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Uniformitarian catastrophism - nowhere near as cohesive or compelling as Velikovsky
on 22 April 2012
Having read most of the available theories on "catastrophism", especially the works of Immanuel Velikovsky, and having long studied ancient history from angles which would generally be considered as unconventional, I am of course well aware there is much evidence proving beyond doubt that the history of human civilisation is shockingly incomplete. Artefacts such as the Antikythera Mechanism demonstrate that people at some point in dim and hoary antiquity possessed technology which would not have been out of place in the early 1900s, and astronomical and mechanical knowledge apparently superior to our own (after a century we still cannot say for sure that we have unravelled all of its secrets). How far back exactly this object dates is not known, and probably impossible to ascertain for certain. Nevertheless, without a shadow of doubt the ancients possessed advanced knowledge of the workings of the heavens and how to track and record the movements of the celestial bodies. Indeed it is now well established that even African tribes such as the Dogon have possessed for millenia astronomical knowledge which has only been confirmed by our modern technology in the past century or so.
Yet there is no record of where this knowledge came from, or when it originated. Clearly then, the record of human history is a much disturbed one with certain epochs now probably lost to us forever and others which live on only in the most nebulous of ancient traditions. The doctrine of uniformity is therefore clearly inadequate to explain our past, and the more one studies it the more one realises it is not only inadequate but complete nonsense. There have been cataclysms in the past, cataclysms which came close to ending all life on earth, which raised mountains and sunk continents, which caused massive global vulcanism, and which moved the earth from its orbit and reversed its magnetic poles. Some of these occurred within the memory of modern man. The most complete and compelling treatment of these is undoubtedly that of Immanuel Velikovsky in Worlds in Collision, Earth in Upheaval, In the Beginning (unpublished, available at the Velikovsky Archive) and the Ages in Chaos series.
One of the most compelling thing about Cataclysm! however, despite its rather misleading title, is, to my mind, the amazing similarities at times to Velikovsky's work. It actually felt at times like reading a combined and reworded version of Worlds in Collision and Earth in Upheaval together, and I feel quite sure that if this work had been written by someone challenging established beliefs too far, like Velikovsky did, a case for plagiarism would quickly be made, and without a doubt it would stick. Delair and Allan, sadly, do not challenge any beliefs. The theory they serve up is so speculative and so stupendously far-fetched that it discredits itself and, perhaps intentionally, the whole field of catastrophism. The authors also on a number of occasions seek (unsuccessfully) to refute Velikovsky - even to the extent of misrepresenting him. It seemed to me that this was one of the main points of the book, and like all such attempts to debunk Velikovsky's work it is painfully obvious that these authors did not even bother to read Worlds in Collision before misquoting him. This demonstrates their total lack of academic integrity and is but one in a long list of examples of shoddy and incomplete scholarship.
Their theory essentially is that a fragment of debris from a supernova in a nearby part of the galaxy, not an asteroid or comet but something new, something no-one has ever thought of before (!) came careening through the Solar System and played pinball with the planets (the author's own words) before falling into the sun. Along the way this object destroyed the odd planet here and there, captured the odd moon or small planet, and produced all the signs which other authors have more compellingly ascribed to other cosmic cataclysms. There was, according to these authors, only one cataclysm in earth history and it was the one they describe. Any evidence to the contrary is simply ignored or misrepresented to fit the picture the authors were clearly desperate to paint right from the start, and their analysis of ancient traditions before fitting them into their thesis is woefully inadequate. With no attempt whatsoever to establish any temporal synchronism they simply insist that any and every historical reference that can possibly be mistranslated or otherwise misrepresented into supporting their theme points to that time.
