Storytelling in Earth sciences: The eight basic plots
Department of Geography, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506–0027, USA
Received 31 July 2012
Accepted 21 September 2012
Available online 29 September 2012
Reporting results and promoting ideas in science in general, and Earth science in particular, is treated here as
storytelling. Just as in literature and drama, storytelling in Earth science is characterized by a small number of
basic plots. Though the list is not exhaustive, and acknowledging that multiple or hybrid plots and subplots
are possible in a single piece, eight standard plots are identiﬁed, and examples provided: cause-and-effect,
genesis, emergence, destruction, metamorphosis, convergence, divergence, and oscillation. The plots of
Earth science stories are not those of literary traditions, nor those of persuasion or moral philosophy, and de-
serve separate consideration. Earth science plots do not conform those of storytelling more generally, imply-
ing that Earth scientists may have fundamentally different motivations than other storytellers, and that the
basic plots of Earth Science derive from the characteristics and behaviors of Earth systems. In some cases
preference or afﬁnity to different plots results in fundamentally different interpretations and conclusions
of the same evidence. In other situations exploration of additional plots could help resolve scientiﬁc contro-
versies. Thus explicit acknowledgement of plots can yield direct scientiﬁc beneﬁts. Consideration of plots and
storytelling devices may also assist in the interpretation of published work, and can help scientists improve
their own storytelling.
© 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction ............................................................ 153
2. Storytelling in Earth sciences .................................................... 154
3. The eight basic plots of Earth Science ................................................. 155
3.1. Cause and effect ....................................................... 156
3.2. Genesis ........................................................... 156
3.3. Emergence .......................................................... 157
3.4. Metamorphosis ....................................................... 157
3.5. Destruction ......................................................... 157
3.6. Convergence ......................................................... 157
3.7. Divergence .......................................................... 158
3.8. Oscillation .......................................................... 158
4. Plots, evidence, and interpretations ................................................. 158
4.1. Stream longitudinal proﬁles .................................................. 158
4.2. Regolith thickness ...................................................... 159
4.3. Other examples ....................................................... 159
5. Concluding remarks ......................................................... 159
Acknowledgements ........................................................... 160
References ................................................................ 160
Communicating the results of geoscience research is analyzed here as
a form of storytelling. The notion of scientiﬁc storytelling can be applied
to experimental, theoretical, and model-based work, but is especially
Earth-Science Reviews 115 (2012) 153–162
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relevant to ﬁeld-based sciences, where the irreducible effects of geo-
graphical and historical contingency make it inevitable that some local,
idiosyncratic knowledge (as well as applicable laws and generalizations)
is necessary for understanding.
Just as universally applicable laws and principles are inadequate, by
themselves, for full understanding of Earth surface systems, purely
descriptive work is of limited value beyond the immediate study area
(this is sometimes denigrated as “just”or “mere”storytelling; as will
become clear I do not consider storytelling an inferior part of science).
Most geoscientists would probably agree that the best research is both
fully grounded in theory and universal principles, and attentive to
local geographical and historical details. I have previously advocated
cultivating these links by treating laws and generalities as constraints
on the outcomes of contingent processes and interactions, and by
treating local, contingent factors as the context for the manifestation
of universal laws and generalizations (Phillips, 2006a, 2007a,b).
This paper is intended to explore another way of tying the local,
idiosyncratic stories of speciﬁc places, situations, and phenomena to-
gether with more broadly (ideally universally) applicable concepts
and principles. Speciﬁcally, the goal is to see whether Earth science
stories share any common narrative or expository structures (plots),
and whether identifying these provides any insight into Earth system
sciences (and their component and allied disciplines) themselves, or
This attention to storytelling, broadly deﬁned, does not advocate a
social constructivist view, or question the utility of any particular set
of norms for conducting science or communicating results and ideas. I
have no wish to engage arguments that scientiﬁc stories are just anoth-
er narrative, or that scientists manipulate observations and data via
storytelling (though certainly that happens, just as it does in social
sciences, humanities, politics, business, and other forms of discourse).
Neither am I attempting to deny all relevance to social constructivist
views, or deny the presence of epistemic communities in Earth science;
I merely acknowledge that these issues are beyond the scope of this
paper (and my own interests and expertise). Neither does this paper
address debates in the philosophy of science and in geology over the
role of narrative in scientiﬁc explanation (e.g., Hempel, 1942; Danto,
1985; Lennox, 1985; Schumm, 1991; Cronon, 1992; Dodick and
Argamon, 2006). Rather, this paper considers any account of scientiﬁc
results to be a story, and seeks to identify common devices (plots)
used in these stories. The hope is that Earth scientists recognize—and
perhaps even embrace—our role as storytellers, so that we can more
effectively use (and evaluate) storytelling to advance our science.
The plots I discuss are all compatible with traditional scientiﬁc,
naturalist metanarratives, and I am not supporting (or otherwise engag-
ing) constructionism, some of which strikes many geoscientists as essen-
tially nihilistic. The attention to stories—and later in this paper, multiple
plots assigned to the same observations—is not to suggest that Earth
science has not discovered real structures and processes. Rather, when
data permit more than one interpretation, narrative, or plot, geoscientists
do not retreat to explanatory agnosticism. Instead, we may often prefer
one plot over another for reasons not necessarily inherent in the data or
Several motivations led to this work. First, rather than treating
place-based and historical research as a necessary evil, precursor to
more sophisticated work, or “mere storytelling,”I along with others
(e.g., Tausch et al., 1993; Parker, 1995; Shermer, 2002; Ernoult et al.,
2006; Goldberg et al., 2008; Glasser et al., 2009; Gustavsson and
Kolstrup, 2009; Brierley, 2010; Fryirs and Brierley, 2010; Marston,
2010; Splinter et al., 2010; Pattison and Lane, 2011) have increasingly
come to feel that local/contingent factors must be placed on equal
footing with universal factors in geoscience research. Thus, rather
than attempt to distance ourselves from the storytelling aspects of geo-
science, we should perhaps acknowledge and maybe even cultivate
them. Second, Smith (1996) showed that a relatively small number of
speciﬁc tropes and modes of appeal characterize publications in
geography, suggesting that it is not unreasonable to search for commona-
lities in research communication in other ﬁelds. Finally, the identiﬁcation
by literature scholars of a small number of basic plots (c.f. Booker, 2006)
that characterize ﬁctional storytelling led me to wonder whether there
are analogous basic plots in scientiﬁc storytelling.
