Science wars: Fixists vs. mobilists

A hundred years ago the idea that the continents could move was controversial. Among the “fixists” were some of the luminaries of geology and geophysics in the early 20th century. But history has proven them very, very wrong.

Atlantic crust
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration derivative work: Rapture2018 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Scientists had kicked around the idea that the continents move since the 16th century (really, ever since it was observed that the coastlines of Africa and South America are suspiciously similar). But it was Alfred Wegener in 1912 who put forward the term “continental drift,” and the war began.

In the wrong corner “the “fixits” were experts such as Hans Stille, Bailey Willis, Harold Jeffreys, and George Gaylord Simpson. That last guy, for example, was one of the 20th century’s most prominent paleontologists. He graduated from Yale and taught at Columbia and Harvard. In 1943 he wrote the following:

The fact that almost all paleontologists say that paleontological data oppose the various theories of continental drift should, perhaps, obviate further discussion of this point and would do so were it not that the adherents of these theories all agree that paleontological data do support them. It must be almost unique in scientific history for a group of students admittedly without special competence in a given field thus to reject the all but unaninous verdict of those who do have such competence.

In “Mammals and the nature of continents,” American Journal of Science, vol. 231.

Those bigheaded students! Over the course of the 20th century the “mobilists” gathered enough evidence to prove plate tectonics, and it’s now a cornerstone of modern geology.

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