Catastrophism and uniformitarianism: logical roots and current relevance in geology

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45 Scopus citations


This paper is included in the Special Publication entitled 'Lyell: the past is the key to the present', edited by D.J. Blundell and A.C. Scott. Catastrophism in the Earth sciences is rooted in the view that Earth signifies its causative processes via landforms, structures and rock. Processes of types, rates and magnitudes not presently in evidence may well be signified this way. Uniformitarianism, in contrast, is a regulative stipulation motivated by the presumed necessity that science achieves logical validity in what can be said (hypothesized) about the Earth. Regulative principles, including simplicity, actualism and gradualism, are imposed a priori to insure valid inductive reasoning. This distinction lies at the heart of the catastrophist versus uniformitarian debates in the early nineteenth century and it continues to influence portions of the current scientific program. Uniformitarianism, as introduced by Charles Lyell in 1830, is specifically tied to an early nineteenth century view of inductive inference. Catastrophism involves a completely different form of inference in which hypotheses are generated retroductively. This latter form of logical inference remains relevant to modern science, while the outmoded notions of induction that warranted the doctrine of uniformitarianism were long ago shown to be overly restrictive in scientific practice. The latter should be relegated solely to historical interest in the progress of ideas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)171-182
Number of pages12
JournalGeological Society Special Publication
StatePublished - 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Ocean Engineering
  • Geology


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