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KRONOS Vol V, No. 1
DOOMSDAY: THE SCIENCE OF CATASTROPHE by FRED WARSHOFSKY
(Reader's Digest Press, 1977;
ROGER W. WESCOTT
Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics
Fred Warshofsky, a prize-winning science writer, has here produced an excellent short overview of catastrophic theories on nearly everything from the "Big Bang" that could have created the cosmos to the thermonuclear holocaust that may terminate social order on Earth. Of the twelve chapters in the book, the three best seem to me to be those on myths, ice ages, and phyletic extinctions.
Admirers of Immanuel Velikovsky will, I think, be almost equally pleased with chapter 3, "Worlds in Collision" (pp. 35-63 in the paperback edition), which gives one of the clearest and fairest summaries of "The Velikovsky Affair" that I have ever read. To be sure, Velikovskian literature is now so voluminous that even Velikovskians have difficulty digesting it. The result is that, in five of the other eleven chapters, the author makes statements which either implicitly or explicitly contradict the contents of chapter 3. (While Warshofsky is under no obligation to accept Velikovsky's views on all subjects, I feel that if – as appears to be the case – he finds the basic Velikovskian thesis convincing, he ought to try to inform his readers of the points on which he disagrees significantly with Velikovsky and the reasons for the disagreement.)
The chief points of apparent disagreement between Warshofsky and Velikovsky are these:
1. That the solar "neutrino deficit" indicates that the Sun is already dying: p. 22. (The Velikovskian explanation of the deficit is that solar energy comes more from exogenous electrical influx than from endogenous atomic fusion.)
2. That, 3 billion years ago, the Moon was only 80,000 miles from the Earth and that the resultant tidal friction was sufficient to vaporize the Earth's oceans: pp. 140-141. (Quite apart from the intrinsic improbability of this scenario, the Velikovskian view is that our Moon, which is far too large to be an ordinary planetary satellite, was captured by the Earth during the late Stone Age – barely 1/100,000th as long ago as Warshofsky proposes.)
3. That the Chilean earthquake of 1960, measuring 8.6 on the Richter scale, was the most severe ever to have occurred: p. 148. (The Velikovskian view is not merely that the earthquakes of the Martian and Venusian [as well as earlier – LMG] catastrophes must have been more severe than those of our time but that at least some of them must have been of an entirely different order of magnitude, constituting earth-shocks – that is, quakes which, instead of being localized in some terrestrial epicenter, consisted of virtually simultaneous vibrations of the entire planet.)
4. That continental drift is "catastrophe in slow motion": p. 161. (The Velikovskian view is that such drift, even when rechristened tectonic plate movement, is at most a decelerating crustal readjustment to the stresses of the pre-Hellenistic orbital disturbances.)
5. That the dinosaurs were reptiles: p. 192. (In fairness to Warshofsky, it should be noted that, later in the same chapter, he discusses the more recent view that they were warm-blooded, which is shared by Velikovskians.)
6. That Robert Bakker of Harvard is "the author" of the hypothesis that the dinosaurs were endotherms: p. 199. (If "author" means first proponent, this view is probably restricted to Bakker himself. The earliest proposal that dinosaurs were warm-blooded came from Velikovsky in 1941. Since this proposal was then considered too radical to print, no further note was taken of it till 1969, when John Ostrom of Yale and A. de Ricqlés of the University of Paris independently published it in journal articles. The first book on the subject, The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs by Adrian Desmond, appeared in 1976.)
7. That the Earth's last magnetic field reversal occurred 700,000 years ago: p. 205. (The Velikovskian view is that it occurred during the Martian catastrophe of the 8th century B.C.)
8. That the extinction of the late Pleistocene megafauna, including mammoths and mastodons, was due to overkill by Paleolithic hunters: pp. 207-208. (The Velikovskian view is that it was due to one of the interplanetary orbital entanglements.)
9. That "nature's plans for the end of the world" are eons away: p. 227. (The Velikovskian view is that the frequency of protohistoric catastrophes makes this assessment optimistic, to say the least.)
