uniformitarianism, in geology, doctrine holding that changes in the earth's surface that occurred in past geologic time are referable to the same causes as changes now being produced upon the earth's surface. This doctrine, the basic concept of which was first advanced by the Scottish geologist James Hutton in his Theory of the Earth (1785, 1795), was further expounded by another Scotsman, John Playfair, in his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory (1802). It made little progress, however, against the teachings of the school of Abraham Gottlob Werner, a German geologist, and as a theory of dynamic geology it was overshadowed by the doctrine of catastrophism, of which the major supporter was the French naturalist G. L. Cuvier. This was in large measure because uniformitarianism seemed in several ways to be contrary to religious beliefs. It required an immensely long period of time for the consummation of geological processes (thus disturbing the accepted biblical chronology) and set aside all remarkable catastrophies (thus, it would seem, denying the Flood). Uniformitarianism had its day in the 19th cent., when it was widely accepted as a result of the efforts of the English geologist Sir Charles Lyell. The more recent tendency has been to effect somewhat of a synthesis of the two theories, based mainly upon Lyell's conception of the slow operation, over extremely long periods of time, of forces at work in historic time, but admitting the existence in earth history of periods when such activity was accelerated and intensified.
Uniformitarianism has had two separate meanings, both more prevalent in 19th-century discourse:

  • Within religious philosophy, Uniformitarianism ("with a capital U") is the belief that the Universe has existed as it is now for an infinite time and will continue to exist for ever. This view is opposed to traditional theological views and modern science.
  • Within scientific philosophy, uniformitarianism ("with a small u") refers to the principle that the same processes that shape the universe occurred in the past as they do now, and that the same laws of physics apply in all parts of the knowable universe. This axiomatic principle, not often referred to as an "-ism" in modern discussions, is particularly relevant to geology and other sciences that operate on a long timescale such as astronomy and paleontology. The leading geologist of Charles Darwin’s era, a Scot named Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875), incorporated James Hutton’s gradualism into a theory known as uniformitarianism. The term refers to Lyell’s idea that geological processes have not changed throughout Earth’s history. Thus, for example, the forces that build mountains and erode mountains and the rates at which these forces operate are the same today as in the past.


  • Campbell, Reece; Biology Sixth Edition; Benjamin Cummings, 2002

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