What is Uniformitarianism?

Siccar Point, Scotland, where James Hutton observed sandstone formation.
Siccar Point, Scotland, where James Hutton observed sandstone formation.

Scientists have always developed laws and theories to be used to explain natural phenomena. These laws and theories are meant to make the understanding of that occurrence easier. Among the many laws available today is Uniformitarianism, coined by William Whewell based on the work of James Hutton.

What is Uniformitarianism?

Uniformitarianism is a term used to summarize the idea that the past natural processes bear similarities with today's processes and will keep on that way in future. The term was most utilized in the field of geology although it also applies to other areas.

It was first put in use by Willian Whewell in his review of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, in development of James Hutton's work on the subject from the 1790s.

The History of Uniformitarianism

The concept is the work of James Hutton while building what he called “deep time” as he tried to explain the geological developments. The term was later coined and developed by William Whewell, who in his description of Lyell called him a uniformitarian. However, the concept was mostly used by Lyell particularly in his pivotal work that was distributed in 1830, “Principles of Geology.”

Before the Hutton proposition, there had been Abraham Gottlob Werner proposal of Neptunism that took place between 1749 and 1817. Abraham posited that each stratum represented deposits that originated from seas and which later formed the granite rock.

For a long period, there was disagreement between Biblical literalists and deep-time scientists. The resultant outcome was the term catastrophism, that posed a threat to the existence of uniformitarianism, but was later brought into disreputation. The occurrence of various physical and geologic processes in a uniform manner propelled the term uniformitarianism to the highest level of acceptance. Although over a long time, historians have recognized that there had been an occurrence of minor and major catastrophic in the Earth and had left their marks in biological as well as geological annals. The events showed no proof of uniformitarianism nor the influence of the Biblical justification of the worldwide flood and the incidence was referred by various historians as the “albeit rare,” leaving the concept of uniformitarianism to outlive the catastrophism.

The Work of James Hutton

James Hutton is Scottish naturalist who wrote about the interaction between two layers of sandstone at the Scotland's Siccar Point made visible by weather changes. Hutton wrote that he saw sandstone beds lying horizontally on top of a slightly vertical layer of tilted sandstone. In what was called catastrophism by Whewell, the sandstone beds were as the results of high deposition of sand over a short period by brief-lived happenings.

Hutton indicated the opposite, that the beds of sandstone were the outcomes of the repetitive cycles of erosion and deposition over a significant period. He came to his conclusion that the bottom bed was deposited horizontally, later tilted and subsequently eroded as the younger bed got deposited.

Moreover, Hutton found out that the modern rivers at the Scottish coast eroded, and later deposited sand along the coast. He based his explanation of the term uniformitarianism on the same way those Scottish modern rivers eroded and deposited sand. Also, Hutton appreciated the fact that the formation of the sandstone beds took place slowly and not as quick as proclaimed by catastrophism.

The Significance of Uniformitarianism

The term uniformitarianism has competed with the term catastrophism for acceptance in the world, but ultimately earned the success.

Hutton became the first individual to write in recognition that human beings could know how the present geologic features, for example mountains and valleys, came to exist by observing the occurrences in today's world. He believed that uniformitarianism gave humans a means to comprehend past geologic events. This belief is summarized by the phrase, “the present is the key to the past.”

The concept of uniformitarianism has been applied in various geologic developments. Many examples of such practices have been advanced by different individuals. Among them are the erosion of the valleys by rivers, the formation of deltas, the growth of mountains at a higher rate than the rate of erosion, and the explanation that stalactites take many years to form just like the caves they are created in. Also, it has helped in knowing that for sedimentary rock to form, it must erode bit by bit, and the sediment that occurs as a result of the occurrence get deposited a layer after another over a long period.

The concept has also led to the establishment of other accepted wisdom. For example, the idea that the planet Earth is an ancient place. This belief came as a result of the years required by geologic features like delta in rivers to form. The features need many years to come to be, an indication that for those geologic features to come into existence under the slowly operating processes, the Earth must have been there the longest period. The geologic time that was also known as “deep time” is the work of the Hutton that contradict the concept of catastrophism.

Criticism of Uniformitarianism

Scientific concepts have always faced backlash criticism, and uniformitarianism has not escaped that. Many creationists and scientists, among others, have voiced their criticism. They argued that natural laws have reformed over a period, notably that God has altered them to establish means of solving what Earth creationists called “inconsistencies of observed phenomena” in line with the honest truth to God.

Creationist also challenged various methods used to prove uniformitarianism such as radiocarbon dating that such accounts go against the Biblical explanation and therefore they are false. They also posit that actual scientists have no business presuming that physical laws remained constant for an extended period and any assumption made from such process is null and void.


More in World Facts