You're right, uniformitarianism should not be taught!
With this term [uniformitarianism], what we get is confusion and obfuscation and wrong information.
It sounds like you believe uniformitarianism is incorrect, and that it is only taught today because of a bait-and-switch. Let me say at the outset that I agree we should not teach outmoded theories, and that we especially should not teach misrepresentations. But I think I can show you that not only is uniformitarianism not a misrepresentation, but also that it is the most accurate view of the way our world was formed.
First, it is important to understand that uniformitarianism isn't really taught today. I'm sure most people's reaction, including evolutionists, is going to be, "What? Of course of it is! What trick are you trying to pull?"
The reason I say uniformitarianism is no longer taught is because it has become part of the backdrop of modern geology, an assumption so basic, so fundamental, that it isn't even mentioned. The term uniformitarianism only exists as counterpoint to the concept of catastrophism, and since catastrophism hasn't held sway in geologic circles for over a century, both terms are now just part of the quaint history of geology. Uniformitarianism simply never comes up anymore.
Unless you're speaking with Creationists, of course, who are still casting uniformitarianism at evolutionists as if it were a derogatory term.
You believe a bait-and-switch has taken place, that uniformitarianism was once defined in a more acceptable way, but that it gradually changed over time into something that, if people only understood what it really maent today, would be no longer be commonly acceptable. So let's explore the definition of uniformitarianism.
For the original definition I think I would go back to Charles Lyell, author of the Principles of Geology that so influenced Darwin on his voyage aboard the Beagle. Lyell saw a world of only gradual change, and so he defined uniformitarianism as a form of gradualism where no change happened suddenly, placing it in diametric opposition to catastrophism. For Lyell, all mountains were gradually pushed up and gradually eroded away. Sea levels gradually rose and gradually fell. Yes, certainly there was a flood here and a volcano there, but most of the modern world was the result of very gradual change over long periods of time.
Uniformitarianism *does* have a modern definition different from the original. Today we think of uniformitarianism as the belief that the forces acting to shape our planet today are the same ones that shaped our planet in the past. If erosion can shape our planet today, then erosion could shape our planet in the past. If volcanic eruptions can shape our planet today, then they could in the past. If floods can shape our planet today, then they could in the past. If asteroid impacts could shape our planet today, then they could in the past. Modern uniformitarianism most certainly includes catastrophes, and so I'm sure you could have no problem with this definition.
But the question I think you're raising is whether a bait-and-switch tactic has been employed. The answer must be no. The underlying principle of uniformitarianism is that the present is the key to the past, i.e., whatever is possible today was also possible in the past, and that principle hasn't changed. What has changed is the array of forces that we now understand operate on our planet. For example, Darwin, a disciple of Lyell, believed that dinosaurs became extinct over a long period of time due to gradually changing environmental factors. But today we understand that comet and asteroid strikes are very real threats, and most modern theories of the extinction of the dinosaurs include a massive world-wide catastrophe in the form of a comet or asteroid strike near the current Gulf of Mexico about 65 million years ago. This is more evidence that modern geological views, which most geologists would not characterize as uniformitarian because the term simply is no longer properly descriptive, include the possibility of catastrophes.
The controversy was/is about whether the historical processes shaping our earth included sudden massive upheavals or not. And clearly they did and do and will. It was obvious 100 years ago, and it is even more obvious today.
If by "sudden massive upheavals" you mean that mountain ranges have been raised in a year or that a recent world wide flood shaped the modern world, then you are wrong to say "clearly they did and do and will". When geologists first began looking in earnest in the 19th century for evidence of a flood they truly believed had happened, what they instead found was evidence for an earth of great antiquity shaped for the most part by the modest and complementary actions of erosion, sedimentation and uplift. No evidence for anything resembling Noah's flood has ever been identified.
If you don't like the term uniformitarianism then you're in good company. I'll bet most geologists don't like it either.
[Correct unforgivable misspelling of Lyell's name. --Percy]
[This message has been edited by Percy, 02-19-2004]
If you see a stratum full of twisted critters obviously squished suddenly in some disaster, uni is not the simpler hypothesis.
Burial is a prerequisite for fossilization, all fossils are under terrific pressure when buried deeply in the ground ("squished"), many fossils are twisted, so you cannot simply look at a stratum and conclude "twisted critters obviously squished suddenly in some disaster". Whether buried in a horrible disaster or simply died of old age next to a river and buried in sediments, the fossil will look the same. You need to look to the characteristics of the stratum to identify how it formed. In most cases the grain size indicates slow sedimentation over long periods, not sudden disaster. And while some fossils undoubtedly originated in disasters, animal life is killed and buried in disasters all the time. You need evidence not of local disasters, which no one questions happen, but of a world wide flood.
