Catastrophism in the Ancient World


Scores of ancient myths and legends from all over the world abound in visions of great all-encompassing catastrophes. In the majority of the stories the destruction is effected through the agencies of fire and water and they have in common that, from the perspective of the teller of the tale, the destruction involves the whole world. The most prominent story of the Judeao/Christian/Muslim traditions involving a catastrophe of this scale is, of course, that of Noah and the great Deluge. This story has been taken literally by most adherents of the Bible throughout the centuries, and was generally assumed to be true by most scholars as late as the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. Many of the first students of Earth science were theologians who saw in the landscape around them verification of this epic event, men like William Buckland, Adam Sedgewick and William Whewell.  As geological scholarship became established during these decades, a great deal of empirical evidence actually seemed to support the conclusion that some type of great deluge had, in fact, taken place. This led many early geologists to believe that geology confirmed scriptural authority. Eventually, however, most of this evidence was construed to be the after effects of the great Ice Age, the reality of which had become scientifically accepted by the mid Nineteenth Century. And yet, continuing studies, undertaken by practitioners of the newly emergent discipline of geology, revealed a variety of features that actually seemed more consistent with the effects of large scale, cataclysmic flooding than strictly the work of glacial ice. A division of geological theory evolved that came to be known as Diluvialism, whose adherents advocated the idea, in a variety of forms, that there had occurred, in the recent geological past, a gigantic flood, or series of floods. Their conviction as to the veracity of this idea was based upon field evidence that they believed, with or without the support of scripture, testified to the reality of large scale cataclysmic flooding. As the glacial theory gained ascendancy and greater acceptance, the Diluvialists were increasingly consigned to the fringe, until eventually, as the 19th Century drew to a close, the Diluvialists, along with Catastrophists in general, were an extinct species, and so were ideas of catastrophe that were in any way connected with myth, legend, or religious traditions. Yet the idea continued to have its advocates throughout most of the 19th century. The Twentieth century saw the emergence of a new Diluvialism with the discovery of catastrophic floods of extraordinary size in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. This exceptional story will be addressed in considerable detail elsewhere in this website so I will not elaborate further in this article. Please see the article entitled The Great Ice Age Floods to begin, or broaden, your education as regards this profoundly important phenomenon.    

With the rise of scientific rationalism there also arose a philosophical conflict between two worldviews, one based, ostensibly, upon observation and reason, the other based upon religious tradition and scriptural doctrine. In the early stages the proponents of ecclesiastical dogma dominated the debate, primarily by having the power to enforce strict interpretations as to the meaning of ancient scriptural writings. Eventually, of course, science emerged victorious over unreason, but the power to impose belief by means of the sword had a lingering effect, and that was to prejudice the scientific mind against all association with Biblical belief. By the late 19th century the attitude developed that biblical accounts, as well as other traditions of ancient myth, were of little relevance to the scientific worldview. As the 20th century proceeded mythical and biblical themes became the focus of psychological science, with a recognized subjective reality, but their relevance was relegated to the interior domain of mind and emotion and not to any objective, experiential or historical reality.

One century later it is evident that the theme of great world destructions, in which mankind was dramatically affected, has it’s’ roots in actual, objective events that have transpired during the time of the human presence upon Earth. Documentation from numerous fields of study confirms that a variety of catastrophic events on a planetary scale have occurred during the several hundred millennia in which modern humankind has existed. It should not be unexpected that events pushing the human species to the brink of extinction, perhaps several times within the lifetime of our species, would leave an indelible imprint upon the collective unconscious. The tenacity of these stories to endure for countless generations as well as their universal distribution is a testament of their significance to the human psyche. That actual events may lie behind the epic stories handed down through scores of cultural traditions is a fact only recently acknowledged by science, and that view is by no means widely accepted at this point. A perspective involving global, catastrophic change has yet to be incorporated into a coherent, historical worldview. Under most contemporary paradigms, the demise of human civilization is attributed to intrinsic or internecine social factors, or to some vague idea of inbuilt cultural senescence, and not to any external agencies or forces of nature. This attitude, however, is beginning to change, as the limitations of a strictly uniformitarian worldview become more apparent and the reality of natural climate and environmental change becomes acknowledged, more especially that of events which are sudden and extreme. With this recognition of the reality of catastrophic events within the purview of Mankind, it sensibly follows that the early accounts, written and oral, are of immense value in any effort to develop a true and consistent account of the effects and consequences of such events upon the domain of Anthropos.    

While the Biblical account of the Deluge of Noah is the most well known in modern times, ancient legends and myths contain many accounts of one or more great catastrophic floods which devastated early mankind.  The Greeks told the story of Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, who like Noah, built an ark after being forewarned by Prometheus, the Titan, of the impending cataclysm. The Chaldeans spoke of Utna Pishtim, who also constructed an ark in which to preserve a variety of animal life after being warned by the benevolent god Ea (Enki) of the approaching deluge. Zisuthrus (or Ziusudra) was the Sumerian Noah, whose account preceded that of the Bible by at least 1,500 years. In the Accadian epic we learn of Atrahasis, who is forewarned of the coming flood by Enki, who also discloses the specifications for construction of an ark in which Mankind can be saved. Literally hundreds of stories of great devastating, world-destroying floods, originating from every virtually every corner of the inhabited world, have been preserved to one degree or another. The names of the survivors of these diluvial cataclysms are legion and they all share the common role of ancestor to the particular cultural group among whom the traditions are preserved. A few examples traditions of catastrophe should suffice to convey the spirit of the tales.

In "The Book of the Cow of Heaven," the ancient Egyptians relate the story of Hathor, who in her malevolent aspect as Sekhmet, at the instigation of the Sun god Ra, goes on a rampage against mankind, whom she destroys with arrows of fire. She is pictured as a fierce lioness and described as being capable of becoming as bright as the noonday sun; hence one of her titles is Lady of Flame. In one version of the tale she goes on a rampage and drowns the human race in blood.

Plato expounds upon the subject of Catastrophism in Timaeus and Critias, the two dialogues in which he recounts the rise, and demise, of the ancient island of Atlantis. In addition to attributing the destruction of Atlantis to a geological convulsion involving violent earthquakes, floods and extreme rains, he also relates Egyptian traditions concerning a multiplicity of ancient cataclysmic floods that decimated the ancestors of both the Egyptians and the Greeks. He also makes reference to the Greek myth of Phaëton, who drives the chariot of his father, the sun god, Apollo, too close to the Earth, igniting a great conflagration of things, until Jupiter hurls his mighty thunderbolt against the charioteer, causing him to fall headlong to Earth with his hair on fire. This myth has all the earmarks of the account of an encounter with a cosmic body, whose memory has been preserved and handed down through the vehicle of an epic tale, and indeed, Plato declares it to be so, stating that while it has the appearance of a myth, it really signifies the close encounter between Earth and one of the bodies moving in the heavens around the Earth, which recurs after long intervals of times. (See Timaeus) The Greeks believed, in general, that alternating catastrophes of flood and fire periodically destroyed the Earth. Two terms employed by them to signify such events were Kataklysmos, which referred to the destruction of the world by water, and Ekpyrosis, which referred to the destruction of the world by fire.

