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catastrophism (kətăsˈtrəfĭzəm), 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. During these cataclysms the features of the earth's surface, such as mountains and valleys, were formed. The theory, popularly accepted from the earliest times, was attacked in the late 18th cent., notably by James Hutton, who may be regarded as the precursor of the opposite doctrine of uniformitarianism.
Catastrophism, however, was more easily correlated with religious doctrines (e.g., the Mosaic account of the Flood) and remained for some time the interpretation of the earth's history accepted by the great majority of geologists. It was systematized and defended by the Frenchman Georges Cuvier, whose position as the greatest geologist of his day easily overbore all opposition. In the 19th cent., it was attacked by George Poulett Scrope and especially by Sir Charles Lyell, under whose influence the contrary doctrine gradually became more popular. Recent theories of meteorite, asteroid, or comet impacts triggering mass extinctions can be interpreted as a revival of catastrophism.
See R. Huggett, Catastrophism: Asteroids, Comets, and Other Dynamic Events in Earth History (1998); T. Palmer, Controversy: Catastrophism and Evolution: The Ongoing Debate (1999).