(60) Climate Change

Theories of Geological Evolution: Catastrophism vs Uniformitarianism




Catastrophism is the general concept that the history of Earth has been profoundly affected by sudden violent events. In the Biblical creationist view, these sudden, violent events are typically viewed as supernatural in origin and are global events of great devastation. In the modern holistic view of Earth history, catastrophism is viewed as the concept that sudden, violent, but entirely explicable events have occurred in Earth’s past and may have had an effect upon the rock and fossil record of Earth. In this view, a catastrophe may have been, for instance, a colossal volcanic eruption, a comet or asteroid impact on Earth, the burst of a large glacial lake’s dam, or a very powerful earthquake.

Catastrophism stands in contrast to a long-standing but somewhat simplistic view of geology, that Earth processes were more nearly uniform and gradual over geologic time (uniformitarianism). Careful geological research in many subfields of geology over many decades has shown that geological history may be characterized by episodes of uniform and gradual conditions, which in turn are punctuated by episodes with relatively sudden, violent events. In other words, the notion of catastrophes in Earth history is a sound one, but the notion that Earth history is largely one of profound catastrophe is not correct.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Catastrophism as a point of view in geology was founded in the nineteenth century during a time when it was popular to invoke Biblical, supernatural explanations for geological features that were confounding to practitioners of the infant science of geology. One of the first generalizations coming out of catastrophism was the notion of a Biblical flood-related origin for such things as the separation of the continents, mass mortality in the fossil record, glacial erratic boulders and other features, and some aspects of inter-regionally distributed rock formations. Catastrophism was generally closely associated with a young-Earth viewpoint, specifically that Earth was not more than a few thousand years old.

Therefore, in order for the many features we see to exist, they must have all developed in a short time span, hence catastrophes as the key to understanding Earth history. With the advent of the view of deep time (or vast geological history), an opposing viewpoint called uniformitarianism emerged. In this contrary view, Earth history is gradual and changes are uniform with time. The view of uniformitarianism was intended more as a counterpoint to catastrophism but was taken quite literally for many decades. Today, both gradual and catastrophic origins of features and rock formations are embraced by geologists according to the interpretations of those features and rock formations warranted by the facts at hand. 

Catastrophism and the Fossil Record Some nineteenth-century palaeontologists (scientists who study fossils) who were also catastrophists thought that episodes of mass extinction of fossil groups showed evidence of supernatural catastrophes. Today, we understand that some fossil groups disappeared over relatively short intervals of geologic time, but in each instance, we can see evidence of readily explainable causes. Further, careful study shows that even the most seemingly instantaneous extinction event probably occurred over hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, thus showing that these apparent catastrophes were not so sudden. Over the evolutionary history of many fossil groups, it can be shown that the development of new species and the death of other ones is relatively sudden (but not instantaneous). This is called punctuated gradualism in evolution and is thought to be the result of rapid shifts in the fossil group’s environment.

Impacts and Issues

Modern catastrophism is held by many creationists and others who hold to what they consider to be a fundamentalist view of Earth history. For example, in the modern catastrophist view held by creationists, Earth history can be divided into pre-flood and post-flood epochs. All of Earth history is divided according to one catastrophic event. Modern catastrophists also hold to the young-Earth view that all of Earth history occurred in a few thousand years. In this sense, most of Earth’s history had to be sudden and violent, or Earth had to be formed as we know it without any significant evolutionary history. From a catastrophist point of view, the rapidity of modern climate change on Earth would be viewed as supporting evidence of interpreted climate changes in Earth’s past that may have been relatively rapid. That modern climate change is relatively rapid is a view that is not out of step with modern scientific understandings.

Words To Know

Epoch: Unit of geological time. From longest to shortest, the geological system of time units is aeon, era, period, epoch, and stage. Epochs are generally about 500 million years in length.

Geologic Time: The period of time extending from the formation of Earth to the present.

Uniformitarianism: Doctrine of geology promoted by English geologist Charles Lyell (1797–1895), asserting three assumptions: (1) actualism (uniform processes acting throughout Earth’s history), (2) gradualism (slow, uniform rate of change throughout Earth’s history), and (3) uniformity of state (Earth’s conditions have always varied around a single, steady state). Uniformitarianism is often contrasted to catastrophism. Modern geology makes use of elements of both views, acknowledging that change can be drastic or slow and that while some processes operate steadily over many millions of years, others (such as asteroid impacts) may happen rarely and cause catastrophic, sudden changes when they do.



Palmer, T. Catastrophism, Neocatastrophism and Evolution. Nottingham, UK: Nottingham Trent University, 1994.

Rudwick, M. J. S. The Meaning of Fossils. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Web Sites:

Baker, Victor. ‘‘Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism: Logical Roots and Current Relevance in Geology.’’ Geological Society of London, 1998. <http://sp.lyellcollection.org/cgi/content/abstract/143/1/171> (accessed March 12, 2018).


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