The Norse Eddas relate the story of Ragnarok and the Great War fought between gods and giants. Many elements of the story describe upheavals of nature involving earthquakes, stars falling from heaven, vast conflagrations, and sudden onset of prolonged darkness and cold, etc., all of which could plausibly be interpreted as resulting from natural catastrophes, which, based upon what we now know, are entirely possible within a larger framework of time.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah portrays scenes of extreme upheaval involving the shaking of Earth's foundations, the total decimation of cities and whole regions, the burning of mankind, the "breaking" of the Earth, and what even appears to be a reference to a pole shift. See for example Isaiah, 24th chapter.

According to the book of Matthew, also in the 24th chapter, Jesus is depicted speaking privately to the disciples as he sits on the Mount of Olives. He foretells of coming events in which great earthquakes will occur, the sun and moon shall be darkened and stars shall fall from heaven. He relates these events directly to the Noachite account of the Great Flood and implies parallel consequences due to man obliviousness to the signs of impending catastrophe. 

The climactic book of the New Testament − the Revelation of St. John, (Apocalupsis) is filled with descriptions of events that have all the character of cosmic impact events and great meteor showers. It is not at all implausible to assume that the authors of these works based their prophecies upon the expected reoccurrence of actual events whose memories were preserved within their sacred traditions. Nor is it unexpected that they should frame such accounts in moral terms. The Book of Revelation, which made it into the canonical New Testament, is only one of many similar written accounts from the early Christian era, such as The Armenian Apocalypse of Daniel, The Apocalypse of Zephania, the Pseudo- Johannine Apocalypse or the Syrian Apocalypse of Peter, each of which vividly describe a variety of world destroying events.

In the western hemisphere we find stories preserved by the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Incans, and in dozens of North and South American Native American tribal traditions, all describing repeated destructions of the Earth due to great floods, vast conflagrations, giant hurricanes, extreme climate changes and other terrible convulsions of nature.

Australian Aborigines and Polynesian Islanders tell tales that suggest prodigious tsunami- type events on a scale unheard of in modern times. The Maoris of New Zealand describe raging hurricanes of fire and so on. Such examples could be multiplied many times over.

So widespread are myths and epic tales of great floods and catastrophes that it is not unreasonable to assume that there is a considerable element of historical truth embedded within them. It is our belief that ancient traditions provide an immensely fertile field from which to glean greater scientific insight into very real events that have profoundly affected Mankind throughout the time of the human presence on Earth, and, perhaps more importantly, will augment our understanding of the potential for future catastrophe. In upcoming contributions to this website, primarily under the heading of ‘Geomythology” we will explore many of these ancient and time-honored stories of catastrophe more fully and elaborate upon their scientific corroboration.
Founders of Geological Science



Burnett ThumbThomas Burnett (1635 – 1715) English author and clergyman. Burnet wrote The Sacred Theory of the Earth, published in Latin in 1681 as Telluris theoria sacra, translated into English in 1684. In this work, in addition to presenting a comprehensive, but very speculative, theory for the origin of the Earth, Burnet attempts a rational explanation for the flood of Noah. In his scenario God engineers a cataclysm by causing the tilt of the Earth’s axis away from its original orientation perpendicular to the plane of orbit, to its present inclined orientation. Burnet describes the primordial Earth as a hot fiery ball that undergoes collapse upon cooling. The Sacred Theory of the Earth became a popular work resulting in multiple printings, as recently as 1965 the second English edition of 1691 was reprinted. This work, although mostly conjectural, was significant in that it constituted an effort to develop a coherent theory of Earth history. Burnet served as an inspiration to the subsequent generation of geological theorists who considered the problem of Earth formation from a variety of perspectives.


Hooke ThumbRobert Hooke (1635 – 1703) Hooke was an English physicist and member of the Royal Society, which body he served as Curator of Experiments. He performed work in the areas of optics, astronomical mechanics, meteorology, geometry and the elasticity of materials, enunciating the famous First Law of Elasticity. He delivered numerous public lectures on geological and paleontological topics and in 1705 a collection of his discourses was published. It bore the rather unwieldy title Lectures and discourses of earthquakes and subterraneous eruptions, explicating the causes of the rugged and uneven face of the Earth; and what reasons may be given for the frequent finding of shells and other sea and land petrified substances, scattered over the whole terrestrial superfices. After having made extensive observations of fossil bearing rock Hooke questioned whether Noah’s flood could have lasted long enough to produce the massively thick, sorted strata making up the sedimentary rock column. Hooke envisioned great earthquakes causing large dislocations of continents and oceans, which resulted in their changing place, and in the sudden up-thrusting of mountain ranges. To this cause he attributed the presence of marine fossils in continental rocks. He argued forcefully against the idea that fossils were mere sports of nature. Hooke could legitimately be included with the Catastrophists.


Steno ThumbNicolaus Steno (1638 – 1686) Born in Denmark, Steno was primarily a physician and theologian but had an avid interest in geology. His classic work published in 1669 ‘Prodromus’ undermined the prevailing conception of fossils as Lusus naturae or “sports of nature” by arguing that so-called ‘tonguestones’ were actually the teeth of ancient sharks that had become embedded in sedimentary rocks through settling out in muddy marine waters. Even though he believed the sedimentary rock column accumulated a layer at a time, he adhered to a Biblically based chronology in which he envisioned a universal ocean appearing at the second day of creation, followed by the flood of Noah some 1650 years later. These two diluvial events, he supposed, accounted for the deposition of the fossil bearing beds.


Woodward ThumbJohn Woodward (1665 –1728) A professor of Physics at Gresham college and member of the Royal Society. After extensive explorations of quarries, caves and coal mines Woodward was led to a belief in a vast flood which he associated with the Biblical deluge. To this flood he attributed, with certain exceptions in the plant and animal kingdoms, the dissolution of the whole surface of the globe. To the settling out of this solution he attributed the horizontal stratification of the rock column and the sorting of the various kinds of fossils.


Buffon ThumbComte de Buffon (1708 – 1788) Buffon was a famous French naturalist and a prominent figure of the Enlightenment who attempted a grand synthesis of knowledge in his most renowned work, the Histoire naturelle, général et particulière. The full publication of this work extended over a period of 50 years and through 44 quarto volumes. The objective of the work was to effect a systematic treatment of all branches of knowledge as regards the natural world—mineral, vegetable and animal. It was lavishly illustrated with many plates, which rendered it a highly prized work to collectors. A supplementary volume to the Histoire naturelle contained the most well-known of Buffon’s essays– Des Époques de la Nature, in which he proposed the inordinately long duration for the age of the Earth of 75,000 years, a time span well in excess of the prevailing view. In later, unpublished manuscripts Buffon proposed an age for the Earth of some 3 million years, a figure that he probably considered too extreme to expound upon publicly.

     In the Epochs of Nature Buffon envisioned the formation of the Earth and other planets as the result of a collision between a large comet and the sun. He describes an Earth that is initially molten, that subsequently shrinks upon cooling, thereby creating the mountains, valleys, plateaus, ore deposits and other features of the planet’s surface and subsurface. With further cooling, he envisioned a pluvial period in which almost the entire surface of the Earth becomes water covered. Volcanism is added to the mix. The effects of the interaction of all elements then produce the superficial rocks and materials of the Earth’s crust, including rocks resulting from living organisms.  Buffon’s view of the Biblical creation assumed that what are referred to as “days” in the first three chapters of Genesis are actually epochs of unspecified length and need not be interpreted literally.


