“So let us stop talkin’ falsely now, the hour’s getting late” –Bob
I concluded Part One of this series on the early Catastrophists with Georges Cuvier, one of the preeminent scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It would be valuable to subject his work to further consideration.
To recap from my previous post: Cuvier is generally credited with being the father of paleontology and was one of the first scientists to develop ideas of comparative anatomy and extinction of species. In this regard he compared bones and fossils of various ancient species that were obviously different from any living ones. Among examples heobserved were fossils and bones of elephants found in the vicinity of Paris that were unlike those of modern African or Indian elephants. His studies were also influenced by ancient accounts in Greek and Latin of the finding of giant bones around the Mediterranean region. Cuvier collected specimens of extinct species from the Americas, some of which had been provided to him by Thomas Jefferson and others by Native Americans. He was especially intrigued by their accounts of huge bones, tusks, and teeth that they believed were remnants of great beasts destroyed in an ancient catastrophe.
After years of study and reflection upon the vast number of extinct species preserved in the fossil record, Cuvier was led to remark that:
“All of these facts, consistent among themselves, and not opposed by any report, seem to prove the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe.”
Cuvier was impressed by the enormous quantities of shells found at high elevations, even in mountains, and was led to conclude that
“It has often happened that lands left dry by the retiring of the waters have been again overflowed by that element, whether they have been cast down, or the waters have only flowed over them . . .”
Indeed, the title of his 1831 opus was “Discourse on the upheavals of the surface of the globe.” On page 10 of his Discourse, Cuvier makes it clear that the upheavals to which he refers were not gradual affairs.
“. . . it is of great importance to note that these repeated irruptions and retreats have not all been gradual, not all uniform; on the contrary, the greater portion of these catastrophes have been sudden; and that is easily proved by the last of these events, that which by a twofold action inundated, and then left dry, our present continent. . .”
Cuvier was also powerfully impressed by the remains of extinct mega-mammals found in the northern latitudes, even within the Arctic circle. He comments regarding the nature of the catastrophe that:
“It also left, in the northern countries, carcasses of large quadrupeds frozen in the ice, and which have been preserved down to the present period with their skin, their hair and their flesh. If they had not been frozen as soon as killed, putrefaction would have decomposed them. And besides, this eternal frost did not previously exist in those parts in which they were frozen, for they could not have existed in such a temperature. The same instant that these animals were bereft of life, the country which they inhabited became frozen. This event was sudden, momentary, without gradation; and what is so clearly proved as to this last catastrophe, equally applies to that which preceded it. The convulsions, the alterations, the reversing of the most ancient layers, leave not a doubt on the mind but that sudden and violent causes reduced them to their present state; and even the powerful action of the mass of waters is proved by the accumulation of relics and round flints. . .”
Cuvier is led to a conclusion that we now find, almost 190 years later, to be overwhelmingly established by a vast and ever-increasing accumulation of confirmatory evidence, and one which it would behoove us to seriously consider as we presumptuously plan for our future on this planet, as he affirms that:
“Existence has thus been often troubled on this earth by appalling events.”
Modern discoveries overwhelmingly prove the reality of Cuvier’s assertion that Earth has often been the victim of “appalling events.” He further points out that:
“These are the consequences to which the subjects which meet us at every step, and which we may find in almost every clime, necessarily conduct us. These overpowering and stupendous events are clearly imprinted everywhere, and are legible to the eye that knows how to trace their history in the monuments they have left.”
Reemphasizing the ubiquitous nature of the varied evidence for extreme catastrophes, Cuvier beheld a world before his inquiring eyes that concealed a mighty secret ‒ a secret that became lost with the rise of gradualist dogmas that excluded any role for catastrophes except on a local or regional scale, in effect, demoted them to mere transitory interruptions of the otherwise placid pace of global change.
Acknowledging the general acceptance of catastrophe in Earth history amongst his contemporaries, Cuvier reveals the secret:
“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.”
Cuvier saw beyond the superficial impression of the landscape to realize that the evidence for vast destruction is everywhere about us, but goes mostly unnoticed because the “products of living nature that embellish its surface” act as a covering, concealing awareness of the secret to all but the most perceptive eyes. Yet, the evidence is there and when one awakens to a realization of these lost worlds, the conclusion is inevitable: We have erected the infrastructure of modern civilization out of, and on top of, the rubble and wreckage of innumerable worlds that have gone before, including remnants of previous civilizations now lost or mostly forgotten.
The same year of Cuvier’s birth, 1769, saw the birth of another giant of early 19th century science, Alexander von Humboldt (Sept. 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859). A towering figure in the annals of science and exploration, Humboldt was considered one of the principle founders of modern geography. He pioneered formative work in areas such as geomagnetism, ocean currents, volcanoes and fault lines. He undertook a heroic five-year exploration of South America 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 that he observed during his explorations of South America led him to believe in the reality of pervasive catastrophes.
