Unofficial SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive

Velikovsky in Collision

by Stephen Jay Gould

ot long ago, Venus emerged from Jupiter, like Athena from the brow of Zeus—literally! It then assumed the form and orbit of a comet. In 1500 B.C., at the time of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, the earth passed twice through Venus's tail, bringing both blessing and chaos; manna from heaven (or rather from hydrocarbons of a cometary tail) and the bloody rivers of the Mosaic plagues (iron from the same tail). Continuing its erratic course, Venus collided with (or nearly brushed) Mars, lost its tail, and hurtled to its present orbit. Mars then left its regular position and almost collided with the earth in about 700 B.C. So great were the terrors of these times, and so ardent our collective desire to forget them, that they have been erased from our conscious minds. Yet they lurk in our inherited and unconscious memory, causing fear, neurosis, aggression, and their social manifestations as war.

This may sound like a script of a very poor, late-late movie on TV; nonetheless, it represents the serious theory of Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision. And Velikovsky is neither crank nor charlatan—although to state my opinion and to quote one of my colleagues, he is at least gloriously wrong.

Worlds in Collision published twenty-five years ago, continues to engender intense debate. It also has spawned a series of issues peripheral to the purely scientific arguments. Velikovsky was surely ill treated by certain academics who sought to suppress the publication of his work. But a man does not attain the status of Galileo merely because he is persecuted; he must also be right. The scientific and sociological issues are separate. And then, times and treatment of heretics have changed. Bruno burned to death; Galileo, after viewing the instruments of torture, languished under house arrest. Velikovsky won both publicity and royalties. Torquemada was evil; Velikovsky's academic enemies, merely foolish.

As startling as specific claims may be, I am more interested in Velikovsky's unorthodox method of inquiry and physical theory. He begins with the working hypothesis that all stories reported has direct observation in the ancient chronicles are strictly true—if the Bible reports that the sun stood still, then it did (as the tug of Venus briefly halted the earth's rotation). He then attempts to find some physical explanation, however bizarre, that would render all these stories both mutually consistent and true. Most scientists would do exactly the opposite in using the limits of physical possibility to judge which of the ancient legends might be literally accurate. (I devote essay 17 to the last important scientific work that used Velikovsky's method—Thomas Burnet's Sacred Theory of the Earth, first published in the 1680s.) Secondly, Velikovsky is well aware that the laws of Newton's universe, where forces of gravitation rule the motion of large objects, will not allow planets to wander. Thus, he proposes a fundamentally new physics of electromagnetic forces for large bodies. In short, Velikovsky would rebuild the science of celestial mechanics to save the literal accuracy of ancient legends.

Having devised a cataclysmic theory of human history, Velikovsky then sought to generalize his physics by extending it throughout geologic time. In 1955 he published Earth in Upheaval, his geologic treaties. With Newton and modern physics already under siege, he now took on Charles Lyell and modern geology. He reasoned that if wandering planets had visited us twice within 3,500 years, then the history of the earth should be marked by its catastrophes, not by the slow and gradual change that Lyell's uniformitarianism requires.

Velikovsky scoured the geological literature of the past hundred years for records of cataclysmic events—floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain building, mass extinctions, and shifts of climate. Finding these aplenty, he sought a common cause:

Sudden the agent must have been and violent; recurrent it must of been, but at highly erratic intervals; and it must have been of titanic power.

Not surprisingly, he invoked the electromagnetic forces of celestial bodies external to the earth. In particular, he argues that these forces perturb the earth's rotation—literally turning the earth over in extreme cases and exchanging poles equators. Velikovsky offers a rather colorful account of the effects that might accompany such a sudden shift in the earth's axis of rotation:

At that moment an earthquake would make the globe shudder. Air and water would continue to move through inertia; hurricanes would sweep the earth and the seas would rush over continents. . . . Heat would be developed, rocks would melt, volcanoes would erupt, lava would flow from fissures in the ruptured ground and cover vast areas. Mountains would spring up from the plains.

If the testimony of human narrators provided the evidence for Worlds in Collision, then the geologic record itself must suffice for Earth in Upheaval. Velikovsky's entire argument hinges on his reading of geological literature. This, I feel, he does rather badly and carelessly. I will focus upon the general faults of his procedure, not the refutation of specific claims.

First, the assumption that similarity of form reflects simultaneity of occurrence: Velikovsky discusses the fossil fishes of the Old Red Sandstone, a Devonian formation in England (350-400 million years old). He cites evidence of violent death—contortion of the body, lack of prediction, even signs of "surprise and terror" engraved forever on fossil faces. He infers that some sudden catastrophe must have extirpated all these fishes; yet, however unpleasant the death of any individual, these fishes are distributed through hundreds of feet of sediments that record several million years of deposition! Likewise, the craters of the moon are similar in appearance, and each one formed by the sudden impact of a meteorite. Yet this influx spans billions of years, and Velikovsky's favored hypothesis of simultaneous origin by bubbling on the surface of a molten moon has been conclusively disproved by the Apollo landings.

Second, the assumption that events are sudden because their effects are large: Velikovsky writes graphically about the hundreds of feet of ocean water that were evaporated to form the great Pleistocene ice sheets. The can envisage the process only as a result of oceanic boiling followed by a general refrigeration:

An unusual sequence of events was necessary: the oceans must have steamed and the vaporized water must have fallen as snow in latitudes of temperate climates. This sequence of heat and cold must have taken place in quick succession.

Yet glaciers are not built overnight. They formed "rapidly" by geological standards, but the few thousand years of their growth allowed ample time for the gradual accumulation of snow by new precipitation supplied each year. One need not make the oceans steam; it still snows in northern Canada.