Hutton ThumbJames Hutton (June 3, 1726 - 1797) Scottish geologist who penned Theory of the Earth in 1788 in the first volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  Even though it was not widely received at the time, the publication of this 1,100+ page work is generally acknowledged to signify the inception of geology as a systematic study of the Earth. Hutton was initially trained as a medical student and chemist but spent the large part of his early adult life as a farmer. This vocation allowed Hutton to come into contact with the world of nature. While undertaking assorted excursions around England studying agricultural practices, he developed a fondness for also studying the variety of landscapes he encountered.  Among Hutton’s interests were the effects of stream erosion in the creation of landscapes, unconformities in the sequences of stratigraphic deposition, the origin of granite and basalt, and cycles of deposition and deformation. He concluded that present day streams, if allowed to operate over time periods of sufficient duration, were capable of eroding the valleys in which they are flowing at present. Hutton envisioned an Earth undergoing processes of change that to all intents and purposes had, in his words “no vestige of a beginning,” and which could then, over time, level an entire continent without resort to catastrophes, or to processes unlike those that are seen in operation today. In that sense Hutton could be considered the first Uniformitarianist. 


Lyle ThumbCharles Lyell (1797 - 1875) British geologist born in Scotland, Charles Lyell authored one of the most influential geology texts in the history of the science. His Principles of Geology was first issued in 1830, with second editions appearing in 1831 and 1833. The subtitle of the work expresses the fundamental principle of what was later to be called Uniformitarianism—“being an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation.” Lyell was a staunch defender of the gradualistic creed and considered it unscientific to invoke causes not now seen in operation to explain geological processes of the past. As a student at Exeter College, Oxford, Lyell was first drawn to an interest in geology after attending lectures by William Buckland. He later passed the bar and became a practicing lawyer. This career was cut short by vision problems resulting from an eye inflammation while a student. However, having avidly pursued geology as an avocation he was able to make a successful career transition. He collaborated on research with both Roderick Murchison and William Whewell, with whom he would later have disagreements on the role of catastrophe in Earth history, as they continued to believe that events outside that of modern human experience had been an important factor in shaping the Earth as it is today. Much of Lyell’s thinking was derived from ideas of James Hutton. A corollary of the model of slow cumulative change resulting from existing causes was the necessity of a great age for the Earth. In consultation with William Whewell, Lyell contributed to the nomenclature of geology by naming the Eocene, Miocene and Pliocene Epochs. 



Catastrophism in the Early Days of Geology


The period of the Enlightenment (~ mid 17th – mid 18th Centuries), with its newly acquired appreciation for rationalism, was characterized by a growing interest in a scientific explanation of Earth history. By the early 1500’s, Girolamo Fracastoro had attributed the presence of fossils in rock to the preservation of real organisms that had once existed, as contrasted with prevailing beliefs that they were ‘sports’ of nature, or the handiwork of the devil, emplaced to test the faith of the believer. Girolamo admitted that at least some of the fossils may have been entombed in the rock as the result of Noah’s flood, at the time a widely accepted idea as to the origin of fossils, but he also recognized that the distribution of fossils across many strata of rock implied other agencies of preservation, acting over longer periods of time than the 5 months, or so, of the Biblical Deluge.

In the interval of time from Girolamo to the early 17th Century, there appeared works describing the assaying and smelting of metals, various works on mineralogy, the location and treatment of various ores, and other works, more practical than theoretical. Many alchemical treatises of the time described various operations related to the working of ores and metals. It was during this period that geomagnetism was first studied. Also, by the second half of the 16th Century there had appeared works illustrating a variety of fossils, such as De rerum fossilium, or On things dug up from the earth, by Konrad von Gesner. But, geology as a systematic, coherent discipline had not yet materialized. The discoveries related to the study of the Earth during this period were not as dramatic as those occurring in astronomy, physics or chemistry; however, this imbalance was to be rectified with the commencement of the 18th century. 

Until this time is was widely, but not unanimously, believed that the age of the Earth was no more than 5 or 6,000 years, this belief based upon Biblically derived chronological assumptions as to the duration of time since the creation of Adam. Throughout the 1700s ongoing interest and curiosity regarding the origin and formation of the earth, the formation of rock strata and the evidence of earlier life that certain types of rock displayed, all contributed to an evolving concept of the Earth and its history and an increasing amount of field observations and study. As a result of this accumulating body of observational evidence, the belief that the Earth was, in fact, much older than the accepted age derived from the conventional Biblical timescale, had become widely accepted. It was recognized that successive strata of rock were laid down on top of lower, pre-existing rock strata, and hence, the lower strata were older in age, while the higher the rock was in the strata pile, the younger its age. This became known as the principle of the superposition of strata. It was also becoming clear that the various kinds of rock, specifically sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous, represented a variety of depositional environments, and, that these environments had changed considerably over time.  It had been noted that the fossils contained within the successive strata had a definite order and distribution depending upon their position within the stratigraphic column. With the acceptance of this principle of faunal succession it became possible to begin a chronological correlation of a various exposed fossiliferous rocks in the British Isles and continental Europe. The conclusion forced itself upon those early students of geology that the age of the Earth had to be much greater than that authorized by the self-appointed Biblical exegetes who demanded a literal reading of scripture. Thus arose a conflict between the official, theological view, which attempted to impose a dogmatic strait-jacket upon the interpretation of ancient scriptural traditions as regards the age and formation of the Earth, and the empiricists who relied upon their own observations of nature in drawing their conclusions. As the 19th century proceeded, established religious beliefs lost their dominance over the intellectual life of man and it became possible to develop the idea of a very old Earth as demanded by the evidence of the rocks. At the present time the Earth’s age is accepted as 4.6 billion years, and, the systematic study and categorization of the stratigraphic column that began some three centuries ago is still continuing and has led to development of the system of rock classification universally employed by present day geologists, although with substantial advancement and refinement.

While the early forays into Earth history were doubtless prejudiced by a major reliance upon scripture for validation and interpretation, nonetheless, they contributed to a growing body of observations, debate and conjecture that laid the groundwork for the emergence of Geology as a valuable and important field of scientific inquiry in the late 19th Century. If there is an element of historical fact or validity to scriptural accounts it follows that the conceptual framework of early Catastrophism, likewise, contained an element of historical and scientific truth, which would have been overlooked by those who adhered to a strictly gradualistic point of view. At the present time there exists an overwhelming abundance of hard evidence from diverse fields of investigation that confirms the ongoing reality of large scale natural catastrophes and environmental changes, both before, and during the time of Man. The early catastrophists of two centuries ago, unencumbered by allegiance to prevailing academic dogmas, trusted the evidence of their senses, and acknowledged the reality of tremendous events outside the scope of historical experience. The advocates of this view persisted, although in declining numbers, throughout the 19th Century. By the commencement of the Twentieth Century the belief in great catastrophes was virtually defunct. Yet, there were a few who broke from the herd and came to believe in and accept the possibility of catastrophe playing a role in the history of the Earth. Their story shall be told here.

Since those early days, new knowledge of geological change within the time of Man suggests that many mythological accounts relate directly to, or were inspired by, memories of great natural upheavals involving climatic and environmental catastrophes, including floods and fires on a scale far exceeding any events of recent or modern history. Given the initial rejection by science, it is perhaps ironic that descriptions of great catastrophes appearing in both the Old and New Testaments, as well as other religious and mythical traditions, likely have a great deal of historical truth to them, albeit expressed in figurative, visionary or moralistic terms. 

