Science in Christian Perspective
The Principle of Uniformity*
WILLIAM J TINKLE**
From: JASA 12 (December
When we were children it was hard to believe phenomena outside our experience. The earth could not be round, for we could see that it was flat; likewise it was hard to believe that the stars are larger than the earth. Soon, however, we learned to accept the statements of persons whom we considered authorities, parents in particular, and of others whom we trusted. Later we found ourselves believing reports outside our experience provided they were of like nature with that which we had observed, or agreed with what our authorities told us.
Mankind never gets away from the notion that certain reports should not be believed. We have a deep seated idea that nature is uniform in her action, so that a cause which produces a certain effect today will produce the same effect tomorrow. We reject reports to the contrary, for no one wishes to appear credulous, feeling that to believe uncritically is a mark of low intelligence.
Yet when we apply the principle of uniformity certain questions arise. Does the likeness apply to action alone or does it include also the rate of action? What exceptions can be admitted? Where can we draw a circumference and declare that nothing could be true outside that boundary ?
The movements of the solar planets are notoriously regular. In -our almanacs the sunrise and sunset are predicted a year ahead to the minute and second, showing that the rotation of the earth is uniform. Our years are of equal length-or would be if we made the leap year correction every year instead of less than one year in four-because the earth travels around the sun at the regular rate of eighteen and one-half feet a second. A striking proof of this regularity is the prediction of an eclipse of the sun or moon a number of years ahead, which is fulfilled to the minute.
Animals, -on the other hand, are far from uniform in their reactions. While we can make general statements about the response certain animals make, as for instance that crayfish retreat from light to rest, it is impossible to predict what a given animal will do.
It has been taken by common consent that the small, simple animals have less choice of reaction than the large, complex ones, but experiments tend to show that they are alike. The amoeba is as simple as any, although it is not the smallest, appearing like a barely
*A paper presented at the Fourteenth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, June 1959, Chicago, Illinois.
**Dr. Tinkle is a biologist and for many years was a professor at Taylor University. Following this, he taught at Ball State Teachers College and is now retired. He has published a number of papers as well as a textbook in biology.
visible dot to the naked eye. William Seifriz had on the stage of his microscope a needle controlled by a system of small levers, with which he could touch any object in the field of vision. When he prodded the amoeba sometimes it would contract into a ball, at other times it would run away, showing that it had a choice of reactions.1
When he held down the edge of the animal with the needle point, the soft flesh was pulled out long as it strove to get away. Then, showing itself a true animal regardless of size, the amoeba pinched off the portion held beneath the needle point, freeing itself just as a muskrat gnaws off a foot caught in a steel trap. Another experimenter, H. S. Jennings, drew the conclusion that if the amoeba were as big as a dog we would ascribe to it all the mental states ascribed to the dog, such as fear, anger, and courage.
Considering now the action of small, lifeless particles, their action is well illustrated by Brownian movement. In a drop of water under a microscope, tiny particles such as soil are seen to be in motion which is an irregular oscillation. This motion is due to the impact of molecules upon the particles. The moving molecules themselves are too small to be seen under a conventional microscope but the larger particles are struck by them and respond by moving in the same direction. This reveals the characteristic action of molecules wherever they are free to move, as in a liquid or gas. In sharp contrast to the orbit of a planet, this motion is oscillatory, erratic, and unpredictable.
Nuclear physicists tell us that the motion of electrons also is irregular. While electrons travel in orbits around the nucleus of the atom, the orbit of a given electron can not be predicted.
We may wonder at this apparent inconsistency. Why is there such dependable regularity in planets, seeing that their minute component parts are irregular in motion ? It is because the eccentricities of the particles cancel each other, leaving a simple motion for the large body. If we tried to make a law describing the motions of bodies in general, we could have nothing more exact than a statistical statement.
Further illustration of this principle is found in meteorology. While many correct predictions of the weather are being made, these forecasts are much less exact than those of eclipses and we cannot expect them to be always exact. For the meteorologist deals with molecules in gases, where they are free to move, while the astronomer has them bound together in large solids.
Now let us consider the bearing of the principle of uniformity upon the development of the earth. Before the eighteenth century there was very little study of geology but extravagant and bizarre guesses were made. For instance, the heat of volcanoes comes from wind blowing into caves, causing friction. Earthquakes are the protest of Mother Earth against wicked men who mine gold, silver, and iron.
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) along with all other modern geologists insisted that the present action of nature should be observed. Referring to former theorists, he wrote, "The necessity they have experienced of discovering different causes from those now in action has given rise to many extraordin ary speculations, and has involved them in so many and so contrary suppositions, that the very name of their science has long been a subject for raillery for some prejudiced persons3.