There havelong been suggestions that there exist a ﬁnite number of
basic plots in drama and literature. The most extensive analysis is
Booker's (2006) Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. These are listed
in Table 1, to give a broad sense of the level of generality in Booker's
framework. The notion of basic plots in drama and literature goes
back at least to Polti (1916), who outlined 36 “dramatic situations.”
Polti indicated that his list was based on one from Goethe, who in
turn credited Carlo Gozzi (1720–1806). Booker (2006) held that these
can be accommodated within his seven basic plots.
Plots also play a major rolein scenarios developed in planning, busi-
ness, economics, government, politics, and military affairs. Schwartz
(1991);seealsoOgilvy and Schwartz, 1998) identiﬁed three standard
plots most common and most useful in scenario building, and ﬁve
other relatively common plots applicable to special situations. The
three standard plots are winners and losers (who or what proﬁts or
beneﬁts, or suffers and declines?), challenge or crisis and response,
and evolution, which Schwartz (1991) depicts as gradual change in a
consistent direction. The ﬁve others are revolution (rapid and drastic
change), cycles, inﬁnite possibility, the “lone ranger”(individual vs.
“the system”scenarios), and “my generation”(evolutionary or revolu-
tionary change arising from social and demographic shifts). Ogilvy
and Schwartz (1998) later added “tectonic shifts,”referring to “struc-
tural alterations which produce dramatic ﬂare-ups,”that in turn cause
2. Storytelling in Earth sciences
Any Earth science communication may be treated as a form of story-
telling, but the more obviously and explicitly narrative forms of commu-
nication (i.e., those that most obviously resemble ﬁctional stories in
structure and form) have often been denigrated by scientists as, at best,
a preliminary or ancillary exercise preceding or accompanying purported-
ly more va lid science ( cf. Baker, 1999; Harrison, 1999, 2001; Cleland,
2001). The strongest criticism is reserved for so-called “just-so stories,”
named for Kipling's famous collection of children's stories, which
fancifully “explain”the origin of animal characteristics. In geology, biolo-
gy, and anthropology, the term is used to characterize supposedly unfalsi-
ﬁable and unsatisfactory narrative explanations (e.g., Gould, 1997;
Berkenbusch and Rowden, 2003).
The seven basic plots of literature and drama, with examples, according to Booker
Basic plot Examples
Perseus, Beowulf, War of the Worlds, Star Wars-A New Hope
Rags to riches Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations
The quest The Odyssey, Watership Down, Pilgrim's Progress,
King Solomon's Mines
Orpheus, Alice in Wonderland, The Rime of the
Ancient Mariner, Peter Rabbit
Aristophanes, War & Peace, Pride and Prejudice,
Much Ado About Nothing
Tragedy MacBeth, Carmen, Bonnie & Clyde, Anna Karenina
Rebirth Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol, The Secret
Garden, Peer Gynt
The comedy metaplot is considered in its classical sense by Booker as building an
absurdly complex set of problems which are unexpectedly resolved at the end, and is
not limited to plots involving humor.
154 J. Phillips / Earth-Science Reviews 115 (2012) 153–162
Lennox (1985) analyzed several of Charles Darwin's narratives in
the Origin of the Species that have been characterized as just-so
stories. He showed the legitimate role such stories play in Darwin's
work and, more broadly, pointed out that exactly the same kinds of
stories are presented nowadays via simulation models. The latter
are generally accepted, to varying degrees, as valid forms of argument
by Earth and environmental scientists, but Lennox (1985) noted that
the difference between these and Darwin's imaginary narratives is
primarily the tools used for storytelling.
Shermer's (2002) model of contingent-necessity, developed in the
context of evolutionary biology, biogeography, and paleontology,
holds that “in the development of any historical sequence the role
of contingencies in the construction of necessities is accentuated in
the early stages and attenuated in the latter”(p. 301). Several corol-
laries include one that “the actions of any historical sequence are gen-
erally postdictable, but not speciﬁcally predictable”(p. 301). Thus,
while many chains of events could have occurred, only one did
occur, and thus it is perhaps inevitable that some postdictions or
reconstructions will have the appearance of just-so stories. It could
be argued, in fact, that in some situations historical narratives are a
higher form of explanation than alternatives, because the narratives
deal with what actually did happen, rather than deductions as to
what could have happened.
Despite this, there exists apparent dissatisfaction with narratives in
Earth sciences, which appears to derive largely fromapplying standards
and practices of experimental laboratory sciences to historical sciences.
The latter have different—but equally valid—norms for both investiga-
tions and communications (Baker, 1999; Cleland, 2001; Dodick and
This paper is hardly the ﬁrst analysis of storytelling in the geosciences.
Smith's (1996) insightful analysis of geographical rhetoric has already
been mentioned. Cronon (1992) has argued eloquently for the role of
stories and narrative in environmental history; many of his arguments
apply to the historical Earth and environmental sciences. French (1994)
contended that the development of proto-scientiﬁc natural history in
ancient Greece and Rome was not driven by what we would now recog-
nize as scientiﬁc goals. Rather, ancient natural history was undertaken
and deployed to serve a variety of philosophical, moral, practical, cultural,
and political goals, and only rarely by scientiﬁcaims.Further,French
(1994) showed that communications about natural history in ancient
times commonly took an explicit form of narrative stories.
