Thursday, June 23, 2005

Catastrophists vs Gradualists

Some people get the difficult jobs to do in life. One of these was JK who died of cancer a few years ago. I knew him in several embodiments. The first of these was as Head of my university geology department. This department was, at that time, the largest and, possibly, the best department of geology in the UK. As such, JK was considered the right man to head up a government body from where he presided over a review of geology departments throughout Britain. This review resulted in the closure of several small departments and the reinforcement of some other larger ones. Thus, JK was unpopular in some camps, and grudgingly accepted in others. There is no doubt about the difficulty of that job, a point which is perhaps obliquely alluded to in his obituary as 'his insistence at playing Napoleon' whenever he partook in his favourite leisure activity, which was war gaming . Essentially a hatchet man wielding an axe over every department in the country, forcing acquaintances and colleagues to justify their existence in terms of documented research and teaching results, or otherwise get the chop.

My own view of JK is coloured by the fact that, at the end my first year studies, he called me into his office and dragged me over the coals regarding my exam results. I later found out that my palaeontology paper had not been added into the total, and therefore my failure was nowhere near as bad as he considered it. From one point of view, the experience was extremely humiliating. He made me squirm with embarassment at my failure. On the other hand, it made me pull my finger out like nothing else and was probably the main reason for my getting a good result at the end of my degree. Despite this positive interpretation, however, I still continued to dislike him.

Thus, the difficulty. To do a job that few would have wanted and, never mind the results, to be disliked on all sides forever afterwards. I ask myself how someone could continue like that? What would be the motivating factors? I guess he had to be tough. When I was at Liverpool University, three professors took it in turn to be head of department. All extremely intelligent men, none of them could bear to hold the reins of power for long. It required something more than intelligence. It required a cold, administrative heart.

My last encounter with JK was about fifteen years ago, when I was a student at Liverpool University, I went to hear him speak on the subject of climate change. It was at a time when the evidence for climate change as a real, quantifiable effect was starting to be taken seriously. My conclusion from listening to his talk was that he had taken on the role of trying to damp down the flames surrounding the subject.

His view of climate change was one of cautioning against over-reading the effects of short-term changes and considering the changes that had occurred in the geological past. As geologists, he suggested, we would be more likely to view the observed effects of climate change and place them in the context of a geological history that had been constantly changing throughout the past. As such, these changes would seem not so much an 'extraordinary' evidence of climatic variation as a continuation of 'ordinary' fluctuation around a geological norm.

I took against these arguments as soon as I heard them. Why? Because the average geologist is ill-adapted to understanding the effects of short term catastrophic change. Most of the time, we live in a world of gradual change. Seasons come and go, tides ebb and flow, sea levels change at the rate of a few centimetres a decade. This view of a gradually changing world colours our view of the geological past. It is only the once in a lifetime event of a tsunami or a major volcanic eruption which wakes us up to a different view of the world as a place of catastrophe and hence of a geological record that records the rare abnormal event rather than the day-to-day.

Philosophically, there has always been a debate between catastrophists and gradualists. JK, by advising caution in the light of a changing past, was facing up against a view of extraordinary and catastrophic climate change as predicted not by rocks but by the evidence of temperature change in ice cores, water samples and ozone gases. Not the stuff of geology at all. What were the reasons or the necessity for him expounding his views? After all, as a born administrator, JK was ever a man of necessity. I think he was there to pacify the environmental instincts of geologists. Geologists can be key witnesses in environmental matters such as the disposal of nuclear waste for example (on which JK also had his say), and I think he wanted to help geologists to help themselves to forget what effect their own actions might be having on the climate. That's only an interpretation of course.

Somebody who never forgot the influence of JK was DA who was one of the major proponents of a new catastrophism in geology that arose, notably, from the documentation of bolide impacts such as the K-T boundary event. In his book about Catastrophism he made sideswipes at a government that had closed the geology department of which he was Head. JK, whom I observed behaving as a gradualist, was, in effect, DA's catastrophic nemesis.

A review of DA's book on catastrophism says: 'these days, we all seem to be catastrophists of some kind or another'. Here the 'we' are geologists. The reviewer makes this statement because the evidence of the palaeontological record points decisively to the influence of a series of large bolide impacts on major extinction events at different periods of geological time. You can read about it in the book 'Extinction' by the distinguished palaeontologist David M. Raup. So, will we all face extinction by ignoring the facts of climate change or bolide impact? Well, as Raup says at the end of his book, based on study of the whole of the palaeontological record: "Widespread species are difficult to kill."

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