Illustration of Catastrophist geology

1797 Catastrophist geology

The book of science

Tom Sharp

James Hall geology Illustration of Catastrophist geology

Catastrophist geology

Early geologists didn’t believe the strata of the earth evolved under the slow natural forces observable today. Instead, they thought that the strata and their fossils were laid down and deformed over a few thousand years in a series of mind-bending catastrophies consistent with the views of Christian theologians who claimed that the world was only six thousand years old. But controversy ensued as geologists began to inspect strata and fossils observable in cliffs, canal cuts, and pit mines. Geologists who called themselves Neptunists believed that rocks formed in our early oceans from the crystallization of minerals, were populated by fossils from periods of new creation, and were later raised and weathered in their present beds. Geologists who called themselves Plutonists believed that volcanoes and earthquakes show that our rocks were formed under heat and pressure, then wore down, settled in the ocean, and were raised again. Sir James Hall, a Neptunist, and his friend, James Hutton, a Plutonist, argued for years until Hall decided to determine the effects of different heating and cooling processes, and found he could convert hornblende into different types of rock, so Hall changed his mind and became a Plutonist. Meanwhile, Hutton had already proposed the theory that overthrew catastrophist geology.

Noah’s flood

According to early Christian theologians, the book of Genesis has the explanation for which geologists needed to strive. Noah’s flood washed dead animals and sediments into the oceans. Belief and reason, literal and figural, historic and mythic, observation and interpretation—are all mixed up, disorder dying into chaos, life reaching for order, each animal climbing over another to survive or dying to have its traces misinterpreted, subservient to a belief subservient to a theory subservient to a fancy subservient to stupidity and greed. A beautiful story ending with a covenant, a rainbow put up to symbolize the promise of protection, a clever story inspired by ancient observations of sea shells and fish fossils in the mountains, an ignorant story grasping fictions to affirm a world-view separate from reality.


I believe what I need to believe and what I refuse to question. I believe what I know to be true and what I accept from others. I know I make mistakes and my beliefs might be mistaken, but in believing I do not doubt and believe in my believing. Belief in an empirical or scientific fact is no different from belief in spirits. I evaluate it in terms of my beliefs and either accept it or reject it.

The evolution of thought progresses by chance discoveries and the slow and inconsistent accumulation of evidence. The alternative to catastrophism was not fully expressed until Lyell published Principles of geology in 1830. Today some people today claim that catastrophism is supported by evidence and geologists may admit that the earth has been formed by an interplay of catastrophic events and uniformitarian processes.

Opposed to the progress of science is the inertia of belief, which no human is free of, no more than a building can be free of its foundations or a bridge can be free of its connections to its shores. But an imbalance is possible in favor of science, as is leaning forward to move ahead without falling or steering a unicycle by leaning in one direction or the other.

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