Beer's (1983) book on plots and storytelling in Darwin's Origin of
the Species and its inﬂuence on ﬁction is considered a classic in studies
of Victorian-era literature. Darwin used many narratives of “imagi-
nary”situations to argue his points; these were analyzed as thought
experiments and stories by Lennox (1985).Dodick and Argamon
(2006) conducted a linguistic analysis of scientiﬁc texts, showing
that the distinctive methods of historical sciences such as geology
and paleontology are systematically reﬂected in scientiﬁc language.
Karasti et al. (2002) examined the role of scientiﬁc storytelling within
scientiﬁc institutions and cultures, in this case the long-term ecolog-
ical research (LTER) network. They did not, however, address the
role of plots and narratives in communication of research results.
Several geologists and soil scientists have noted the poetic qualities
of Earth sciences, and the mutual inﬂuences of the artistic and scien-
tiﬁc among individuals practicing both Earth science and poetry
(Blackwood, 1994; Belasky, 2009; Meriaux, 2009).
From a historical perspective, separation of arts and literature from
science is a relatively recent phenomenon. For instance, though
Wolfgang Goethe is best known as a poet and novelist, the 18th century
German polymath also made signiﬁcant scientiﬁc contributions. De-
spite an ill-fated dispute with Newton on the optics of color, Goethe
made contributions to biology that were inﬂuential to Charles Darwin,
and in Earth science, had the largest private collection of minerals in
Europe (he is the namesake for the iron oxyhydroxide mineral goe-
thite). According to his biographer Williams (1998),“Goethe's holistic
worldview saw no radical break between literary and scientiﬁc expres-
sion”(p. 98). Williams (1998) outlined, for example, how Goethe's
work on metamorphosis in plants and animals is paralleled by poetry
outlining principles of metamorphosis. It was in geology, however,
that Goethe “arguably acquired his highest level of scientiﬁcexpertise,
able to hold his own with the likes of Alexander von Humboldt and
Abraham Werner”(Williams, 1998: 268), though few of his views stood
the test of time. Here, too, the lines of artistic and scientiﬁcexpression
are blurred, e.g., in his arguments for granite as Earth's “primal rock,”in
the form of a two-part essay in a style similar to his sturm and drang
Goethe is from an era, however, when it was more common for intel-
lectuals to be well known for accomplishments in both the arts and
science, and the lines between them less certain. In Goethe's Faust,for
example, Act II of the Second Part contains a dialog between Seismos
and the Sphinxes, who personiﬁed the positions of the Plutonists and
Neptunists respectively, the main camps in the major geological debate
of the day. And in Act IV, Goethe through the voice of Faust identiﬁes
himself with the Neptunist camp, while Mephistopheles speaks for the
Huttonian/Plutonist view (Adams, 1938: 248–249).
Certainly many 20th and 21st century geoscientists have or had inter-
ests and accomplishments in the arts, and no doubt in many cases these
activities inform each other. However, they are kept generally separate.
One notable 20th century exception is the Russian “Pocheveniks”
(poets of the soil, or “soil-heads”), who comprised what has been called
the geological school of 20th century poetry. The Pocheveniks were
a group of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) based professional geologists
(ranging from ﬁeld technicians to research geologists), many of whom
achieved high levels of public acclaim and literary credibility as poets,
and whose poetry was strongly inﬂuenced by geology and geological
ﬁeldwork (Belasky, 2009).
Despite occasional literary allusions, and more than a few clever
and/or profound turns of phrase, the plots of Earth Science are not
those of drama and ﬁction, or of scenario building. Also, given the
fundamental differences between ﬁeld-based historical sciences and
experimental sciences, it is unlikely that standard plots of Earth science
are the same as those of other sciences. With that in mind, we turn
toward an attempt to identify the basic plots of Earth science.
3. The eight basic plots of Earth Science
Based on my reading of the literature (inevitably biased toward
areas where I have research and teaching experience: geomorphology,
pedology, hydrology, and Earth system science) I propose below eight
basic plots. I did not detect any direct analogies from works of ﬁction
and entertainment to works of science, and did not apply methods of
literary criticism. Before proceeding, I acknowledge that (in common
with the literary typologies):
(1) The categories are by no means mutually exclusive. Mixed or
hybrid types are not uncommon;
(2) The categories are not exhaustive. While the intent is that most
stories can be readily ﬁt into one or more of the basic plot
types, there will inevitably be exceptions;
(3) The plot types could be subdivided almost indeﬁnitely,
depending on the level of detail and discrimination desired.
This is a characteristic of most taxonomies, and in this case is
probably inevitable, given the extraordinary variety of both
Earth science phenomena, and of scientists/storytellers.
Humanities scholars often make subtle distinctions between terms
such as story, narrative, and plot (e.g. Abbott, 2002). Here the term
“plot”is used to refer to the storyline, plan, scheme, or main story of
geoscience reports. Likewise, stories are sometimes considered to
refer to an account of an event or series of events, but here I use a
broader deﬁnition that includes any account designed to interest or in-
struct (or in other contexts, amuse) the reader.
155J. Phillips / Earth-Science Reviews 115 (2012) 153–162
I have also attempted to be reﬂective in this exercise, and do not ex-
empt my own work from the characterization of storytelling. Thus in
each category I have identiﬁed any of my own writings that could be
considered an example.
The eight basic plots are summarized in Table 2, and discussed in
more detail below.