To provide a context in which to place discussion of the early Catastrophists we offer a summary of some of the leading lights in the development of geological science in its formative stage and their contributions to the growing body of Earth knowledge. This will be followed by a summary of those whose work and ideas would qualify them as ‘Catastrophists,’ or alternately, ‘Diluvialists.’



Catastrophists in the Early Days of Geology



What follows is an inventory of early students of the Earth whose ideas on Catastrophism have proven to have some degree of credibility and modern relevance. The list is not intended to be comprehensive, or to cover every variant of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Catastrophism; rather it is to depict those whose work, in some capacity or another, has been vindicated by modern research. Georges Cuvier is usually considered to be the first catastrophist, going back to the 1790’s with his early work on fossils and his conclusion that extinction of species was sudden, involving violent revolutions of nature. However, it would not be inappropriate to begin our overview of historical Catastrophism with Edmund Halley and William Whiston, who, at the close of the 17th Century put forth ideas that have proven amazingly prescient in the context of the New Catastrophism.


HalleySir Edmund Halley (Nov. 8, 1656 – Jan. 14, 1742) Edmund Halley, who used Newton's laws of gravitation to compute the orbit of the comet that bears his name, and hence predicted its return, also speculated that encounters with comets played a role in Earth history. Like Whiston, he assumed Noah's flood to be historical authentic, and proposed a comet as being the instrument of causation. In a paper presented before the Royal Society in 1694 he describes his conception of the effects of the “choc” (shock) of a cometary impact on the Earth, "...I have proposed the casual choc of a Comet, or other transient Body, as an Expedient to change instantly the Poles and Diurnal Rotation of the Globe; at that Time only aiming to shew how the Axis of the Earth being chang'd would occasion the Sea to recede from those Parts toward which the Poles did approach, and to encrease upon and overflow those Parts wherefrom the Poles were departed...the great Agitation such a Choc must necessarily occasion in the Sea, sufficient to answer for all those strange Appearances of heaping vast Quantities of Earth and high Cliffs upon Beds of Shells, which once were the Bottom of the Sea; and raising up Mountains where none were before, mixing the Elements into such a Heap as the Poets describe the old Chaos...Such a Choc would also occasion a differing length of the Day and Year, and change the Axis of the Globe, according to the Obliquity of the Incidence of the Stroak, and the Direction thereof, in relation to the former Axis; That some such thing has happened may be guess'd, for that the Earth seems as if it were new made out of the Ruins of an old World, wherin appear such Animal Bodies as were before the Deluge...Such a Choc may have occasioned that vast Depression of the Caspian Sea, and other great Lakes in the World; and 'tis not unlikely, but that extream Cold felt in the North-West of America, about Hudson's Bay, may be occasioned by those Parts of the World having once been much more Northerly, or nearer the Pole than now they are...If this Speculation seem worthy to be cultivated, I shall not be wanting farther to insist on the Consequences thereof, and to shew how it may render a probable Account of the strange Catastrophe we may be sure has at least once happened to the Earth." (3)

With these remarks Halley speculates upon a variety of phenomenon, most of which could, in fact, result from the hypervelocity impact of large cosmic objects. He envisions a shifting of the Earth’s poles or axial alignment, and this could result if the object was large enough. However, it is unlikely that the impact of an object large enough to significantly alter the diurnal rotation of the planet could have occurred in the recent geological past. Perhaps some of the larger impact events, on the scale of the impacts that produced the Vredefort, or Sudbury, or Chicxulub craters, could have affected such an alteration, but that has not been demonstrated empirically at this point. But in any case Halley’s other remarks are right on target, in terms of what can now be accepted with certainty regarding Earth’s catastrophic history and the effects of hypervelocity impact. His misconception was in lumping the variety of phenomenon he describes into a single underlying event - the impact of a comet, and the resulting Deluge, and not recognizing that his list actually includes the after effects of numerous great catastrophes. At the present time, one who, along with Halley, considers the geological ‘state of the world’ in the light of the most recent research, must soon conclude that the Earth does indeed seem “as if it were new made out of the Ruins of an old World.” Halley clearly leaves open the possibility of multiple catastrophes, and, in fact, the more accurate understanding of the geological record amply demonstrates that there are ruins within ruins of former worlds.  


WhistonWilliam Whiston (Dec. 9, 1667 – Aug. 22, 1752 ) Whiston, along with Halley, would have to be ranked as one of the first scholars from the time of the Enlightenment to advocate cosmic encounters as an explanation for important events in Earth history. Born in England, he was a theologian, mathematician and historian.  Like many learned men of his era he was an adherent of the Mosaic account of creation and his scientific work was an attempt to interpret the newly emergent geological evidence within that framework. Despite his theological partiality, Whiston was one of the important scientific minds of his generation, occupying the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics chair at Cambridge from 1703, following as successor to Isaac Newton in that position.  His studies of non-canonical texts of early Christianity led him to embrace the Arian heresy, which led to his eventual expulsion from Cambridge in 1710. 

In 1696 Whiston published the first edition of his work "A New Theory of the Earth from its Origin to the Consummation of all Things...” culminating a twenty year consideration of geological processes, in which, among other things, he sought to explain the biblical creation and the Deluge of Noah in naturalistic terms. In this regard he made an important step by attempting to explain natural phenomenon outside the scope of modern experience, without recourse to the supernatural or the miraculous interposition of Deity. With the rise of scientific rationalism and the dominance geological uniformitarianism, Whiston's ideas became discredited, as were in fact any theories invoking catastrophic events as an agent of geological change, especially if they did so within a biblical framework.  An important component of Whiston's theory as set forth in his New Theory was that the Great Flood of Noah was unleashed by the proximal passage of a large comet, the vapors of the comet’s tail condensing as the great rain which poured itself upon the Earth. It could be suggested in retrospect that Whiston, as Stephen J. Gould put it, guessed right for the wrong reason. In the almost three centuries that have transpired since Whiston penned his controversial work, the idea that objects from space have played a dominant role in earth history has gained increasing credibility as the pace of discovery has accelerated. Writing in his New Theory Whiston foresaw the possibility of a major role for exogenic phenomenon in this, our world here below: "We know no other natural causes that can produce any great and general changes in our sublunary world, but such bodies as can approach to the earth, or, in other words, but comets". (Whiston, 1696a)  And, again, "we may observe a new possible cause of fast changes in the planetary world, by the access and approach of these vast hitherto little known bodies to any of the planets".  (Whiston, 1696b)


Cuvier PictureGeorges Cuvier (Aug. 23, 1769 – May 13, 1832) the ‘father of comparative anatomy’, and the acknowledged founder of palaeontology, Cuvier is considered a giant among early 19th century scientists. He came from a small, French speaking Protestant village in what is now Germany, from a family of modest but comfortable means. During the French Revolution the territory was annexed by France, which brought Cuvier under a new sphere of influence, however, he continued to identify more with the Protestant minority of his youth than the dominant Catholicism of the Parisian milieu in which he found himself in his late twenties. As a child Cuvier became enamored of the works of the Naturalist Buffon, meticulously drawing and coloring his own reproductions of the illustrations contained in those works. This stimulated an early enthrallment with natural history. He was strongly encouraged by his mother to pursue a rigorous education, and to that end he underwent thorough training in a broad array of subjects, with science and natural history having the greatest appeal.

