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Is the Present the Key to the Past?

Posted: September 29, 2016 (8:42 AM) by CalvinDude
I remember a science course in high school. I'm not sure if it was geology or biology (I went to a small school and therefore only had one one science teacher through my entire scholastic experience, so can't narrow it down that way either). Whichever course it was, the teacher at one point referenced Charles Lyell's famous quote: "The present is the key to the past."

At first glance, this seems reasonable. After all, the idea of it (which is to express uniformitarianism) is that the processes that happen today are the same processes that happened in the past. Therefore, if you want to know what the world was like 30 million years ago, just look outside today.

And pretend you don't see anything man-made.

Okay, there are some obvious problems with this interpretation. However, by and large it seems to be a sound concept. Lyell used it to argue against catastrophism, which said that there were large cataclysmic events through the Earth's history. Indeed, Lyell (who was famous before Darwin and, in fact, influenced Darwin) was atypical of his time in that most scientists of the day saw plenty of evidence of catastrophic events.

But when Darwin coupled natural selection with Lyell's uniformitarianism, scientists quickly left the catastrophic interpretations behind and decided that it was probably the case that the world is uniformitarian. Of course, this didn't change any of the data or reasoning that scientists had used before this theory became chic, but scientists of today just ignore all that evidence and pretend the former scientists were idiots or something.

My point here isn't to get into the uniformitarian vs. catastrophic debate (since I think the science is pretty well settled against uniformitarianism and for catastrophism), but rather to challenge the concept that "the present is key to the past" in the first place, especially in light of what we know about chaos today.

The simple fact of the matter is that if we look at the world as a system that is evolving through time (using the word "evolving" in its original sense of change and not in a Darwinistic sense), then there is absolutely no reason to believe that the present is key to the past in anything but a severely restricted general sense. Indeed, we can see many stable systems that began as a chaotic system. For a simple example, you can think of a pendulum made from a rock tied to the end of a string. You can put that on the branch of a tree and set the pendulum in motion. While it is rocking, the wind also jostles both the pendulum directly and the branch upon which it sits, causing chaotic vibrations throughout. The pendulum will still settle down into the familiar back-and-forth motion because the attractor in the system is toward that stable movement. The chaos gets "smoothed out."

The problem is, that back-and-forth motion is identical to the motion one would get if there had never been any wind in the first place. If one is in the midst of a back-and-forth motion, you could not argue that there had never been any wind because the current state of the system matches the state that would be there if there had been no wind.

Likewise, you could enter into a closed gymnasium and look at the swimming pool to see that the surface is smooth and flat. That would not allow you to conclude that there had never been a swim meet held there since you don't see any ripples or waves. Those ripples and waves dissipate over time, since the attractor is toward a smooth surface.

Couple that with the evidence we have for catastrophism throughout history, such as the KT event being an asteroid or comet that struck the earth to kill off the dinosaurs, and it seems to me downright foolhardy to assume that the past was like the present currently is. Or think about the claim that rocks are deposited at a rate of a few centimeters per year today, so they must have always been so, and then think about fossils. How in the world would a fossil become fossilized at such a slow rate? It simply wouldn't. Scavengers would have gotten to the bones. Wind and rain would have scattered them. So it appears that every instance of a fossil testifies to some catastrophic (even if localized) event. And for that matter, if fossils are created by these slow uniform processes, then why can't we see fossils being formed in that manner today? Bottom line: every fossil is evidence of catastrophic events, and there are a heck of a lot of fossils around (just look at Congress).

This is just a small taste of the examples of catastrophic events in history. Rather than being uniform, it appears that historic events are more along the lines of punctuated equilibrium--stretch of uniformity punctuated by catastrophic events, which you may notice just is catastrophism. The present isn't the key to the past except in a very general sense. We simply cannot extrapolate backwards from current positions to a precursor state.

In fact, if anything, all we can really say is that the world tends toward a stable system, which helps to smooth out the chaotic events that are consistent and frequent. The world appears to be stable because of this smoothing effect, not because the processes themselves are uniform. Thus, it is not the present that is key to the past; it is the attractors of the system that are key to the general trend.

That's far less "catchy" and doesn't work as a bumper sticker. But truth rarely does.

Comments 2Rating: 0

Kent McDonald Rating: 0
I agree completely. Two rather interesting items. My father-in-law (at the time back in the 70's) worked for the Texas Forest Service. He spent a huge amount of his life wandering in the forest. He showed me something he brought home. It was a small log about the length and diameter of your arm. One end was normal. The other half (about 20 inches of it) was in a totally petrified state.

According to Wikipedia: "The petrifaction process occurs underground, when wood becomes buried under sediment or volcanic ash and is initially preserved due to a lack of oxygen which inhibits aerobic decomposition. Mineral-laden water flowing through the covering material deposits minerals in the plant's cells; as the plant's lignin and cellulose decay, a stone mold forms in its place. The organic matter needs to become petrified before it decomposes completely."

The only problem is that he found the log lying in the open air with one end in an "apparently mineral rich stream" and the other end on the bank. No thousands of years involved. No enormous pressure brought to bear. No oxygen deprivation as far as we know. There are many things in this world which defy theoretical explanations.

The other interesting thing: Scientists for as long as I can remember have stated that the speed of light is a constant in the universe. However, within the last 20 years discoveries have been made that show the speed of light is actually slowing. We just didn't have instruments capable of detecting the infinitesimally small slow-down.
CalvinDude Rating: 0
That's pretty cool. I've heard of other examples of it, such as a (still living, for a few hours at least) frog found inside a lump of coal in a mine in France and a fossilized pick axe from the 1800s, not to mention that there's a coal-ized (is that word?) tree that was found upright in the middle of a coal seam. But it's cool that you actually got to see one of those types of artifacts in person :-)
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