HSS Workshop: Catastrophic Thinking in Science and Culture; or, How We Learned to Start Worrying and Fear Mass Extinctions

David Sepkoski

University of Pennsylvania

Monday, March 25, 2019 - 3:30pm

University of Pennsylvania
337 Cohen Hall
249 S 36th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

By the middle of the 20th century, the notion that global “catastrophes” had had an important role in shaping the history of the earth was in serious disrepute.  Although central to 19th century theories of geological change (e.g., Georges Cuvier and followers), by the early 20th century great natural cataclysms had been relegated to the fringes of scientific opinion as the source of major patterns in natural history.  In the early 1980s, however, paleontology and geology were swept up in a “new catastrophism” that emerged, almost overnight, with the presentation of evidence from a variety of sources suggesting that global, catastrophic mass extinctions had been a major source of change in the history of life.  This was perhaps most prominently (though not exclusively) characterized by the widely-publicized theory that the dinosaurs’ extinction some 65 million years ago was the result of the impact of an enormous comet or asteroid.
 In explaining this rapid turnabout in scientific and popular opinion, it is tempting to look to contemporary politics and culture as a source of influence: after all, the decades between the 1950s and the 1980s were marked by increasing widespread concern about contemporary catastrophes of all kinds—and especially by fear of sudden nuclear annihilation.  There is very good reason make these connections, as this talk will discuss.  Not only did scientists’ developing views about the role of catastrophe in the history of life coincide with broader public concern with both impending global apocalypse (via pollution, overpopulation, or nuclear Armageddon) and recent and continuing events (the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam War), but the central cultural prominence of catastrophic imagery may have in fact been a primary stimulus towards the sudden shift in scientific viewpoint.  As this talk will argue, more than any particular new piece of evidence or theory it was the culture of catastrophism during the Cold War decades that helps explain the dramatic revival of a theory of natural historical change that had been effectively dead and buried for nearly 150 years.