James Hutton (1726-97) was the author of the doctrine that all geologic action has been done by forces like those acting today, and at the same rate. His famous negation, that he found no evidence of a beginning of the earth and no prospect of an end, is answered very well by Roger Voskuyl in "Modern Science and Christian Faith.4 We now know that the earth had a beginning in time because radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium have not all broken down. It is clear that the universe is progressing toward an end because usable energy such as heat is being dissipated through space, predicting a time when no useful energy will he left. But as will be stated below, there is prospect of God's intervention before life stops because of frigidity.
Hutton states his doctrine of uniformity thus: "When a geologist shall indulge his fancy in framing, without evidence, that which had preceded the present order of things, then he either misleads himself, or writes a fable for the amusement of his reader. A theoryof the earth ... can have no retrospect to that which had preceded the present order of the world; for this order alone is what we have to reason upon; and to reason without data is nothing but delusion."5 (Italics mine.)Here we have both true and untrue reasoning in the same paragraph. Science is nothing without evidence, but Hutton rules out some valuable evidence in the geologic record. Some of this evidence, observed by Cuvier, deserves a better hearing than it has received. This French scientist believed that, in addition to geologic action of the same rate as at present, there were periods of more forceful and rapid action. Among other evidence he mentions land animals buried under heaps of marine productions; overturned blocks of rock in the Alps too massive to be moved by present agencies; large animals buried and frozen so quickly that the flesh has not decayed.
"It (the last catastrophe) left behind also in the northern countries the carcasses of the great quadrupeds which are found embedded in the ice and preserved down to the present day with their hair, hides, and flesh. On the other hand, this perpetual frost did not previously occupy the areas where we now find it, for these animals could not live at so low a temperature. It was therefore at one and the same instant that these animals perished and that the glacial conditions came into existence."6 These quadrupeds include large numbers of mammoths, rhinoceroses, bears, and horses.
Another line of evidence for fast action was the fossil shells found by Cuvier. At present shells are washed about and worn smooth before being covered, if covered at all. In contrast, note the condition of Ctivier's fossil shells: "Sometimes the shells are so numerous as to constitute the entire body of the stratum. They are almost everywhere in such a perfect state of preservation that even the smallest of them retain their most delicate parts, their sharpest ridges, and their finest and tenderest processes." It would seem that a flood of great power and fast action covered these shells. Before being covered they must have been washed to gether, for we would not expect shellfish to live piled upon each other. The same can be said of dinosaurs in the Morrison formation in Utah and Colorado where more than 30D dinosaurs have been found.
When fish die at present they rise to the surface, float to the shore, the flesh decomposes, the bones are scattered, and very few are covered to become preserved as fossils. Note the contrast in fossil fish described by Hugh Miller (1802-56). "At this period -of -our history some terrible catastrophe involved in sudden destruction the fish -of an area at least a hundred miles from boundary to boundary, perhaps much more, The same platform in Orkney as at Cromarty is strewed thick with remains which exhibit un-
2. Laplace, quoted by James Ward, Naturalism and Agnosticism. London: A. & C. Black, 1906, Vol. I, p. 41.3. Georges Cuvier, Discourse on the Revolutions of the Sur
H. S. Ladd writes of widespread catastrophic death of fish in the Gulf of Mexico in 1953, in which the surface of the water was covered with dead pinfish, grunts, and pigfish.8 There is a significant difference, however, in that if the modern fish become fossils-as probably very few will-they will not show any marks of the kind of death they suffered. For they will not be covered quickly but will float about until they decompose and perhaps only a few vertebrae will ever become fossils.
Charles 1-yell (1797-1875) was one -of the most noted proponents of uniformitarianism in geology. He traveled widely and wrote much which no one denies, for it now has become common knowledge, but his criterion for the rejection of data seems to be open to question. "By degrees many of the enigmas of the moral and physical world are explained, and instead of being due to extrinsic and irregular causes, they are found to depend on fixed and invariable laws. The philosopher at last becomes convinced of the undeviating uniformity of secondary causes; and, guided by his faith in this principle, he determines the probability of accounts transmitted to him of former occurrences, and often rejects the fabulous tales of former times, on the ground of their being irreconcilable with the experience of more enlightened ages." (Italics mine.)
Here Lyell falls into the common error of assuming that his own century -the nineteenth, is superior to any preceding one; even to the extent that if reports which have come down from the past do not agree with the temper -of our own time they must be branded as false. What if reports of the nineteenth century do not fit the fashion in the twentieth? He implies that one can recognize truth by noting the date on its tag. Reasoning such as this has done much to discredit the Bible and other early records.
It was a matter of surprise to the present author that Lyell does not mention the contrary views of Cuvier in his voluminous "Principles of Geology." It was not that he was ignorant of his opponent or thought ill of him. In 1829 Lyell visited Cuvier in Paris and wrote his sister a letter praising the French scientist for the methodical arrangement of his laboratories and offices. He even quotes Cuvier as an authority on durability of the bones of men," identity of Egyptian mummies with living species," fossils found in colite rock,12 extinction of the dodo,'3 and other matters where his reputation would settle a point. But Cuvier's catastrophism, based upon field observation, is ignored.
