"The Present Is the Key to the Past"

Asia , day and night, satellite image of the Earth
Science Photo Library - NASA/NOAA, Brand X Pictures/ Getty Images

Uniformitarianism is a geological theory that states that changes in the earth's crust throughout history have resulted from the action of uniform, continuous processes.

In the mid-seventeenth century, biblical scholar and Archbishop James Ussher determined that the earth had been created in the year 4004 B.C. Just over a century later James Hutton, known as the father of geology, suggested that the earth was much older and that processes occurring in the present were the same processes that had operated in the past, and would be the processes that operate in the future.

This concept became known as uniformitarianism and can be summarized by the phrase "the present is the key to the past." It was a direct rejection of the prevalent theory of the time, catastrophism, which held that only violent disasters could modify the surface of the earth.

Today, we hold uniformitarianism to be true and know that great disasters such as earthquakes, asteroids, volcanoes, and floods are part of the regular cycle of the earth.

The Evolution of Uniformitarianism Theory

Hutton based the theory of uniformitarianism on the slow, natural processes that he observed on the landscape. He realized that, if given enough time, a stream could carve a valley, ice could erode rock, sediment could accumulate and form new landforms. He speculated that millions of years would have been required to shape the earth into its contemporary form.

Unfortunately, Hutton was not a very good writer, and although he did famously state "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end" in a 1785 paper on the entirely new theory of geomorphology (the study of landforms and their development), it was the 19th-century scholar Sir Charles Lyell whose "Principles of Geology(1830) popularized the concept of uniformitarianism.

The Earth is estimated to be approximately 4.55 billion years old and the planet has certainly had enough time for slow, continuous processes to mold and to shape the earth—including the tectonic movement of the continents around the globe.

Severe Weather and Uniformitarianism

As the concepts of Uniformitarianism evolved, it has adapted to include an understanding of the importance of short-term "cataclysmic" events in the formation and shaping of the world. In 1994, the U.S. National Research Council stated:

It is not known whether the relocation of materials on the surface of the Earth is dominated by the slower but continuous fluxes operating all the time or by the spectacular large fluxes that operate during short-lived cataclysmic events.

On a practical level, Uniformitarianism hinges upon the belief that both long-term patterns and short-term natural disasters reoccur throughout the course of history, and for that reason, we can look to the present to see what has happened in the past. The rain from a storm slowly erodes the soil, wind moves sand in the Sahara desert, floods change the course of a river, and uniformitarianism unlocks the keys to the past and the future in what occurs today.


Davis,​​​ Mike. ECOLOGY OF FEAR: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. Macmillan, 1998.​

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology. Hilliard, Gray & Co., 1842.

Tinkler, Keith J. A Short History of Geomorphology. Barnes & Noble Books, 1985.