3.1. Cause and effect
How do Earth systems respond to disturbances, changes in boundary
conditions, or external inputs of matter and energy? A straightforward
answer to this type of question is the basis of t he cause and effect or stim-
ulus and response plotline. These stories may concern the way whole
systems or parts thereof respond to external changes, or the inﬂuence
of processes on patterns and forms. Because Earth systems experience
changes and disturbances at essentially all time scales, the cause–effect
plot is a fundamental motif in geosciences and the most common of
the standard storylines. In addition to being the most common plot,
there are often cause-and-effect subplots within the other story types
This type of plot includes unequivocal stimulus–response storylines,
where the relationship between changes or ﬂuxes on one hand and
responses on the other is explicit. These storylines have at least two
fundamental variants. One starts with a process, disturbance, or forcing,
and seeks to determine the result. For example, how does climate
change affect river sediment ﬂux (Inman and Jenkins, 1999)? The
other starts with an outcome or state of a system and seeks to deter-
mine the processes or forces responsible. For instance, what are the
major controls of global variations in river sediment loads (Ludwig
and Probst, 1998)?
Most research on process mechanics, dynamics, and phenomenolo-
gy is also characterized by an implicit, if not an explicit, cause–effect
plot. Earth system processes are the result of applications of energy,
force, work, and power, which in turn drive processes (uplift, erosion,
weathering, sediment transport, sedimentation, lithiﬁcation, etc.). G.K.
Gilbert (1877, 1914) is often credited as a pioneer in formalizing this
approach in surﬁcial geology, geomorphology, and Quaternary studies.
Many precursors could be identiﬁed, though, at least as far back as por-
tions of Hutton's (1795) seminal Theory of the Earth,andDe Saussure
(1796), who interpreted the origin of the Alps as the result of folding
and compressional stress. An even earlier example of the process
approach, as cited by Adams (1938),isLemery's (1700) experiments
on the origins of earthquakes.
Another variant is the “factorial”study, whereby the phenomenon of
interest is described, modeled, or interpreted on the basis of multiple
controlling factors, though the latter may include relatively static or
passive controls as well as processes or external changes. The best
known is Jenny's (1941) factorial model of soil formation, but the
approach is common in both implicit and explicit forms in several
areas of Earth and environmental sciences. Some examples framed ex-
plicitly in factorial terms include Pope et al.'s (1995) work on variations
in weathering, and Huggett's (1995) “brash”model of geoecosystems.
The framework and the factorial variant of the cause–effect plot ulti-
mately derives from Dokuchaev's (1883, 1899) work on the geograph-
ical zonation of soils, vegetation, landforms, and geological features.
Complications and complexities in cause-and-effect connections
identiﬁed by Schumm (1991) could be considered the genesis of
several of the other plots below. Schumm (1991), for instance, iden-
tiﬁed convergence and divergence as problems in relating causes
and processes in Earth science, and some of the other problems he
outlined are readily interpreted as suggesting alternatives to cause-
A recent example of my own work using a cause–effect plot seeks
to determine the factors causing Holocene and historical avulsions in
the San Antonio River delta, Texas (Phillips, 2012).
Genesis stories in Earth science are concerned with the origin of phe-
nomena. The key research question involves the creation or origin of a
speciﬁcfeature,oraspeciﬁc type or class of features. The most obvious
examples are studies of well known but unexplained phenomena, locally
or regionally anomalous features, or features whose origin is disputed or
controversial. Genesis stories are by no means limited to these types,
however. Some are histories or geographies that may not involve myster-
ies or oddities; others are straightforward explanations of the origins of
particular types of, e.g., landforms, soils, or sedimentary structures.
The origin of the iconic Uluru (Ayers Rock) in central Australia, the
largest monolith on the planet, for instance, has been the subject of
several genesis stories. Stuwe (1994), for example, explored two
scenarios: pinned boundary conditions at the modern base of Uluru,
with rapid denudation on all sides occurring before the shaping of the
landform, and boundaries of the rock incising linearly over time during
the entire geomorphic evolution. Twidale and colleagues (e.g. Bourne
and Twidale, 2000; Twidale, 2002; Twidale and Campbell, 2005)have
championed a theory based on double planation, whereby the form
was ﬁrst developed by weathering beneath a regolith cover, and subse-
quently exposed by erosion. Less controversial is the origin story of
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, the world's longest cave, where the narra-
tive developed by Palmer (1989, 1991) is, at least in its general outlines,
widely accepted. A third well-known example is the channeled scab-
lands of eastern Washington, USA, whose origin was subject to much
uncertainty and controversy through the mid-20th century. The genesis
of the scablands, now attributed to a glacial outburst ﬂood as proposed
in a series of publications by J Harlan Bretz's, is described by Baker and
Genesis plots are also readily identiﬁable in attempts to explain the
origins of regional anomalies. The coastal plain of the southeastern U.S.,
The eight basic plots of Earth science.
Plot Description Relationship to other plots
processes, mechanisms, forces,
ﬂuxes, disturbances, boundary
controls, etc. on one hand; and
responses, forms, outputs,
outcomes, or system states on
Most common type of Earth
science plot; common subplot
in other plots.
Genesis Origin stories describing or
explaining the creation or
development of speciﬁc
features or phenomena.
Frequently combined with
other plots or employing latter
Emergence Explanation of observed
phenomena as emergent
properties or outcomes.
Often deployed as alternative
explanation of convergence.
Metamorphosis Accounts of wholesale
or modiﬁcation of Earth
systems or phenomena.
Sometimes applied to changes
larger, faster than can be
accommodated by cause–
Destruction Describes/explains loss,
Frequently combined with
other plots or employing latter
Convergence Stories of development,
evolution, or history postulating
or emphasizing convergent
paths toward similar outcomes.
