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Open letter to science editors

 
"CENOCATASTROPHISM"

William Mullen

It is a privilege indeed to speak after Victor Clube, and I hope that by the
end of my talk you will see that this paper was written every bit as much for
readers of the Cosmic Winter as of World's in Collision. It's also a
privilege to be back among so many people I went to symposia with 20 years
ago. It's a privilege to be back among those whose labor has been
unremitting, unlike mine.

I'm here to propose a new term for your critical scrutiny, but let me hasten
to say that I'm no friend of neologisms. As a classicist I have a fussy
anxiety that the new word will not be correctly formed (both of the elements
composing it should be from the same language, not half from Greek and the
other half from Latin, or whatever). And as a friend of interdisciplinary
synthesis, I know how it is obstructed by the proliferation of the jargon of
subdisciplines. My purpose in proposing this neologism is therefore not so
much to get you to accept it as to see if you agree that there is a need for
something like it. If we agree on the need then we can talk the matter
through till a better term is decided uponó perhaps one that already exists.

The prefix "ceno-" is from the Greek word kainos, which means "new" or
"recent". It is already in use in the term "cenozoic", the most recent major
period of life on earth, and in the subdivisions of that period into epochs,
from the "paleocene"-the "oldest recent", to the "pleistocene", the "most
recent", and the "holocene", the "entirely recent", i.e. up to and including
the present. The most basic definition for "cenocatastrophism", thus, would
be that it is a model for scientific inquiry which assumes that the earth has
suffered catastrophes of global extent in recent times. "Catastrophism"
itself, of course, is the name for a model which since the l9th century has
existed in opposition to a rival, "uniformitarianism". When Velikovsky
published Worlds in Collision uniformitarianism ruled the day. Now it no
longer rules the day; the emergent scientific consensus that the dinosaurs
were extinguished by a meteorite has left uniformitarianism itself a dinosaur
among models. Without quite fully admitting it, science has moved on to the
question, What kinds of catastrophism is it most eager to see adopted as
models for future research?

Cenocatastrophism designates a model for research which assumes that global
catastrophes have occurred recently. The next question is clearly, How
recent is recent? The very age which began with the extinction of the
dinosaurs is called, as just noted, the "Cenozoic", and by that standard
recent is any time within the last 65 million years. But "recent" is of
course relative to an observer, and therefore I find it legitimate to use the
prefix "ceno-" here to mean "within human memory". By this definition,
therefore, cenocatastrophism designates a model which has not yet won a
scientific consensus; those who support it have all the methodological and
rhetorical problems of the not-yet-mainstreamed. It is a model shared by
those strange bedfellows, Immanuel Velikovsky and Fred Hoyle, and also by
Victor Clube and Bill Napier, the two astronomers on whose The Cosmic Winter
Hoyle's recent The Origin of the Universe and the Origin of Religion openly
depends.

Just as catastrophism once existed in opposition to uniformitarianism, until
the latter gained dominance and the two terms became archaic, so
cenocatastrophism now exists in opposition to those who insist on keeping
global catastrophes comfortably in the remote pre-human past-a consistent
nomenclature would call them "palaeocatastrophists". Thus the opposition of
these latter terms is no more likely to be permanent than that of the former;
I propose them for what I hope is relatively short term duty, until one
prevails over the other. The sign that one has prevailed over the other will
be the emergence of a methodology with a large consensus behind it, and
hence, pleasantly, massive funding, publication, and validation through peer-
review. But until one prevails over the other the problems of
cenocatastrophism will, inevitably, be in part rhetorical. By rhetorical I
mean simply anything involved in persuading people of widely different
disciplines-specifically disciplines separated by the great chasm between the
natural and the social sciences-to see the necessity of their sustained
cooperation.

Before turning to the methodology and rhetoric of cenocatastrophism, it might
be useful to ask, How many types of cenocatastrophist are currently out
there? Useful and possibly crucial, for a sufficiently respectful answer
might allow the different types to agree to disagree with each other on their
specific scenarios. Having agreed to disagree, they might then establish
enough unity among themselves to be effective in getting the general model
they share taken seriously by a scientific mainstream still shy of it.

The normal way to define sub-types within a controversy is to assume schools
mutually exclusive of each other. An alternative, however, is to construct a
series of theses each more specific than the last, in such a way that one can
subscribe to the first without committing oneself to the second, to the first
and second without the third, and so on. Thirty years ago the philosopher
David Stove attempted to describe Velikovsky's claims in terms of four such
theses. The first he called "general catastrophism", the second "extra-
terrestrial catastrophism", the third "historical extra-terrestrial
catastrophism", and the fourth the specific thesis of Worlds in Collision, "
that one of these catastrophes was mainly due to comet-Venus, around 1500 B.C.
" Setting aside his first two theses, general and extraterrestrial
catastrophism as now belonging to mainstream science, I would like to
substitute for his last two a sequence of three further theses all explicitly
cenocatastrophist. As in Stove's scheme, they are so arranged that one can
agree with an earlier one without thereby committing oneself to a later.

