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Arthur Holmes and Continental Drift

  • Henry Frankel (a1)

Although there are numerous and significant differences between the theories of scientific growth and change proposed by Kuhn, Lakatos, and Laudan, they all hold that specific scientific theories should be viewed as constitutive of more comprehensive theories. Kuhn calls those more general theories ‘paradigms’, Lakatos labels them ‘research programmes’ and Laudan refers to them as ‘research traditions’. They all argue that scientists are much more willing to give up the specific theory within a given research programme rather than the programme itself, and that individual theories should be viewed as attempts to increase the overall explanatory power of the more general theories, since the ultimate concern of the scientist is with the success of the general rather than the specific theory. When a basic theory or research programme is confronted with severe criticism, proponents attempt to protect the hard core or central elements of their programme through the invention of auxiliary hypotheses. Good auxiliary hypotheses adequately answer the objections for which they are designed, and suggest new avenues of research. In 1928, Arthur Holmes provided proponents of continental drift theory with an auxiliary hypothesis which afforded them a badly needed account of the forces responsible for continental drift. Although Holmes' proposal was not ultimately correct, it was the first plausible alternative offered by an exponent of the continental drift research programme.

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Research support for this paper has come from three sources, NEH, NSF and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. In addition, I should like to thank the editor of this journal for his helpful suggestions.

1 Thomas S. Kuhn's work, which is more familiar to historians of science than that of Lakatos or Laudan, is found in his The structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd edn., enlarged, Chicago, 1970. The most complete statement of Lakatos' position may be found in Lakatos, Imré and Musgrave, Alan (eds.) Criticism and the growth of knowledge, London, 1970.Laudan, L.'s position is put forth in his Progress and its problems, Berkeley, 1977. Although their views differ in many significant respects, the question of which of the three best accounts for the case study developed in this paper is not considered. It neither follows that I think they each could equally account for this episode in the development of modern geological theory, or that they actually do equally account for it. To argue that one of them would provide a better account than the others, however, would require extensive treatment of the overall development of modern geological theory of which this case study is only a part.

2 For convenience I shall employ Lakatos' terminology rather than that of Kuhn or Laudan.

3 The first edition of Die Entstehmg der Kontinente und Ozeane appeared in 1915, and was followed by four more editions in 1920, 1922, (revised 4th edition of 1929), and 1936. All quotations from this work are from a 1966 English translation of the 1929 edition, Wegener, A., The origin of continents and oceans, New York, 1966. I am using the fourth edition because it is the most complete and it includes a number of comments by Wegener on the initial reception of his drift hypothesis.

4 Wegener, A., The origin of continents and oceans (tr. by Skerl, J.), London, 1924. This edition included a foreword by John Evans who was then die president of the Geological Society of London.

5 See, for example, either Hallam, A., A revolution in the earth Sciences, Oxford, 1973; or Marvin, U., Continental drift, the evolution of a concept, Washington, 1973. Both works contain excellent accounts of die development of drift theory and its eventual inclusion into plate tectonics.

6 van der Gracht, W. van Waterschoot (ed.), Theory of continental drift: a symposium on the origin and movement of land masses both inter-continental and intra-continental, as proposed by Alfred Wegener, Tulsa, 1928, pp. 104105. Besides editing the selections from this 1926 symposium for publication in 1928, van der Gracht included two papers of his own.

7 Lake, P., ‘Wegener's displacement theory’, Geological magazine, 1922, 59, 338–46 (338).

8 Lake, , op. cit. (7), p. 344.

9 Ibid. p. 346.

10 Gregory, J., ‘Continental drift’, Nature, 1925, 115, 255–7.

11 Ibid., p. 255.

12 Wright, W. D., ‘The Wegenerian hypothesis’, Nature, 1923, 111, 30–1.

13 van der Gracht, , op. cit. (6).

14 Ibid., pp. 104–44.

15 See Marvin, , op. cit. (5), p. 149, for a comparison between Wegener's fit and Carey's 1958 fit. The difference is not very great.

16 Du Toit, A., Our wandering continents, London, 1937.

17 van der Gracht, , op. cit. (6), p. 216.

18 Coleman, A., ‘Permo-carboniferous glaciation and the Wegener hypothesis’, Nature, 1925, 115, 602.

19 Holmes, incidentally, considered the reconstruction of the Carboniferous glaciations ‘to be the basis of Wegener's most powerful argument’ for continental drift: Holmes, A., ‘A review of the continental drift hypothesis’, Mineralogical magazine, 1929, 40, 205–9, 286–8, 340–7 (340).

20 Van der Gracht, , op. cit. (6), p. 1.

21 Wegener, , op. cit. (3), p. 167.

22 Even H. Hess, responsible for the concept of seafloor spreading, and R. Dietz, who coined the expression ‘seafloor spreading’, considered the ‘mechanism’ problem to be one of the major problems faced by supporters of Drift. Moreover, there is a striking similarity between seafloor spreading and Holmes’ seafloor thinning—a similarity which has been pointed out by Hess and others. But as Hess has emphasized, there are significant differences. Both eliminate any actual ploughing of continental material through the seafloor, but, on Hess' view, new seafloor is created, while according to Holmes, existing seafloor is stretched. Cf. