Uniformitarianism, also known as the Doctrine of Uniformity or the Uniformitarian Principle,[1] is the assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in our present-day scientific observations have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe.[2][3] It refers to invariance in the metaphysical principles underpinning science, such as the constancy of cause and effect throughout space-time,[4] but has also been used to describe spatiotemporal invariance of physical laws.[5] Though an unprovable postulate that cannot be verified using the scientific method,[6] some consider that uniformitarianism should be a required first principle in scientific research.[7] Other scientists disagree and consider that nature is not absolutely uniform, even though it does exhibit certain regularities.[8]

Hutton's Unconformity at Jedburgh.
Above: John Clerk of Eldin's 1787 illustration.
Below: 2003 photograph.

In geology, uniformitarianism has included the gradualistic concept that "the present is the key to the past" and that geological events occur at the same rate now as they have always done, though many modern geologists no longer hold to a strict gradualism.[9] Coined by William Whewell, it was originally proposed in contrast to catastrophism[10] by British naturalists in the late 18th century, starting with the work of the geologist James Hutton in his many books including Theory of the Earth.[11] Hutton's work was later refined by scientist John Playfair and popularised by geologist Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology in 1830.[12] Today, Earth's history is considered to have been a slow, gradual process, punctuated by occasional natural catastrophic events.


18th century

Cliff at the east of Siccar Point in Berwickshire, showing the near-horizontal red sandstone layers above vertically tilted greywacke rocks.

The earlier conceptions likely had little influence on 18th-century European geological explanations for the formation of Earth. Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749–1817) proposed Neptunism, where strata represented deposits from shrinking seas precipitated onto primordial rocks such as granite. In 1785 James Hutton proposed an opposing, self-maintaining infinite cycle based on natural history and not on the Biblical account.[13][14]

The solid parts of the present land appear in general, to have been composed of the productions of the sea, and of other materials similar to those now found upon the shores. Hence we find a reason to conclude:

1st, That the land on which we rest is not simple and original, but that it is a composition, and had been formed by the operation of second causes.
2nd, That before the present land was made, there had subsisted a world composed of sea and land, in which were tides and currents, with such operations at the bottom of the sea as now take place. And,
Lastly, That while the present land was forming at the bottom of the ocean, the former land maintained plants and animals; at least the sea was then inhabited by animals, in a similar manner as it is at present.

Hence we are led to conclude, that the greater part of our land, if not the whole had been produced by operations natural to this globe; but that in order to make this land a permanent body, resisting the operations of the waters, two things had been required;

1st, The consolidation of masses formed by collections of loose or incoherent materials;
2ndly, The elevation of those consolidated masses from the bottom of the sea, the place where they were collected, to the stations in which they now remain above the level of the ocean.[15]

Hutton then sought evidence to support his idea that there must have been repeated cycles, each involving deposition on the seabed, uplift with tilting and erosion, and then moving undersea again for further layers to be deposited. At Glen Tilt in the Cairngorm mountains he found granite penetrating metamorphic schists, in a way which indicated to him that the presumed primordial rock had been molten after the strata had formed.[16][17] He had read about angular unconformities as interpreted by Neptunists, and found an unconformity at Jedburgh where layers of greywacke in the lower layers of the cliff face have been tilted almost vertically before being eroded to form a level plane, under horizontal layers of Old Red Sandstone.[18] In the spring of 1788 he took a boat trip along the Berwickshire coast with John Playfair and the geologist Sir James Hall, and found a dramatic unconformity showing the same sequence at Siccar Point.[19] Playfair later recalled that "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time",[20] and Hutton concluded a 1788 paper he presented at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, later rewritten as a book, with the phrase "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end".[21]

Both Playfair and Hall wrote their own books on the theory, and for decades robust debate continued between Hutton's supporters and the Neptunists. Georges Cuvier's paleontological work in the 1790s, which established the reality of extinction, explained this by local catastrophes, after which other fixed species repopulated the affected areas. In Britain, geologists adapted this idea into "diluvial theory" which proposed repeated worldwide annihilation and creation of new fixed species adapted to a changed environment, initially identifying the most recent catastrophe as the biblical flood.[22]

19th century

Charles Lyell at the British Association meeting in Glasgow 1840

From 1830 to 1833 Charles Lyell's multi-volume Principles of Geology was published. The work's subtitle was "An attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth's surface by reference to causes now in operation". He drew his explanations from field studies conducted directly before he went to work on the founding geology text,[23] and developed Hutton's idea that the earth was shaped entirely by slow-moving forces still in operation today, acting over a very long period of time. The terms uniformitarianism for this idea, and catastrophism for the opposing viewpoint, was coined by William Whewell in a review of Lyell's book. Principles of Geology was the most influential geological work in the middle of the 19th century.