Upon graduation Cuvier took a position as tutor to an aristocratic family with an estate in Normandy, France, to which region he soon emigrated. His tutoring obligations allowed him a fair measure of free time during which he pursued his growing interest in all things related to natural history, especially marine fauna and fossils, both through wide reading and through extensive field observations. His first apparent writing on the subject of geology was in the form of a letter written about 1789. In this letter he speculates, among other things, upon the formation of large valleys adjacent to the Normandy coast that he had studied. These valleys are deeply embedded into bedrock that is composed of alternating layers of unadulterated chalk and chalk with embedded flint. He notes the absence of modern water flow in many of these valleys, however, after consideration of several mechanisms for the formation of the valleys and finding them wanting, he concludes that water erosion was, in fact, the most likely agent. These observations, perhaps, mark the commencement of a nascent catastrophism in which diluvial events played a major part.

In the year 1795, after the worst excesses of the Terror had spent themselves, Cuvier relocated to Paris. His timing was propitious in that the ascendance of a more moderate political environment was conducive to scientific research and new leadership was attempting to repair some of the damage suffered by academic and scientific institutions under the more repressive measures of the revolutionary regime.  It was here that Cuvier launched an illustrious scientific career. After corresponding with another young and soon to be famous naturalist, Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, he secured an appointment to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) as an assistant to the professor of comparative anatomy. He was to remain affiliated with this institution for the rest of his life. His position at the Muséum gave him access to a vast collection of faunal and floral specimens, as well as to leading research, and researchers, in the sciences of natural history. Of these resources he availed himself assiduously.

In the same year, the post Revolutionary government, as a further effort to re-establish a semblance of rationality to French society, formed the Institut  National, which was to help effect a restoration of disbanded or suppressed institutions of science and learning by bringing together all of the disaffected parties. Cuvier was elected as the youngest member of this prestigious body. At the Muséum, Cuvier made extensive studies of both invertebrates and vertebrates. He read his first scientific paper at the opening of the Institut National in April of 1796. In this paper he addressed himself to a question that still compels our attention over 200 years later, namely, the extinction of mammoths and other large quadrupeds in an epoch immediately prior to the advent of the historical record. In this work, Cuvier first identifies the Indian and African elephants as distinct species and then contrasts their remains with those of the great elephant-like animals, discussed extensively by Buffon, whose remains are found underground in northern as well as southern climes. Cuvier conclusively demonstrated the modern and the ancient forms belonged to a related but separate species. It is his thoughts on the extinction of this extinct elephant that is germane to our inquiry here, and so we will let Cuvier speak for himself, in a 1997 translation by historian Martin Rudwick:


“Everyone knows that bones of enormous animals are found underground in Siberia, Germany, France, Canada, and even Peru, and that they cannot have belonged to any of the species that live today in those climates. The bones that are found, for example, throughout the north of Europe, Asia, and America resemble those of elephants so closely in form, and in the texture of the ivory of which their tusks are made…Other bones have appeared to be those of rhinoceros, and they are indeed very similar: yet today there are elephants and rhinoceros only in the tropical zone of the Old World. How is it that their carcasses are found in such great numbers in the north of both continents?”  [Rudwick, 1997, p. 21]


“All these facts, consistent among themselves, and not opposed by any report, seem to me to prove the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe. But what was this primitive earth? What was this nature that was not subject to man’s dominion? And what revolution was able to wipe it out, to the point of leaving no trace of it except some half-decomposed bones?”  [Rudwick, 1997, p.24]


We can see from Cuvier’s remarks that even by the age of 26 he had come to believe that the fossil evidence pointed to the occurrence of a profound revolution in the established order of nature, and one that was global in scope. In October of 1798 Cuvier read another paper at a public session of the Institute.


“There is no longer anyone who does not know that the earth we inhabit shows everywhere clear traces of large and violent revolutions; but it has not yet been possible to unravel the history of these upheavals….The bones of quadrupeds found in the interior of the beds that form our continents are one of the most remarkable results of these revolutions. The thorough investigation of them that has been made in recent times has shown that they almost always come from animal’s alien to the climate in which they are found, or even from animals entirely unknown today.”  P. 35


In yet another paper in the year 1800 he writes:


“Everyone now knows that the globe we live on displays almost everywhere the indisputable traces of vast revolutions: the varied products of living nature that embellish its surface are just covering debris that bears witness to the destruction of an earlier nature.” Rudwick, p. 44


Two years later he published his first major work on Palaeontology and over the next decade produced a veritable deluge of papers dealing with fossils, anatomy, descriptions of extinct and living species, and a variety of geological topics.


Humboldt PictureAlexander von Humboldt (Sept. 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859). A towering figure in the annals of science and exploration in the early 19th century, Humboldt was considered to be one of the principle founders of modern geography. His researches included such areas as geomagnetism, ocean currents, volcanoes and fault lines. He explored South America for five years beginning in 1799, was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society and was a friend of Thomas Jefferson. He wrote a history of medieval geography and authored 34 volumes of travel journals. Geological and paleontological evidence observed by him during his explorations of South America led him to believe in the reality of pervasive catastrophes.


Buckland PictureRev William Buckland (Mar 12, 1784 – Aug. 14, 1856) Born in Devonshire, England, Buckland made the first systematic geological examination of Great Britain. He was an ordained Anglican priest, a fellow of the Royal society, and occupied the first geological chair at Oxford. He served as president of the Geological Society of London from 1824 to 1826 and from 1839 to 1841. Buckland was a much-admired lecturer and promoter of geology. He believed that the biblical chronology should not be taken literally, that what the Bible refers to as “days” were actually long periods of time. Of particular relevance to the study of Catastrophism is Buckland’s first work, published in 1823, duly titled Reliquiae Diluvianae; or Observations on the Organic Remains contained in Caves, Fissures and Diluvial Gravel, and on other geological phenomena attesting the action of a Universal Deluge.


“Now when it is recollected that the field of the Geologist’s inquiry is the Globe itself, that it is his study to decipher the monuments of the mighty revolutions and convulsions it has suffered, convulsions of which the most terrible catastrophes presented by the actual state of things . . . afford only a faint image . . . these surely will be admitted to be objects of sufficient magnitude and grandeur, to create an adequate interest to engage us in their investigation.”  Vindiciae Geologicae pp. 4-5


“Again, the grand fact of an universal deluge at no very remote period is proved on grounds so decisive and incontrovertible, that, had we never heard of such an event from Scripture, or any other authority, Geology of itself must have called in the assistance of some such catastrophe, to explain the phenomenon of diluvian action which are universally presented to us, and which are unintelligible without recourse to a deluge exerting its ravages at a period not more ancient than that announced in the Book of Genesis.”  Vindiciae Geologicae pp 23-24


Sedgewick PictureRev Adam Sedgewick (Mar. 22, 1785 – Jan. 27, 1873) English pioneer geologist.  The Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge, he served as president of the Geological Society of London from 1829 to 1831. He was a popular and compelling geological lecturer who encouraged women to get involved in the science. He was the co- discoverer, with Roderick Murchison, of the Devonian period after studying rocks near Devonshire, England that contained a distinct fossil assemblage from the rocks above which had previously been studied and given the name Carboniferous.  Controversy erupted between Sedgwick and Murchison over the most appropriate attribution of the stratigraphic sequence of rock units below the Devonian system, with some rocks being identified with the Cambrian by Sedgewick and some with the Silurian by Murchison. Eventually, after the deaths of the two adversaries, the Scot, Charles Lapworth, introduced a new rock sequence between the Cambrian and Silurian. He named it the Ordovician, after an ancient tribe of Wales. This inclusion resolved the controversy.