Later a fashion grew up, seemingly founded upon Lyell, which made changes even slower than the master had advocated. Lyell had mentioned some geologic work which was fairly rapid. The shore of Chile rose four feet in a day, turning oyster beds into land. Waves cut the shore of Yorkshire away at the rate of seven to fifteen feet a year since the Norman Conquest. At Shering-ham a fifty-foot cliff changed into a harbor twenty feet deep since 1781.
But in the latter half of the nineteenth century, if there was doubt about the speed of an action, Lyell's followers decided it had been slow.
It may be in place to mention here the rapid rate of formation of the stony meteorite called chondrite, as determined by H. C. Urey. "A very short time is indicated for the period.... It seems that they could have accumulated in days and that substantial recrystallization could have occurred in not more than years. . . . The chondrites form the most numerous class of the stony meteorites."14
Clarence King (1842-1901), the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, was another who protested against narrow limits of uniformity. "Earth's present, of course, was the key to its past; depression, uplift, and erosion have gone on in every geologic age. But the rate of operation has varied; at some times it was moderate but at others it was rapid. Tracing the roots of mountains long worn away, King concluded that 'the harmless indestructive rate of geologic change of today' could not he 'prolonged backward into the deep past.' "15 This is the reasonable view of a man to whom we are indebted for much of the knowledge of western United States.
Another hurdle for the apostles of uniformity is climate. The fossil record indicates that plants of warm zones once lived in every part of the world. Later the northern hemisphere at least was so cold that ice did not melt year after year. There are various theories to account for these changes, but they are not explained by the principle -of uniformity.
A suggestion -of the reason for some of our puzzles is given in interesting style by a modern geologist, Hans Cloos:
"How fortunate that ice still exists for comparison! Where would we be if ... the earth's climate today were such that no water would ever be found any-
where in the solid state? Could we then visualize the geological effects of ice? Would any human brain have had the intricate notion that water can crystallize and form large cohesive masses which flow through valleys, overrun plains, climb over hills and mountains, and permanently alter the face of the earth? And if someone had thought of it, would such a humorous hypothesis ever have been taken seriously? And, finally, are we not today in the same serious situation with respect to other terrestrial phenomena, a situation in which, accidentally, no events take place now which can be compared to the geological events of the past? May this not be the reason for the difficulty in interpreting many geological events, and for the controversies these interpretations raise?"16
We have discoursed at length on the occurrences of nature, which the Christian believes to be the work of God. The Supreme Being usually works in a uniform manner, within wide limits, but is it impossible for Him to do otherwise? Those who hold to the strictest uniformitarianism say that God cannot do otherwise than to act according to law. For instance, Charles Dar-win's biographer, William Irvine, who is not unduly critical, says that Darwin rejected miracles "because they were similar to -other mythologies, because they rested on dubious and conflicting testimony, and because they contradicted the uniformitarianism hehad learned from Lyell."17
Anyone who believes in God as a Supreme Being will not doubt His ability to act contrary to law on special occasions, in other words, to perform a miracle. But some seem to feel that He would be more ethical if He always acted in accordance with law.
Such persons do not realize the difference between a civil law and a scientific law. One who breaks a civil law is punished or at least bears a moral stigma even if he is not caught. A scientific law, on the other hand, is simply a general statement about the working of nature, and infers nothing as to moral obligation.
God usually conducts the universe in a uniform manner within rather wide limits but not because of necessity. One reason He does so is to fulfill His promise given after the Flood: "While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease."'18 Another reason He does so is because He is a God of love. It would be unpleasant to live in a world that was not dependable, where fire might not make one warm, and where water might not quench thirst.
But miracles also may be a manifestation of love, a special aid to :an individual, and most of the Biblical miracles are such.
The Apostle Peter predicts a time, however, when God will change the order of nature to the extent that the world will be destroyed by fire.19 Thus there will be time after the period of regular seasons, just as there was time before that period, when the promise of uniformity will not apply. Uniformitarians will doubt such a prediction, just as people before Noah doubted the Flood, because it never had occurred before. Our experience with atomic explosions is making it easier for us to see how the world could be destroyed.
The~ idea of uniformity within strict and necessary limits seems to be founded upon special cases and ignoring the contrary evidence. It does not make other action impossible. "The outside limits of the principle of uniformity are to be set by the will of God, not by an abstract ideal set by science."20
16. Conversation with the Earth. A. A. Knopf, 1953, pp.
17. Apes, Angels and Victorians. McGraw-Hill, 1955, p. 109.
18. Genesis 8:22.
19. 11 Peter 3:3-10.
20. E. J. Carnell, His Mag., Dec. 1951.