Systems of inorganic earth history

Geoscientists support diverse systems of Earth history, the nature of which rests on a certain mixture of views about the process, control, rate, and state which are preferred. Because geologists and geomorphologists tend to adopt opposite views over process, rate, and state in the inorganic world, there are eight different systems of beliefs in the development of the terrestrial sphere.[24] All geoscientists stand by the principle of uniformity of law. Most, but not all, are directed by the principle of simplicity. All make definite assertions about the quality of rate and state in the inorganic realm.[25]

assumption concerning
kind of process
Substantive claim
concerning state
Substantive claim
Concerning rate
System of Inorganic
Earth history
Same Kind of processes
that exist today
Steady State
Constant Rate
Most of Hutton, Playfair, Lyell
Changing Rate
Changing State
Constant Rate
Small part of Hutton, Cotta, Darwin
Changing Rate
Hooke, Steno, Lehmann, Pallas,
de Saussure, Werner, and geognosists,
Elis de Beaumont and followers
Different Kind of processes
than exist today
Steady State
Constant Rate
Changing Rate
Bonnet, Cuvier
Changing State
Constant Rate
De Mallet, Buffon
Changing Rate
Restoration cosmogonists,
English diluvialists,
Scriptural geologists


According to Reijer Hooykaas (1963), Lyell's uniformitarianism is a family of four related propositions, not a single idea:[27]

  • Uniformity of law – the laws of nature are constant across time and space.
  • Uniformity of methodology – the appropriate hypotheses for explaining the geological past are those with analogy today.
  • Uniformity of kind – past and present causes are all of the same kind, have the same energy, and produce the same effects.
  • Uniformity of degree – geological circumstances have remained the same over time.

None of these connotations requires another, and they are not all equally inferred by uniformitarians.[28]

Gould explained Lyell's propositions in Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (1987), stating that Lyell conflated two different types of propositions: a pair of methodological assumptions with a pair of substantive hypotheses. The four together make up Lyell's uniformitarianism.[29]

Methodological assumptions

The two methodological assumptions below are accepted to be true by the majority of scientists and geologists. Gould claims that these philosophical propositions must be assumed before you can proceed as a scientist doing science. "You cannot go to a rocky outcrop and observe either the constancy of nature's laws or the working of unknown processes. It works the other way around." You first assume these propositions and "then you go to the outcrop."[30]

  • Uniformity of law across time and space: Natural laws are constant across space and time.[31]
The axiom of uniformity of law [3][7][31] is necessary in order for scientists to extrapolate (by inductive inference) into the unobservable past.[3][31] The constancy of natural laws must be assumed in the study of the past; else we cannot meaningfully study it.[3][7][31][32]
  • Uniformity of process across time and space: Natural processes are constant across time and space.
Though similar to uniformity of law, this second a priori assumption, shared by the vast majority of scientists, deals with geological causes, not physicochemical laws.[33] The past is to be explained by processes acting currently in time and space rather than inventing extra esoteric or unknown processes without good reason,[34][35] otherwise known as parsimony or Occam's razor.
Substantive hypotheses

The substantive hypotheses were controversial and, in some cases, accepted by few.[29] These hypotheses are judged true or false on empirical grounds through scientific observation and repeated experimental data. This is in contrast with the previous two philosophical assumptions[30] that come before one can do science and so cannot be tested or falsified by science.

