catastrophism

Article

May 17, 2022

In the context of astronomy, geology and paleontology, catastrophism represents a scientific paradigm that assumes the paramount importance of catastrophic events for the history of our solar system, the earth and the development (evolution) of living beings. The term catastrophism was coined in 1832 by the British philosopher and scientist William Whewell (1794-1866) as a counter-concept to uniformitarianism (German: actualism). In the history of modern science, catastrophism has not been able to assert itself against actualism and is today marginalized compared to the scientific mainstream with regard to theories on the causes of the evolution of the living world. However, the catastrophic and actualistic viewpoints are no longer mutually exclusive, but complement each other, since, according to the current state of research, global mass extinctions have occurred several times in the course of evolutionary history. Like actualism, catastrophism sees itself as a secular paradigm that does not recognize any divine influence on history, but instead relies solely on natural (and scientifically investigable) causes as an explanatory model. As a secular paradigm, catastrophism should therefore be distinguished in terms of its self-understanding from the creationism of Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalists, which is based on a literal, non-metaphorical interpretation of relevant creation reports. In terms of history, however, there are important similarities between creationism and catastrophism: In a way, catastrophism tries to correct the notion of the enormous length of geological and astronomical time. In contrast to classical actualism (or rather: gradualism), the catastrophic view of nature assumes one-off and irreversible events that can pass very quickly and still bring about large and lasting changes. Since the middle of the 20th century, catastrophism has also enjoyed increased popularity among supporters of religiously motivated creationism and pseudo-scientific chronology criticism, which, however, have moved far away from the original scientific approaches to catastrophism. Occasionally even the constancy and universality of the laws of nature is doubted (see exceptionalism).

Catastrophism in Science

Geology and Paleontology

The French naturalist Georges de Cuvier (1769-1832) is considered the founder of catastrophism with his cataclysm theory. Cuvier assumed that at the end of individual geological epochs all animals and plants in a certain area were destroyed by huge natural disasters (“revolutions”). Like most of his contemporaries, he had in mind great floods, since his geognostic studies of the Paris Basin made him aware of various geological strata, some composed of limnic and others of marine sediments, with corresponding fossils attesting to Mesozoic marine transgressions . Unlike his predecessors, such as the English physics professor John Woodward (1665–1728) and the Swiss naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733), Cuvier believed that the biblical deluge was preceded by many earlier upheavals. The versatile English naturalist Robert Hooke (1635–1703) had already been able to prove that the thick layers of fossils deposited in the overburden could not have been deposited within a single flood that lasted only 150 days. In order to explain the marked changes in the fossil record of the rocks observed everywhere, Cu