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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).

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The theory that most features in the earth were produced by the occurrence of sudden, short-lived, worldwide events.
The theory that the differences between fossils in successive stratigraphic horizons resulted from a general catastrophe followed by creation of the different organisms found in the next-younger beds.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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