The mere fact that you're looking at a stratum at all is evidence against flood theory. How, during a flood, do you have multiple layers of disasters, each trapping a unique collection of creatures? And dead creatures floating in water wouldn't stratify according to difference from modern forms into multiple uniquely different stratigraphic layers, not to mention the problem of the transition from floating in water to encased in rock, and maintaining the floating order during this process.
Re: You're right, uniformitarianism should not be taught!
I read Holmes's reply, and I think I had the same reaction. It isn't important that you agree, but I didn't see any sign of comprehension, and that mystifies me. It isn't like the definitions of uniformitarianism or the history of geology are rocket science, but let me respond to what you say and see if something resembling progress emerges.
I oppose uni because it was conceived not because the evidence of observation pointed that way,...because it was wrong when it was conceived (as it was defined by Lyell),...
This part *really* puzzles me because it directly contradicts what I described in my previous message, and yet instead of introducing counterarguments or countervailing evidence, you instead just declare these errors as if they were facts. The history of geology during the 19th century is extremely well documented, and you cannot rewrite it just to suit your antagonisms toward uniformitarianism.
Even if uniformitarianism were everything you think of it, even if it were a bald fact that uniformitarianism today were understood to be wrong and misguided and misleading and so forth, that would not change the facts of history that it was observation and evidence gathering by men sincerely seeking evidence of the flood that instead revealed an earth of great antiquity formed by the familiar everyday processes of erosion and sedimentation, and by the newly discovered process of uplift.
Not only did the evidence "point that way", but it still points that way. If you had gotten anything out of my previous post, it should have been that not only was uniformitarianism supported by the evidence when first introduced, it is *still* supported by the evidence today. That's why I said it is not even taught anymore because the concept, though not the term, has become an underlying principle of geology. I'm boggled that you would conclude with this:
quote:If you don't like the term uniformitarianism then you're in good company. I'll bet most geologists don't like it either.
LOL! So maybe there is hope, and the concept will bite the dust after all.
I was talking only about the *term* uniformitarianism, not the concept. I'm mystified why you would think a concept that I described as having become woven into the very fabric of geology could "bite the dust." You could as rationally speculate that light will bite the dust as a concept within vision.
...but for reasons of opposing the religiously minded,...
Once again, this contradicts history on a point about which it is absolutely clear. We have letters in the man's very own hand. Lyell, often given credit for uniformitarianism but he was following ideas introduced by Hutton in the prior century ("the present is the key to the past"), was deeply religious, and only became more so with age. While Lyell's principles guided Darwin's geological thinking, Lyell and Darwin disagreed deeply about evolution. Lyell firmly believed in the Bible and the divine origin of life, and with sufficient intensity to prevent his following his ideas to their logical conclusion. The geologists of the day were fairly religious as a group, it was the norm for the Victorian era, and there was no thought of using their science as a tool to oppose their own religion.
The 19th century debate between catastrophists and uniformitarians was not so much a religious debate, though certainly it was full of religious overtones, as a scientific one. Both catastrophists and uniformitarians were seeking, though less so with time through the 19th century, to reconcile the evidence with Biblical accounts, and unfortunately for the catastrophists, the evidence held that the earth was predominantly shaped by gradual processes acting over long time periods.
As for it not being taught but deeply assumed, I think you are right, although it is found in textbooks.
Of course it is found in textbooks. In any decent geology textbook, it is found in the section on the history of geology, and nowhere else. I happen to have 3 geology textbooks, and I just checked the entry for uniformitarianism in all 3, and it is just as I said. Uniformitarianism is mentioned only as a point of history of geology, and is mentioned nowhere else in any of the books. But the main concept of uniformitarianism, a basic principle of geology, like the Cheshire cat's smile, remains with us still: the present is the key to the past.
Now, I am sure we all here agree that the Earth was formed by both slow long gradual processes and sudden upheavals, regardless of the terminology.
Depends what you mean by sudden upheavals. I was pretty specific when I asked in my previous message whether you meant pushing up mountain ranges in a year. If that's what you mean, then no, we definitely do not agree, and you have no evidence supporting your position that such is possible.
(Let's leave the biblical flood out of it, shall we?)
If you don't accept the flood, then fine, we'll leave it out. But if you *do* accept the flood, then why hide what you believe? Come on, Tamara, answer honestly - we're really talking about the flood, aren't we.
The problem comes when geologists, who hold uni deep in their assumptions and priorities, come to evaluate some part of the geologic record, or some formation.
What they hold deep in their assumptions is not uniformitarianism but naturalism. This is the concept that was originally embodied by Hutton's "the present is the key to the past." Natural forces shape our planet today, and those same natural forces shaped our planet in the past.
It does not make sense to make an apriori assumption that a formation X came about by slow processes over thousands of years when the possibility also exists that it came about as a result of a hurricane in a few hours.