Other plotlines often
developed as alternatives
when convergence narratives
Divergence Stories of development,
evolution, or history postulating
or emphasizing divergent paths
toward different outcomes.
Occurs as subplot in oscillation
and other plots.
Oscillation Accounts of cyclical or recurring
May be similar to convergence
156 J. Phillips / Earth-Science Reviews 115 (2012) 153–162
for instance, particularly in the Carolinas, is home to features for which
no generally accepted explanation exists. Carolina Bays are shallow,
elliptical depressions with a consistent shape and orientation. An early
study is Prouty (1952), but numerous explanations have been pro-
posed, right up to the present (Rodriguez et al., 2012). Explanations
include extraterrestrial impacts, peat ﬁres, aeolian processes, karst and
karst-like processes, but no explanation has yet emerged that is consis-
tent with all the aspects of Carolina Bay distributions, orientation, mor-
phology, drainage, mineralogy, and stratigraphic relationships.
Genesis storylines do not necessarily deal with disputed or unusual
features, however, and they may be regional (focusing on origin issues
for a given place, region, or landscape), or generic, dealing with genesis
of speciﬁc features or phenomena. A regional example is Moore et al.'s
(2009) study of landscape evolution in Zimbabwe. A generic example
is the origin of anastamosing river channel patterns, reviewed by
Examples of my own work in this category include genetic studies
of the origin of vertical texture contrast soils, and of soil layering more
generally (Phillips, 2004, 2007c; Phillips and Lorz, 2008).
Stories of emergence concern patterns arising from a multiple inter-
actions among system components. Emergent properties and behaviors
cannot be predicted from, and are not necessarily preordained by, the
laws governing interactions within the system, or by the structure and
function of the system. Emergent phenomena are in essence byproducts
of the rules governing systems, rather than direct outcomes of those
rules. The general concept of emergent phenomena in geosciences
was discussed by Harrison (2001) and Phillips (2011).Weinstock
(2010) outlined a general perspective on emergence as the source of
form in both natural and human systems, and included ecological sys-
tems, climate, and surface forms and topography among his examples.
In some instances emergence plots could be considered to overlap,
or to be a subset of, genesis stories. This is most clearly the case when
genesis of a feature or phenomenon is the primary concern, and the
emergent properties simply part of the genesis story. However, in
some cases the primary concern is with the emergent phenomena
themselves, which in my view justiﬁes a separate plotline. While
many older (pre-1990s) studies show evidence of emergent phenom-
ena, it was not until more recently that the language of, and explicit
concern with, emergence developed. Thus the examples focus on
work that explicitly references emergent properties.
Much of the work on emergence is based on self-organization,
nonlinear dynamical systems, and other aspects of complexity theory,
and is concerned with the development of regular and/or complex pat-
terns and forms from simpler “rules.”Rodriguez-Iturbe and Rinaldo
(1997) treatise on formation of river channel and drainage basin pat-
terns is a detailed example. Coco et al. (2000) showed that models
with simple rules can produce emergent patterns of beach forms, and
Gomez et al. (2002) explained properties of sediments derived from
landslides as an emergent property of self-organization in landsliding.
Emergent pattern formation has been described in a number of phe-
nomena, including chemical weathering (Nahon, 1991); periglacial pat-
terned ground (Hallet, 1990), banded vegetation and associated soil-
landform patterns in semi-arid areas (e.g., Barbier et al., 2006),
pedogenesis (Targulian and Krasilnikov, 2007), soil-vegetation-
landform patterns in coastal dunes (Stallins, 2001), and many others.
My own work in this vein has focused on posing alternative expla-
nations for ﬂuvial phenomena generally considered to be steady-state
equilibria. These stories are based on features such as longitudinal
proﬁles, branching channel networks, and apparent adjustments of
sediment transport capacity to sediment supply as emergent out-
comes of a few basic rules that do not predict or preordain “equilibri-
um”forms (Phillips and Lutz, 2008; Phillips, 2010a, 2011).
Accounts of the wholesale reorganization, rearrangement, or modi-
ﬁcation of Earth systems are stories of metamorphosis, such as land-
scape metamorphosis driven by glacial/interglacial cycles. Besides the
obvious examples of biological metamorphosis and of metamorphic
rock, explicit use of the term in geosciences is probably best known in
ﬂuvial geomorphology, via the concept of river metamorphosis, the
wholesale change in river characteristics, such as a transition from a
meandering to a braided planform (e.g., Schumm, 1969; Marston et
Invasion of grasslands by woody plants is a global phenomenon, and
as it often both involves and inﬂuences a variety of geomorphological,
hydrological, pedological, and ecological processes, the stories of these
transformations are often stories of landscape metamorphosis (see re-
view by Naito and Cairns, 2011). Some sedimentary facies models are
also characterized by metamorphosis plots outlining the environmental
changes causing, and reﬂected by, sedimentary units. Coastal and estu-
arine deposits are a good example (see reviews by Dalrymple et al.,
1992; Cattaneo and Steel, 2003).
Over longer time scales, metamorphosis—and thus the associated
plot—characterizes the evolution of various aspects of Earth systems.
The evolution of Earth's atmosphere is essentially a story of long-term
metamorphosis; a more speciﬁc example is metamorphosis of the soil
cover accompanying evolutionary shifts in plants and animals at the
Cretaceous–Tertiary boundary (Retallack, 1994, 2004).
My own metamorphosis stories are characteristic of another com-
mon variety, explicating landscape transformations driven by human
agency (e.g., Phillips, 1997).
Destruction stories are accounts of the (not necessarily total) loss,
disappearance, or degradation of phenomena. Studies of extinction
events and environmental degradation are obvious examples. Losses
and throughputs of matter and energy play a key role in many Earth
processes, and are therefore included in many stories. The destruction
plot is distinct in that a loss or diminution is the central focus. Recent
studies of the decline of Arctic sea ice are a good example (e.g., Wang
and Overland, 2009; Holland and Stroeve, 2011).
