When we look around our world today, we see a dynamic, almost chaotic planet that is constantly changing. Volcanoes erupt, the earth’s crust moves, mountains are weathered and other such activities occur around the world at almost any given moment. These dynamic events occur with such frequency and repetition that clearly defining a beginning or end is exceedingly difficult. Considering this difficulty and by relying on purely observational information, one can only assume that the processes that go on today have been going on since the earth was created. This precise idea is the very platform of the scientific view called uniformitarianism.
At the very dawning of the science of historical geology, James Hutton developed views on the earth’s geologic processes and ow they affect the planet unlike any other scientist before him. His idea that the planet’s processes revolved in a cyclic fashion were the cornerstone of uniformitarianism. Although he did not coin the phrase himself, an honor bestowed upon William Whewell, he did form the basic idea that the history of the earth can be explained by what is happening now.
Since this time, the term uniformitarianism has been manipulated, altered, and redefined to mean a variety of different meanings spanning various fields of science. However, in the field of geology, uniformitarianism (or actualism) means something very specific. The term does not denote that every process we see before us now has been going on for eons, rather it stand for the chemical and physical laws that govern today’s processes. Evidence shows that the ancient atmosphere of the earth is extremely different from the one we can see today. There fore, the means by which erosion and weathering of rocks that occurred then is a far cry from the ones we study in modern times. However, erosion and weathering still occurred, even if by different means. Most geologic processes are governed by a set of natural laws which uniformitarianism infers have always set the standard for geologic activity. If water freezes at zero degrees Celsius, what evidence is there to prove it has ever been different? Similarly, if rainwater falls on a mountain, erodes the rock, carries sediment to a stream, and then deposits sediments in the stream bed, what evidence proves nature has ever deviated from this? The rate of change and intensity of the processes have varied a great deal in the history of the earth and the fact is, there are some ancient processes that we do not see today. However, in the grand scheme of things, studying current geologic activity can give us a great deal of information about ancient environments and may even give us a clue as to our planet’s origins.
Just as historians and archeologists study artifacts and records of past human civilizations, so too does historical geologists study the records of...