Third, the inference of worldwide events from local catastrophes: no geologist has ever denied that local catastrophes occur by flooding, earthquake, or volcanic eruption. But these events have nothing to do, one way or the other, with Velikovsky's notion of global catastrophe caused by sudden shifts in the earth's axis. Nevertheless, most of Velikovsky's "examples" are just such local events combined with an unwarranted extrapolation to global impact. He writes, for example, of the Agate Springs Quarry of Nebraska—a local mammalian "graveyard" containing the bones (according to one estimate) of nearly 20,000 large animals. But, this large aggregation may not record a catastrophic event at all—rivers and oceans can gradually accumulate vast quantities of bone and shell (I have walked on beaches composed entirely of large shells and coral rubble). Also, even if a local flood drowned these animals, we have no evidence that there contemporary brethren on other continents were the least bit bothered.

Fourth, the exclusive use of outdated sources: before 1850, most geologist invoked general catastrophes as the major agent of geological change. These men were not stupid, and they argued their position with some cogency. If we read only their works, their conclusions seem to follow. Velikovsky's entire discussion of the catastrophic death of European fossil fishes cites only the work of Hugh Miller in 1841 and of William Buckland in 1820 and 1837. Surely the past hundred years, with its voluminous literature, contains something worth noting. Likewise, Velikovsky relies on John Tyndall's work of 1883 for his meteorological notions about the origin of ice ages. Yet scarcely any subject has been more actively discussed in geological circles during this century.

Fifth, carelessness, inaccuracy, and sleight of hand: Earth in Upheaval is studded with minor errors and half-truths, unimportant in themselves, but reflecting either a cavalier attitude towards the geological literature or, more simply, a failure to understand it. Thus, Velikovsky attacks the uniformitarian postulate that present causes can explain the past by arguing that no fossils are forming today. Anyone who has dug old bones from lake beds or shells from beaches knows that this claim is simply absurd. Likewise, Velikovsky refutes Darwinian gradualism with an argument "that some organisms, like foraminifera, survived all geological ages without participating in evolution." This claimed was occasionally made in older literature written before anyone had seriously studied these single celled creatures. But no one has maintained it since J. A. Cushman's voluminous descriptive work of the 1920s. Finally, we learn that igneous rocks—granite and basalt—"and have embedded in them numberless living organisms." This is news to me and to the entire profession of paleontology.

But all these criticisms pale to insignificance before the most conclusive refutation of Velikovsky's examples — their explanation as consequences of continental drift and plate tectonics. And here Velikovsky is not to blame at all. He has merely fallen victim — as have so many others with the most orthodox among previously cherished opinions — to this great revolution in geological thought. In Earth in Upheaval, Velikovsky quite reasonably rejected continental drift as an alternative explanation for the most important phenomena supporting his catastrophic theory. And he rejected it for the reason then most commonly cited among geologist — the lack of a mechanism to move the continents. That mechanism has now been provided with the verification of sea-floor spreading. The African rift is not a crack formed when the earth turned over rapidly; it is part of the earth's rift system, and junction between two crustal plates. The Himalayas did not rise when the earth shifted but when the Indiana plate slowly push into Asia. The Pacific volcanoes, a "ring up fire," are not the product of melting during the last axial displacement; they mark the boundary between two plates. There are fossil corals in polar regions, coal in Antarctica, and evidence of Permian glaciation in tropical South America. But Earth need not turn over to explain all this; the continents have only to drift from different climate realms into their present position.

Ironically, Velikovsky has lost more to plate tectonics than his mechanism of axial shifting; he has probably lost the entire rationale for his catastrophist position. As Walter Sullivan argues in his recent book on continental drift, the theory of plate tectonics has provided a stunning confirmation of uniformitarianian preferences for ascribing past events to present causes acting without great deviation from their current intensity. For the plates are actively moving today, carrying their continents with them. And to the sweeping panorama of attendant events—the world wide belt of earthquakes and volcanoes, the collision of continents, the mass extinction of faunas (see essay 16)—can be explained by the continuous movement of these giant plates at rates of only a few centimeters a year.

The Velikovsky affair raises what is perhaps the most disturbing question about the public impact of science. How is a layman to judge rival claims of supposed experts? Any person with a gift for words can spin a persuasive argument about any subject not in the domain of a reader's personal expertise. Even von Daniken sounds good if you just read Chariots of the Gods. I am in no position to judge the historical argument of Worlds in Collision. I know little of celestial mechanics and even less about the history of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (although I have heard experts howl about Velikovsky's unorthodox chronology). I do not wish to assume that the nonprofessional must be wrong. Yet when I see how poorly Velikovsky uses the data I am familiar with, then I must entertain doubts about his handling of material unfamiliar to me. But what it is a person who knows neither astronomy, Egyptology, nor geology to do—especially when faced with a hypothesis so intrinsically exciting and a tendency, shared, I suspect, by all of us, to root for the underdog?

We know that many fundamental beliefs of modern science are grows as heretical speculations advanced by nonprofessionals. Yet history provides a biased filter for our judgment. We sing praises to the unorthodox hero, but for each successful heretic, there are a hundred forgotten men who chalked prevailing notions and lost. Who among you has ever heard of Eimer, Cuénot, Trueman, or Lang—the primary supporters of orthogenesis (directed evolution) against the Darwinian tide? Still, I will continue to root for heresy preached by the nonprofessional. Unfortunately, I don't think that Velikovsky will be among the victors in this hardest of all games to win.

[ Stephen Jay Gould, "Velikovsky in Collision," Natural History, March 1975; Reprinted in Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977, pp. 153-159. ]

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