The authors, like all uniformitarians-at-heart, rely heavily on the results of radio-carbon dating, a method of dating which according to its inventor Libby is dependant for its accuracy upon the requirement that the rate at which cosmic rays strike the earth has not changed in the past twenty thousand years or so. Yet the claims advanced in Cataclysm! would necessarily involve massive changes in the number of cosmic rays striking the earth, not to mention changes in the ratios of radioactive and non-radioactive carbons due to increased vulcanism and burning of hydrocarbons on the earth's surface, etc. They therefore choose not to mention this insignificant little detail and indeed act as though completely unaware of it. This would not surprise me too much, except that I find it difficult to believe that such scholars could be ignorant of such widely-known subjects; I can therefore only conclude that they simply choose to ignore anything that might invalidate their claims. Just another example of their non-existent scientific standards. Another related example lies in the fact that they are apparently unaware that Velikovsky himself wrote a very detailed paper, The Pitfalls Of Radio-Carbon Dating, and corresponded at length with Libby (all available online at the Velikovsky Archive); indeed, Velikovsky more than anyone was responsible for highlighting the shortcomings of carbon dating, shortcomings which Libby himself acknowledged yet chose to ignore - as did these authors.
Unfortunately, after waiting eagerly for the delivery of this book I was hugely disappointed when I read it. Sadly, to me it read either like a deliberate hatchet job or childishly nonsense, and sometimes both, as well as an exercise at damage limitation: the theories of uniformitarianism have been consistently undermined for so long that it is surely by now apparent to the most conservative of academics that it is no longer possible to cling to all of them. If the damage to the doctrine of uniformity can be limited to accepting the reality of only one cataclysm - too far in the past to learn anything useful from, whilst stressing this was an isolated event and that uniformity is otherwise the norm, then the academic stagnation which is the inevitable result of a status quo such as exists at present will continue and authors such as these can bask in the warm glow of success, fortunately ignorant of the knowledge that the only kind of society in which they could ever be successful is a backward one. They therefore attempt to explain away the Solar System's obviously recently cataclysmic past by lumping all the evidence for all cosmic cataclysms into one holistic but unconvincing theory whilst at the same time apparently trying to discredit any notions of catastrophism - including their own, strangely enough. I could spend the rest of my life pointing out in detail why Cataclysm! is far more the work of pseudo-science than anything Velikovsky and many other "catastrophists" ever wrote. Suffice to say, however, that their uniformitarian leanings and therefore the real point of the book are best highlighted in the authors' own words:
Despite its awesome destructive powers, however, the disaster was essentially a solitary event punctuating the uniformitarian normality of the solar system and which, among other effects, terminated a long and idyllic terrestrial regime anciently remembered as a 'Golden Age'. This had been an excellent expression of Lyellian uniformity on Earth. Now it was shattered and gone. Long aeons would and are to pass before such conditions become general once more. (p.231 - 232)
This is not to say that Cataclysm! is completely worthless; indeed, the authors present much irrefutable evidence that there have been cataclysms in the not-too-distant past, actually repeating much that Velikovsky had earlier presented in Earth in Upheaval (see my earlier complaint), and that there does appear to be some evidence pointing to some kind of cataclysm around the time they talk about. However, the method by which they arrived at the exact year this event occurred is perhaps one of the most stunningly speculative pieces of wishful thinking I have ever read in a supposedly scholarly work. This rests on Plato's apparent dating of the fall of Atlantis to nine thousand years before his time, as well as the idea that the Pleistocene epoch ended approximately 11,500 years ago - this, despite the lengths to which they earlier went to point out that, with the discrediting of the theory of ice ages, these geological eras are purely arbitrary and partly non-existent ("an icy chimera"). This is simply another example of their cherry-picking of evidence and it seemed to me that even they became confused on occasion as to whether they were discrediting or reinforcing the doctrine of uniformity. Incidentally, Velikovsky wrote at length about this earlier cataclysm (and others) and far more convincingly ascribed the events to a collision of some kind between Jupiter and Saturn; the evidence he presents is far more compelling (see In The Beginning), as is his assertion that it is impossible to even guess at the actual dating of the event although he guessed within the last ten thousand years; again the authors seem to be or act as though they are completely ignorant of Velikovsky's work in this area.
In short, the whole theory and the method by which it is presented and "proved" is too fantastic and unbelievable, in my opinion, and is quite obviously a mish-mash of the evidence for a number of different cataclysms all lumped together. I hate to say it, but I really wished I had not wasted the money....