Back when Luis and Walter Alvarez came up with their hypothesis that  the impact of a large asteroid ( or comet) caused the Cretaceous extinction,  most paleontologists didn’t like the idea – disliked the very taste of the idea, regardless of evidence.  They had been taught that the key processes of evolution and geology were gradual – not just that the same natural laws applied in the past as we see in the present (true as far as we can tell) , but that the predominant processes shaping the world and its life were (always !) generally similar to those we see today. In large part, this was was motivated by opposition to Biblical accounts of  the Flood, etc.  Catastrophism ( of any flavor)  was just wrong.

You could call them ‘base-raters’.

So there were reasons, what you might call philosophical and historical  reasons, for their dogged opposition to this new and highly catastrophic theory.  And have reading a number of books by prominent exponents of the position, people like Charles Officer, Jake Page, Dewey McLean and Gerta Keller, there was another factor:

They were quite stupid.







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39 Responses to Uniformitarianism

  1. Coagulopath says:

    The theory of paleo-weltschmerz states that dinosaurs became extinct due to boredom.

  2. Polymath says:

    Yes, there are a bunch of topics like this (not limited to science) where the establishment is strongly against an idea or theory, the sensibleness of which is manifest to any intelligent person from outside the field, and can only produce bad arguments against it, the fallaciousness of which is also clear to any objective and intelligent layman. Sometimes the establishment prevails for the length of a full academic career; sometimes the new ideas triumph quickly.

    I understand the reasons for the stupidity or venality of the establishmentarians. But it’s a puzzler how to structure incentives to fight this. One of the only ways I expect to work is what you do here, naming and shaming them for the benefit of later generations. As long as you are identifying the ones who were not merely wrong, but either stupid or selfishly motivated, you’re doing the Lord’s work.

    Scorn should also be heaped upon those who promoted or hired them and should have known better; for even though the blockers of truth might be too stupid to recognize themselves when seeing such anathemas, they must have, like Dilbert’s boss, possessed SOME capability to obtain the positions from which they did damage, and those who enabled them must also answer for their negligence.

  3. dearieme says:

    I vaguely remember a seminar where the speaker argued that what was believed about dinosaurs and what was believed about the atmosphere in their day were incompatible. If the atmospheric understanding was right the dinosaurs would all have died from overheating. If the dinosaurs thrived then conditions in the atmosphere were not what “everyone” believed them to have been.

    That was assuming that all the reconstructions of dinosaurs from the bones were right – that many of them were massive beasts.

  4. Dieter Kief says:

    is not that complicated to ignore new ideas. – Ignorance, one of the mightiest and most unerrated social facts.

    One of the rather interesting folks who dug this is German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger – he wrote an almost perfecly clear and insightful essay about this topic, called: “About Ignorance” – it can be found in his essay collection “Mediocrcity and Delusions – Collected Diversions” – 1992. One of my first dozen of Island-books.

  5. Thersites says:

    I still don’t buy the impact theory- if an asteroid wiped out all the dinosaurs millions of years ago, then how on Earth could the Challenger-Summerlee expedition have captured a living pterodactyl? E.D. Malone’s detailed account is irrefutable evidence on the matter.

  6. Dieter Kief says:

    It is not that complicated to ignore new ideas. – Ignorance, one of the mightiest and most underrated state of minds.

    One of the rather interesting people who dug this is the German essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger – he wrote an almost perfectly clear and insightful essayy about this topic, called: “About Ignorance” – it can be found in “Mediocrity and Delusions – Collected Diversions” – 1992

  7. marzaat says:

    One of my geology professors, Henri Lepp, had a similar tale when he and a co-author proposed that the Pre-Cambrian banded iron formations seen in various parts of the world were created by the oxygenation of the oceans when blue green algae first appeared. His critics said it violated uniformitarianism.

  8. You are describing functional versus organic stupidity.

  9. enalert says:

    Major extinction events. How apropos today.

  10. rgressis says:

    Greg, what proportion of the population do you think is stupid? My preliminary guess is that you think 99.999999875% of the population is stupid. (I.e., the top 1,000 minds are not stupid.)

  11. FkDahl says:

    My synkrotron physicist father in law used to say: the average person you meet is pretty dumb, and half are even worse!