Some remarkably incisive discussions of the application of catastrophist theory to specific biological and geological problems are found in chapters 6, 7, and 8. On pp. 122-123, Warshofsky resolves the paradox of the striking biochemical similarity and the equally striking anatomical dissimilarity between man and chimpanzee in terms of a genetic "mini-catastrophe," involving not the genes themselves, but their chromosomal arrangement. On pp. 137-143, he details a series of laboratory experiments involving the conversion of inorganic to organic chemicals – the raw materials of life – by means of electrical discharge, ultraviolet radiation, sudden heating, and (most effectively) shock waves. And, on pp. 146-152, he deals arrestingly with the most topical of all matters relating to catastrophism: the likelihood of wide-spread physical disturbances on Earth in the near future. Noting that both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions increase every seven years, when our planet's two librations, the Annual Wobble and the Chandler Wobble, coincide, he warns that 1985 should be a rocky year for us. Combining this observation with John Gribbin's prediction of a peaking of seismic stress in conjunction with planetary syzygy, or alignment, in 1982, we may well wish to avoid such seismically unstable areas as California or Japan in the early 1980's.
Not only does Warshofsky do a good job of surveying the range of theories purporting to explain the demise of species since the early Paleozoic Era, but he also takes care to examine the specific mechanisms whereby gross environmental disturbances are translated into collective reproductive failures. Of the various mechanisms considered by him, the one which struck me as most persuasively relating magnetic fluctuations to extinctions was the theory advanced by Ian Crain of the Australian National University (pp. 204-205). According to Crain, magnetism is always at least temporarily reduced during a field reversal; and this reduction, by impeding the movement of charged ions through membranes, in turn reduces the motility, metabolic efficacy, and fertility of all organisms, irrespective of size or habitat (although, I would add, large animals are most vulnerable to extinction, both because of their greater motility and of their lesser numbers).
There are two shortcomings of Warshofsky's volume for which his publishers may be more responsible than he. Of these, the more important is the lack of congruence between the book's title and its subtitle. Doomsday does not mean "the science of catastrophe" or, for that matter, of anything else. If a single word with that meaning is required, then some such coinage as "catastrophics" or, less felicitously, "catastrophology" seems indicated. (The phrase "catastrophe theory" has already been preempted for a new branch of topology by the French mathematician Rene Thom.) If, on the other hand, the title is primary and the subtitle subordinate, the book ought to be subtitled "What it is and when it's coming" or something of the sort. Less important, perhaps, but even more blatant is the contradiction between p. i (corresponding, I presume, to the hardcover dust-jacket blurb), where Albert Einstein is misquoted as asserting that "God plays dice with the cosmos" and p. 1 [sic], where he is correctly quoted as saying "I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos".
My other criticisms of the author, having to do with inclusions and exclusions, are probably matters more of personal preference than of scholarly validity. Nonetheless, I find it regrettable that, having discussed the catastrophist views of the fundamentalist writer Donald Patten, he does not balance them with the views of less evangelical theorists, such as Ignatius Donnelly or Charles Hapgood, the latter of whom won praise from Einstein. I am also surprised that he never mentions the so-called "doomsday machine". Though its very existence remains unproved, it is perennially rumored to be part of the atomic arsenal of one or more of the nations belonging to the "nuclear club". This machine is an automated device supposedly enabling its possessor to strike back with devastating effect at a military foe even if all of its own population has previously been exterminated in a surprise attack! I regret, finally, that Warshofsky, despite his considerable credentials as a futurist, fails even to mention (much less to recommend) the establishment of extraterrestrial settlements as a form of insurance against terrestrial disaster, whether natural or man-made.
Overall, however, I found Doomsday – despite its garish title – smoothly written, well balanced, and informative. And it is, by any standard, a triumph of the proofreader's art; in 227 pages of text, I noted only one misprint: baluchiteria (p. 203) for baluchitheria, meaning giant hornless rhinoceroses of the Asian Oligocene.