Kenneth J. Hsu :
Catastrophes, Dinosaurs and Evolution
Copyrighted by Emerson Thomas McMullen (1999)

Luis and Walter Alvarez rocketed the scientific world with a 1980 article in Science magazine giving evidence that the impact of a large asteroid killed the dinosaurs. They were immediately embroiled in controversy, primarily by those with the uniformitarian world view that events in the past happened slowly and over a long period of time. One of the first lines of the uniformitarian's defense was to ask where was the impact crater? Others argued that the dinosaurs had already died off by the time of the impact. (However, the evidence now is that they lived right up to the end of the Cretaceous.)(1)

Another line of defense against a catastrophic cause was that, even if an asteroid had hit, it didn't kill off the dinosaurs and the other animals.(2) Maybe something else, such as volcanoes, caused the extinction, but over a longer period of time.(3) When some incorrectly interpreted data did seem to support the volcanic hypothesis for dinosaur extinction, a New York Times (1985) editorial hastily declared that the impact theory was dead.(4) My favorite headline from this time frame was in the Science and Technology section of The Economist (1987): "Volcanoes fight comets for the right to exterminate."(5)

An early supporter of the Alvarezes' idea of an impact-caused extinction at the Cretaceous- Tertiary boundary was the geochemist Kenneth J. Hsu, only he thought a comet was the culprit, not an asteroid. (See the appendix for a short biography of Hsu.) He immediately published an article in Nature supplying additional geochemical evidence for a catastrophe at the end of the Cretaceous.(6) He also gave a paper at an international meeting. Later he would write a book on this and Darwinism.(7) Among other things: 1) he reported a decrease in oceanic calcium carbonate content. This resulted from the mass mortality of calcareous plankton killed by cyanide from the comet. 2) He interpreted the negative oxygen-isotope anomaly as a manifestation of significant increases in the surface and bottom temperatures of the ocean. 3) He thought the negative carbon-isotope anomaly to have been caused by the mass mortality of marine planktons. 4) Finally, he found an unusual concentration of iridium, osmium and other trace metals. He even suggested that the comet fragmented and created the Kamensk and Gusev craters in Southern Russia. He also pointed out that global catastrophes and uniformitarian (Darwinian) evolution cannot coexist. Obviously Darwinism was wrong for a variety of reasons.

How was it that Hsu did not have the trouble that other scientists have had in accepting the catastrophic extinction of the dinosaurs? One reason is that he was on board the deep-sea drilling ship Glomar Challenger during a 1970 expedition sampling the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. From the core samples he concluded that the Mediterranean was once a deep sea that underwent "catastrophic desiccation."(8) He told this story in The Mediterranean Was a Desert (1983).(9)

Another reason Hsu had no trouble with catastrophic extinction is his study of "varves" in a Swiss lake. These thin rhythmic layers of silt and clay are thought to represent annual repetitions of a slow sedimentary process. At one location Hsu and a co-worker found five "varves" in a single year. In a 1979 article they presented evidence that these varve-like layers form rapidly by a catastrophic turbid underwater flow.(10) Thus, his own research results had primed him for a catastrophic interpretation of earth history.

An outcome for Hsu's realizing the validity of catastrophic extinctions is his rejection of gradualism in biology. In 1986 he published an article in Geology (14:532-534) titled "Darwin's Three Mistakes." These were that Darwin 1) dismissed mass extinctions as artifacts of an imperfect geological record; 2) assumed species diversity tends to increase exponentially with time; and 3) considered biotic interactions the major cause of mass extinctions.

Also in 1986, Hsu published a book on catastrophic dinosaur extinction that was intended for popular consumption. The book reviewed the past ideas about what killed the dinosaurs and then gave scientific evidences for a comet doing the job. In a chapter titled "The Race is Not to the Swift," he wrote that "It is time to awaken to the absurdity of the idea of natural selection." He quoted a Nobel laureate in biology, Ernst Chain who said: "To postulate . . . the development and survival of the fittest . . . seems to me a hypothesis based on no evidence and irreconcilable with the facts. . . . It amazes me that [it is] swallowed so uncritically and readily, and for such a long time, by so many scientists without a murmur of protest." Hsu adds that the reason that Darwin's hypothesis was accepted so readily is "because we would like to believe it." (11)

In his chapter "The Question of Fitness," Hsu shows that the idea of the survival of the fittest was embraced as a natural law by some capitalists to justify ruthless competition. He first quotes Andrew Carnegie: "The law of competition . . . may be sometimes hard for the individual [but] it is best for the race"; then John D. Rockefeller: "The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God." Hsu observes that both Karl Marx and Ernst Haeckel used Darwinism as scientific support for their ideas of class struggle [Marx] and German racism [Haeckel]. Haeckel also inspired Mao Tse-Tung's advocacy of ceaseless revolution that nearly ruined China.(12)

He concludes that survival of the fittest is a "wicked ideology" and a tautology that has been falsified by the latest science.(13) He thinks that the dinosaurs were merely unlucky. In a sense, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hsu's book and early support of catastrophic extinction are important because he turned out to be on the winning side. It was a struggle, but the catastrophists have prevailed over the uniformitarians for explaining mass extinctions. Hsu, along with the Alvarezes and others, has a place in the history of science for his perseverance against ingrained dogma. It now remains to be seen if Hsu will also emerge on the winning side against the Darwinists.