  • Uniformity of rate across time and space: Change is typically slow, steady, and gradual.[30]
Uniformity of rate (or gradualism) is what most people (including geologists) think of when they hear the word "uniformitarianism," confusing this hypothesis with the entire definition. As late as 1990, Lemon, in his textbook of stratigraphy, affirmed that "The uniformitarian view of earth history held that all geologic processes proceed continuously and at a very slow pace."[36]
Gould explained Hutton's view of uniformity of rate; mountain ranges or grand canyons are built by the accumulation of nearly insensible changes added up through vast time. Some major events such as floods, earthquakes, and eruptions, do occur. But these catastrophes are strictly local. They neither occurred in the past nor shall happen in the future, at any greater frequency or extent than they display at present. In particular, the whole earth is never convulsed at once.[37]
  • Uniformity of state across time and space: Change is evenly distributed throughout space and time.[38]
The uniformity of state hypothesis implies that throughout the history of our earth there is no progress in any inexorable direction. The planet has almost always looked and behaved as it does now. Change is continuous but leads nowhere. The earth is in balance: a dynamic steady state.[38]

20th century

Stephen Jay Gould's first scientific paper, "Is uniformitarianism necessary?" (1965), reduced these four assumptions to two.[39] He dismissed the first principle, which asserted spatial and temporal invariance of natural laws, as no longer an issue of debate. He rejected the third (uniformity of rate) as an unjustified limitation on scientific inquiry, as it constrains past geologic rates and conditions to those of the present. So, Lyell's uniformitarianism was deemed unnecessary.

Uniformitarianism was proposed in contrast to catastrophism, which states that the distant past "consisted of epochs of paroxysmal and catastrophic action interposed between periods of comparative tranquility"[40] Especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most geologists took this interpretation to mean that catastrophic events are not important in geologic time; one example of this is the debate of the formation of the Channeled Scablands due to the catastrophic Missoula glacial outburst floods. An important result of this debate and others was the re-clarification that, while the same principles operate in geologic time, catastrophic events that are infrequent on human time-scales can have important consequences in geologic history.[41] Derek Ager has noted that "geologists do not deny uniformitarianism in its true sense, that is to say, of interpreting the past by means of the processes that are seen going on at the present day, so long as we remember that the periodic catastrophe is one of those processes. Those periodic catastrophes make more showing in the stratigraphical record than we have hitherto assumed."[42]

Even Charles Lyell thought that ordinary geological processes would cause Niagara Falls to move upstream to Lake Erie within 10,000 years, leading to catastrophic flooding of a large part of North America.

Modern geologists do not apply uniformitarianism in the same way as Lyell. They question if rates of processes were uniform through time and only those values measured during the history of geology are to be accepted.[43] The present may not be a long enough key to penetrating the deep lock of the past.[44] Geologic processes may have been active at different rates in the past that humans have not observed. "By force of popularity, uniformity of rate has persisted to our present day. For more than a century, Lyell's rhetoric conflating axiom with hypotheses has descended in unmodified form. Many geologists have been stifled by the belief that proper methodology includes an a priori commitment to gradual change, and by a preference for explaining large-scale phenomena as the concatenation of innumerable tiny changes."[45]

The current consensus is that Earth's history is a slow, gradual process punctuated by occasional natural catastrophic events that have affected Earth and its inhabitants.[46] In practice it is reduced from Lyell's conflation, or blending, to simply the two philosophical assumptions. This is also known as the principle of geological actualism, which states that all past geological action was like all present geological action. The principle of actualism is the cornerstone of paleoecology.[47]

Social sciences

Uniformitarianism has also been applied in historical linguistics, where it is considered a foundational principle of the field.[48][49] Linguist Donald Ringe gives the following definition:[48]

If language was normally acquired in the past in the same way as it is today – usually by native acquisition in early childhood – and if it was used in the same ways – to transmit information, to express solidarity with family, friends, and neighbors, to mark one's social position, etc. – then it must have had the same general structure and organization in the past as it does today, and it must have changed in the same ways as it does today.