Thesis I: that remote human memory of extra-terrestrially caused global
catastrophes is preserved in mythology.

Thesis II: that human memory of the most recent such catastrophes is
registered in historical documents which can be used to date them precisely.

Thesis III: that human culture as a whole came into being in response to such
catastrophes, apart from which no distinctively human form of behavior is to
be postulated.

It should be noted that all three theses could be developed either along Clube
and Napier's lines, by scenarios involving comets and meteor swarms in an
otherwise stable solar system, or along the lines of Velikovsky and many
after him, by scenarios positing recent instabilities in the behavior of
specific planets in a specific sequence. What differentiates each thesis
from the preceding is the magnitude of its claim to explanatory power, and
hence the number of disciplines it must enlist to establish itself. Thesis I
will seek to connect astrophysics and geology to the interpretation of
mythology, the latter being an enterprise so problematical that there exists
at present no single formal discipline whose methodology commands respect as
adequate to it. Thesis II will seek to connect astrophysics and geology to
the entire range of disciplines by which precise chronology of human
activities is achieved.

Thesis III will by definition lay claim to all disciplines, since it will see
all human activities as a configured whole, no part of which can be supposed
recognizably the same in a pre-catastrophic past.

One might for the moment label the first thesis "mythological
cenocatastrophism" and the second "historical cenocatastrophism". For the
third we should consider the term put forward by the most comprehensive
theorist in this area, the "quantavolution" of Alfred de Grazia; he introduces
this neologism in the opening pages of Chaos and Creation and defines it as a
"model" that "considers 'quantajumps' to be the main feature of change
(volution)... Humanity, art, institutions and science are products of the most
ancient catastrophes... 'quantavolution' may be preferable... to... the
wholly negative word 'catastrophe"'. An alternative label, "anthropic
cenocatastrophist", might be coined by borrowing from Fred Hoyle's way of
putting it: "Why then the coincidence that it [earth's encounter with a giant
periodic comet] seems to have happened as recently as 15,000 years ago? ...
the answer to this question lies in what nowadays is called the anthropic
principle, which says that the fact of our existence can be used to discount
all improbabilities necessary for our existence. If history and civilization
were caused by the arrival of a periodic giant comet all accident is removed
from our association in time with such a comet." One can be a mythological
cenocatastrophist without being convinced that the most recent catastrophes
are dateable by the written records of literate civilizations witnessing
them. Likewise, one can be a historical cenocatastrophist without being
convinced of the necessity to reconceptualize "humanity" as a behavioral
configuration catastrophically precipitated. If the three kinds of
cenocatastrophist can agree to disagree on their respective theses while
uniting in their insistence that palaeocatastrophism is inadequate, something
decisive will have been achieved for the immediate future of science.

What principles of methodology and rhetoric, then, might it be most productive
for cenocatastrophists to agree on for the sake of advancing research beyond
its present state? I am obviously not going to pretend to be exhaustive in
answering this question; I wish simply to name a few points I see as taking
precedence.

To begin with mythology. What is most frustratingly lacking in
cenocatastrophists' use of myth thus far is an effort to give an account of
each culture's myth-system as a whole, within which specifically catastrophic
material can be located. The reason this effort is lacking in Worlds in
Collision is obvious enough; Velikovsky was concerned to dramatize the
parallel configuration of elements in myth-systems of cultures all around the
globe, elements supposedly meaningless in isolation but which leap alive when
interpreted as accounts of actual celestial havoc. There was clearly not
room in a single book to give a holistic account of each of the myth-systems
of the many cultures being called upon. But it has to be admitted that to
draw selectively on these complex systems is to borrow credence. This
credence will not be consolidated until many further books are written on
separate myth-systems by researchers versed in them, who are ready to make the
time-consuming transition from comparative catastrophist mythology to
assessment of each mythsystem in its own terms.