HSU, KENNETH JINGHWA, Currently Visiting Professor, Colorado School of Mines, 1997 - ? Personal Data: born Nanking, China, July 1, 1929; married 1967, Christine Eugster; children Elisabeth, Martin, Andrew & Peter. Education: Nat Cent University, BS, 1948; Ohio State University, MA, 1950; University of California, Los Angeles, Ph.D. (geology), 1954. Honorary Degrees: Doctor of Science, Nanjing University, 1987. Honors & Awards: Wollaston Medal, Geol Society of London, 1984; Twenhofel Medal, Society Econ Paleontologists & Mineralogists, 1984. Professional Experience: Assistant geologist, Ohio State University, 1948-49; assistant geophysicist, Institute Geophys, University of California, Los Angeles, 1950-51, assistant geologist 1951-54; geologist, Shell Development Company, 1954-56, project head, 1957-62, research associate, 1963; associate professor of geology, Harpur College, 1963-64; associate professor, University of California, Riverside, 1964-67; professor, Swiss Fed Institute of Technology, 1967-94, chairman Geol Inst, 1978-82. Concurrent Position: Co-chief scientist, Mediterranean & Atlantic Cruises, Deep-Sea Drilling Project; chairman, Mediterranean Panel, Atlantic Working Group, Joint Oceanog Inst Deep Earth Sampling; editor-in-chief, Sedimentol; associate editor, Journal Sedimentary Petrol, Marine Geophysical Res & Geophysical Survey; Guggenheim Foundation fellow, 1972; chairman, International Comn Marine Geol & Comt Global Change, International Union Geol Sci; visiting professor, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, 1972, California Institute of Technology, 1991, Nat Taiwan University, 1994-95, Hebrew University Jerusalem, 1995; fellow, Berlin Inst Advanced Studies, 1996. Member: National Academy of Science; honorary member Society Econ Paleontologists & Mineralogists; Swiss Geol Society; International Association Sedimentol (president, 1978-82); honorary fellow Geol Society of America; Academy Sinica. Research: Structural geology; sedimentation; petrology. (From American Men and Women of Science, 1998-1999, Vol.3 p.128.)


1.CNN SCI-TECH story (1998), "Pennsylvania fossils shed light on dinosaurs' disappearance,"

2.Virginia Morell, "How Lethal was the K-T Impact?", Science 261:1518-1519 (1993).

3.Two examples are A. Hallam, "End-Cretaceous mass extinction event: argument for terrestrial causation," Science 238:1237-1242 (1987) and C.B. Officer, et. al., "Late Cretaceous-Tertiary extinctions," Nature 326:143-149 (1987).

4.Muller, Nemesis, p. 84. The editorial was on 2 April 1985 - some thought April Fool's day was a better date for it.

5.This is from the 30 May 1987 issue, p. 81.

6.Kenneth J. Hsu, "Terrestrial catastrophe caused by cometary impact at the end of Cretaceous," Nature 285:201-203 (1980).

7.K.J. Hsu, "Origin of geochemical anomalies at Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Asteroid or cometary impact?", Oceanologica Acta, pp. 129-133 (1981), Proceedings of the 26th International Geological Congress, Paris, July 7-17, 1980.

8.Kenneth J. Hsu, The Mediterranean Was a Desert, A Voyage of the Glomar Challenger (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983) p. 183.

9.Hsu's evidence is that evaporates can happen quickly. Others have assumed that they can only occur by slow processes and use them to argue for an old age of the earth. One example is Dan Wonderly, God's Time-Records in Ancient Sediments (Flint, MI: Crystal Press, 1977).

10.A. Lambert and K.J. Hsu, "Non-annual cycles of varve-like sedimentation in Walensee, Switzerland," Sedimentology 26:453-461 (1979).

11.Kenneth J. Hsu, The Great Dying, Cosmic Catastrophe, Dinosaurs and the Theory of Evolution (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986) p. 277.

12.No doubt Hsu would have added to his list students bombing and shooting other students, as is happening now in American schools. If you teach them they are animals, and that life has no meaning, why not kill each other?

13.Hsu, The Great Dying, pp. 10-24.