Saturday, July 21, 2012

Evidence, Standing, and Style of Presentation

More on Catastrophism. As a one-time science fiction writer—where the urge is sometimes great to produce a clean slate for a futuristic projections—the subject has always interested me. I entered this door when I discovered that geologists had varying explanations for ice ages. One of the first catastrophic figures I encountered was an obscure contemporary engineer named Chan Thomas. I learned of his theory in a news story in the Kansas City Star; I still have the clipping, now almost dark brown by long oxidation. He proposed that the crust of the earth, riding on a quasi-liquid layer, now and then slides—as someone in costume might move his mask so that, suddenly, the nose is at the top of his head. Thus the poles can move. And when they do, those portions of the earth’s crust that end up at the poles suddenly freeze over; the great masses of ice on the old poles, however, melt. This would suggest, of course, that once Michigan was in the Arctic Circle.

The theory intrigued me despite assurances that science had relegated Thomas to the Crackpot Circle. Then I learned that catastrophism had a serious lineage, of which perhaps the best know figure is George Cuvier (1769-1832). Cuvier persuaded me, waving his encouragement from the nineteenth century, that the facts of catastrophism were in the ground as it were. The cause of cataclysms eluded humanity—and Thomas, therefore, was just another figure who was trying to make sense of the quite incredible. Then Immanuel Velikovsky published his books beginning in 1950 (link to an earlier post). They are a kind of massive assembly of the evidence—together with a theory of why catastrophism has left its traces all over history and the physical world.

Now finally to my subject. The evidence is there, and the most careful write-up of it is by Cuvier. He also had standing. And the right style of presentation. Many others following him have added massively to his own evidence. Velikovsky, by contrast, had two important characteristics that went against him. He was a psychiatrist—therefore he had no standing. And he was a phenomenally good writer. All three of his books, Worlds in Collision, Earth in Upheaval, and Ages in Chaos have the gripping quality of thrillers—although the subjects would be, in most other hands, nothing of the sort.  Inspired by Velikovsky, no doubt, Chan Thomas later wrote his own book, The Adam and Eve Story: The History of Cataclysms (1966); it’s also categorized as a page turner. I’ve not read it, however, so this is hear-say.

Behind Velikovsky’s style is passion—in part aroused by the fantastic patterns his collations of published information revealed, in part by vehement opposition to his “heretical” approaches to a subject that had become sacrosanct when gradualism, based on the theories of Charles Lyell (in geology) and Charles Darwin (in biology), took hold. Cuvier and Lyell overlapped in time. Too bad, I say. This subject merits serious consideration. Cuvier’s findings have never been satisfactorily explained. The consolation is that Velikovsky offers some immensely entertaining summer reading. I’d start with Earth in Upheaval—which sticks closer to physical evidence. But if you’d rather contemplate Venus colliding with the Earth, why then it is Worlds in Collision.

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