Disappearance or degradation of a resource critical to humans is a
common source of destruction plots. A classic example is Bennett's
(1939) treatise on soil erosion and conservation in the United States.
The destruction storyline is also common in coastal geomorphology,
in describing net losses of coastal wetlands and shorelines in response
to sea level rise and other forcings (e.g., Rosen, 1980; Walker et al.,
1987; Feagin et al., 2005; Ericson et al., 2006).
Destruction scenarios are also deployed in geoscience-based studies
of social and economic disasters. Stahle and Dean (2011), for example,
explored the potential role of climate extremes in such events in
North America. Lowdermilk (1953) examined soil erosion as a cause
in the decline of societies; a key theme of several subsequent works,
including Montgomery (2007).
Other destruction stories have sought to explain the absence of
known or hypothesized features or sites from history or mythology. A
fascinating if ultimately misguided example is Rudbeck's 2,500-page
Atlantica, published in 1679, seeking to explain the disappearance of
the lost city of Atlantis (King, 2005).
My own destruction stories include examples of the soil erosion
(Phillips, 1990) and coastal marsh loss (Phillips, 1986) genres.
Convergence and divergence stories outline the development, evo-
lution, or history of phenomena. Convergence stories are accounts of
development involving increasing similarity, decreasing differentiation,
157J. Phillips / Earth-Science Reviews 115 (2012) 153–162
and convergence toward common states or conditions. Convergence
plots have traditionally dominated theories of Earth system evolution,
from classic monotonic models of vegetation succession (Cowles,
1911; Clements, 1916) to the notion of development of mature zonal
soils (Dokuchaev, 1899; Marbut, 1923), to Davis’cycle of erosion
(1902, 1932). The latter is, as the name implies, a cyclic concept, but
applications of the theory typically focused on convergent topographic
evolution towards the ﬁnal stage of the cycle, a low-relief peneplain.
More generally, downwasting, whereby ridges and summits experience
net erosion and valleys and depressions net deposition, is a story of
convergence, regardless of the conceptual framework.
However, many other geoscience plots, including some proposed as
alternatives to the ideasabove, are also convergent. “Dynamic equilibri-
um”approaches to geomorphology are ﬁrmly based on a story of
convergence toward a steady-state condition (Strahler, 1957; Hack,
1960). The application of self-organized criticality in geomorphology
is presented in some cases as an emergence story, as described above.
However, in other cases the emphasis is on convergence, in this case
toward the “critical state,”such as the hillslope angle of repose or a par-
ticular channel network topology (e.g.,Rigon et al., 1994; Hergarten and
Neugebauer, 1998; Stolum, 1998; Hergarten, 2002).
Conceptual frameworks involving a monotonic sequence of devel-
opmental stages are also convergence plots. Examples include the
models of channel evolution following incision developed by Schumm
et al. (1984) and Simon (1989) and widely applied in river manage-
ment (Watson et al., 2002).
In divergence stories differentiation increases and similarity decreases
over time. Biological evolution is often presented as a story of divergence,
with increasing differentiation of taxa over time (on average) from com-
mon ancestors. Just as convergence is exempliﬁed by downwasting,
divergence is represented by topographic evolution involving increasing
relief, such as ﬂuvialdissectionofaplateau.Examplesofdivergentstories
of landscape dissection include Schumm (1956),Harvey (1978),Gilchrist
et al. (1994),andIbáñez (1994).
Other divergence stories involve increasing landscape differenti-
ation in the story of increasingly complex spatial patterns and mo-
saics over time. These include studies of marsh response to sea
level rise (e.g., Reed, 1990; Orson and Howes, 1992). Similarly, there
exist a number of divergence stories involving regolith and soil land-
scapes (e.g., Thompson, 1983; Barrett and Schaetzl, 1993; Price, 1994;
Dubroeucq and Volkoff, 1998). Niche differentiation involves divergence,
so studies of this process in both ecology and paleoecology often involve
divergence stories (e.g., Ausich, 1980; McFadden, 1998; Schneider et al.,
Nonlinear dynamical systems approaches in the geosciences have
increased the visibility of divergence narratives, because these ap-
proaches are more likely to identify phenomena associated with dynam-
ical instability and chaos, both of which lead to divergent evolution.
Examples include Slingerland (1981),Scheidegger (1983),Troﬁmov
and Moskovkin (1984),andMarzocchi et al. (1997);seealsoreviews
by Sivakumar (2004) and Phillips (2006b).
Divergence due to instability and chaos has been the main plot in
much of my work; earlier examples are synthesized in Phillips (1999).
Reports of cycles and (regular or irregular) transitions between
states or conditions are stories of oscillation. These may involve phase
changes in a given location or system (e.g., aggradation vs. degradation
in a river), or changes in the character of a substance or object through
time and space (e.g., the carbon cycle). W.M. Davis's cycle of erosion isa
well-known, classic example (though often treated as a convergence
story; see above), as are the ocean/atmosphere transitions of ENSO
(El Nino-Southern Oscillation), and glacial/interglacial cycles of the
Quaternary. Cyclicity plays a major role in geosciences, particularly via
the rock cycle of geological sciences, and biogeochemical cycles (H
C, N, P, S, etc.) for Earth and environmental sciences more broadly. See
Charlson et al. (1992),Schlesinger (2005),andBerner and Berner
(2012) for examples and syntheses of biogeochemical cycling studies.
