it was my first time actually posting. Anyway, he challenged me regarding the Geologic Column and it;s (alleged) Uniformitarianism. I decided to take a look at the issue and realized that there truly is evidence for catastrophism; strata layers that "should" be on bottom - on top, fossils that "should" be on bottom - on top (including mass fish bones on mountain tops), animals in the throes of birth and conflict, fossilized instantly in all manner of locations. Fossils going thru multiple strata layers. It was all a bit much to simply explain away with "folding" and mud-slides, and the like.

I should first note that his memory is a bit off. The exchange between us took place at my blog, not at Panda's Thumb, in late November. And my challenge to him was not about the geologic column and uniformitarianism but about the biostratigraphic succession of life forms in the fossil record. You can see the whole thread here. The initial post was actually about a typical bit of dishonesty from Dembski, where he claims in one writing that the designer need not be a transcendant being but merely a being "capable of arranging finite material objects to display certain patterns." Yet in an earlier writing he had declared quite explicitly:

The fine-tuning of the universe, about which cosmologists make such a to-do, is both complex and specified and readily yields design. So too, Michael Behe's irreducibly complex biochemical systems readily yield design. The complexity-specification criterion demonstrates that design pervades cosmology and biology. Moreover, it is a transcendent design, not reducible to the physical world. Indeed, no intelligent agent who is strictly physical could have presided over the origin of the universe or the origin of life.

Typical Dembski, saying one thing to one audience and the opposite to another and then blaming those who point out his previous statement as though they were being terribly unfair to bring it up. Anyway, Bombadill left a series of comments that were essentially straight out of the standard creationist playbook (the gish gallop, moving the goalposts, etc) but I answered them patiently. After a long and very detailed answer about the absurdity of claiming to be able to measure the CSI of animals known only from fossils in the Cambrian, I gave him that long challenge to explain biostratigraphy from a creationist perspective. Naturally, he disappeared and never came back.

Anyway, on to the substance of Bombadill's comment above. The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that he clearly has a false impression of what catastrophism and uniformitarianism mean. He seems to think, as most creationists have been taught, that they are in conflict with each other but that is false. Creationist geologists have spread a patently false conception of uniformitarianism to their followers, making lots and lots of creationists who read their tracts think that uniformitarianism actually rules out catastrophes in nature. This is sheer nonsense.

Uniformitarianism simply means that the same physical laws in operation around us today were in operation in the past as well and governed the behavior of matter at all points in time (at least after Planck time). It's sometimes summed up as the idea that "the present is the key to the past." What this means for a geologist is fairly obvious. For example, we can observe geological processes at work today and see how limestone is formed, the types of depositional environments in which it forms (shallow marine environments) and then when we're analyzing a limestone formation that was deposited 300 million years ago, we know that the environment at that location had to be similar. We see, for example, that when volcanoes erupt underwater they form pillow basalts, so when we are looking at a pillow basalt deposited in the distant past, we can infer that it was deposited by an ancient volcano erupting underwater. That is really all uniformitarianism means.

Creationists, on the other hand, use a crude caricature of the term. They think that geologists actually believe that absolutely everything in the past happened at a uniform rate at all times, without any sudden or catastrophic changes whatsoever. To borrow a metaphor from Richard Dawkins, this would be like claiming that since the Israelites took 40 years to cross the desert and the desert is X number of miles long, they just have gotten up each day and traveled two and a half feet, then set up camp and did that every day for 40 years. No one in their right mind would believe such a thing, of course. That's why it is profoundly silly for someone to point to evidence of a catastrophe in the geological record - an earthquake, a flood, an eruption, a meteor impact - and claim that this is somehow "evidence for catastrophism" and against "uniformitarianism". No geologist on this planet has ever believed that catastrophes do not occur; indeed, the study of geology is made infinitely more interesting because a good portion of what is studied - that is, a good portion of the events that shaped the earth's geological history - are catastrophic in nature.

Now let's look at some of the specific things he refers to as "evidence for catastrophism". The first one he mentions is:

strata layers that "should" be on bottom - on top, fossils that "should" be on bottom - on top (including mass fish bones on mountain tops)

This actually deals with two different subjects - why do we occasionally find strata that are out of order or, more rarely, flipped upside down? And why do we find marine fossils on mountain tops? I'll answer the second one first because it's much easier to explain. We find marine fossils on the tops of some mountains (not all, of course) because the sedimentary rock that comprises the mountains were deposited on the sea floor and then later uplifted through tectonic shifting to create mountain ranges. Now, to a creationist they somehow think that marine fossils at the tops of mountain ranges were left there by Noah's flood, but this makes little sense if you think about it. If the mountain was already there and then a flood covered the top of it and then receded, the dead fish would be on the mountain, not in the mountain (that is, embedded into the rock matrix deep below the surface). And of course, this prediction contradicts the creationist argument for why all the marine fossils are found on the bottom.