    Apart from the Alvarez pere et fils there is also Bretz who laid out the evidence for catastrophic ice age flash floods sculpting the scab lands in Oregon/Washington.

  12. Russian evolutionary biologists argue against the impact-killed-the-dinos theory on several grounds:

    (a) there are plenty of other impacts of comparable size and iridium anomalies that don’t seem to have led to any noticeable extinctions, and on the other hand major extinction events such as P-Tr don’t have plausible impact events or fields of ejecta associated with them.

    (b) the synchronicity of the K-Pg iridium anomaly and the extinction of various groups is greatly exaggerated: the decline of the many marine groups that went extinct at K-Pg took 10-100 thousand years, rather than the few years of “asteroid winter” (itself a speculative phenomenon), the peaks of extinction rates for different groups can be off by tens of thousands of years, and some groups (e.g. ammonites) go extinct before the iridium anomaly.

    (c) K-Pg and other mass extinction events are selective in a way that is difficult to reconcile with the supposed global effects of an asteroid impact. Dinosaurs went extinct, but not crocodiles; phytoplankton was decimated, while land vegetation was hardly affected at all (major changes in land vegetation – the explosive radiation of flowering plants – and concomitant changes in land animals occurred about 30 million years before K-Pg, in middle Cretaceous).

    (d) The rate of extinction of dinosaur species had been more or less constant during the whole late Cretaceous, and is sufficient to explain their ultimate disappearance at K-Pg when combined with the fact that new dinosaur species stopped appearing some time in late Cretaceous.

    If there is a role for impacts and other sudden events, they say, it consists in releasing “internal strains” in the biosphere that had accumulated over prolonged intervals preceding such events, much, as I might add, as the present corona event seems to be releasing “strains” in human affairs, such as no longer realistic expectations, and the accumulated stupidity and obliviousness of reality in the ruling class.

    • Анисимов Дмитрий says:

      This isn’t a peer reviewed article, this is for children’s magazine.
      a) False. The Chixculub crater is the largest than any crater in Mesozoic or later. (but average reader isn’t going to actually check that)
      b) The suggested accuracies for these estimates is wishful thinking. Before impact theory nobody cared for these plus-minus 100k years (mind you, 100k years is 0.15% of its age of 65 million years).
      c) Dinosaurs are large animals (that is, some larger species might have only a few thousands individuals) and cannot hibernate, neither their eggs. Plant seeds often can sprout after few decades. I just love how this major
      d) You a have to be moron to actually believe that. Normally extinction curves are more like sigmoid curves rather than linear slopes. Often few genera outlive others by a long time. Would a certain refugium for dinosaurs without those placental mammals and other dinosaur-menacing taxa provide opportunity for some dinosaur genera to live for few tens of millions years longer (say, like New Zealand)? Or course it didn’t happen because dinosaurs went extinct due to impact event and not what you think.

      “Internal strain” theory is based on highsight bias. It’s so easy, knowing that a group went extinct, make just so stories about that it was evolutionary obsolete and blahblahblah.

      • So what if it’s not peer reviewed? You worship peer review now? As a man who participated in it on both ends, I can tell you it’s not all it’s touted to be. Oh no.

        (a) I didn’t say it wasn’t largest, I said comparable. 100km vs 120km vs 150km is comparable.
        (b) You obviously don’t understand how stratigraphy works. Radiometric dating is not nearly precise enough to date 100mya-range rocks to 10-100k years, only a moron would claim that. However, it is often possible to have relative dates for nearby layers with that precision, based on thickness of sediment layers. Obviously this relies on further assumptions, but they can be checked.

        All of paleontology is hindsight bias.

        • Hypoborean says:


          There is no impact crater of 120km diameter. If you mean 130km diameter, that impact happened 1.849 billion years ago.

          Of the two craters that were 100km in diameter, one is potentially linked to the Eocene-Oligocene extinction event (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popigai_crater).

          After that there’s a 90km impact that’s 580 million years old, then a 70km impact that’s on the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morokweng_crater).