See also


  1. Scott, G. H. (1963). "Uniformitarianism, the uniformity of nature, and paleoecology". New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics. 6 (4): 510–527. doi:10.1080/00288306.1963.10420063. ISSN 0028-8306.
  2. Gordon 2013, p. 79
  3. Gould 1965, pp. 223–228, "The assumption of spatial and temporal invariance of natural laws is by no means unique to geology since it amounts to a warrant for inductive inference which, as Bacon showed nearly four hundred years ago, is the basic mode of reasoning in empirical science. Without assuming this spatial and temporal invariance, we have no basis for extrapolating from the known to the unknown and, therefore, no way of reaching general conclusions from a finite number of observations."
  4. Gordon 2013, p. 82; "The uniformitarian principle assumes that the behavior of nature is regular and indicative of an objective causal structure in which presently operative causes may be projected into the past to explain the historical development of the physical world and projected into the future for the purposes of prediction and control. In short, it involves the process of inferring past causes from presently observable effects under the assumption that the fundamental causal regularities of the world have not changed over time."
  5. Strahler, A.N. 1987. Science and Earth History- The Evolution/Creation Controversy, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, USA. p. 194: “Under the updated statement of a useful principle of uniformitarianism it boils down essentially to affirmation of the validity of universal scientific laws through time and space, coupled with a rejection of supernatural causes.” p. 62: “In cosmology, the study of the structure and evolution of the universe, it is assumed that the laws of physics are similar throughout the entire universe.”
  6. Rosenberg, Alex. Philosophy of science: A contemporary introduction, 4th ed. Routledge, 2019, 173
  7. Simpson 1963, pp. 24–48, "Uniformity is an unprovable postulate justified, or indeed required, on two grounds. First, nothing in our incomplete but extensive knowledge of history disagrees with it. Second, only with this postulate is a rational interpretation of history possible, and we are justified in seeking—as scientists we must seek—such a rational interpretation."
  8. Buffon, G. L. L. (1778). Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, contenant les epoques de la nature. Paris: L'Imprimerie Royale. pp. 3–4. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  9. FARIA, Felipe. Actualismo,Catastrofismo y Uniformitarismo. In: Pérez, María Luisa Bacarlett & Caponi, Gustavo. Pensar la vida: Filosofía, naturaleza y evolución. Toluca: Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, p. 55-80, 2015.
  10. Pidwirny & Jones 1999, "the idea that Earth was shaped by a series of sudden, short-lived, violent events."
  11. James, Hutton (1785). Theory of the Earth. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.
  12. "Uniformitarianism: World of Earth Science".
  13. Bowler 2003, pp. 57–62
  14. Hutton, J. (1785). "Abstract, The System of the Earth, Its Duration and Stability". Archived from the original on 2008-09-07. As it is not in human record, but in natural history, that we are to look for the means of ascertaining what has already been, it is here proposed to examine the appearances of the earth, in order to be informed of operations which have been transacted in time past. It is thus that, from principles of natural philosophy, we may arrive at some knowledge of order and system in the economy of this globe, and may form a rational opinion with regard to the course of nature, or to events which are in time to happen.
  15. Concerning the System of the Earth Archived 2008-09-07 at the Wayback Machine abstract, as read by James Hutton at a meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 4 July 1785, printed and circulated privately.
  16. Robert Macfarlane (13 September 2003). "Glimpses into the abyss of time". The Spectator. Archived from the original on 1 November 2007. Hutton possessed an instinctive ability to reverse physical processes – to read landscapes backwards, as it were. Fingering the white quartz which seamed the grey granite boulders in a Scottish glen, for instance, he understood the confrontation that had once occurred between the two types of rock, and he perceived how, under fantastic pressure, the molten quartz had forced its way into the weaknesses in the mother granite. Review of Repcheck's The Man Who Found Time
  17. "Scottish Geology – Glen Tilt". Archived from the original on 2006-06-16.
  18. "Jedburgh: Hutton's Unconformity". Jedburgh online. Archived from the original on 2009-07-29. Whilst visiting Allar's Mill on the Jed Water, Hutton was delighted to see horizontal bands of red sandstone lying 'unconformably' on top of near vertical and folded bands of rock.
  19. "Hutton's Unconformity". Archived from the original on 2015-09-24.
  20. John Playfair (1999). "Hutton's Unconformity". Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. V, pt. III, 1805, quoted in Natural History, June 1999. Archived from the original on 2005-01-07.