Periods of apparent high and low levels of landscape change have
been interpreted as cycles by some authors, resulting in oscillation-type
stories. A good example is the k-cycle proposed by Butler (1959, 1982)
to explain soil and landscape evolution in Australia on the basis of long
periods of surface stability punctuated by episodes of denudation. Also
developed in Australia is Warner's (1987a,b, 1992) notion of alternating
ﬂood- and drought-dominated regimes in river systems, subsequently
applied by others (e.g., Erskine et al., 1992; Arnaud-Fassetta, 2002).
Oscillation plots also ﬁgure strongly in coastal, estuarine, and coastal
plain environments, where Quaternary sea-level oscillations have
repeatedly changed base levels and accommodation space. This results,
for example, in oscillations between ﬂooding and ravinement surfaces,
and between periods of incision and aggradation in rivers. These
phenomena have been particularly well studied in the Gulf of Mexico
region of North America (e.g., Fisk, 1944; Saucier and Fleetwood,
1970; Morton et al., 1996; Anderson and Rodgriguez, 2008).
4. Plots, evidence, and interpretations
Though we recognize differences in storytelling skill, style, and details,
we tend to think of stories as relatively immanent with respect to the
message or outcomes, whether ﬁctional (e.g., Little Red Riding Hood),
historical (e.g., battle of Waterloo), or Earth science (e.g., global tectonics).
However, consideration of Earth science stories in terms of different plots
shows that the same facts or observations yield different implications or
meanings in different plotlines.
4.1. Stream longitudinal proﬁles
An example where different plots lead to different interpretations is
the longitudinal proﬁle of streams (a plot of channel bed elevation over
distance). Many longitudinal proﬁles are concave upward, with steeper
slopes in the upper and ﬂatter slopes in the lower reaches. Traditionally
a convergent plot has been employed, based on the notion that streams
adjust so as to equilibrate sediment supply and transport capacity (a func-
tion of discharge and slope). The convergent plot holds that in the upper
reaches, where discharge is lower, steeper slopes are required to trans-
port the available sediment. As discharge increases, lower slopes are
required, and proﬁles converge toward the smoothly concave-up proﬁle
(e.g., Gilbert, 1877; Davis, 1902; Mackin, 1948; Hack, 1957; Smith et al.,
2000; Snyder et al., 2000; Roe et al., 2002; Duvall et al., 2004; Goldrick
and Bishop, 2007).
An emergent plot for explaining stream longitudinal proﬁles began
emerging about ﬁve years ago, based on observations of deviations
from the smoothly concave trend, skepticism over the steady-state
assumptions underlying the convergent plot, and observations that
simpler, emergent phenomena could produce the same result. In the
emergent plot, concave proﬁles are a byproduct of a few basic principles
of ﬂow hydraulics that do not require balancing sediment supply and
transport capacity and do not lead to any particular proﬁle geometry
(Harmar and Clifford, 2007; Larue, 2008; Phillips and Lutz, 2008;
Phillips et al., 2010).
Thus, the same evidence—a stream longitudinal proﬁle, regardless of
its concavity—might be evaluated very differently according to the
convergent or emergent plots. A convergent story, for example, would
likely view a convexity as a feature likely to be removed and smoothed
as the system moves toward a graded state. An emergent perspective,
by contrast, would not necessarily forecast removal of the convexity,
but would interpret it as a local outcome of the basic physical principles
in the context of reach speciﬁc environmental controls and history.
158 J. Phillips / Earth-Science Reviews 115 (2012) 153–162
A social scientist colleague, commenting on an earlier draft of this
paper, was struck by the “example of the stream longitudinal proﬁle,
where equally competent scientists presented with the same evi-
dence strongly disagree as to the best interpretation/narration/plot.
When two plots ﬁt the evidence . . . and there is, nevertheless, a
strong division among scientists (not just a general agreement that
both plots are imperfect), it seems obvious that the judgment of the
scientists is being inﬂuenced by something in addition to the evi-
dence. The most probable explanation of such a division is that each
side has a preference for the way the data is presented, or plotted.”
He continued: “One group wants the world to be the kind of place
in which plot number 1 is true, the other group wants the world to
be the kind of place in which plot number 2 is true; the evidence
alone is not sufﬁcient to compel conviction, and so each group plunks
for the plot it prefers.”The commenter stressed that this is “not
suggesting that scientists are locked into an ideology or scheme,
and that they will stick to their pet theories and plot preferences
even in the teeth of the evidence. This is obviously false. Plot prefer-
ences are relevant only when the data admit to more than one
4.2. Regolith thickness
A similar example relates to the concept of steady-state regolith
thickness (see Phillips, 2010b). Dosseto et al. (2012), for instance,
determined regolith formation rates based on lithogenic radionu-
clides. Because these values fell well within the band of observed
and estimated rates of soil erosion and surface lowering, Dosseto et
al. (2012) interpreted the evidence as suggesting a prevalence of
steady-state, with regolith formation and removal rates approximate-
ly balanced. However, I see the same data as consistent with non-
steady-state, due to the several orders of magnitude in the variation
of regolith formation rates. Since erosion rates may vary from negligi-
ble to extreme, it is inevitable (in my view) that any measurements or
estimates of regolith formation rates will lie within those ranges. The
very thick regoliths (≥15 m) found at the study sites used by Dosseto
et al. (2012) also argue for non-steady-state in my interpretation
Plot preferences may perhaps help explain the fundamental differ-
ence of my interpretation of Dosseto et al.'s results (with respect to
steady-state) with the authors’. My experience in ﬁeld studies of
regolith thickness (e.g. Phillips et al., 1996, 1999, 2005; Phillips and
Marion, 2005) is tied to an interest in the spatial variability of soils and
weathering proﬁles. Results indicate predominantly divergence-type
plots, based on increasing variability of soil and regolith over time. Most
empirical studies of regolith evolution (including Dosseto et al., 2012)
are concerned primarily with other issues, and are characterized primar-
ily by the plots of genesis (origin of a regolith cover or weathered mantle),
metamorphosis (conversion of rock or parent material to soil and
regolith), or oscillation, focusing on episodes of landscape stability and
regolith thickening vs. episodes of regolith stripping).