The result of such transitions cannot but be sobering. They will inevitably
dramatize what Roger Wescott has called the "indeterminacy" of mythology
alone as a source of precise information about sequences of celestial events
over a long period of time. Myth-systems change to meet a culture's needs
over time, and the commonest form of change is not to eliminate a mythical
element but to reinterpret it. An element which was used to give an account
of an earlier cometary or planetary appearance will be reinterpreted to give
an account of a later one; and in the succeeding era of celestial calm the
same element will be used again to do other kinds of duty (validate a
political order, serve the devotional needs of cults, provide poets with their
symbolic fictions, etc.). Interpretation of a myth-system which does not
include an account of its mutations from the catastrophic past to the present
era of stability is unlikely to convince the unreconstructed uniformitarian.
Just as importantly, interpretation of a myth-system which does not allow the
possibility that it has mutated to do duty for several successive
catastrophes is of severely limited use for the fashioning of precise
scenarios by cenocatastrophists.

To question a myth-system about its reinterpretations over time is inevitably
to ask how much can be securely known about the chronology of the culture
that did the reinterpreting, and hence to enter the realm of the second type
of cenocatastrophism, which I have called "historical". Here too it has to be
admitted that Velikovsky was compelled, in his own words, to "borrow
credence" about Egyptian chronology, and that the process of consolidating
that credence has turned out to be far more arduous than even he could have
guessed. Worlds in Collision and the Ages in Chaos series dismantle the
structure of Egyptian chronology erected in the late l9th century, but leave
intact the Mesopotamian chronology erected in the same period and an early
Hebrew chronology traditional for centuries. It has been the undertaking of
Gunnar Heinsohn to submit these latter chronologies, and many others
dependent on them, to the same thorough and critical scrutiny Velikovsky
spent four decades giving to the Egyptian. His impressive work is still in
progress, but it is already quite clear that if accepted it will render
unusable many of the key Mesopotamian and Hebrew dates on which Worlds in
Collision itself builds. Indeed, as I understand it Heinsohn calls for an
even more radical shortening of Egyptian chronology that Velikovsky does. I
may be exaggerating but I have the sense that the upshot of his work will be
to establish a roughly mid-second millennium B.C. baseline for the emergence
of all complex civilizations around the globe, Egyptian, Hebrew and
Mesopotamian no less than Indus Valley, Chinese, and Mesoamerican. What
these civilizations are all so simultaneously emerging from will then be the
largest question before historians of early mankind, of whatever persuasion.
But until Velikovsky's and Heinsohn's chronological revisionism is assessed-a
massive undertaking for innumerable specialists-it is hard to imagine
historical cenocatastrophism making any serious progress.

As for quantavolution or anthropic cenocatastrophism, since it by definition
encompasses the whole of human history and civilization, it would be
presumptuous to single out for it any one methodological point that ought to
take precedence over all others. But at this juncture I am concerned with
rhetoric as well as methodology, and so wish to conclude with a few remarks
about rhetorical similarities among cenocatastrophists when they come to
speak of humanity's future in terms of its past.

Both Velikovsky, on the one hand, and Clube, Napier and Hoyle, on the other,
have made claims about the dangers for mankind of not taking their models
seriously. In each case the claim is made from within the discipline in
which the author has been professionally trained. Velikovsky's claim is that
of a psychoanalyst: human beings have been traumatized by the catastrophes of
the past, and in their amnesia of them remain subject to the compulsion to
"identify with the aggressor" and reenact the catastrophes as inflictors
rather than victims. Though his incomplete attempt to work out this idea is
only available for inspection in the posthumous Mankind in Amnesia, an
allusion to it is already present in the somber final paragraph on nuclear war
in the preface to Worlds in Collision. Clube, Napier and Hoyle, on the
other hand, make the kind of simple predictive claim about probabilities to
which a professional astronomer might be driven by the evidence. The last
chapter of Clube and Napier's The Cosmic Winter, "A Risk Assessment",
concludes that if their hypothesis is right "we are still in the tail end of
an impact episode" and must "go from mere statistical projection to detailed
forecasting", for which "a generation of exploration, both of the Earth's
environment and of our history and prehistory, will be necessary."

Cynics in each case are apt to see these claims as manipulative alarmism, a
rhetoric of threat. They will see the psychoanalyst as attempting to put the
final stamp of his own discipline on works which so widely exceeds its
bounds, and they will see the astronomers as playing upon irrational terrors
in order to secure massive funding for further research. Pessimists, in
turn, are free to declare the uselessness of the anamnetic enterprise on
either hypothesis. It is perfectly possible that knowing the traumas of our
past will not succeed in making us stop reenacting them. And it is perfectly
possible that the next impact episode will involve an object too big to be
deflected.

