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Vol. III • 1980

Mark Twain and Uniformitarianism
by Kathy Hutson

While "steaming" through Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi I ran across the sharpest and most humorous satire of evolutionary thought I have seen in American literature. Although Twain is hardly viewed as a defender of creationism, he nevertheless turns his biting wit against uniformitarianism in this excerpt from his work.

To fill in the previous context, Twain has been explaining "cut-offs" that have occurred in the history of the winding Mississippi, describing how the meandering river has been shortened over the years whenever it cuts off one of its many horseshoe bends." Following is his application of uniformitarian theory to the evolution of rivers:  

Therefore the Mississippi between Cairo and New Orleans was twelve hundred and fifteen miles long, one hundred and seventy-six years ago. It was eleven hundred and eighty after the cut-off of 1722. It was one thousand and forty after the American Bend cut-off. It has lost sixty-seven miles since. Consequently, its length is only nine hundred and seventy-three miles at present.

Now, if I wanted to be one of those ponderous scientific people, and "let on" to prove what had occurred in the remote past by what had occurred in a given time in the recent past, or what will occur in the far future by what has occurred in late years, what an opportunity is here! Geology never had such a chance, nor such exact data to argue from! Nor "development of species," either! Glacial epochs are great things, but they are vague - vague. Please observe:

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesome returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. *

* Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (reprint. Bantam Books: New York, 1979) Original publishing date 1896.

"Mark Twain and Uniformitarianism"
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