The Elements of Evolution (6) Extinction Theories

Extinction Theories

What escapes the eye is a much more insidious kind of extinction: the extinction of ecological interactions. ~ American evolutionary ecologist Daniel Janzen

The history of scientific endeavor is littered with virtual mountains of discarded theories, commonly developed by scientists who grip a belief system based solely on facts in favor while studiously ignoring inconvenient contradictions. Personal esteem often determines whether theories are rapidly rubbished or polished through time by discarding bits of discredited dross. The obscenely esteemed Darwin, who got much more wrong than right, is exemplary.

The realities of Nature are seldom neat, but the human mind demands that theories be kept tidy, else comprehension succumbs to conceptual chaos. What follows are extinction events for extinction theories, including denial of extinction altogether in favor of smooth evolution.


Theories of evolution rest on two arbitrary suppositions; the one, that it is the seminal vapor which organizes the embryo; the other, that efforts and desires may engender organs. A system established on such foundations may amuse the imagination of a poet; a metaphysician may derive from it an entirely new series of systems; but it cannot for a moment bear the examination of anyone who has dissected a hand, a viscus, or even a feather. ~ Georges Cuvier

Beginning with 2 papers in 1796 which compared fossils to living animals, French naturalist Georges Cuvier became a major figure in the natural sciences in the early 19th century. Cuvier’s studies established extinction as a fact, and mass extinction as a theory.

Cuvier criticized evolutionary theories proposed by contemporaries Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: the notion that one life form gradually transforms into another. He repeatedly emphasized that there he could see no evidence of one fossil form changing into another.

Cuvier pointed out that mummified animals thousands of years old seem no different than those living today. Lamarck dismissed this by arguing that evolution happened slowly.

Cuvier retorted how Lamarck and other evolutionists had conveniently contrived hundreds of thousands of years “with the stroke of a pen” to justify their wild theories. Cuvier argued that one can judge what happens over a long time by multiplying what a lesser time produces. Since a lesser time showed no organic changes, there was no reason to think that a longer time would be any different.

All of 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. ~ Georges Cuvier

Cuvier came to believe that the fossils he had examined were remains of species now extinct. This led Cuvier to catastrophism: catastrophic events caused mass extinctions, as evidenced by geological features, notably rock layering (stratigraphy). Each catastrophe set the stage for a new wave of creation. Cuvier was a devout Lutheran.

Cuvier’s conversion to catastrophism was abetted by collaboration with French chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist Alexandre Brongniart. Together they correlated fossils to their place in the geological column (sedimentary rock layers). To others stratigraphy told a different story.


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.