Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Catastrophism

Two events quite recently reminded me of Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979), a Russian-born American scholar. One was a post on Siris (here) about the prehistoric temple site in Turkey called Göbekli Tepe, presumed to be at least 11,000 years old but possibly begun 13,000 years ago. The other was seeing Nova’s program, Megabeasts’ Sudden Death, on Public Television last night. The story makes a very good case, based on examination of glaciers, that the woolly mammoth and other large creatures of North America may have been killed off by a devastating comet strike about 12,900 years ago.

I got interested in Velikovsky—as in other heterodox figures of my own time—in a home-made education that I sometimes liken to the progress of an ass dragging a plow from cactus to cactus; donkeys are said to be able to digest such prickly goods; or this may merely be a fitting myth to characterize the likes of me. This happened in the 1960s. I bought and read in succession some of Velikovsky’s books: Worlds in Collision, Ages in Chaos, and Earth in Upheaval, all published in the 1950s. Velikovsky’s thesis in a nutshell? Many geological, climatic, and historical accounts are best explained by astronomical events of a catastrophic nature. A good deal of discussion in the late 1950s and early ‘60s focused (believe it or not) on the likelihood of global cooling. This got me thinking about, and researching, the cause of the ice ages. I stumbled on Velikovsky in that context and stayed to study his strange theories.

Catastrophism and gradualism are as perennial and persistent in human thought as Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to reality. Two figures whose lives bridged the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the Frenchman George Cuvier (1769-1832) and the Englishman Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Cuvier attempted to explain anomalous phenomena in geology and fossil remains by catastrophic causes; Lyell was a gradualist and influenced Darwin. Someone—perhaps it was Velikovsky—suggested that the English embraced gradualism in horror of the French Revolution. And the Anglo-Saxon world dominance that marked the last century explains why we are all gradualists now. All except the donkeys, of course. The truth of the matter might have been expressed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was once handed two speeches on the same subject, one pro and one con. He handed them to another speech writer and suggested that he sort of blend the two into a third. Catastrophism is not incompatible with gradualism. To combine them we might adopt a phrase of Stephen Jay Gould’s and speak of “punctuated equilibrium.”

In its program on the mammoths, Nova duly bowed in the direction of gradualism by producing professors who expressed deep reservations of extinction by cometary bombs descending from the sky. The tone adopted was all too familiar: superior and dismissive, ex cathedra, as it were. This attitude has always struck me as odd and unscientific—and a signal that ideology is present. Even in a modern landscape scoured clean of any hint of God, scientism spontaneously rears back from anything that might even remotely be read as an act of God.

To this I might add a couple of footnotes. I once conceived of a short story the chief merit of which was its punning title: Dis-Aster. Yes. You guessed it. Someone started a huge comet on its way to Earth to make some point or other—embarrass NASA? To let NASA shine in averting the horror and thus gain additional funding? In any case, just two sheets of notes survive. Thus the first footnote ends and the next begins. Its thrust is to suggest that the imagination soars just pondering whole series of ancient civilizations that might once have flourished before current memories even began…of which Göbekli Tepe might be a token remnant. It delights me to see things open up in all dimensions, up, down, and in both vectors of time.

The three books referenced on Amazon:
Worlds in Collision
Ages in Chaos
Earth in Upheaval

1 comment:

  1. With the catastrophic aftermath of the recent earth quake in Haiti and other such, not to mention the sorts of sudden shifts in socio political realities these days, it's a wonder we resist the idea of catastrophism.

    Very interesting post!

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