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In the context of astronomy as well as geology and paleontology, catastrophism represents a scientific paradigm that assumes the paramount importance of catastrophic events for the history of our solar system , the earth and the development ( evolution ) of living beings. The term catastrophism was coined in 1832 by the British philosopher and natural scientist William Whewell (1794–1866) as an antithesis to uniformitarianism (German: actualism ). In the history of modern science, catastrophism could not prevail over actualism and is now marginal compared to the scientific mainstream with regard to the theories about the causes of the evolution of the living world. However, the catastrophic and actualistic viewpoints are no longer mutually exclusive, but complement each other, since, according to the current state of research , global mass extinctions have occurred several times in the course of evolutionary history .

Like actualism, catastrophism understands itself as a secular paradigm that does not recognize any divine influences on history, but only relies on natural (and scientifically investigable) causes as an explanatory model. As a secular paradigm, catastrophism should therefore be differentiated in terms of its self-image from the creationism of Christian , Jewish and Islamic fundamentalists , which is based on a literal, non-metaphorical interpretation of relevant accounts of creation. With regard to the image of history, there are important similarities between creationism and catastrophism:

In a way, catastrophism seeks to correct the idea of ​​the enormous length of geological and astronomical time periods. In contrast to classic actualism (or rather: gradualism ), the catastrophic view of nature is based on one-off and irreversible events that can pass very quickly and still cause major and lasting changes.

Since the middle of the 20th century, catastrophism has also enjoyed increasing popularity among supporters of religiously motivated creationism and pseudoscientific chronology criticism, who, however, have strayed far from the originally scientific approaches of catastrophism. Occasionally the constancy and general validity of the laws of nature is even questioned ( see exceptionalism ).

Catastrophism in Science

Geology and paleontology

Artist's impression of the Flood by Gustave Doré .
Hortus Deliciarum : Moses and the people of Israel experience a
retreat of the Red Sea while fleeing Egypt . After they have crossed the area, the pursuing Egyptian army is engulfed by the returning water masses.

The French naturalist Georges de Cuvier (1769–1832) with his theory of cataclysm is considered the founder of catastrophism . Cuvier suspected that at the end of individual geological epochs, all animals and plants in a certain area were destroyed by huge natural disasters ("revolutions"). Like most of his contemporaries, he was thinking primarily of major floods, as his geognostic studies of the Paris basin made him aware of various geological layers, some of which consist of limnic and others of marine sediments with corresponding fossils that testify to the Mesozoic sea ​​transgressions . In contrast to his predecessors, such as the English physics professor John Woodward (1665–1728) and the Swiss naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733), Cuvier believed that the biblical flood had been preceded by many earlier upheavals. The versatile English naturalist Robert Hooke (1635–1703) had already been able to prove that the huge fossil layers deposited in the overburden could not be deposited within a single flood lasting only 150 days. In order to explain the striking changes in the fossil record of the rocks that can be observed everywhere , Cuvier hypothesized that the destroyed organisms had been replaced by other newly immigrated species after each of the disasters. The transformation of species proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck for the first time in the history of the natural sciences was rejected by Cuvier. The geologist and theologian William Buckland (1784–1856) is considered to be a representative of the Flood faith in geology . Today it is undisputed that sea ​​transgressions have occurred several times in the history of the earth , but not the entire continents, but only parts of them were covered by extensive shallow seas. The area on the Red Sea mentioned in biblical history was also affected several times, although the times used in the Bible do not correspond to those of modern geology.

The idea of ​​a global flood soon combined with the ideas of the head of the Bergakademie in Freiberg, Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749–1817), which were very influential at the time, but are now outdated . In order to explain the layered structure of the rocks, Werner postulated the existence of a primordial primordial ocean, which once covered the whole world and from which all rocks gradually fell out as sediments ( Neptunism ). In modern mineralogy it has meanwhile been proven that, for example, ribbon iron ores were formed from iron (Fe 2 ) dissolved in water through oxidation to solid iron oxide (Fe 2 O 3 ) and (Fe 3 O 4 ), whereas igneous rocks were formed before they solidified in a melt were subject.

Based on the thoughts of the Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726–1797), who, as a staunch opponent of Werner, postulated the origin of all rocks from igneous and volcanic processes ( plutonism ), the actualistic ideas of the English geologist were largely set in the course of the 19th century Charles Lyell (1797-1875) by. Charles Darwin (1809–1882) took the view that the earth's body and living beings did not develop in rapid catastrophic leaps in a short time, but very slowly in many small, cumulative steps. Finally, Darwin believed that it was impossible to explain the events of the past through processes that could no longer be observed today ( gradualism ).

Some geologists on the European continent, such as Léonce Élie de Beaumont (1798–1874), were close to Plutonism because they emphasized the effects of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes on the shape of the earth , but remained catastrophists insofar as they the resulting formation of mountains ( orogeny ) considered a rapid, almost explosive process. Since the middle of the 19th century, the last catastrophists, such as the Swiss-American zoologist and geologist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), were increasingly accused of resorting to unscientific reasons for religious and supernatural reasons, such as direct intervention by God to explain the course of the earth's history .


