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Scientific Diluvianism

Flooding, as ancient civilizations recognized, is a capricious manifestation of natural forces. Floods are a naturally occurring process. The lands they occupy on a temporary basis from time to time - floodplains - are often the locus of human occupancy and use, resulting in economic losses and diminution of natural resources and their functions. Flooding has always been a part of human existence. The earliest recorded civilizations, such as those in Egypt and Mesopotamia, sprang up along the life-giving Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that periodically overflowed their banks and spread fertile soil and moisture in which crops could flourish.

Flooding occurs along both major rivers and small streams, in coastal areas, and along the margins of some lakes. Other flood-prone areas include alluvial fans and other types of unstable and meandering channels, ground failure areas, and areas influenced by structural measures. Riverine flooding can develop from heavy rainfall and rapid snowmelt as well as from dam and levee failure, ice jams, and channel migration. Coastal flooding can be caused by hurricanes, winter storms, tsunamis, and rising sea levels. Individual storms and long-term climate variations are among the causes of lacustrine flooding. In addition, flooding due to surface runoff and locally inadequate drainage can be a major problem, particularly in rapidly urbanizing areas.

Diluvium (di- or dl-lu' vi-um), n. [= F. diluvium = Sp. Pg. It. diluvio, < L. diluvium (also diluvies and diluvio, a flood, deluge (whence ult. E. deluge), diluere, wash away] is a term referencing a deluge or an inundation; an overflowing, or the coarse detrital material, wherever found. This term was introduced into geology in consequence of a general belief in the past occurrence of a universal deluge. Finer materials, usually occupying the lower parts of valleys, and occurring especially along the courses of great rivers, were called alluvium (which see). In the use of the words diluvium and alluvium {diluvial, alluvial) there is an obscure recognition of a fundamental fact in geology, namely, that rivers have variation in volume, a condition which necessarily connects itself with increaswed or diminished erosive power. But the idea of a catastrophic period of diluvial action, preceded and followed by repose, such as lies at the base of the belief in the deluge, is no longer in vogue, and the word diluvium has become almost obsolete.

Diluvianism (di- or di-lfi'vi-an-izm), n. [< diluvian + -ism.] was a geological theory which was largely based on the supposition of the former occurrence of a universal deluge. In the early history of geology the deluge played an important part, and many leading facts were explained by reference to it. Linguistic philology has been actually created by it [the scientific movement of the age] out of the crude observations and wild deductions of earlier times, as truly as chemistry out of alchemy, or geology out of diluvianism.

The Deluge of Noah has long been one of the points of tension between geology and Christianity. Scientific diluvianism -- the theory that the earth's history was shaped by a universal flood -- collapsed in the early 19th century, well before Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species. Since that time, scientists and historians have assumed that the flood story derived from local events in Mesopotamia. Whether referred to as Noah's Flood, the Great Flood, or as The Deluge, the event is so deeply rooted in the collective memory of mankind that it is reported in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, and forms part of more than just one world religion. It comes as no surprise that scientists are scrambling to pursue any opportunity to shed light on the mystery of this legend.

The prevailing theories as to historical geology during the Middle Ages involved the idea of "catastrophism." According to this view all important changes in the earth's crust represented sudden radical transformations, involving earthquakes, volcanic outbursts, floods, sudden upliftings of submerged areas, or equally sudden submergence of land bodies. From these ideas naturally grew the related idea of great, world-wide destructions of animals and plants, followed by re-creation of new faunas and floras. Cuvier, for example, interpreted the more or less distinct fossil strata as being the result of a series of tremendous cataclysms, the last of which had been the great deluge of Scripture, in which Noah figured prominently. He thought that at each cataclysm great floods of water had covered the earth, that the existing animals had been buried in mud and thus preserved as fossils, and that a new creation followed each cataclysm.

The Catastrophists held that nearly earth's surface have taken place with great rapidity. In their view, the species which succeed each other in the geological strata were, each and all, fresh creations. At each geological epoch, according to the Catastrophists, the board was swept clean, and a new record spread upon its surface. The Deluge was naturally claimed as a greal terrestrial convulsion rather than a mere moral and local judgment. The whole fossiliferous crust of the globe was treated as its sediment, and all physical geography made to furnish its traces in the abysmal sea. Supposed relics of such a deluge were piously collected in cabinets and museums and made the theme of learned and devout discussions. Father Torrubia found the remains of antediluvian giants in Spain; Increase Mather forwarded similar relics to the Royal Society in London; and Scheuchzer discovered in Germany the famous fossil infant, or human witness to the deluge, which was afterwards identified by Cuvier as a salamander, but not until it had furnished inspiration for some pathetic verses in which it was apostrophized as an innocent sufferer for the sin of Adam.

Geology, developed by such men as Leibnitz (1646-1716), Buffon (1707-1788), Cuvier (1769-1832). and William Smith (1769-1839) gradually gained the confidence of many educated men in asserting that the world had been peopled for untold ages by successive assemblages of plants and animals, until, at a comparatively "modern" date, man was created and placed upon it. The Scotch philosopher and geologist, Hutton, who lived during the last half of the eighteenth century, combated the idea of catastrophism by advocating the doctrine of "uniformitarianism," a view involving the idea that past changes on the earth were the result of the same sort of gradual changes as are observed to be taking place today.

Charles Lyell, in the publication of his " Principles of Geology " in 1830, began teaching the uniformitarian theory; viz., that all the successive geological changes could be understood as the result of causes similar to those now in every-day operation. That is, the geology of Lyell not only denied the Bible record of a universal world-catastrophe, the deluge. When it was found that the world was more than six thousand years old, that there was no universal flood four thousand years ago, that Adam was not made directly from dust, and Eve from his rib, and that the tower of Babel was not the occasion of the diversification of languages, the process of criticism had to go on from Genesis to Revelation, with no fear of the curse at the end of the last. Pious efforts were made to trace the effects of the apostacy in animal remains which were buried ages before the appearance of man; to find traditions of the deluge among savage tribes, and the monuments of Babel on remote islands of the sea.

The Catastrophists were prodigal of force,and parsimonious of time; while the Uniformitarians were parsimonious of force, and prodigal of time. The processes of nature cannot be comprehended under either of the foregoing theories. There is, in fact, no such thing as uniformity in nature. On the contrary, nature is a continuous series of changes the rate of which is far from uniform - catastrophes are by no means unknown in nature. The main evidence of the Noachian Deluge must always be historical.

The date of the Great Flood would seem to be a date not long before 3000 BC by Sumerian King List records, and not after 2350 BC according to Bishop Ussher, with a strong presumption in favor of the former over the later. Thus explanations which rely on general changes in sea level at the end of the Ice Age [which would date flooding to no later than 5000 BC], or to particular changes in the level of the Black Sea [which would date flooding to no later than 5150 BC] may account for widespread mythic traditions of a flood, but they cannot account for The Deluge, an event which took place some 2000 years later, at around 2900 BC. The Deluge took place at a specific location, lower Mesopotamia, in the form of unusually severe flooding of the Tigris and Eurphrates Rivers.

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