Charles Darwin became a student of Sedgewick and the two became friends, spending time together in the field prior to Darwin’s’ famous voyage on the HMS Beagle. However, Sedgwick was distressed over Darwin’s Origin of Species, as he felt that it eliminated any recognition of a higher moral power or a guiding force directing the course of evolutionary development.  Initially, Sedgewick was a ‘diluvialist’ in that he interpreted certain geological features, primarily the ‘drift’ deposits scattered so widely over northern Europe, as a relic of Noah’s flood. However, as evidence over the years accumulated he modified his position, even to the point of issuing a recantation at his final presidential address to the Geological Society in 1831. In this recantation, however, he did not repudiate the fact of catastrophes in Earth history; rather he denied that all of the phenomena previously attributed to Noah’s flood were the result of only a single event. At this stage of his thinking he realized that there had been multiple events that had left their mark upon the Earth’s surface.


Murchison PictureRoderick I. Murchison (Feb. 19, 1792 – Oct. 22, 1871) Leading Scottish geologist and stratigrapher who made important contributions to British geology, particularly regarding Paleozoic successions. He was descended from an old Highland Clan and has been referred to as one of the last of the wealthy gentlemen geologists. Studying stratigraphic relations on the English/Welsh border in 1831 led to the establishment of the Silurian system, which he named, with its unique assemblage of fossils. He also named the Permian period and co-named the Devonian period with Adam Sedgwick.

Murchison’s father gained a fortune in India while still in his prime. Upon returning to Scotland he married and settled on an estate in the Highlands where Roderick was born. At the age of 13 Roderick was sent to military college to prepare for a career in the Army. In 1807, at the age of 15 he was made an Ensign in the 36th Regiment. When only 16 years of age he found himself sent off to the Napoleonic Wars in Spain. He spent a total of 8 years in the army and saw action at a number of significant battles. Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo provided the opportunity to leave the army. He married and spent the next two years in Italy where, with inspiration from his wife, his interests began to turn to matters of antiquity.

Upon returning to England Murchison purchased an estate and settled into a life of an English country gentleman:  riding, shooting and fox hunting. Meeting the famous English chemist and physicist, Sir Humphrey Davy, who was also one of the co-founders of the Geological Society of London, Murchison was encouraged to take an interest in matters of science and soon became so dedicated to the pursuit of geological knowledge that it became his life’s work. In this endeavor he was also inspired and influenced by his wife who was keenly interested in matters of natural history. He soon began attending lectures and became an active member of the Geological Society of London where he made the acquaintance of William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick and Charles Lyell among others. Accompanied by his wife, he began making extensive explorations around the south of England examining the rock strata. In 1825, at the age of 32, he read his first paper to the Geological Society on the rocks of Sussex and Surrey. In 1830 he helped to co-found the Royal Geographical Society and served as its president on four separate occasions. As the 1830’s progressed Murchison rose to prominence in the field of geology, engaging in extensive field explorations and publishing important papers on the geology of the British Isles, the Alps, and on the Ural Mountains of Russia. His prestige as a scientist was such that he was knighted in 1846. In his later years he received widespread recognition and honors for his contributions to geology and geography from numerous scientific institutions.

As the close of his final term as president of the Royal Geographic Society drew near he delivered his final address at the Anniversary Meeting on the 24th of May, 1869.  The following remarks clearly articulate his view of geological change after some 50 years of active geological study and reflection and his reaction to the rising dominance of Uniformitarian dogma.  (Murchison, 1869)


“Certain writers of eminence, indeed, who strive hard to account for all the diversities in the outlines of the earth by causes of no greater intensity than those which prevail at the present day, maintain that, if time enough only be granted, the seas and rivers, now actually flowing, combined with atmospheric influences, may have done all the necessary work of abrasion…. These authors opine that the long-continued action of water, as we now see it act, whether by seas or rivers, would account for the sweeping away of all debris from rocks which are now bare and smooth … I will offer some…reasons for dissenting from this view.


“My hearers who may be inclined to believe that, if a sufficient lapse of time be granted, much of the result may be explained by the gradual erosion of ages, will be pleased to recollect that the enormous depressions and denudations I am alluding to have been formed, as I have shown, since the great quadrupeds, now extinct, travelled over all these lands, and before they were broken up and disunited, and therefore these great solutions of continuity occurred in what may be considered one of the last units in geological time. This reflection, coupled with manifold proofs of rupture, as contrasted with long erosion, seem to me to lead irresistibly to the conclusion that, no long before, and possibly even after the creation of the human species, there took place some of those greatest disruptions of the crust of the globe of which its surface presents innumerable physical records.”


“In short, it is quite conceivable that the renewal of any one of the great upheavals of former periods would not only sweep away most of the inhabitants of our continents, but would deepen our valleys by laying bare the rocks, which are now covered with various loose deposits, and all this without involving that long lapse of time which, with some modern writers, is the sole specific employed to account for and explain away all former changes of the surface of the globe.”


“I am equally convinced, from the nature of the contortions, fractures, and dislocations of the crust of the earth, that these must have been accompanied by diluvial and transporting waves of incomparably greater power of translation, and consequently of denudation, than any force which man has ever witnessed.”


Roderick Murchison has a large lunar crater named after him.


Whewell PictureRev William Whewell (May 24, 1794 – Mar. 6, 1866) Anglican priest, theologian, geologist and scientific polymath. Born in Lancaster, England, the son of a carpenter, Whewell early excelled at mathematics.  He served as president of the Geological Society of London from 1837 to 1839 and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. The origin of the terms “scientist” and “physicist” are attributed to Whewell as well as two terms that factor significantly into the subjects under discussion in this venue, that is “catastrophism” and “uniformitarianism.” Whewell mounted an effective refutation of the strict gradualism of Charles Lyell, presenting arguments that still hold true today.


“In reality when we speak of the uniformity of nature, are we not obliged to use the term in a very large sense, in order to make the doctrine at all tenable? It includes catastrophes and convulsions of a very extensive and intense kind, what is the limit to the violence which we must allow to these changes? In order to enable ourselves to represent geological causes as operating with uniform energy through all time, we must measure our time by long cycles, in which repose and violence alternate…Why must we insist upon it, that man has been long enough an observer to obtain the average of forces which are changing through immeasurable time?” (Whewell, 1837)

    “But when Mr. Lyell goes further, and considers it a merit in a course of geological    speculation that it rejects any difference between the intensity of existing and of past causes, we conceive that he errs no less than those whom he censures…The effects must themselves teach us the nature and intensity of the causes which have operated; and we are in danger of error, if we seek for slow and shun violent agencies further than the facts naturally direct us, no less than if we were parsimonious of time and prodigal of violence. Time, inexhaustible and ever accumulating his efficacy, can undoubtedly do much for the theorist in geology; but Force, whose limits we cannot measure, and whose nature we cannot fathom, is also a power never to be slighted: and to call in the one to protect us from the other, is equally presumptuous…”  (Whewell, 1837)



D'Orbingy PictureAlcide D’Orbigny (Sept. 6, 1802 – June 30, 1857) Versatile French naturalist who made significant contributions to the fields of geology, anthropology, archaeology, zoology and paleontology. Cuvier was a major influence on his thinking. D’Orbigny made extensive explorations of South America between the years 1826 and 1833 that he describes in his monumental Voyage dans l’Amerique Meridionale, published between 1834 and 1847 in the form of 90 fascicules. These were usually bound together either in 7 or 11 volumes. His travels took him to Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, returning to France with some 10,000 varied natural history specimens. As a result of his explorations D’Orbigny has frequently been compared to Von Humboldt.  Elaborating upon Cuvier’s’ ideas he proposed that life had undergone 27 major extinction episodes as a consequence of vast natural catastrophes.