          So, of the 7 largest impacts we can find, 3 are so old as to be outside the fossil record, 3 are linked to extinction events, and only ONE (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manicouagan_Reservoir) is definitively not on an extinction event (12+/- 2 million years off of the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event.

          Also note that one would naively assume that crater AREA, not crater radius would scale with impact, so Chicxulub would be 2.25x more powerful than Manicouagan or Popigai. [I’d have to sit down and review my impact mechanics to see if it’s radius squared or radius cubed but it’s almost certainly not linear in radius]

          Oh, and that ONE impact that didn’t trigger an era-changing extinction, Manicouagan? It might be linked to an earlier mid-Triassic mass extinction:

          “Although the Manicouagan impact could thus not have triggered the mass extinction at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary (impact likely having preceded extinction by 12 ±2 m.y.), the impact may possibly have triggered an earlier mass extinction at the Carnian/Norian boundary in the Late Triassic.”

        • Анисимов Дмитрий says:

          a) that’s what the text you linked says (even mentions 300 km which would have made sense, if it wasn’t pre-Cambrian)
          plus, as Hypoborean says, not diameter but area (or ejecta volume) matters.

          Yeah, one take take thickness of something and divide by sedimentation rate (probably measured somewhere else). Doesn’t mean it’d be accurate (rather than “precise”) though.

          but they can be checked.
          were they? All Yeskov here needs a number which is large enough just to disprove impact theory, but small enough to hide in estimation error and spottiness of fossil record. His preferred theory would go much better with values like 5-20 million years, but then 10-100 ky is fine too. He wrote about uselessness of absolute dates in paleontology in general.
          Why would they carefully estimate a number they have no use for, except contra impact theory?

          All of paleontology is hindsight bias.
          Some. Some is not; extinction of island fauna at invasions of “state of art” continental species is easily predictable. E.g. Thylacine in Australia vs dingo. It wouldn’t have been hindsight bias to predict extinction of Trilobites at point when they numbered few genera versus hundreds in prime time. It wouldn’t have been hindsight bias in early Cretaceous that Ichtryosaurs are going to be extinct. A Cretaceous observer would not have been able to observe these “internal strains”

    • Regret says:

      Dinosaurs might have been in trouble before before the impact, and maybe they could have survived it without those troubles, but that hardly make the impact irrelevant. No meteor, no dead dinosaurs.

      Dont miss the vaporized forest for the trees.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Dinosaurs were doing fine, except for neglecting their space-defense capabilities.

        • Regret says:

          Last I’d heard the latter part of the Cretaceous was marked by steady species loss without many new replacments showing up. As though marginal niches were becoming untenable due to some shared stress. Fox-like egg and baby eaters appearing?

          Could just be reading too much into the natural spottiness of the fossil record.

          • gcochran9 says:

            You heard wrong. They were doing fine. Paleontologists often thought otherwise, but that was mostly the Signor-Lipps effect.

          • Анисимов Дмитрий says:

            Some of species loss is probably North America becoming single continent again instead of several archipelagos at it has been thought many parts of Cretaceous.
            And you didn’t see any non-dinosaur replacements to dying dinosaurs until all non-avian dinosaurs were gone. — but you do for the taxa that didn’t die of catastrophe. Meaning this was spottiness.

    • avalanche of snowflakes says:

      Russian evolutionary biologists argue
      Exactly one Russian paleontologist argues this. The rest of the profession thinks he is nuts.


      BTW, he is also fantasy and science fiction writer, famous for his retelling of Lord of the Rings from Sauron’s point of view.
      Strongly recommended for anyone who want to free his mind from Gondorian propaganda.


  13. RBG says:

    When Gould points out your stupidity you have a problem. But, it’s just a function of worldview. People rarely go against core beliefs no matter what the evidence. You wouldn’t have religions still in existence otherwise.

  14. Jim O'Sullivan says:

    Having read?

  15. gothamette says:

    Some bigshot physicists objected to the Big Bang theory because the man who proposed it first was a priest, and it sounded too much like “and God created the world.”

  16. Philip Neal says:

    I think I am right in saying that no geological process operating today produces chalk, and that chalk is unique to the Upper Cretaceous period. The extensive continental seas of the late Cretaceous are also a puzzle. There may conceivably be more to it than the Chicxulub impact.

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