My only response to such negativity is to suggest that the very act of
affirming or invalidating these claims about the future should propel
cenocatastrophism forward in research that will be methodologically decisive
for it. It will be decisive in that it will require social scientists and
natural scientists to build bridges across the chasm that divides them and
work together as a matter of routine. Until this collaboration is routine
every statement a researcher makes that tries to leap from his area of
expertise across to the other side of the chasm will continue to have a
credibility problem attached to it . As long as cenocatastrophism remains
marginalized, then the psychoanalyst can be dismissed without further ado
when he ventures into hypotheses about gravitation and electro-magnetism in
the solar system, and the astronomers dismissed without further ado when they
venture an interpretation of an ancient myth or document without showing
command of all the conventional interpretations of it by the relevant guilds.

Routine and sustained collaboration between experts in the social sciences and
in the nature sciences is the sine qua non for substantial progress in use of
the cenocatatrophist model. (Among those present Alfred de Grazia and Earl
Milton offer an example of what I am talking about.) It should be added that
the mainstreaming of cenocatastrophism could well cause certain disciplines
relevant to its various claims for the future to transmogrify themselves.
Once global catastrophes within human memory are admitted, theorizing about
their impact on the human psyche will not be limited to classical Freudian
psychoanalysts-may not in fact be limitable to any larger discipline that
calls itself "psychology". And if these catastrophes are explicable in terms
of a periodicity relevant to the next few centuries as well as to preceding
millennia, then no reassessment of ancient chronology will be deemed too
comprehensive or too painstaking; the science of chronology might well cease
to be a handmaiden and become (to borrow Aristotle's phrase about metaphysics)
the "architectonic science" that assigns the other sciences their place.

"History," says Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses, "is a nightmare from
which I am trying to awake.'' It is ironic that while some
cenocatastrophists who are impressed by Velikovsky's planetary scenarios are
embarrassed by his psychoanalytic deductions from them, others who find his
astronomy too shaky for sustained consideration nevertheless follow him in
explaining mainstream scientific resistance in terms of some kind of amnesia.
"It could be seen as curious," Hoyle says on the last page of The Origin of
the Universe and the Origin of Religion, "that society would seek to
investigate distant galaxies while at the same time ignoring all possibility
of serious impacts with the Earth...Only blind amnesia can explain it." We
should not stop, he pleads, until mastering the final step, namely "to
deflect those [orbits] for which collision with the Earth may be imminent".
When we have learned to do that, he concludes-in language worthy of both Joyce
and Velikovsky-"mankind can at last wake up from the strange nightmare of the
past."

References

Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (Doubleday: New York, 1950); Sir
Fred Hoyle, The Origin of the Universe and the Origin of Religion (Moyer
Bell: Wakefield, 1993); Victor Clube and Bill Napier, The Cosmic Winter
(Blackwell: Oxford, 1990).
David Stove, "Velikovsky in Collision", Quadrant (Oct.-Nov. 1964), pp. 35-44.

3 My approach here is in the spirit of Irving Wolfe's recent article, "A Word
about the Planetary Debate", The Velikovskian, Vol. I No. 1, pp. 7-15. Like
myself, Wolfe is concerned both with nomenclature and with inclusiveness.
His opening list (pp.7-8) of fifteen theorists contributing to the debate is a
useful point of departure. The list continues to grow, and one can now add
the name Fred Hoyle: see footnote 1.
In the "Epilogue" to Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky seemed to wish to
introduce a phrase describing the whole of his work, calling it "historical
cosmology" (p. 379) and then again "historical cosmogony" (p. 381).
Alfred de Grazia, Chaos and Creation: An Introduction to Quantavolution in
Human and Natural History (Metron Publications: Princeton, 1981), pp. 4-5.
op. cit p. 31
Roger S. Wescott, "Indeterminacy: Temporary, Permanent, or Indefinite?", The
Velikovskian Vol. I No. 1, pp. 53-55. "... all mythic images... are
superimposed images. Because of this superimposition, they are necessarily
blurred images." p. 54
"On one point alone, not necessarily decisive for the theory of cosmic
catastrophism, I borrow credence: I use a synchronical scale of Egyptian and
Hebrew histories which is not orthodox." Op. Cit. pp. vii-viii.
"On one point alone, not necessarily decisive for the theory of cosmic
catastrophism, I borrow credence: I use a synchronical scale of Egyptian and
Hebrew histories which is not orthodox."
Op. Cit. pp. vii-viii.
James Joyce, Ulysses (Vintage Books: New York, 1986), p. 28.
12 Op, cit. p. 62. Since Hoyle's work acknowledges its dependence on Clube
and Napier's Cosmic Winter, it should be pointed out the latter includes a
sustained history of amnesia and denial of celestial instability on the part
of scientists, philosophers and religious institutions during periods of
celestial tranquillity; see particularly Part I, "The Labyrinth of History",
pp. 15-127.
 

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