My analysis of genesis, metamorphosis, oscillation (and cause-and-
effect) plots, synthesized in the context of a divergence metaplot,
argues against steady-state regolith thickness as a normative condition
(Phillips, 2010b, 2011). The same (type of) evidence, interpreted by
someone with a preference for convergence plots, might result in the op-
posite interpretation (e.g., Dosseto et al., 2012).
4.3. Other examples
The previous examples involve debates I am involved in, the advan-
tage being that I can conﬁdently assign the plot preferences of at least
one side. Many geoscience controversies and debates could proﬁtably
be assessed in similar terms, however.
As has already been acknowledged, many publications may involve
multiple or hybrid plots. The examples above suggest that in many
cases the fundamental empirical story is told via a cause-and-effect,
genesis, metamorphosis, or oscillation plot, whereas an additional
plot, such as convergence, divergence, emergence, or destruction,
guides the assignment of meaning and signiﬁcance to the results. For
example, a destruction plot based on the biblical ﬂood of Noah once
guided the interpretation of some sedimentary deposits and fossils.
Subsequently, other metanarratives resulted in different interpretations
of the same evidence.
Similarly, oscillation and convergence plots associated with W.M.
Davis’(1902, 1922) cycle of erosion long inﬂuenced the interpretation
of many erosion surfaces as relic or uplifted peneplains. Geologists not
predisposed to the Davisian plotlines assigned entirely different mean-
ings to the same geologic evidence. This example also shows, however,
that different versions of the same type of plot can yield varying inter-
pretations. Accordant summits have been viewed by some geologists,
guided by a convergence plot of peneplanation, as evidence of uplifted
former erosion surfaces. However, at least seven alternative explana-
tions exist (see Palmquist, 1975; Beckinsale and Chorley, 1991; Ollier,
1995; Cui et al., 1999) and these multiple potential causes of accordant
summits canalso be characterized as a convergent metaplot. This shows
that in some cases it is different speciﬁc plots, not the general type of
plot, that is critical.
5. Concluding remarks
Reportingof results and the promotion of ideas in science in general,
and Earth science in particular, is an exercise in storytelling. Just as in
literature and drama, storytelling in Earth science is characterized by a
small number of basic plots that characterize most of the stories.
While recognizing that the list is not all-inclusive, and that multiple
plots and subplots are possible in a single piece, eight standard
plots were identiﬁed: cause-and-effect, genesis, emergence, destruc-
tion, metamorphosis, convergence, divergence, and oscillation. The
plots of Earth science stories are not those of literary traditions, nor
those of persuasion or moral philosophy, and deserve separate consid-
eration. Because Earth science plots are not contrived to conform or
relate to those of storytelling more generally, this implies that Earth
scientists may have fundamentally different motivations than other sto-
rytellers. Further, it suggests that the basic plots of Earth Science derive
from the characteristics and behaviors of Earth systems themselves, and
are therefore fundamental to the latter. These implications deserve
Examples exist, such as in cases of stream longitudinal proﬁles and
regolith thickness presented here, of problems where adherence or afﬁn-
ity to different plots results in fundamentally different interpretations and
conclusions of the same evidence. This suggests that consideration of
alternative plots can result in new and different readings of ﬁeld evidence.
Testing and comparing the alternatives in turn advances Earth science by
either producing a better understanding, reinforcing the original interpre-
tation, or identifying uncertainties. Thus, explicit acknowledgement of
plots can yield direct scientiﬁcbeneﬁts.
Consideration of plots and storytelling devices may also assist in the
interpretation of published work. Scientists/authors likely have predi-
lections toward certain plot types. While I was able to pigeonhole
some of my own work into several of the plots, I have a predilection
for emergence and divergence stories. Others exhibit clear preferences
for other plots. Recognizing this facilitates critical analysis by providing
alternative plots for the reader/critic to apply to the work being
Recognition of scientiﬁc stories and plots may also help scientists
improve their own storytelling. It is all too easy to become formulaic
in one's communication, and consideration of various plot lines may
help one to break out of a rut or to identify more effective ways to com-
municate a particular idea. In a practical sense, certain plots and story-
telling norms are more or less acceptable in speciﬁc journals. Genesis
stories, for instance, may be quite welcome and common in journals
159J. Phillips / Earth-Science Reviews 115 (2012) 153–162
with a strong historical focus, but much more difﬁcult to publish in
journals with a modeling or process-mechanics emphasis. These trends
are dynamic. Emergence and divergence stories were common inonly a
few theoretically oriented journals in the 1980s and early 1990s, for ex-
ample, and rare in mainstream or more empirically focused outlets.
Now divergence and emergence plots appear in a much broader range
of the literature, including mainstream Earth science journals.
Again, I stress that attention to storytelling need not imply a social
constructivist view, or doubts in regard to the utility of any particular
set of norms for conducting science or communicating results and
ideas. Neither am I advocating the de-emphasis of other forms of story-
telling for more explicitly narrative forms (though I do argue that the
latter are not necessarily inferior). Rather, the hope is that Earth scien-
tists will recognize—and embrace—our role as storytellers, so that we
can more effectively use (and evaluate) storytelling to advance our
Jonathan Smith provided a very thorough and insightful critique of
an earlier version of this paper, and Chris Van Dyke, Tony Stallins, and
Daehyun Kim provided valuable comments and encouragement to
proceed with this work. Vic Baker also gave a very thoughtful review.
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