Like Darwin before him in South America, D’Orbigny has occasion to witness vast deposits containing the remains of numerous extinct animals. He comments:


“It would seem that one cause destroyed the terrestrial animals of South America, and that this cause is to be found in great dislocations of the ground caused by the upheaval of the Cordilleras. If not, it is difficult to conceive on the one hand the sudden and fortuitous destruction of the great animals which inhabited the American continents, and on the other the vast deposit of Pampan mud.”  Quoted in Howorth, p. 352



Hall PictureJames Hall (Sept. 12, 1811 – Aug. 7, 1898) an eminent American geologist and paleontologist who made significant advances in the science of stratigraphy. (Not to be confused with Sir James Hall, the Scottish geologist.)  Hall was one of the founding members of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the founders of the Geological Society of America in 1888, as well as serving as its first president. He established a laboratory in Albany, New York that provided an important geological and paleontological training center.


Prestwich PictureJoseph Prestwich   (Mar. 12, 1812 - June 23, 1896) Celebrated British geologist, author and successful business man who was considered a leading expert on the Tertiary period. Served as president of the Geological Society of London from 1870 – 1872. He was born in the south of London, educated in Paris and University College, London, where he received his first exposure to mineralogy and geology. He entered the family wine business when about 18 years of age. This required him to travel about the United Kingdom, France and Belgium. These travels, and the natural environment to which they exposed him, led to his growing interest in geology and natural history. Joining the Geological Society in 1833 accelerated his learning and he published his first geological paper three years later on the subject of coal deposits. From 1846 through 1857 he made extensive studies of Eocene strata around London. The essays he penned on this subject were so highly regarded that they led to his reception of the Wollaston Medal, the Geological Societies’ highest honor.  From about the year 1858 on he became interested in the question of the antiquity of man. One question in particular drew his attention, and that was the status of early man during the late Pleistocene. A number of reports had emerged pointing to an association of human produced flint implements with extinct mega mammals in late Pleistocene gravels. This would have placed the age of humankind much earlier than was accepted by most scholars of the time. With colleagues Dr. Hugh Falconer and Sir John Evans he made investigations in the Somme river valley of northern France as well as in England. These investigations led him to believe that humans were, in fact, contemporaneous with the great extinct mammals of the ice age. Two papers regarding this question were published in 1861 and in 1864, which led in 1865 to his reception of the Royal Medal, by the Royal Society. He was married in 1870, when some 58 years of age, to Grace Anne McCall, the niece of Hugh Falconer. Like Murchison’s wife, she ably assisted her husband in his research, and authored a number of popular works on geology. Retiring from business in 1872 Prestwich devoted himself full time to his geological and natural history studies. In 1874 he took the geology chair at Oxford University and served a professorship for the next 13 years. Finally retiring to his country house in Kent he devoted himself to further studies of the artifacts of early man and their relation to their enclosing ‘rubble-drift’ deposits as well as to the occurrence of ancient raised beaches along the southern coast of England. He was knighted in 1896, the same year in which he died, at the age of 84.

One can easily discern the catastrophism evident in his writings


“The seemingly confused accumulations of superficial debris, lying on the surface of the land without apparent order or stratification, led the early geologists to conclude that they were all due to the transient action of water and had a common origin, but the explanation wanted the necessary geological data and definition. Subsequent research has introduced order, and discovered agencies adequate to the explanation of most of the phenomena…Nevertheless a residue, which supports to a certain extent the contention of the early geologists, remains, and which, as I have already explained, cannot be placed to the account of any of these agencies. It is to the various forms that this residue assumes that I have applied the general term of “Rubble-drift.”….I am well aware that several objections, more or less formidable, may be raised to the hypothesis which I have suggested to account for the origin of this drift…Those who hold uniformitarian views will object to the want of known precedents and to the exceptional character of the agency proposed. In this difficulty I cannot share. I must repeat what I have long contended for, that it is impossible to suppose that our very limited experience—say of 2000 years—could furnish us with standards applicable to the comparatively illimitable past…While admitting the permanence of the laws of Nature, it is impossible, under the conditions through which this globe has passed, to suppose that at all former periods the effects, which have resulted from the operation of those laws, though equal in kind, were equal in degree.”  (Prestwich, 1894, p. 980)


Alfred Tylor   (1824 - 1884) Alfred Tylor came from a family of Quakers who operated a brass foundry, receiving his education in Quaker schools. At the age of fifteen, with the passing of his father, Tylor was required to take over running the family business. Through his vocation he acquired an impressive knowledge of metallurgy. He made extensive studies of gravel deposits spread over the hills and valleys of the British Isles and Europe as well as investigating the deposits found in caves and fissures. He also studied the formation of deltas on the southern coast of England. He proposed the idea of a ‘pluvial period’ at the close of the glacial age in which vast amounts of rain fell, causing major amounts of erosion and deposition. To this cause he attributed the final shaping of Earth’s landscape to the condition in which we now find it. Describing this pluvial period and its after effects in an 1875 paper for Geological Magazine he states

“many of the Quaternary deposits in all countries clearly posterior to the formation of the valleys in which they lie, are of such great dimensions and elevation that they must have been formed under physical conditions very different from our own. They indicate a Pluvial period, just as clearly as the northern drift indicates a Glacial period. This Pluvial period must have immediately preceded the true Historical period.”

He leaves no doubt that he is not to be locked into a rigid uniformitarianism that only permits forces such as are to be seen operating at present.

“I hope to show that rivers and lakes now occupy valleys and hollows formed when the physical and atmospheric conditions of our island were very different from those it now presents.”


Donnelly PictureIgnatius Donnelly (Nov. 3, 1831 – Jan. 1, 1901) Republican Congressman from Minnesota whose principal claim to fame is two books he authored on the subject of Atlantis. In Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, he advances the idea that comet impacts have played a major role in Earth history and calls upon a comet strike to explain the sinking of Atlantis. Whatever one’s’ opinions are on the subject of Atlantis, and there are many, or on the more extreme views articulated by Donnelly, it should be noted that his ideas of cometary initiation of global catastrophes were quite prescient for their time.


Wright PictureGeorge Frederick Wright (Jan. 22, 1838 – April 20, 1921) Following in the tradition of Buckland, Sedgwick and Whewell, Wright seems to have been the last of the breed of 19th century theologically trained geologists, or geologically trained theologians, as the case may be, who espoused a form of catastrophism.


