Catastrophism Theory Explained


There are several theories offered through time which have attempted to explain how the Earth was initially formed. One of the dominant theories is the catastrophism theory, which suggests that the shape of our planet came through violent, but sudden, short, and potentially global events.

In catastrophism theory, a great flood would carve out valleys. Large earthquakes would push up mountain ranges. If plants or animals were living in the part of the world that was experiencing this upheaval, then they would become immediately extinct. Many have proposed such a theory because of the flood story of Noah found in Abrahamic texts, but the theory would rise in popularity in the 19th century thanks to the work of Georges Cuvier.

Flood Myths and How They’ve Influenced Science

Western society is predominantly Christian, whether the population is spiritual or not. Over time, there have been efforts made to draw parallels to current scientific findings and the tales that are offered in the Bible. Researchers sought out information from other cultures and religions to see if any similarities might exist.

Since most civilizations have an ancient flood myth or legend, the shared ideas become the foundation of a catastrophism theory. Mesopotamians, the Gun-Yu, the Mayans, and the Ojibwa tribe are just a handful of numerous cultures that all told of a flood narrative that could be seen as similar to the Genesis flood story.

Floods, however, are just one form of a catastrophe that may occur that could shape the planet. In the 20th century, another catastrophic event was proposed: an asteroid impact.

Asteroids and Why They Could Be So Very Deadly

In 1980, Walter and Luis Alvarez suggest that an asteroid with a diameter of 10 kilometers struck the planet. In their paper, they set the date of the impact to be during the late Cretaceous period. A specific date isn’t suggested, but the two men do suggest that the asteroid impact could be 66 million years old.

If such an impact happened, there would have been global weather implications. An ice age may have even started. The researchers estimated that up to 70% of all species would have become extinct from such a catastrophic event.

Little attention was initially paid to this theory, but that all changed in 1990 when a 180-kilomter crater was located in Mexico. It was the right size for an asteroid to be able to cause the levels of damage required for a large-scale extinction event.

Could the Moon Be Part of Catastrophism Theory?

There are modern suggestions which use the catastrophism theory as the foundation for how the large moon of Earth was initially formed. William Hartmann and Donald Davis proposed in 1975 that if a large planetoid or planetesimal passed close to Earth as it was beginning to take shape, rocky debris would have blown from the surface of the planet. This could have created the moon and could even be responsible for the asteroid belt in the solar system.

Criticisms of Catastrophism Theory

Catastrophism theory is a compromise that attempts to bridge the gaps between creationism and uniformitarianism. Uniformitarianism theories require a large quantity of time to explain the formation of the Earth. Catastrophism does not require a lengthy timeline at all. It would be entirely possible with this theory to have the 6 days of creation from Genesis be accurate under the right set of natural conditions.

That may explain the various discrepancies that some see in the fossil record. It does not account for the various changes that would also likely take place under such circumstances. A catastrophic impact, for example, is more likely to create several moons instead of just one. It would also potentially create a ring or a set of rings around our planet. Evidence of this happening from impacts on other planetary bodies within our solar system suggests that elements of the theory may not be true.

Geomorphological events are more common than catastrophic events, though they occur with a lower level of magnitude. Over time, geomorphological events can transform a landscape in a way that is similar to what catastrophism theory describes.

The reality of our world is that there is likely a combination of forces that occurred historically for our planet to be what it is today. Some events may have been catastrophic. Others may have occurred over long periods of time. What we do know is that events which we may perceive as catastrophic are also events that are natural, which means it is up to us to understand the nature of the universe better so we can work to ensure our survival as a species.