Earth in Upheaval
Abacus, 1973 (1st Ed., 1955)
263 pp., pb.
Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) was one of the most controversial figures in modern geology. A Russian Jew by birth, a psychiatrist by profession, and an ardent Zionist, he set out to rebut Sigmund Freud's book Moses and Monotheism, in which Freud argued that the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton was the source for Jewish monotheism. Velikovsky set out to prove that the Exodus was a real historical event. In order to do so, however, he had to challenge widely accepted notions about archaeology, geology and astronomy.
Earth in Upheaval, first published in 1955, was Velikovsky's effort to deal with the geological evidence. In it he challenged the uniformitarian assumptions of the day, and argued the case for a form of catastrophism. Unlike Henry M. Morris, however, who tried to tie all of the evidence to a single catastrophe, the Genesis Flood, Velikovsky argued for multiple catastrophes, including one that he said took place at the time of the Exodus, which he placed at ca. 1400-1300 B.C.
Velikovsky's argument throughout the book is that there is ample evidence for multiple catastrophes throughout the earth's history for which uniformitarianism has no adequate explanation. He cites the example of several caves in northern England and Wales which are now hundreds of feet above sea level and contain the bones of numerous species of animals including, interestingly, hippopotami, which are normally found in tropical climates. How, one might ask, did hippos make their way to England?
Sir Charles Lyell, the father of uniformitarianism, speculated that during the summertime hippopotami would swim northward along the Mediterranean coast, with others making their way up rivers in Spain and France. They would then, presumably, make the return trip to Africa before the winter set in.
Velikovsky could barely contain his laughter. "Hippopotami not only travelled during the summer nights to England and Wales, but also climbed the hills to die peacefully among other animals in the caves, and the ice, approaching softly, tenderly spread little pebbles over the travelers resting in peace, and the land with its hills and caverns in a slow lullaby movement covered them with rosy sand" (p.27).
The existence of fossils themselves makes any uniformitarian explanation unlikely. "The explanation of the origin of fossils by the theory of uniformity and evolution contradicts the fundamental principle of these theories: Nothing took place in the past that does not take place in the present. Today no fossils are formed" (p. 194).
Velikovsky, however, did not reject evolution. He argued, in fact, that only catastrophism can adequately explain evolution. If evolution proceeds along a path of slow, gradual progress the formation of new species would be practically impossible. Most randomly occurring mutations would prove useless and be eliminated by natural selection. In order for a new species to come into existence, a large number of beneficial mutations would have to occur all at once, or at least within a very short time span. This, Velikovsky contended, could only happen during a geological catastrophe, when groups of organisms are exposed simultaneously to significant amounts of radiation.
Nevertheless, Velikovsky's theory of multiple catastrophes faces daunting challenges. While the physical evidence for catastrophes is abundant and obvious, how does one sort out the evidence chronologically in a multiple event scenario? Velikovsly wanted to prove that the Exodus was a real historical event. But much of the evidence he discusses can be placed in the Ice Ages, long before the Exodus, and can probably be connected with what is now generally knows as "the Quaternary Extinction Event," which saw the extinction of a number of species of large mammals. Might this not rather be connected with the Flood?
And then there is the problem of causality. A catastrophist must argue that some cause must have operated in the past that is not normally present today. But how can one identify the cause of a given catastrophe?
It is at this point that we come up against the problem that faces anyone who engages in historical geology or historical biology. While we can see the physical effects of past events, we cannot observe directly the events themselves, much less what caused them. All we can do is to speculate about what might have happened. What caused the Ice Ages? What caused the numerous mammoths to freeze with fresh food still in their mouths? In some cases we can point to a likely cause, such as the asteroid that crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula and cause the Cretaceous - Paleogene Extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. In other cases we can rule out a hypothesis as being physically impossible. Velikovsky himself fell prey to this problem. He tried to explain various catastrophes in terms of changes in the orbits of several planets, which would violate the laws of physics! But in many cases the geologist is working with fragmentary evidence, and can only speculate about the cause of a given event. There is no way to test the hypothesis.
The challenge for the Christian believer is that even critics of uniformitarianism agree that there were successive geological ages before the appearance of human beings upon the earth. How long did these ages last? How old is the earth? Does it really matter from a theological point of view? As Velikovsky put it:
"I do not see why to a truly religious mind a small and short-lived universe is better proof of
its having been devised by an absolute intelligence. Neither do I see how by removing many
unresolved problems in geology to very remote ages we contribute to their solution or elucidate
their enigmatic nature" (p. 183).
Let it suffice that there is ample evidence in nature for both design and catastrophe.