The Elements of Evolution (6-2) Uniformitarianism


The present is the key to the past. ~ Uniformitarianism creed

A group of English geologists, William Buckland and Robert Jameson among them, interpreted Cuvier’s work much differently: as support for the biblical flood. Cuvier was Christian, but never floated his catastrophic boat that far downstream into the thought pool known at natural theology: an influential branch of theology in the early 19th century, founded on reason and ordinary experience, but taken to godly ends.

On the other bank of evolutionary theory, sedimentary rock inspired a steady-as-she-goes school of thought. Uniformitarianism was the brainchild of Scottish geologists in the late 18th century.

James Hutton, the father of modern geology, coined this concept of constancy, with a side dish of gradualism: that the same processes and natural laws that operate in the universe now have been constant everywhere since time immortal.

We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end. ~ James Hutton

Scottish geologist Charles Lyell propounded uniformitarianism in his 1830 book Principles of Geology. Lyell was a close friend of Darwin and a considerable influence on him. Lyell, a devout Christian, had trouble accepting the idea of evolution without it being part of God’s handicraft.

Lyell’s legacy includes naming the geological epochs of the Cenozoic era, which English lexicographer H.W. Fowler characterized as “regrettable barbarism,” lamenting Lyell’s laxity in not consulting a philologist in coining terms.

English polymath and Anglican priest William Whewell minted the term uniformitarianism in the mid-19th century, as well as coining catastrophism for the creed that Earth was shaped by a series of sudden, violent events.

From 1850 to 1980, geologists generally endorsed uniformitarianism and geological gradualism, rejecting that cataclysmic events played any significant role in Earth’s formation. Uniformitarianism was embraced partly as a rejection of what was on the other side of the same theoretical coin: that the catastrophists of the early 19th century granted God as the shaper of Earth’s history.

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Charles Darwin published his book on evolution, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. Embracing uniformitarianism, Darwin denied mass extinction, as it didn’t fit his natural selection hypothesis. For Darwin, extinction was a slow process, affecting each species via ecological competition.

The extinction of old forms is the almost inevitable consequence of the production of new forms. The utter extinction of a whole group of species may often be a very slow process. ~ Charles Darwin

Mass extinction was a well-established fact by Darwin’s time. Seeking simplicity, Darwin blindsided himself with his sophistic “survival of the fittest” story.