Humboldt demonstrated his scientific prescience in numerous ways. For example, he contemplated the Sun’s role as a factor in global environmental change, and in his 1805 work An essay on the geography of plants, he remarked that:
“Changes observed in stellar luminosity have led one to suspect that analogous variations may have occurred at the centre of our earth system. Could an increase in solar radiation at certain periods have spread tropical warmth to polar regions? Are these variations which would render Lapland habitable for equatorial plants, elephants, tapirs periodic? Or are they due to some passing perturbations in our planetary system?” p. 69
His consideration of the influence of the Sun and to “some passing perturbation in our planetary system” in the above passage underscores that the scale of his thinking extended to the cosmic domain and is as relevant today, and perhaps even more so. As science was moving rapidly towards hyper-specialization, Humboldt stood apart in his holistic view of the world:
“The great geological phenomena are subject to regular laws, as are the forms of plants and animals. The ties which unite these phenomena, the relations which exist between the varied forms of organized beings, are discovered only when we have acquired the habit of viewing the globe as a great whole.”
Another important and influential geologist/paleontologist was the English theologian William Buckland, who lived from 1784 to 1856. To Buckland credit is given for writing the first account of a dinosaur. He conducted the first systematic geological examination of Great Britain, was an ordained Anglican priest and a fellow of the Royal Society. He served as president of the Geological Society of London from 1824 to 1826 and occupied the first geological chair at Oxford University. Buckland was known as a passionate and entertaining lecturer as well as a bit of an eccentric, conducting field work in his academic gown and even giving lectures from the back of a horse. He was also highly skilled in scientific observation and experimentation.
Buckland accepted the reality of Noah’s flood, believing the evidence for an ancient diluvial catastrophe was pervasive. In 1820 he published an extended version of an inaugural address he delivered as first holder of a newly established endowment within the Royal Society, to which he had been admitted as a fellow in 1818. The title of the work is Vindiciae Geologiae; or the Connexion of Geology with Religion explained. Here Buckland attempted a reconciliation of geological evidence with the biblical account of Noah’s Flood. This work was followed in 1824 by Reliquiæ Diluvianæ: Or Observations on the Organic Remains Contained in Caves, Fissures, and Diluvial Gravel and of Other Geological Phenomena attesting to the action of an Universal Deluge.
Buckland’s’ catastrophist view of history is exemplified in two quotes:
“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
In Buckland’s eyes, the evidence for a diluvial catastrophe was explicit and unambiguous.
“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
Later in life Buckland, after becoming aware of the work of Louis Agassiz on glaciers, came to believe that much of the evidence for a global flood was actually the product of widespread glaciation. In many cases this was, in fact, true. However, it is now evident that colossal flooding has indeed taken place around the globe at various times in the history of the Earth, and once the effects of such gigantic floods are recognized, it becomes indisputable that their occurrence is “proved on grounds so decisive and incontrovertible” that they can no longer be dismissed as merely the product of the scientific naivety of the era. For as Buckland correctly asserts:
“The phenomena of diluvian action are actually presented universally to us and are unintelligible without recourse to a deluge.”
Acknowledgement of great catastrophes is not pseudo-science as self-appointed skeptics like to proclaim, it is the skeptics themselves who have embraced the pseudo-scientific belief that currently observable scales and rates of change are adequate to explain the whole of Earth history. Signs of cracks in the Uniformitarian edifice have always shown forth their unwelcome presence, but were generally manageable by the defenders of gradualist orthodoxy who dominated the halls of academia and the scientific press for most of the 20th century. This began to change in the 1980s with the ascendance of the prototypical catastrophe that spelled the doom of that most prominent of extinct species – the dinosaurs, whose eradication from the Earth had long confronted evolutionists with an insoluble mystery, one whose solution has had as many variations as the number of paleontologists who speculated upon the matter.
But at this point in history, we are confronted with an inescapable conclusion: Planet Earth is part of a vast, cosmic ecosystem within which events of unimaginable magnitude and violence play out with disturbing frequency, and, in the process engender world-shattering upheavals in the balance of terrestrial nature. Once upon a time, even with the provisional acceptance of the occasional catastrophe, we humans had the luxury of believing that the tempo of such discontinuities within the natural order were too few and far between to be of concern.
The problem is, what we now know precludes such a reassuring assumption.
As I have repeatedly tried to explain, the evidence for colossal-scale events in recent Earth history is everywhere about us, as both Cuvier and Buckland saw so clearly. What has been lacking, up until now, are the eyes with which to see and the consciousness with which to understand the geomorphic script engraved into the global landscape and the epic tale it has to tell.
At this point the words of the second century apocryphal text The Gospel of Thomas, which by its own declaration has preserved the secret sayings of Jesus, comes to mind:
“Recognize what is in front of your eyes, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you. . . the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”