Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Wegner and Continental Drift

Disregarded Genius

There is a sad parallel between the tragic case of Semmelweis (q.v.) and that of Ludwig Boltzman, the pioneer of thermodynamics. Boltzman, who was born in 1844, was the first physicist to connect the properties of matter on the macro scale to the behaviour of individual particles. In a sense he was the first truly modern physicist. He understood the basic mechanics of nature from the bottom up, as it were, and had worked out the implications of his concepts in great mathematical detail. But his contemporaries lacked his vision, and were fearful of his portrayal of matter as made up of nothing more than the purposeless jostling of atoms (Darwin, that other giant of Victorian science had encountered a similar resistance to his theories with their denial of an underlying Creative Purpose). Boltzman, like Semmelweis, suffered deeply from the non-acceptance of his ideas, which he knew to be of profound importance to science. After years of rejection he was driven to such a state of despair that he eventually lost his reason and killed himself. His ideas and his calculations were perfectly sound and, when they were finally accepted, formed one of the pillars of modern physics.

The best one can say of this unfortunate affair is that Boltzman was spurned because he was just too far ahead of his time, and the same was true of his near contemporary Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, whose experiments with peas were to lay the foundation of modern genetics. Mendel was completely ignored by established biologists during his lifetime. Like Boltzman his ideas were perceptive, his methods thorough and his conclusions correct. After years of patient experimentation he published his results and sent them to the appropriate academic centres. Unfortunately they attracted no attention whatsoever, and just sat on the shelves gathering dust. His attempts to communicate his ideas to biologists met with indifference, he was, after all, an outsider.

Mendel later became the Abbot of his monastery; a move that left him no time to pursue his interest in plant heredity and his scientific career was effectively ended. It was not until sixteen years after his death, when his papers were rediscovered, almost by accident, that the importance of his ideas was appreciated. This shy Austrian Monk, whose genius was completely overlooked in his own lifetime, did at least give his name to a branch of science. His explanation of heredity, Mendelian genetics, has now long been the universally accepted version.

The examples above of disregarded genius and those of Lister and Pasteur in their earlier careers, all belong to the 19th century. One might expect that by the 20th century, when science had assumed an even greater role in human affairs and when scientific ideas were examined and argued over to a far greater extent than they had in the past, that any sound scientific thesis would be sure to thoroughly assessed on its merits, however controversial it might initially appear. Unfortunately this was not the case; where original thought conflicts with long-held views it is always likely to meet institutional resistance, however strong the supporting evidence. When a particular area of knowledge is conventionalised it is incorporated into a general world-view, and defended almost as an extension of the self. To adjust to an entirely new outlook can therefore be a painful process, virtually a self-denial.

This can be the only explanation for the incredibly long drawn-out resistance to the principle of plate-tectonics, which were first espoused by Alfred Wegener before the First World War, but not fully accepted by the Geological establishment until the late sixties. The observation that the outlines of the continents seemed to roughly fit together was made soon after the appearance of reliable maps, in the mid 16th century. Abraham Ortillas remarked on the apparent parallelism between the opposite shores of the Atlantic, as did Francis Bacon. Many amateurs over the following centuries went to work with scissors and sticking tape making a passable fit of the landmasses, but the subject never attracted the interest of serious geologists. Wegener, a German meteorologist, was intrigued by the effect, but unlike previous dabblers he approached the matter in a more consistent and scientific way. He first laid out his thesis of Continental Drift, in 1912, proposing that the continents as they exist today are the remnants of an original, far greater landmass, a veritable super-continent, which he termed Pangaea, meaning 'all lands'. They gradually moved to their present position, and are still moving. He published The Origin of Continents and Oceans in 1915, but his proposals were greeted with derision. He was looked upon as a mere crank, and his ideas ignored.

Wegener continued to develop his theory however, and continued to accumulate hard evidence to support it. He concentrated on the remarkable similarity between the rocks, the geological structures and most importantly the fossils on opposite sides of the Atlantic. It was a long haul however. Wegener was accused of 'auto-intoxication' - ie. of being an obsessive crank. He was refused admittance to any German university and had to move to Austria. In the 1920’s and '30’s his proposals began to generate a certain amount of interest and debate, but much of this was hostile. Until that time the continents were generally assumed to have always occupied their present position. But Wegener did manage to garner some support for his theory; the stakes were high though. It was evident, both to those who were inclined to accept his ideas and those who ridiculed them that, if they had any basis whatsoever, all geological textbooks would have to be rewritten.

The principle obstacle to the notion of 'continental drift' was the lack of a convincing mechanism that could be held to account for it. This was, in fact, the weakest aspect of Wegener's theory. But the fact that his suggestions of a tidal mechanism were shown to be inadequate to produce such vast effects tended to mask the possibilities of some other, so far unconsidered, explanation. Sceptics seized on this weakness in the theory, but in the late '50ies studies of the Earths magnetism and evidence of seafloor spreading inclined the argument strongly in favour of Wegener's hypothesis. A search for a mechanism then began in earnest, and a plausible 'convection' hypothesis appeared. It was finally established that the continents are indeed moved by convection currents from within the upper mantle. Like the currents generated in a heated saucepan they stem from the Earth's efforts to dissipate its internal heat.

The theory of continental drift was marked by official recognition by the publication of tectonic plate theory in the science journal Nature in 1963. But well into the '70ies there were a number of distinguished earth-scientists, particularly in the U.S., who remained unconvinced. Nevertheless Wegener’s notion that the present distribution of landmasses derives from the disintegration of an original supercontinent has became the orthodox geological version. Current thinking envisages a cycle of dispersion and consolidation of about 500 million years (we are presently about 200 million years along the dispersion part of this cycle). Wegener’s term for the original supercontinent, Pangaea, has been retained, but apart from this, recognition of his major role in the furthering of this idea, which is now so basic to Geology, has been niggardly to say the least. In fact he has never really been accorded the credit he deserved. Part of the reason for this was that the acceptance of the idea of Continental Drift was so gradual (it took more than half a century), and that Wegener himself had died before it received general support (he died in 1930 on an expedition in Greenland).

It was also the case that Wegener, as a meteorologist, tended to be seen as an interloper. That his theory was sound, that he built up a mass of solid evidence to support it, that it unified many aspects of Geology was, for many, of less account than his perceived image as a crank or, worse still, guilty of scientific trespass.