Creation/Evolution Journal

Scientific Creationists Are Not Catastrophists

Catastrophism dominated geology a century and a half ago, but it withered and died in the decades following the publication (1830-33) of Charles Lyell's three volume Principles of Geology. Creationists—most notably Henry Morris—represent their Flood Geology as a revival of catastrophism. Indeed, Morris often hints that modem geologists are slowly coming his way. Thus he has said, "It should be recognized that there is a resurgence of significant consideration of catastrophism among evolutionary geologists today, Dr. [Stephen Jay] Gould being one of them" (Morris, 1981).

:Modern geologists are well aware that violent events have played a part in the earth's history. The earth bears the scars of numerous giant meteorite impacts. The Channeled Scablands of Washington were apparently eroded by a catastrophic flood caused by the failure of an ice-dam holding back a lakeful of glacial meltwater. Some scientists suggest that a comet struck the earth near the end of the Cretaceous era, resulting in the mass extinctions of species characteristic of that time. Indeed, the British geologist Derek Ager holds that violent events and processes are responsible for much of the geologic column, and he calls himself "an unrepentant neo-catastrophist." But Henry Morris cannot, in any legitimate sense, be called a catastrophist. True catastrophists, whether 19th century or modern, have without exception rejected Morris's Flood Geology.

Geology arose in Christian Europe, so it's hardly surprising that the early geologists—Nicolaus Steno, John Ray, John Woodward—attributed the fossils to the Noachian Deluge. As the 18th century drew to a close, however, it became clear that the Earth had to be much older than the 6000 years allotted by Archbishop Ussher, and that a single flood could not account for all of the fossils. This does not imply that James Hutton's Uniformitarian theory, published in his Theory of the Earth in 1785, met immediate acceptance. Quite the contrary.

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At the beginning of the 19th century, the German Abraham Gottlob Werner was perhaps the world's most influential geologist. Werner taught that all of the earth's rocks originated in a primeval ocean, either by chemical precipitation or sedimentation. Werner's followers were called "Neptunists." Those who correctly attributed rocks such as basalts and granites to volcanic processes were called "Vulcanists." The Vulcanists soon triumphed, and many of them came to be associated with a new school of geology, catastrophism.

The most famous and influential catastrophist was Georges Cuvier, the most brilliant paleontologist and comparative anatomist of his time. Cuvier's studies of the geology of the Paris region convinced him that the large vertebrate animals whose fossils were so abundant in the area had been wiped out in devastating regional (not worldwide) floods caused by incursions of the ocean. Cuvier is often credited with promoting successive creations destroyed by successive catastrophes, but he never said that. Other catastrophists—notably Louis Agassiz—did.

Catastrophism flourished in early 19th century England. Catastrophists agreed with their principal opponents, the uniformitarians, that the earth is very old and that its rock strata have been laid down sequentially over a considerable time. The argument was over what (if indeed any) role extremely violent events played in the earth's history. For instance, catastrophists insisted that only unimaginably violent events could account for the folding and tilting sometimes seen in the earth's rock strata. Uniformitarians held that gradual, sustained processes were sufficient.

All of the principal participants in this scientific controversy were Christians, many of them ordained clergymen, but they were generally loathe to mix science and religion. If pressed to reconcile Genesis with geology, some argued for the "day-age" theory, suggesting that the creation "days" correspond to geologic eras. Others adopted the "gap-theory," suggesting that most of the geologic strata were laid down between the original creation in Genesis 1:1 and the subsequent events in Genesis.

In the 1820s, William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, and a few other "diluvialists" argued that river valleys and certain superficial sedimentary deposits (not all sedimentary rocks) resulted from a recent and worldwide flood. Within a few years, Buckland's own field work, especially his investigations of alluvial deposits in caves, began to seriously undermine the diluvialist position. It quickly became untenable, and Millhauser (1954) describes how, in the mid-1830s, soon after the publication of Charles Lyell's Principles, Sedgwick and Buckland abandoned diluvialism. Buckland replaced his "diluvialism" with the "tranquil flood" theory, which holds that the Noachian Deluge left few if any traces in the geologic record. George McCready Price, founder of modem Flood Geology, clearly recognized that none of this had anything to do with his ideas. "The theory of `Catastrophism,"' he wrote, "as held a hundred years ago, had no resemblance to the theory here discussed, except in name (Price, 1931; 101)."

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Even before Lyell published his Principles, an ersatz school of geology arose to challenge the gap theorists and other theological compromisers (Millhauser, 1954). Like modem scientific creationists, this group insisted on a recent and literal six-day creation and a worldwide Noachian Flood. They were known, both to themselves and to conventional scientists, as "Mosaic" or "Scriptural" geologists.

Thomas Rodd, Granville Penn, and George Bugg were representative. Rodd's A Defence of the Veracity of Moses appeared in 1820. More important was Granville Penn, whose 1822 Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaic Geologies defended with "rather shrill logic" (Millhauser, 1954) views hardly distinguishable from Henry Morris's. George Bugg's two volume opus, Scriptural Geology; or, Geological Phenomena Consistent Only with Literal Interpretations of Sacred Scriptures, appeared in 1826-27. Bugg abused Buckland and distinguished between even the pious Cuvier and "Christian" writers (Millhauser, 1954). Among those responding was Adam Sedgwick, an Anglican clergyman and an outstanding field geologist, who with Buckland first espoused but later abandoned diluvialism. In his 1830 presidential address to London's Geological Society, Sedgwick replied to the "Mosaic" geologists with a devastating broadside.

When the first volume of Lyell's Principles was published in 1830, and the great controversy between uniformitarians and catastrophists began in earnest, the Scriptural Geologists declared a plague on both houses. Though scientific geologists of all persuasions generally ignored them, the flood of books and pamphlets on Scriptural Geology didn't abate until late in the 19th century.

So why does Henry Morris ignore his true intellectual ancestors? Why does he try to call Cuvier, Buckland, and other early 19th century catastrophists from their graves to testify in favor of doctrines they uniformly rejected? Perhaps Morris doesn't know any better. He apparently drew most of his ideas from George McCready Price, and Price sometimes called his stuff "catastrophism" even though, as shown earlier, he did know better. Or perhaps Morris knows better but hopes to "borrow" some legitimacy for Flood Geology by falsely associating it with genuine (though obsolete) science. Or perhaps it's political expediency. Morris vehemently insists that "creationscience" can exist independent of the Bible. Thus it would hardly do for him to admit that his Flood Geology was traditionally called Scriptural Geology.

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I thank Malcolm Kottler for reading an early draft of this manuscript and gently steering me around a few historical catastrophes.

By Robert Schadewald
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.