Wegener, Continental Drift, and unaccepted theories

What does Continental Drift have to do with the Aquatic Ape theory?

A history of Wegener's theory, suitably edited for effect, is becoming a standard for people with an unaccepted theory. (It's often coupled with the ever-popular "inaccurately rendered Piltdown story".) Morgan has put forward the Wegener comparison in The Scars of Evolution, and in many of her sci.anthropology.paleo newsgroup posts. Marc Verhaegen continues this tradition -- he actually started making the Wegener comparison with his introductory newsgroup post within days of first getting online, and since then he has done it at least 32 times (as well as putting forward occasional comparisons with Galileo, Copernicus, and Einstein). David Attenborough's April 2005 BBC Radio4 show on the AAT/H featured Wegener comparisons prominently.

According to the typical way of putting it, Wegener put forward a simple theory which said the continents had once been one, had split apart long ago, and slowly moved to their present locations. For this he was shunned and summarily dismissed by all science, only to be vindicated several decades after his death by scientists who realized that Wegener's theory was exactly what had actually happened.

Good story... too bad it didn't happen that way.

It seems that comparing themselves to Wegener is a popular pursuit with many people. One problem with their comparison is that the commonly expressed sentiment -- "no one supported Wegener" -- is wrong. It is also a fact that Wegener's proposed mechanisms were obviously inadequate, as evidenced by the fact that he himself admitted this was so in the 4th edition of his book. This part about the mechanism has special significance for supporters of the AAT/H who look to Wegener's theory as a icon, and I'll get to that in a moment.

Contrary to these comparisons, many people who disagreed with Wegener about his idea took it quite seriously: they disagreed in scientific journals and conferences. Wegener's idea wasn't widely accepted because there was no reasonable candidate for a mechanism capable of producing the effect. This is a perfectly reasonable objection to a theory. When finally such a candidate was found, Wegener's underlying idea -- but not his inadequate mechanism -- was accepted.

Although some reaction was probably based on being hide-bound, a major reason for Wegener's idea not being accepted was that he had no reasonable mechanism, apparently no way for it to actually happen. Until a reasonable hypothesis regarding a mechanism was brought forward, it is reasonable to reject a theory. In Wegener's case, this took quite a few years, decades, actually, and this helped opposition harden against the idea.

Wegener was correct only in the initial part of his claim -- the part about what happened. He was dead wrong, almost laughably so, about the mechanism. His mechanism, a combination of pole-fleeing force and the tidal attraction of the sun and moon, was far far less powerful than would be necessary (several 1000's of times so), and Wegener admitted this himself in the 4th edition of his book.

There are two particularly interesting aspects of Morgan's and Verhaegen's use of Wegener's theory of continental drift to try to make her own position seem to be that of a misunderstood genius. One is that it contains a common logical flaw, one that I call the "Fulton's Folly Flaw", which arises when the "misunderstood" person cries: "They laughed at Fulton, and they laughed at me; therefore I am a great inventor!"

The second is that Morgan could hardly have picked a worse theory to compare hers with. The AAT/H claims that hominids evolved from an hominoid ancestor through the mechanism of an extended period of aquatic living. Paleoanthropology has also always suggested that hominids evolved from an hominoid ancestor, but rejects the mechanism of an aquatic past (well, except for the long ago aquatic past all life on earth shares). In other words, the theoretical difference isn't in what happened (hominids evolving from an hominoid ancestor), but in the mechanism for it. The mechanism (an aquatic past) is the different special thing the AAT/H brings to the table.

The problem here for Morgan and other AAT/H proponents using the Wegener comparison is that Wegener was correct only in the initial part of his claim -- the part about what happened. He was dead wrong, almost laughably so, about the mechanism.

In David Attenborough's April 2005 BBC Radio4 show on the AAT/H his Wegener comparison included a bit of business which seemed calculated to confuse; it was either severely ignorant (hard to believe of Attenborough) or outright dishonest (also hard to believe of Attenborough). He referred to "Wegener's Plate Tectonics" as having been accepted (in suggesting the AAT/H might also be), but Plate Tectonics was not Wegener's idea at all. Wegener's idea was Continental Drift and lacked any reasonable mechanism; Plate Tectonics is the missing mechanism and was discovered long after Wegener had died. This is important for the reasons stated in the next paragraph, and it's odd (at least) that Attenborough conflated the two as they are two very different things.

So the history of Wegener's exposition of the theory of continental drift is anything but a palliative for supporters of the AAT/H. The problem with the AAT/H is not the what happened part; both the AAT/H and the rest of paleoanthropology agree that hominids evolved from a hominoid ancestor. The AAT/H is not offering a new idea there. The new idea the AAT/H offers is in the mechanism for this evolution, and it's in the mechanism that the AAT/H, like just Wegener's theory, falls flat.

Although it's common to claim that Wegener was universally derided and ridiculed, the facts are, as usual with facts, more complex. He certainly had support, especially in folks from the southern hemisphere where the fossil and geological evidence was most obvious, and these supporters were not nutty heretic types. Not everyone agrees; here's Elaine Morgan posting in sci.anthropology.paleo (Sept. 11, 1995):

El> Wegener asked a good question - why all the continents looked as if they
El> fitted together, not just in general outline, but matching in geological
El> detail and parallelism of wildlife. He came up with a good answer: he
El> proposed that the continents had once been one big continent which had
El> split up. Nobody worth mentioning would listen to him.

Let's have a look at just who Elaine Morgan considers to be "nobody worth mentioning":

List and comments from Continental Drift: The Evolution of a Concept by Ursula B. Marvin, Ph.D., Smithsonian Institution Press: Washington, D.C. (1973):

Prominent Wegener supporters included:
Arthur Holmes of Durham and Edinburgh universities, "he was among the earliest and greatest pioneers in developing the radiometric methods for determining the ages of rocks and minerals and the age of the earth itself"; Emile Argand, founder of the Geological Institute of Neuchatel, Switzerland; S. William Carey, professor of geology at the University of Tasmania; C.S. Wright; Lester King, professor of geology at the University of Natal; Professor Reginald A. Daly of Harvard University, who Marvin calls a scientist "of unchallenged prestige"; Alexander Du Toit, Johannesburg, South Africa, author of Our Wandering Continents; Armadeus W. Grabau, "an American paleontologist and author of several textbooks on stratigraphy and index fossils"; Leonce Joleaud, French geologist; R.D. Oldham, "discoverer of the seismic evidence for the earth's core"; and Dr. W.A.J.M. Waterschoot van der Gracht, "a Dutch geologist and vice president of the Marland Oil Company".
All "nobodies" according to Elaine Morgan.

Feedback: E-mail me