And here again is a good example of how uniformitarianism works in practice. Many of the sediments at the top of mountain ranges are, for example, limestone and we know what kind of depositional environment is required for limestone to form (again, shallow marine environments). That's the first line of evidence that those rocks were deposited on a sea floor. Now, how do we know that they were later uplifted? Because, again, we can observe this process going on today. We can literally see and measure the rate at which some mountain ranges continue to rise as one plate continues to slide beneath another. The Himalayan mountains, for example, was formed when the Indo-Australian plate collided with the Eurasian continent, pushing the plate underneath the continent and causing the crust to fold and push upward. It continues to rise today, causing the topography to change continuously and often through major earthquakes and landslides. So here again, we can observe this process going on today and infer what happened in the past. That is all uniformitarianism is - uniformitarianism includes catastrophism.

The first item, strata layers that should be on the bottom being on top, is related to the second in that it involves tectonic shifting. What he is referring to are places on earth where older strata lay on top of younger strata. Creationists jump all over this and say "A ha! The geologic column isn't all in the same order!" but they are ignoring an enormous body of knowledge about how such reversals take place and how we can tell that they did. This happens through overthrusting or fault thrusting and the process is well known and easily identified. They occur in mountainous regions where the mountains are being uplifted by the underlying plates crashing together. When a plate tens of miles thick and hundreds or thousands of miles long crashes into a continental plate, the result can be astonishing.

As one plate slides below the other, it can uplift enormous sections of rock, tilt them up and push them right up through the younger rocks above, sliding them on top of the younger rocks. But of course - and this is very important - events like this don't take place without leaving lots of evidence behind. You don't break up 300 mile long, 1000 feet thick slabs of solid rock or move them around and through each other without leaving behind enormous amounts of deformation of the surrounding rock, sheered rubble. slickenslides and other types of evidence behind. And that's how we can identify what happened.

The textbook example of this, and one that creationists have long loved to point to (in a highly dishonest manner, I might add), is the Lewis overthrust, at Glacier National Park in Montana. The Lewis overthrust is a result of the same tectonic plate-crashing event that rose the entire Rocky Mountain range to be uplifted. An enormous section of rock, several miles thick and several hundred miles wide, was pushed some 50 miles to the east and shoved up through and over the top of much younger sediments. The rocks that were shoved over the top were deposited about 1.5 billion years earlier than the rocks now underneath them, according to the radiometric dates. How do we know that this monumental event took place? Because it left behind all the evidence.

Before we look at that evidence, though, let's look at how creationists have dealt with it over the years. In the seminal work The Genesis Flood, the book that launched the modern creationist movement in the 1960s, Henry Morris and John Whitcomb claimed that the Lewis overthrust left no evidence of fault thrusting behind at all, which any geologist who has ever examined it knows to be false. How did they support that claim? By the tried and true out of context quote, of course. They quoted a 1959 US Geological Survey paper by Ross and Rezak, or rather misquoted it. Here's what Whitcomb and Morris say about it:

"Ross and Rezak say: 'Most visitors, especially those who stay on the roads, get the impression that the Belt strata are undisturbed and lie almost as flat today as they did when deposited in the sea which vanished so many years ago'"(The Genesis Flood, p. 187)

Now let's look at the quote from the Ross and Rezak paper in its proper context. I'll bold what they left out:

"Most visitors, especially those who stay on the roads, get the impression that the Belt strata are undisturbed and lie almost as flat today as they did when deposited in the sea which vanished so many million years ago. Actually, they are folded, and in certain zones they are intensely so. From points on or near the trails in the park it is possible to observe places where the beds of the Belt series, as revealed in outcrops on ridges, cliffs, and canyon walls, are folded and crumpled almost as intricately as the softer younger strata in the mountains south of the park and in the Great Plains adjoining the park to the east." (Ross and Rezak 1959 p. 420)

The creationist geologist Kurt Wise, one of the few truly honest creationists and a man who refuses to distort the evidence, gave a paper at the first International Conference on Creation in 1977 where he examined the evidence of the Lewis overthrust and angered many of the older creationist leaders by declaring that they were flat wrong about it. He said, "The existence of an inverted section in a thrust belt region with slickenslides, dragfolds, and sheared rubble along the unconformity leaves no reasonable doubt that the Lewis Overthrust is in fact a result of overthrusting. It cannot be considered a contradiction to the geologic column."

The third item on Bombadill's list of alleged problems for the geologic column is:

animals in the throes of birth and conflict, fossilized instantly in all manner of locations

He doesn't explain why this is a problem at all for the geologic column.There are of course lots of examples in the fossil record of "fossil graveyards", places where a geological event has triggered the rapid burial of large numbers of animals all in one place, or of individuals killed and buried in place. This can happen in lots of ways and we know this because we've observed it to happen. Flash flooding can bury burrowing animals in place and drown them, mudslides can trap all sorts of animals in place, volcanic eruptions can kill animals in place where they choke from the noxious fumes and get buried in volcanic ash. We have examples of dinosaur nesting sites getting buried in volcanic ash or buried in mudslides. These things happen in nature fairly regularly, but they are always localized events and they certainly aren't a problem for "uniformitarianism" or for evolution. You can typically look at the surrounding geological evidence and determine what happened.

