Science in Christian Perspective
Letter to the Editor
The Changing Content of Catastrophism
Warren H. Johns
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48823
From: JASA 27
(December 1975): 192.
A recent article (June Journal) caught my eye, entitled, "The Doctrine of Special Creation," by Richard Aulie, because of its subtitle, "Catastrophism." Many diverging opinions on catastrophism exist today, and have existed in the past, while being poles apart. It is commonly misunderstood, but not all diluvialists are catastrophists. Those who are dubbed "deluge geologists" today cannot be equated with the "catastrophists" of the early nineteenth century, since the latter almost unanimously believed in numerous cataclysmic events. The early geologist Conybeare spoke of "three deluges before the Noachian." (Quoted in Haber, P. 216) Diluvialists today speak almost unanimously of one single deluge.
The thesis of Aulie-that the authors of Biology: a Search for Order in Complexity should have resorted to nineteenth-century diluvialists for their weaponry-is rather far-fetched and antiquarian in nature. They certainly would not want to depend upon Cuvier, the father of catastrophism, because it would be like placing their weight upon a reed that would split and then pierce them. It is doubtful whether Cuvier actually believed in the Biblical deluge, according to one historian of science, M. J. S. Rudwick (see his book The Meaning of Fossils, pp. 133 ff.). Aulie mentions the French title of Cuvier's book which came out in 1812, but it would be instructive to add that in 1813 Robert Jameson published the English edition, in the process transforming it by infusing it with numerous references to the Biblical flood. Since then most historians have become acquainted with Cuvier via Jameson; they have been misled into thinking that Cuvier was attempting to prove the Biblical account, which he was not, if the original French edition is considered.
William Buckland, although a gigantic figure of his day, is a poor one to turn toward for diluvialist support. Aulie omitted the well-known fact that Buckland abandoned catastrophism, and what Aulie did include misrepresents him on a couple points. He mentions Buekland's 1836 widely-read work as "arguing for a universal deluge." Historians today would not agree on this matter with Aulie. "When Buckland's Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology was published in 1836, it was evident that he had reversed himself on Diluvialism and had completely abandoned Biblical chronology in prehistory..?' (Haber, pp. 220-221) It would be even better to let Buckland speak for himself, the following quote being from the same book published in 1836:
"Several hypotheses have been proposed, with a view of reconciling the phenomena of Geology, with the brief account of creation which we find in the Mosaic narrative. Some have attempted to ascribe the formation of all the stratified rocks to the effects of the Mosaic Deluge; an opinion which is isreconciltable with the enormous thickness and almost in
finite subdivisions of these strata . (p. 16)
Aulie's statement that Buckland "tried to show how the successive fossil
record matched the Genesis account" is the very opposite of the picture as
presented by Buckland a page or two further. He mentions: "A third opinion
has been suggested, both by learned theologians and by geologists ... that the
order of succession of the organic remains of a former world, accords with the
order of creation required in Genesis." (p. 17) Then he goes on
that the two sets of sequences-that of Genesis and that of
geology-cannot be reconciled
because marine animals precede the evidence of vegetable remains in
record while Scripture has the latter first. Thus the days of creation cannot
be stretched into geological periods (p. 18).
If neither Cuvier nor Buckland could come to the rescue of diluvialists today, neither would the third individual cited by Aulie, the glaciologist Louis Agassis. His catastrophism was even more complex than his forefathers, admitting up to twenty catastrophes. It is interesting that the one who led Buckland to attribute the so-called "drift" deposits to glacial action and not to diluvial action was Agassiz himself (see Cannon, pp. 48, 50). Agassis' catastrophism was a unique brand.
It would be well if the writer and readers alike of the article referring to the highly controversial issue of "catastrophism" would be aware of its changing spectrum as the issues shifted, so that it is now several wavelengths apart from its roots in the early nineteenth century. True, the catastrophism of Bucklassd and Agassiz is today obsolete.