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An Excellent Point About Uniformitarianism

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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During costume-making madness, I’ve been listening to a lot of lectures. Might as well improve your mind whilst preparing for Halloween, eh?

One of the lectures I’ve listened to is Dr. Eugenie Scott’s “What Would Darwin Say to Today’s Creationists?” One of the things I like about Dr. Scott is that she doesn’t just stop at evolution when it comes to fighting religious nonsense pawned off on the public as “science” – she’s also aware of Flood geology and takes time to debunk it, too. And she knew Darwin started his career in science as a geologist. Also, if you head to round the 25 minute mark in that video, you’ll get an excellent description of what uniformitarianism is – and isn’t.

Most of us know the basics of uniformitarianism: processes we see acting today acted in the past, and explain what we see in the geologic record. It includes the concept of gradual change over time (which is one of those things that got Darwin thinking along the path that led him to evolution). But Dr. Scott makes an excellent point that states more clearly than any other source I’ve heard why Flood geologists and other creationists are so very wrong when they point to events like the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the spectacular erosion seen in its aftermath, and claim this as proof that the Earth’s geology was created in catastrophe instead of forming gradually over time:

“Uniformitarianism, by the way, does not mean that everything that happened in geological history is slow and gradual. Lyell and Darwin and the other scientists of the day knew that there were catastrophic events that produced geological changes, but it’s the process that is the uniformity, as it were, from one time to another. The rate doesn’t have to be the same.”

Keep that quote handy. If you spend much time round Mount St. Helens, you’ll eventually run into flocks of creationists who love to misunderstand uniformitarianism. Their misunderstanding may be willful – but they’ll have a much harder time confusing innocent bystanders if you explain catastrophes (though not worldwide floods) are very much a part of genuine geology.

Handy, eh?

Dana Hunter About the Author: Dana Hunter is a science blogger, SF writer, and geology addict whose home away from SciAm is En Tequila Es Verdad. Follow her on Twitter: @dhunterauthor. Follow on Twitter @dhunterauthor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. M Tucker 2:41 pm 10/31/2012

    Dr Eugenie Scott is one of my heroes but actually the uniformitarianism / catastrophism debate is a bit more complicated and the resistance to catastrophic interpretations persisted into the 20th century. This was especially true if the catastrophic event was a massive flood. You ought to look into the depressing story of J Harlen Bretz and his interpretation of what are now called the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington State. Despite overwhelming evidence that Bretz had collected the US geologic community rejected and ridiculed his interpretation for 40 years. It was not until 1979, when Bretz was 96, that the GSA finally recognized his work and awarded him the Penrose Medal. His work made it much easier for later geologists to propose the catastrophic flooding events that washed down New York’s Hudson River Valley and to have their work evaluated on their merits without anti-catastrophism bias.

    For a nice little history of geology and creationism I enthusiastically recommend David R Montgomery’s book, The Rocks Don’t lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood. It is a very well written and entertaining look into the history of geology and how creationism persists despite the repeated debunking it has received over the past 170 years or so.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bill_Crofut 5:04 pm 10/31/2012

    Re: “Uniformitarianism, by the way, does not mean that everything that happened in geological history is slow and gradual. Lyell and Darwin and the other scientists of the day knew that there were catastrophic events that produced geological changes, but it’s the process that is the uniformity, as it were, from one time to another. The rate doesn’t have to be the same.”

    Does Dr. Scott explain the difference between the “process” and rate of uniformity?

    Link to this

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