Representation of the collision process when the moon was formed .

As early as 1745, the French private scholar Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707–1788) claimed that the earth was formed by the collision of a comet with the sun . However, in 1779 he assumed an age of at least 75,000 to 80,000 years. This represents the first known dating within modern science that no longer assumed the six thousand years calculated from the Bible. Because of the objection of the clergy at the Sorbonne, Buffon did not publish his writings.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the physicist Sir James Hopwood Jeans (1877–1946) also propounded in his popular books the hypothesis that our planetary system was formed by the near collision of our sun with another star. In the process, large amounts of substance were torn out of the sun, which condensed into planets and their moons. This hypothesis is now considered refuted.

In 1975, William Hartmann and Donald R. Davis published an article in which they set out how a grazing collision between the Proto-Earth and a large planetesimal 4.5 billion years ago could have contributed to the formation of the Moon by removing large amounts of rock from the Earth's mantle the glowing body of earth were torn away. This could explain the lower density of the moon and the lack of an iron-nickel core.

Indeed, crater counts and observations of the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter in 1994 confirmed the existence of "catastrophic" collisions in the solar system.

Newer catastrophic approaches

More than a hundred years after the appearance of Darwin's The Origin of Species , the first scientific criticism of the overly rigid actualism of Lyell's theory of evolution was voiced in the 1970s . The North American paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould postulated the possibility that a biological state of equilibrium, which was stable over long geological periods, can occasionally be broken by a "punctual" event, a short-term evolutionary surge ( punctualism ). While the founders themselves regard their theory only as a consistent synthesis of recent research results with classical Darwinism , some creationists who are faithful to the Bible, especially in the USA, value punctualism as a confirmation of their own ideas.

Map of the gravity anomaly of the Chicxulub impact. White lines represent the coastline and sink holes (zenotes) in the karstified rock.

The actual catastrophe theory in the geosciences received a new impetus in 1980 when the American Nobel laureate in physics Luis W. Alvarez and his son, the geologist Walter Alvarez , published their findings on the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary geological periods in Italy. There they had discovered an iridium anomaly in the sedimentary rocks , which they interpreted as a sign of an asteroid impact 65 million years ago. Later analyzes of rocks of the same age gave similar results worldwide. The researchers suspected that the impact of a 10-kilometer asteroid threw huge amounts of dust and soot into the atmosphere. This then caused a global climate change, and triggered a worldwide mass death of 70% of all living things ( see also nuclear winter ). Not only the dinosaurs fell victim to this event, known as the KT impact , but also large parts of the marine fauna , such as ammonites . After initial skepticism, this idea has caught on in broad circles. In 1990, the 180-kilometer-wide Chicxulub crater was discovered on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico , which is considered a witness of an impact. The connection with the extinction of species at the Cretaceous-Paleogene border is beyond question. But after the discovery of the crater, authors outside of the academic world wrote that the Pangea broke up as a result of this impact or a series of such impacts , although geological findings show that the continental plates had already started to drift apart in the Jurassic period .

Whether all mass extinctions in the history of the earth or evolutionary history can be explained so easily (e.g. at the Permian / Triassic border ) is a heated debate in science. However, the mechanisms used to explain mass extinctions are almost all of a catastrophic nature, such as extensive volcanism, climate change, or epidemics.

Further theories that state that cosmic catastrophes of this type afflict the earth at periodic intervals (e.g. about every 26 million years) have only a limited following. The North American researchers David Raup and John Sepkoski (junior) speculated that an unknown factor throws the comets in the Oort cloud from their orbit at periodic intervals and deflects them into the inner regions of the solar system, where they then clash with the planets should. One thinks here as a trigger z. As to the passage of the solar system through the plane of the galaxy , an unknown companion star to the sun called Nemesis or a hypothetical Planet X .

Other catastrophic approaches that have only been discussed and investigated in recent years are supervolcanoes and pole shifts , whereby influences on the hydrosphere and lithosphere are assumed and increased radiation is said to lead to increased mutation .

Catastrophism as an alternative holistic worldview

In the middle of the 20th century the catastrophic worldview was reworked by the psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsky . In his opinion, the world has not (only) obtained its present form in millions of years, but partly within only a few thousand years or even shorter periods of time. Likewise, our solar system in its current form is less than 15,000 years old. Velikovsky describes his theory in the book Worlds in Collision .

Subsequently, by equating catastrophic descriptive myths (e.g. the Egyptian plagues with unrest and famine, which are described in the Ipuwer papyrus ), he also developed a different chronology for ancient Egypt . See Ages in Chaos .

According to Velikovsky's view , humans displace the threatening, catastrophic worldview with the current worldview recognized today, which projects the causes and phenomena of today onto the past. This leads to u. U. neurotic behavior of social leaders that led to war and displacement as well as the exploitation of large parts of the population.

Velikovsky supports his theories with evidence from very different scientific disciplines, from physics to depth psychology to the analysis of myths .

