Home | Session 1 | Plate Tectonics Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Development of the plate tectonic theory

The long road to acceptance of plate tectonics

In the 1910s and 1920s, Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, suggested that the continents were once connected, and have since drifted apart. This hypothesis of continental drift was welcomed by geologists in Europe and the southern hemisphere, but rejected in America.

Figure 1Arthur Holmes (Britain) and Alexander du Toit (S. Africa) published books (1929 and 1937, respectively) that encapsulated the fossil and rock evidence for continental drift, including diagrams that look much like modern plate tectonics. Figure 1, left (click to zoom in), is similar to one from Holmes' textbook.

In the first half of the 1900s, American geologists operated chiefly by induction, proceeding to ideas based strictly on observation. They strongly embraced uniformitarianism: because they saw no current evidence for drifting continents, they concluded that it didn't happen in the past. These approaches were so rigid that they could not accept new ideas based on other approaches.

By the early 1940s, geologists in much of the rest of the world accepted, or at least entertained the idea of, continental drift. American geologists were comparative isolationists throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, rejecting outright the types of data cited by others.

The conflict between pro-drifters and anti-drifters remained unresolved partly because the world's seafloors were almost completely unexplored. Then came WWII and Cold War, and heavy spending by the U.S. military on research.

Top Next Page

updated January 28, 2002

UCMP Home  |   What's new  |   About UCMP  |   History of Life  |   Collections  |   Subway

Copyright symbol