Uniformitarianism replies

Cuvier's catastrophism was vigorously defended by Buckland in England and Agassiz (better known for his work on glaciation) in the USA. But Charles Lyell (1797-1875) took up the torch from Buffon and Hutton and carried it much further. In his Principles of Geology, the first edition of which appeared in 1830, he refuted the entire idea of catastrophes and postulated that all observed geological phenomena must be explicable by processes still in existence. He assumed that these processes had not varied, in either their

7 In E. Buffetaut, see note 6.

nature (a theory called uniformitarianism) or their intensity (and this theory acquired the name "substantive" uniformitarianism). Thus only the incredible length of geological time explains the magnitude of the observed phenomena: the erosion of valleys, the uplift of mountain chains, the deposition of vast sedimentary basins, movement along faults owing to cumulative seismic activity - and the mass extinction of species. As Lyell himself said, no vestige remains of the time of the beginning, and there is no prospect for an end. This world, in its state of equilibrium, held no place for evolution. A friend of Darwin, who was profoundly influenced by his work, Lyell nevertheless had the greatest difficulty rejecting the idea that species were static. Until i860, he instead imagined a cyclic history for the Earth and the life forms inhabiting it. Darwin himself thought nothing more astonishing than these repeated extinctions, which he, in fact, explained by long periods that left no geological deposits. He discreetly discarded everything in observations that might support catastrophism and chalked up such findings to imperfections in the geological record instead.

The early nineteenth century witnessed the opposition - sometimes violent - of the catastrophist school and the uniformitarian school. Yet this theoretical quarrel did not prevent geology from growing. Quite the contrary. Lyell's views would ultimately triumph and make it possible to found a great many branches of modern scientific geology. In fact they remain deeply ingrained in the minds of most geologists, even as recent history has made us familiar with the concepts of evolution and dynamism and, unfortunately, given vigorous new life to the notion of catastrophe. Nuclear war, overpopulation, famine, desertification, the greenhouse effect, the hole in the ozone layer - so many threats, real or assumed, that frighten us and that our newspapers outdo one another in reporting - all are birds of ill omen for the agitated end of a millennium. Are humans at risk of disappearing, the victims of their own folly or of a Nature gone haywire? If, as Lyell thought, the present must be our key to understanding the past, this same past in fact harbors the keys, sometimes carefully concealed, to a better understanding of our present, and possibly to a way of safeguarding the future.

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