After the republication of Velikovsky's works in 1978, the Society for the Reconstruction of Human and Natural History dealt with his theses. Since 1994 the journal Zeitensprünge has been a platform for chronological criticism and catastrophism in Germany. However, the interest of these authors seems to be tending to turn away from catastrophism and towards chronological criticism.

Gunnar Heinsohn , Professor of Social Pedagogy at the University of Bremen and one of the original members of the Society for the Reconstruction of Human and Natural History, has hypothetical explanations for the emergence of the first and second stages of high human civilization (civilization) on the basis of a catastrophic view of history inspired by Velikovsky ) suggested. The emergence of the first stage of high culture relates to the phenomena of sacrifice, priestly kingship and the state, the second to the phenomena of private property in land, loan agreements, interest and money.

In part following Velikovsky, Hans-Joachim Zillmer gained notoriety beyond the German-speaking area. Since 1998 he has been claiming in his books the effects of super floods and other huge natural disasters in the course of the earth's history and advocating a special young earth catastrophe theory . Zillmer also turned to the criticism of chronology through the effects of natural disasters up to historical times (6th / 9th and 14th centuries).

Uwe Topper originally pleaded for a sequence of four world ages , separated from each other by major catastrophes. Later he tried to prove the identity of Islam and Christian Arianism . The theses of Velikovsky, Heinsohn, Topper and Zillmer are rejected by recognized scientists.

Catastrophism and religion

As a rule, the large monotheistic religious associations today, such as the Catholic Church , the Orthodox Church , most Protestant churches , Judaism and Islam, assume that scientific knowledge and beliefs are in principle compatible. Only a few representatives of ultra-orthodox Judaism and Islamic as well as some Christian fundamentalists who see themselves as strictly religious deny the old age of the earth and the steady development of living beings. Myths such as the creation of the world in seven days or the flood are not only understood by them as factual reports, but also interpreted as being used by a higher (divine) force as a regulator.

Evangelical Christians in the United States, in particular, are often drawn to creationism and a catastrophic young earth theory . Much of this idea goes back to the Canadian teacher George McCready Price (1870–1963), a Seventh-day Adventist member . In his books at the beginning of the 20th century he questioned the informative value of conventional geological dating and instead used the Flood to explain the phenomena observed. In the 1960s the American hydraulic engineer Henry M. Morris (1918-2006) popularized these ideas.

Gunnar Heinsohn , who is close to the catastrophism of Velikovsky, takes the view that the sacrificial cult and the priesthood (1st stage of high culture) arose in parallel on (almost) the whole world through celestial phenomena and catastrophes to deal with aggression. To this end , he interprets the stories of world ages that are contained in many mythological traditions and ended by catastrophes as factual reports . He first described his theses around the mid-1980s together with Christoph Marx and, based on Velikovsky, resorted to psychoanalytic interpretation models. Heinsohn puts forward the thesis that anti-Semitism found its origin in the general rejection and exclusion of the Pharisees (the original movement of the Jews ), as these had been around since around 600 BC. Starting from the progenitor Abraham refused to continue sacrificing and thus caused feelings of guilt among the priests who continued to sacrifice. However, this thesis does not explain why other religious and ideological groups that also refuse to sacrifice themselves, such as Buddhism or the philosophy of the Enlightenment, are not persecuted with the same sharpness as Judaism (which, according to Heinsohn's explanatory model, should be the case).

See also


  • G. Cuvier: Discours on the revolutions de la surface du globe . (Full text) Paris 1825
  • G. Cuvier: Essay on the Theory of the Earth . London 1817. (full text)
  • Trevor Palmer: Controversy - Catastrophism and Evolution - the ongoing Debate . New York 1999, ISBN 0-306-45751-2 .
  • N. Eldredge, SJ Gould: Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism. In: T. Schopf (Ed.): Models in Paleobiology. Freeman, Cooper and Co., San Francisco 1972, pp. 82-115; reprinted in: N. Eldredge: Time frames. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ 1985, p. 193. ( PDF document )
  • S. Allan, JB Delair: When The Earth Nearly Died. Gateway Books, 1995. (in the USA under Cataclysm. Bear & Co., 1997) ( online excerpts ; English)
  • G. Heinsohn: The creation of the gods. The sacrifice as the origin of religion. Publisher Rowohlt, 1997, ISBN 3-498-02937-1 . ( online excerpt )
  • Klaus-Peter Kelber : Dying and new beginnings in the mirror of the paleoflora. In: W. Hansch (ed.): Catastrophes in the history of the earth - turning times of life. museo 19, Heilbronn 2003, pp. 38–59, 212–215. ( PDF, 17 MB)
  • Ch. Marx, G. Heinsohn: Collective repression and the compulsive repetition of human sacrifice. 2nd Edition. PAF publisher, 1984.

Web links

Individual evidence

  4. Emil Hoffmann: Evolution of the earth and life. Norderstedt 2015.
  8. a b Gunnar Heinsohn: The creation of the gods. The sacrifice as the origin of religion. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1997, ISBN 3-498-02937-1 .
  9. ^ Gunnar Heinsohn: Private property, patriarchy, money economy. A social-theoretical reconstruction of antiquity. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1984, ISBN 3-518-28055-4 .