Velikovsky in Collision
by Stephen Jay Gould
long ago, Venus emerged from Jupiter, like Athena from the brow of
Zeusliterally! 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
Collision. And Velikovsky is neither crank nor charlatanalthough
to state my opinion and to quote one of my colleagues, he is at least gloriously
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 trueif 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
methodThomas 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
Velikovsky scoured the geological literature of the past
hundred years for records of cataclysmic eventsfloods, 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 rotationliterally 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
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
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
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 deathcontortion 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
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
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
Nebraskaa 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 allrivers 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 rocksgranite 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
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 eventsthe 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
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 doespecially
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
Langthe 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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