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in geology, doctrine holding that changes in the earth's surface that occurred in past geologic time are referable to the same causes as changes now being produced upon the earth's surface. This doctrine, the basic concept of which was first advanced by the Scottish geologist James Hutton in his Theory of the Earth (1785, 1795), was further expounded by another Scotsman, John Playfair, in his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory (1802). It made little progress, however, against the teachings of the school of Abraham Gottlob Werner, a German geologist, and as a theory of dynamic geology it was overshadowed by the doctrine of catastrophismcatastrophism
, in geology, the doctrine that at intervals in the earth's history all living things have been destroyed by cataclysms (e.g., floods or earthquakes) and replaced by an entirely different population.
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, of which the major supporter was the French naturalist G. L. Cuvier. This was in large measure because uniformitarianism seemed in several ways to be contrary to religious beliefs. It required an immensely long period of time for the consummation of geological processes (thus disturbing the accepted biblical chronology) and set aside all remarkable catastrophies (thus, it would seem, denying the Flood). Uniformitarianism had its day in the 19th cent., when it was widely accepted as a result of the efforts of the English geologist Sir Charles Lyell. The more recent tendency has been to effect somewhat of a synthesis of the two theories, based mainly upon Lyell's conception of the slow operation, over extremely long periods of time, of forces at work in historic time, but admitting the existence in earth history of periods when such activity was accelerated and intensified.



a concept in geology proceeding from a belief in the immutability of geological factors. The term was first used by the British scientist W. Whewell (1832), who applied it to the teachings of C. Lyell.

In essence, uniformitarianism affirmed a mechanistic view of nature; it held that the laws of nature were eternal and unchanging, that the forces that acted in the geological past were the same as those acting in the present, and that forces in the past acted with the same intensity and rate as those in the present. From this followed Lyell’s well-known thesis of the uniformity of the system of the earth’s changes through all geological periods. This thesis ruled out progressive development inasmuch as only changes occurring on the same level in the history of the earth and of life on the earth were affirmed. As a result, uniformitarianism came under attack. The criticism became intense after the appearance of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, since the theory of natural selection admitted a tendency toward progress, and this was inconsistent with uniformity.

In the 20th century, it has been established that the history of the external envelopes of the earth (atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, lithosphere) shows features of irreversible development; the evolution of the earth and its inhabitants has been accepted.


“K voprosu o periodichnosti osadkoobrazovaniia i o metode aktualizma v geologii.” In the collection K voprosu o sostoianii nauki ob osadochnykh porodakh. Moscow, 1951.
Ravikovich, A. I. Razvitie osnovnykh teoreticheskikh napravlenii v geologii XIX v. Moscow, 1969. (Trudy geologicheskogo in-ta AN SSSR, fasc. 189.)
Whewell, W. “Changes in the Organic World Now in Progress.” Quarterly Review, 1832, vol. 47, no. 93.
Huxley, T. H. “Geological Reform.” In his book Collected Essays, vol. 8. London, 1908.



Classically, the concept that the present is the key to the past; the principle that contemporary geologic processes have occurred in the same regular manner and with essentially the same intensity throughout geologic time, and that events of the geologic past can be explained by phenomena observable today. Also known as actualism; principle of uniformity.