This reveals little understanding of the way geological processes work. Sediment dropped by the violence of a hurricane in no way resembles the sediment of a quiet lake or sea. A geologist doesn't approach a formation with a priori assumptions that it's a quiet lake, but rather with a priori assumptions that the same processes that deposit sediment today also deposited sediment millions of years ago. If he finds tiny grain sizes he concludes quiet lake or sea, because today we find tiny grain sizes are only deposited by quiet water. And if he finds large grain sizes then he concludes violent event, because that's what we see happening today.
Percy, don't patronize me. I am trying to make up my mind about something, and do not appreciate condescension. I do appreciate the various points and information you have provided, and that goes for others here as well.
I wasn't patronizing you. I was dumbing it down appropriate to your previous message, which was notable for the lack of comprehension it displayed and for the several severe factual errors it contained. If you don't want to feel patronized then spend the effort necessary for understanding what was said and for getting your facts straight. You should be directing your anger in the opposite direction.
I could have said instead, geologists looking at craters and dutifully explaining them as volcanic for a long time when the evidence spoke for impact. But no matter... it was just an example, and I think there is general agreement here that geologic events ought to be approached on their own merit.
You can move the target or adjust your sights and I have no problem with it, but this isn't the same point you were making before. You were accusing uniformitarianism of causing improper bias in geological assessments, and I think we've pretty much shown this is not the case. But here you are critisizing geology not for anything having to do with uniformitarian principles, which is the topic of this thread, your thread, but for taking a while to ferret out the true origins of some craters.
We could move on to this new topic, but that should be done in a new thread. Are we done with uniformitarianism?
One of the points that Sylas and I have been making is that the term uniformitarian is not a common term in modern geology. Geologists wouldn't call themselves uniformitarian. They wouldn't apply the term uniformitarian to their analytical principles. It isn't that modern geology isn't uniformitarian, it's just that the term is somewhat archaic and carries some historical baggage, rendering it no longer properly descriptive. I'm surprised to hear that the term is being taught (in high school?) as if it were part of the modern geological lexicon.
In your earth science text, is uniformitarianism used in describing the modern perspective, or is it only mentioned in the parts covering the work of Hutton and Lyell?
Many geologists would be happier with some other term.
Well, not exactly. This implies that geologists are still using the term. They're not. The "uniform" part of uniformitarianism carries with it an implication, to most people upon first hearing it, of a constancy of process rates over time, and so the term is disfavored now because this is not the current definition.
Geologists today, to the extent they put a label on it, probably consider themselves naturalists. They believe the planet is shaped by natural forces today, and that those same natural forces acted to shape the planet in the past. They assume when they examine a structure or stratum that it will contain evidence of natural processes.
This does not mean that these processes themselves can be assumed...to have functioned the same way long ago.
This would be incorrect. Other things being equal, processes today are expected to have functioned the same way long ago. Quiet seas today leave fine-grained sediment, and we expect that to have been true in the past. For cases where conditions in the past were radically different than today, for instance, before there was significant oxygen in the atmosphere and so we have no modern real-world examples of oxygen-free ecologies and geologies in action, we still expect the physical laws governing the behavior of matter today to have governed the behavior of matter long ago.
I've never used Wikipedia myself as a reference source, but judging by the definition you just quoted I would avoid it.
Re: Question about Public School Geology Text Books
For the most part I don't usually care about specific terminology. In most cases I just want to agree on terms and then move on into the discussion, and so even in the case of uniformitarianism I think what you're already doing sounds excellent.
But I guess I react differently about uniformitarianism when it comes to the Creation/evolution debate because the common Creationist misconceptions seem so easy to avoid. An oft repeated criticism issued by Creationists is that uniformitarianism is self-evidently wrong because of volcanoes, floods and earthquakes, and how could we have our heads wedged so tightly in such a dunderheaded viewpoint.
As I said earlier, geologists don't even think of themselves as uniformitarians - the term finds very little modern application. If the word were different, but had the precise same meaning, I think a lot of pointless discussion would be alleviated. If the word had instead been presentkeytopasttarianism then Creationists, and tons of other people, would not be continually making the same obvious misinterpretations of the word.
So I guess I was improperly trying to throw responsibility for this mess onto the educational system. Can't you guys tell the students, "Hey, now that you know the concept, please forget the word that goes with it because it causes all hell to break loose with Creationists."
Impressive mastery in a very short time, but I still have to quibble about one thing:
Neither does it mean that the processes in evidence today can be assumed to have functioned the same way long ago.
A fundamental tenet of geology is just the opposite, that, all other things being equal, long ago processes operated in the same way as today. I think perhaps you're trying to make a different point, maybe that it is possible that conditions at some points in the past might have no modern analogs.
YECs claim that since the old-fashioned form of uniformitarianism held sway in the past, data regarding the age of the earth are unreliable, because they build on knowledge that was built on top of this false assumption. How would you counter it, using examples that are easy to understand, and that do not get into arguing arcane points of radiometry?
This is the original point you expressed in this thread, and I would answer it the same way, not by getting into dating, but by correcting the misimpression about uniformitarianism.