When Continental Drift Was Considered Pseudoscience

One hundred years ago, a German scientist was ridiculed for advancing the shocking idea that the continents were adrift

Alfred Wegener, in Greenland, c. 1930, was ridiculed as having “wandering pole plague.” (Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany)
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The most poignant attack came from a father-son duo. Like Wegener, University of Chicago geologist Thomas C. Chamberlin had launched his career with an iconoclastic attack on establishment thinking. He went on to define a distinctly democratic and American way of doing science, according to historian Naomi Oreskes. Making the evidence fit grandiose theories was the fatal flaw in Old World science, Chamberlin said; the true scientist’s role was to lay out the facts and let all theories compete on equal terms. Like a parent with his children, he was “morally forbidden to fasten his affection unduly upon any one of them.”

By the 1920s, Chamberlin was the dean of American science and his colleagues fawned that his originality put him on a par with Newton and Galileo. But he had also become besotted with his own theory of earth’s origins, which treated the oceans and continents as fixed features. This “great love affair” with his own work was characterized, historian Robert Dott writes, “by elaborate, rhetorical pirouetting with old and new evidence.” Chamberlin’s democratic ideals—or perhaps some more personal motivation—required grinding Wegener’s grandiose theorizing underfoot.

Rollin T. Chamberlin, who was also a University of Chicago geologist, did his father’s dirty work: The drift theory “takes considerable liberties with our globe,” he wrote. It ignores “awkward, ugly facts” and “plays a game in which there are few restrictive rules.” Young Chamberlin also quoted an unnamed geologist’s remark that inadvertently revealed the heart of the problem: “If we are to believe Wegener’s hypothesis we must forget everything which has been learned in the last 70 years and start all over again.”

Instead, geologists largely chose to forget Alfred Wegener, except to launch another flurry of attacks on his “fairy tale” theory in the middle of World War II. For decades afterward, older geologists warned newcomers that any hint of an interest in continental drift would doom their careers.

Wegener took the assault as an opportunity to refine his ideas and address valid criticisms. When critics said he had not presented a plausible mechanism for the drift, he provided six of them (including one that foreshadowed the idea of plate tectonics). When they pointed out mistakes—his timeline for continental drift was far too short—he corrected himself in subsequent editions of his work. But he “never retracted anything,” says historian Mott Greene, author of an upcoming biography, Alfred Wegener’s Life and Scientific Work. “That was always his response: Just assert it again, even more strongly.” By the time Wegener published the final version of his theory, in 1929, he was certain it would sweep other theories aside and pull together all the accumulating evidence into a unifying vision of the earth’s history. (But even he would have been astonished by the charges against the Italians for failing to turn continental drift into a predictive device; that trial is expected to continue for months.)

The turnabout on his theory came relatively quickly, in the mid-1960s, as older geologists died off and younger ones began to accumulate proof of seafloor spreading and vast tectonic plates grinding across one another deep within the earth.

Wegener didn’t live to see it. Because of a subordinate’s failure, he and a colleague had to make a lifesaving delivery of food to two of his weather researchers spending the winter of 1930 deep in Greenland’s ice pack. The 250-mile return trip to the coast that November turned desperate. Wegener, at 50, yearned to be home with his wife and three daughters. He dreamed of “vacation trips with no mountain climbing or other semi-polar adventures” and of the day when “the obligation to be a hero ends, too.” But a quotation in his notes reminded him that no one accomplished anything worthwhile “except under one condition: I will accomplish it or die.”

Somewhere along the way the two men vanished in the endless snow. Searchers later found Wegener’s body and reported that “his eyes were open, and the expression on his face was calm and peaceful, almost smiling.” It was as if he had foreseen his ultimate vindication.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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