Sir Henry Howarth (July 1, 1842 - 1923) Howarth was probably the most outspoken catastrophist of the late 19th Century and a suitable candidate to conclude this brief account of the most prominent proponents of a pre Twentieth Century belief in catastrophes.


“We must not measure the former revolutions of the earth by the short term covered by human experience, but look out into the void where myriads of worlds are developing, and we shall then see that what we call catastrophe is a part of Nature’s law.”  TM&TF p. xvi



In conclusion, it could be said that later historians of geology were unfair in their supposition that early catastrophist geologists were calling exclusively upon supernatural causes to explain the natural history of the Earth, with the primary motive of justifying scripture. Most of them were, in fact, empiricists, who drew their conclusions from extensive observations in the field. In their minds the existence of the scriptural account was additional confirmation of what they had concluded independently from these observations; the  Modern reductionist minded Uniformitarians have gotten it backwards― it is not that the scriptural and biblical authorities validate the evidence for great catastrophes and diluvial events in Earth history, but that the geological record validates the scripture, which, if one examines without prejudice, can be read as an allegorical record of great catastrophes within the historical or pre-historical experience of man. And, in this capacity they parallel numerous religious and mythical traditions from all over the world. The fact that the archetypes of sacred history assume a moral dimension in no way mitigates their historical veracity. The ark of Noah is both allegorical, that is symbolical, as well as actual. Given that gigantic floods have, with absolute certainty, occurred within the historical experience of humankind, and given that, with near equal certainty, large numbers of humans perished in these diluvial catastrophes, there is nothing at all fanciful in asserting that some humans may have survived these floods in boats, or that some of these boats themselves, may have been of prodigious size. After all, we can see that ancient and prehistoric humans were fully capable of mega-scale engineering and constructional feats, as well as, apparently fully capable of global navigation (which of course seems to be a controversial idea to mainstream academia.) This implies the next question that begs to be asked―Was it possible that some individuals did, in fact, have foreknowledge of impending disasters? That question, however, we will not attempt to answer at the present time.  

Is it reasonable to suppose that the belief in great catastrophes in Earth history by early geologists was solely the result of a superstitious reliance upon the scriptural account, to the rejection of the actual evidence of the field? With the rise of glacial theory under the advocacy of Louis Agassiz, it became possible for uniformitarian minded geologists to assume that much, if not all, of the field evidence being interpreted by the Catastrophists as favoring great upheaval, was, in fact, solely the after effect of glacial processes. It did not seem to matter that Agassiz himself was a staunch catastrophist ― or that any sober minded consideration of the effects of an ice age must lead to the conclusion that such an event would be profoundly catastrophic, not only in the immediate vicinity of the ice sheets, which swallow up millions of square miles of the Earth’s surface, but throughout the entire global climate, which must, of necessity, undergo extreme changes to support and maintain vast ice fields thousands of feet thick, in areas where only a few thousand years previously no ice existed. And, conversely, all evidence now in hand points inexorably to the conclusion, that the transition back out of the depths of a glacial age, such as occurred at the close of the Pleistocene epoch, when some five or six million cubic miles, or more, of glacial ice were converted to water and transferred back to the ocean basins, over a time span, as we now know, of only a few thousand years, was more catastrophic still. In some respects, it could be said, those early 19th Century geologists, by their aknowledgement of the role of catastrophe in Earth history, had a more accurate conception of the true state of affairs, at least in terms of the big picture, than did their counterparts a century later as a result of their strict adherence to Uniformitarian dogma.





Albritton, Claude C. Jr. (1986) The Abyss of Time: Changing Conceptions of the Earth’s Antiquity after the Sixteenth Century: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc. Los Angeles. Dist. By St. Martins Press.  251 pp.


Albritton, Claude C. Jr. (1989) Catastrophic Episodes in Earth History. Chapman and Hall, London & New York. 221 pp.


Buckland, W. (1820) Vindiciae geologicae: Or the connexion of geology with religion explained, in an inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Oxford, May 15, 1819, on the endowment of a Readership in Geology by his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, Quoted in Huggett, p.  pub. For the author by the University Press, Oxford.


Gillispie, Charles Coulston (1951) Genesis and Geology: Harper Torchbooks (1959 ed.) Originally published as Volume LVIII of the Harvard Historical Studies.   306 pp.


Huggett, Richard (1989) Cataclysms and Earth History: The Development of Diluvialism: Clarendon Press, Oxford.  219 pp.


Murchison, Roderick I. (1869) Address of the President: The Former and Present Physical Changes of the Surface of the Earth Compared: Journal of the Royal Geographic Society, 1869, vol. 39, pp. 135 – 194


Palmer, Trevor (1999) Controversy: Castastrophism and Evolution – The Ongoing Debate: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York


Prestwich, Joseph (1895) Collected Papers on some Controverted Questions of Geology: London, Macmillan and Co.  279 pp.


Prestwich, Joseph (1894) On the Evidences of a Submergence of Western Europe, and of the Mediterranean Coasts, at the close of the Glacial or so-called Post-glacial Period, and immediately preceding the Neolithic or Recent Period: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 184, pp. 903 - 984


Prestwich, Joseph (1895) On Certain Phenomena belonging to the Close of the Glacial Period and on their Bearing upon the Tradition of the Flood: Macmillan and Company, London


Rudwick, Martin J. S. (1997) Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes – New Translations and Interpretations of the Primary Texts:  The University of Chicago Press.  301 pp.


Sedgwick, Adam (1825) Annals of Philosophy, new series 10, 34 Quoted in Hallam, A. 1989 Great Geological Controversies, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press. New York


Sedgewick, Adam (1831) Anniversary Address of the President, 1831, Proceedings of the Geological Society of London. Vol. 1,  pp. 281 – 316


Tylor, Alfred (1872a) On the Formation of Deltas: and on the Evidence and Cause of Great Changes in the Sea-Level During the Glacial Period, pt.1: Geological Magazine, vol. 9, No. XCIX (Sept.)  pp. 392 - 399


Tylor, Alfred (1872b) On the Formation of Deltas: and on the Evidence and Cause of Great Changes in Sea-Level During the Glacial Period, pt. 2: Geological Magazine, vol.9, No. C (Nov.)  pp. 485 – 501


Alfred Tylor (1875) On the Action and Formation of Rivers, Lakes, and Streams, with Remarks on Denudation and the Causes of the Great Changes of Climate Which Occurred just Prior to the Historical Period: Geological Magazine, vol. II, pp. 437 - 476


Whewell, William (1837) History of the Inductive Sciences from the Earliest to the Present Time, Vol. 2, Parker, London, p. 120. Quoted in Palmer (1999) Also reprinted in Philosophy of Geohistory: 1785 – 1970, ed. By Claude C. Albritton, Jr. as part of the Benchmark Papers in Geology series; Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, Inc. Stroudsburg, Penn. 


Whiston, William (1696a) A new theory of the Earth: quoted in Gould, Stephen J. (1987) The Godfather of Disaster: Natural History, Vol. 96, pp. 20-29


Whiston, William (1696b) A new theory of the Earth: quoted in Huggett, Richard (1989) Cataclysms and Earth History, Clarendon Press, Oxford  p. 47


Ager, Derek (1993) The New Catastrophism


Perilous Planet Earth: Catastrophes and Catastrophism through the Ages (2003) Trevor Palmer. Cambridge University Press.