Catastrophism, Theory of

Catastrophism, Theory of


an early 19th-century hypothesis that viewed the geological history of the earth as the alternation of long periods of relative calm with comparatively brief, catastrophic events that greatly changed the face of the planet.

The idea of catastrophes, which had its origin in remote antiquity, began to be used in the 17th and 18th centuries for interpreting geological history. Since until the early 19th century the age of the earth was estimated to be not more than 100, 000 years, it was difficult to explain as the result of ordinary causes the enormous changes undergone in the past by the earth and the organic world and recorded in beds of rock. In an effort to find a way out of this difficulty the French naturalist G. Cuvier in 1812 advanced the hypothesis of catastrophes (revolutions), during which all living things perished over large areas of the planet; later these desolate places were settled by other species of organisms that had survived the catastrophe in remote areas. The hypothesis was an attempt not only to explain the vastness of past transformations of the earth but also to resolve the contradiction between the prevailing belief that species were immutable and the fact, already firmly established, that geological sections showed numerous differences in plant and animal fossils.

Cuvier’s ideas were elaborated by the French paleontologist A. d’Orbigny, the Swiss geologist J. Agassiz, and the English geologist A. Sedgewick, who counted 27 catastrophes in the history of the earth, during which the entire organic world presumably perished. According to these scientists, after each catastrophe new plants and animals, unrelated to those that had previously existed, were “created by a divine act”; each time the plants and animals were more complex and perfectly organized than before. In the periods between catastrophes the newly created living things presumably neither developed nor changed. The concept of catastrophism and of numerous acts of creation was in accord with the biblical version of the creation of the world. In accepting this concept it was possible to explain the contemporary state of the earth’s surface as the result of the most recent act of creation.

Nonetheless, the catastrophism of the early 19th century played an important role in the development of biostratigraphy because its doctrine of the sharp boundaries between rock beds of different ages and its belief in the uniqueness of the organic world in each period (epoch, age) promoted the concept of dominant fossils. Catastrophism also had a positive influence in disseminating the idea of progress in the organic world and the concept of sporadic events that disrupt the uniformity of the earth’s history. This promoted the subsequent development of ideas that combined evolutionary change with rapid, discontinuous development. By the mid-19th century, with the ascendancy of the idea that existing geological forces are sufficient to bring about over a long period of time all the changes recorded in the earth (C. Lyell), the theory of catastrophism lost its significance. Later, catastrophism was also superseded in biology by the development of the evolutionary ideas of C. Darwin and others.

The rejection of catastrophism was not final, however. In thefirst half of the 20th century it was partially revived in the formof “neocatastrophism”—the idea that phases of folding andmountain building occurred simultaneously throughout theworld, interrupting long periods of relative calm and the slowevolution of the crust (H. Stille and his followers). Theories havealso arisen holding that catastrophic events occur in the uni-verse, causing intensified radiation that leads to the death ofsome groups of organisms and to rapid mutational changes inothers, resulting in the appearance of new species and genera ofliving organisms (the German paleontologist O. Schindewolf).The ideas of neocatastrophism have been convincingly criticizedby N. S. Shatskii in tectonics and by L. Sh. Davitashvili in pa-leontology.