  21. Keith Stewart Thomson (May–June 2001). "Vestiges of James Hutton". American Scientist. 89 (3): 212. doi:10.1511/2001.3.212. Archived from the original on 2011-06-11. It is ironic that Hutton, the man whose prose style is usually dismissed as unreadable, should have coined one of the most memorable, and indeed lyrical, sentences in all science: "(in geology) we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end". In those simple words, Hutton framed a concept that no one had previously contemplated, that the rocks making up the earth today have not, after all, been here since Creation.
  22. Bowler 2003, pp. 111–117
  23. Wilson, Leonard G. "Charles Lyell" Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Ed. Charles Coulston Gillispie. Vol. VIII. Pennsylvania, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973
  24. Huggett 1990, p. 34.
  25. Huggett 1990, p. 33.
  26. Huggett 1990, p. 35.
  27. Hooykaas 1963.
  28. David Cahan, 2003, From Natural Philosophy to the Sciences, p 95 ISBN 978-0-226-08928-7.
  29. Gould 1987, p. 118
  30. Gould 1987, p. 120. "You first assume."
  31. Gould 1987, p. 119, "Making inferences about the past is wrapped up in the difference between studying the observable and the unobservable. In the observable, erroneous beliefs can be proven wrong and be inductively corrected by other observations. This is Popper's principle of falsifiability. However, past processes are not observable by their very nature. Therefore, 'the invariance of nature's laws must be assumed to come to conclusions about the past."
  32. Hutton, J. (1795). Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations. p. 297. If the stone, for example, which fell today, were to rise again tomorrow, there would be an end of natural philosophy [i.e., science], our principles would fail, and we would no longer investigate the rules of nature from our observations.
  33. Gould 1984, p. 11, "As such, it is another a priori methodological assumption shared by most scientists and not a statement about the empirical world."
  34. Gould 1987, p. 120, "We should try to explain the past by causes now in operation without inventing extra, fancy, or unknown causes, however plausible in logic, if available processes suffice."
  35. Hooykaas 1963, p. 38, "Strict uniformitarianism may often be a guarantee against pseudo-scientific phantasies and loose conjectures, but it makes one easily forget that the principle of uniformity is not a law, not a rule established after comparison of facts, but a methodological principle, preceding the observation of facts ... It is the logical principle of parsimony of causes and of the economy of scientific notions. By explaining past changes by analogy with present phenomena, a limit is set to conjecture, for there is only one way in which two things are equal, but there is an infinity of ways in which they could be supposed different."
  36. Lemon, R. R. 1990. Principles of stratigraphy. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Publishing Company. p. 30
  37. Gould 1987, pp. 120–121
  38. Gould 1987, p. 123
  39. Gould 1965
  40. William J. Whewell, Principles of Geology, Charles Leyell, vol. II, London, 1832: Quart. Rev., v. 47, p. 103-123.
  41. Allen, E. A., et al., 1986, Cataclysms on the Columbia, Timber Press, Portland, OR. ISBN 978-0-88192-067-3
    • "Bretz knew that the very idea of catastrophic flooding would threaten and anger the geological community. And here's why: among geologists in the 1920s, catastrophic explanations for geological events (other than volcanos or earthquakes) were considered wrong-minded to the point of heresy." p. 42.
    • "Consider, then, what Bretz was up against. The very word 'Catastrophism' was heinous in the ears of geologists. ... It was a step backward, a betrayal of all that geological science had fought to gain. It was a heresy of the worst order." p. 44
    • "It was inevitable that sooner or later the geological community would rise up and attempt to defeat Bretz's 'outrageous hypothesis.'" p 49
    • "Nearly 50 years had passed since Bretz first proposed the idea of catastrophic flooding, and now in 1971 his arguments had become a standard of geological thinking." p. 71
  42. Ager, Derek V. (1993). The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record (3rd ed.). Chichester, New York, Brisbane, Toronto, Singapore: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 83–84. ISBN 0-471-93808-4.
  43. Smith, Gary A; Aurora Pun (2006). How Does Earth Work: Physical Geology and the Process of Science (textbook). New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall. p. 12. ISBN 0-13-034129-0.
  44. Ager, Derek V. (1993). The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record (3rd ed.). Chichester, New York, Brisbane, Toronto, Singapore: John Wiley & Sons. p. 81. ISBN 0-471-93808-4.
  45. Gould 1987, p. 174
  46. The Columbia Encyclopedia Sixth Edition, uniformitarianism Archived 2006-06-24 at the Wayback Machine © 2007 Columbia University Press.
  47. Forster, Geoffrey P. (2010). Half Life: Extending the Effective Lifespan of the Corporation. APAC Press. p. 62.
  48. Ringe, Donald (2012). "The Uniformitarian Principle in linguistics". University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2020-03-22.
  49. Walkden, George (2019). "The many faces of uniformitarianism in linguistics". Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics. 4 (1): 52. doi:10.5334/gjgl.888. ISSN 2397-1835.


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