Global meltdown — how catastrophism and humanity share similar destructive traits
Squaring science with the Good Book has historically been controversial, as Galileo discovered to his cost. But certain parallels can be drawn, many of which — depending on one’s beliefs — are food for thought.
The Reverend Thomas Burnet, a 17th Century English theologian, was fascinated by the Flood. If it was God’s decision to return the world to its pre-creation state of watery chaos and remake it through the microcosm on Noah’s Ark, where could so much water come from?
He rejected the idea that the Flood was a local event, but disputed more strongly the idea that God simply created extra water as a miracle. That flew in the face of science.
“We think him a better Artist that maketh a Clock that strikes regularly at every hour from the Springs and Wheels which He puts into the work, than He that hath so made his Clock that He must put his finger to it every hour to make it strike.”
So the Flood must have been created from what was at hand. He reasoned it this way: Out of the primaeval void, the earth precipitated into a perfect sphere. Its materials sorted themselves into a heavy metal core surrounded by water. On this floated particles which, over time, condensed into a perfectly smooth earth beneath a volatile layer of air.
On this perfect Garden of Eden, humankind was born into an eternal spring. When disobedience required punishment and renewal, the sun heated up, expanding the water below, which exploded to the surface. The mountains and valley which resulted were instantly inundated, leaving only Noah and his collection of animals afloat.
The deluge eventually retreated underground again through cracks and fissures, leaving “a gigantic and hideous ruin … a broke and confused heap of bodies.”
Not satisfied to leave retribution in the past, he predicted more was to come. Eventually, the volcanoes would erupt simultaneously, all underground coal would ignite and burn with fury (oil had not yet been discovered). This would begin in Rome, the papist home of the antichrist. Vast clouds of ashes would fall, recreating the perfect sphere and the thousand-year reign of Christ would begin.
His ideas got him elected to the Court of William III, but his later views were seen as heretical and he was forced to resign, though not recant.
Such a catastrophist view of geological history and the future has been a recurring theme through the ages, but few have taken it more seriously or with greater enthusiasm than Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian Jew born in Belarus in 1895. He spent much of his life trawling classical history in support of his view of a cosmos rooted in the Old Testament.
He studied psychiatry at the universities of Moscow, Jerusalem and Princeton in the US. Through his doctoral thesis challenging Freud on the nature of Oedipus, he became interested in Egyptology and began finding what he considered clues to a fantastic set of catastrophes that took place before and within human recorded history.
They were so traumatic, he reasoned, that they were erased through ‘cultural amnesia’ and recorded only as myths and legends plus personal trauma buried deep in our unconscious. His goal was to provide geological and historical proof. It looked like this:
Earth was once a satellite of a proto-Saturn but escaped. In ejecting much of its mass, Saturn caused the Deluge on Earth. The reason the sea was salty, he said, was because Saturn was rich not only in water but also in chlorine, either in the form of sodium chloride or in some other combination.
In another cosmic separation, Venus emerged from Jupiter as a gigantic comet rich in petroleum and hydrocarbon gas. At the time of the Jewish exodus from Egypt in 1500BCE, Earth passed through its tail. Solidified hydrocarbons fell to earth as manna and caused the Nile to run blood red. It also caused Earth to temporarily stop spinning (Joshua 10:12-13).
Continuing its flight, Venus made a near pass of (or collided with) Mars, losing its tail and ended up in its present orbit. This dislodged Mars, which nearly collided with Earth on several occasions 52 years apart around 700BC, causing chaos. The upheaval opened up the Great Rift Valley in Africa and created the Dead Sea.
In the turmoil, Mercury was dislodged and a near pass was the cause of the destruction of the Tower of Babel. Because of chaotic orbits, Jupiter precipitated an event that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and sank Atlantis.
Finally, the Solar System settled down. Its perturbations, he said, had been caused by electromagnetism, which played a major role in orbital mechanics. Stars were powered, not by internal nuclear fusion or gravity, but by galactic-scale electrical discharge currents.
In 1950, Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision, followed by Ages in Chaos two years later and they caused a scientific uproar. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould described Velikovsky as a man who “would rebuild the science of celestial mechanics to save the literal accuracy of ancient legends.”
Despite resistance from the scientific establishment and difficulty getting published, the books were a roaring success. Catastrophism is much more fun than the idea that the Earth’s features have been shaped by gradual geological processes over an immense period of time.
This evolutionary slow lane — called uniformitarianism — was brilliantly argued in a book, Principles of Geology, by the geologist Charles Lyell in the 1830s and formed the basis of the present understanding of geology (it seems to have been ignored or not read by Velikovsky). Upon it were based Darwin’s theories of natural selection. The idea that the Earth has largely been shaped by sudden, short-lived, violent events causing mass extinctions fell into disuse.
But it’s making a comeback, though not in a form that Burnet or Velikovsky would recognise. Modern geology accepts that some catastrophic events occurred in the geologic past, such as asteroid impacts, super-volcanic eruptions and supernova gamma ray bursts. It’s now generally accepted that the dinosaurs were wiped out by the collision of a giant meteor. But science regards these as extreme examples of natural processes and not acts of an angry God.
But in one thing Burnet was absolutely correct. Earth is “a Clock that strikes regularly at every hour from the Springs and Wheels which He puts into the work”. It’s an extremely finely balanced feedback system which we’re destabilising.
In the Anthropocene — the age of humans — catastrophes are less likely to be natural events and far more liable to be caused by us. The possibility of annihilation through nuclear war, biodiversity collapse or climate change is ever-present. We and not God may be the architects of the next Great Extinction, not from water but from fire. Yet mostly we’re in denial and there will be serious consequences.
Regarding myths as if they’re science like Velikovsky is simply confusing. But regarding scientific proof to be a myth in a time of global meltdown is a recipe for real catastrophe. DM/ ML
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved