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For Intelligent-Design Advocates, Lessons from the Debate over Continental Drift

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A new piece in Smithsonian Magazine, "When Continental Drift Was Considered Pseudoscience," tells how scientists came to accept continental drift only after decades of rejecting the idea.

This story has long fascinated me, because I find the evidence for continental drift to be highly compelling, and because it's a classic example of how the scientific community can radically change its mind. The article observes that "One hundred years ago, a German scientist was ridiculed for advancing the shocking idea that the continents were adrift." As every student of geology learns, that scientist was Alfred Wegener (1880-1930). The "ridicule" he faced was pretty harsh:

Lingering anti-German sentiment no doubt intensified the attacks, but German geologists piled on, too, scorning what they called Wegener's "delirious ravings" and other symptoms of "moving crust disease and wandering pole plague." The British ridiculed him for distorting the continents to make them fit and, more damningly, for not describing a credible mechanism powerful enough to move continents. At a Royal Geographical Society meeting, an audience member thanked the speaker for having blown Wegener's theory to bits -- then thanked the absent "Professor Wegener for offering himself for the explosion."
Of course, the scientific majority of that day ultimately turned out to be wrong. The article admits that such attacks from the scientific community aren't uncommon when someone challenges scientific orthodoxy. In fact, the article cites Darwinian evolution as an example where there have been debates, but claims this is an instance where the majority view "ultimately" won out:
As often happens when confronted with difficult new ideas, the establishment joined ranks and tore holes in his theories, mocked his evidence and maligned his character. It might have been the end of a lesser man, but as with the vicious battles over topics ranging from Darwinian evolution to climate change, the conflict ultimately worked to the benefit of scientific truth.
The article claims that the debate over Darwinian evolution is an example where scientific majority got things right in the end. But given how much Darwinian evolutionary scientists engage in ridicule, mockery, and character assassination against their critics, isn't that ironic? One might equally well ask if Darwinian evolution is an example of how the scientific majority has used harsh rhetorical tactics to protect a theory that's slowly failing the test of the evidence--just like the majority once attacked continental drift.

After citing the continental-drift revolution in geology as an example of how the scientific thinking can shift dramatically, I've sometimes received the following response: 'The scientific revolution over plate tectonics happened quickly, whereas the mainstream scientific community is showing no signs of abandoning Darwinism.' The Smithsonian Magazine article unwittingly suggests a counter-response:

The idea that smashed the old orthodoxy got its start on Christmas 1910, as Wegener (the W is pronounced like a V) browsed through a friend's new atlas. Others before him had noticed that the Atlantic coast of Brazil looked as if it might once have been tucked up against West Africa ... 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...
Did you note the timeline? The continental-drift revolution didn't happen overnight. It took over 50 years -- a couple of generations -- for the revolution to fully work itself out. Evidence accumulated and accumulated, eventually reaching a tipping point. And then, yes, at that point the shift happened "quickly." But the overall process took decades. Alfred Wegener didn't even live to see his theory receive "ultimate vindication," as the article puts it.

The parallels with intelligent design are obvious: The theory of ID is still maturing, and its advocates face harsh ridicule from overconfident and demeaning critics. Perhaps ID won't be widely accepted by scientists until the 2060s, presumably after Michael Behe, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer -- and all those who ridicule them today -- have already retired from the thick of the battle.

We might like to think the design revolution will happen sooner, but if the story of continental drift teaches us anything, it's that it may be decades before ID receives "ultimate vindication" -- and we may have to endure a lot of ridicule in the meantime.

That doesn't mean ID is wrong. In the case of Alfred Wegener, after all, it meant he was right.

Photo credit: Tolka Rover/Flickr.