The last item on his list is a creationist standby: polystrate fossils.

Fossils going thru multiple strata layers.

He doesn't give any specific examples, but these are tried and true creationist canards, long ago debunked. There is of course the famous Lompoc whale story, which has been repeated in creationist pamphlets and lectures for decades now. The truth is easily understood when one bothers to actually look at the facts. The other popular argument about polystrate fossils involves trees, particularly the fossil forests of Yellowstone or those in Nova Scotia. Again, one only has to look at the surrounding geological data to understand how they got buried. In some cases, shifting sand dunes drifted in around them, but in most cases they were buried in a volcanic eruption. The fact that you often find multiple layers of forests, each separated by a layer of volcanic ash, testifies to the volcanic source of the burial. Creationists like to claim that they were all buried in the Noahic flood, but the facts simply don't support this. They don't all appear in the same age rocks, they appear at various points throughout the geologic column, from the carboniferous to the devonian.

It was all a bit much to simply explain away with "folding" and mud-slides, and the like.

There are a variety of processes at work here, all well understood and perfectly reasonable if you understand the local geology. I suspect that when Bombadill says that he "look[ed] at the issue", he really means that he looked at some creationist webpages, swallowed what he saw there wholesale and didn't bother to find out if any of it was really true. None of this really has anything to do with the challenge that I laid out for him concerning biostratigraphy, a challenge I have made to dozens of creationists and never gotten even an attempted answer. William Gibbons hasn't answered it after nearly a year and a half and he has a "PhD in creation science apologetics" (whatever that could possibly mean). These are serious questions that deserve more attention than a little cribbing from creationist webpages and pamphlets. They require some genuine study of geology to understand.

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Nice post Ed. As a young guy studying biology, I am admittedly less knowledgable about geology. I knew some of what you wrote, but learned some too.

One of the things that's often struck me is 1) how the ID movement goes to great lengths to say that they are not like young earth creationists, but that 2) when it's convienent, they'll fall back on any creationist argument to attack those in science they don't agree with.

I recognized Bombadill's comment as just such an occurance when I read it the first time.

It's like that whole Second Law of Thermodynamics... No matter how many time you put that baby to bed, it just keeps waking up in the middle of the night.


Well, most ID advocates are not young earthers. Some are, like Paul Nelson, but they tend to be the exception I think. In the case of Bombadill, I think you've got a pretty typical example of one of their followers though - not well educated on any of the science involved, he's sure evolution is wrong and he'll pretty much accept any source that tells him evolution is wrong and why. I don't think he distinguishes between the ID arguments and the creationist arguments. No serious ID advocate would argue over uniformitarianism and catastrophism, or would claim that "out of order" strata are a problem for evolution, those are simple-minded arguments from the glory days of YEC that were debunked and disproven decades ago. It was almost nostalgic for me to write this, in fact, because you just don't hear that kind of thing anymore.

I'll second Ocellated's kudos, Ed, and I actually am an academic geologist. You've done a superb job. One of the overlooked little tidbits about this topic is that the guy who gave us the first written rules on interpreting the relative ages of rocks (Steno) was in fact beatified by John Paul II.

It would seem that Steno's laws are also God's laws...

Excellent post, Ed. This is just the type of clear comprehensive column I wish the general public would hear on a regular basis.

One thing I've been wondering ever since the Dover decision, is if there was any way to get any of the Science Blogs or Panda's Thumb posts onto Google News. It's truly a travesty that GN picks up the DI's fradulent press releases without anything substantial to counter them. And the real crime is that the press then quotes them further as well!

Have any of you guys looked into this or some sort of alternative? Thanks for all your great work!

Here is a favorite quote of mine from the (much maligned by creationists) father of uniformitarian geology Charles Lyell (James Hutton being the much maligned grandfather), showing that even he was quite willing to accept that major catastrophes can and have occurred in geologic history.

In speculating on catastrophes by water, we may certainly anticipate great floods in future, and we may therefore presume that they have happened again and again in past times. The existence of enormous seas of fresh-water, such as the North American lakes, the largest of which is elevated more than six hundred feet above the level of the ocean, and is in parts twelve hundred feet deep, is alone sufficient to assure us, that the time will come, however distant, when a deluge will lay waste a considerable part of the American continent. No hypothetical agency is required to cause the sudden escape of the confined waters. Such changes of level, and opening of fissures, as have accompanied earthquakes since the commencement of the present century, or such excavations of ravines as the receding cataract of Niagara is now effecting, might breach the barriers. Notwithstanding, therefore, that we have not witnessed within the last three thousand years the devastation by deluge of a large continent, yet, as we may predict the future occurrence of such catastrophes, we are authorized to regard them as part of the present order of Nature, and they may be introduced in to geological speculations respecting the past, provided we do not imagine them to have been more frequent or general than we expect them to be in time to come. - Charles Lyell (1830, 1990) Principles of Geology vol. I, p. 89

By Troy Britain (not verified) on 14 Jan 2006 #permalink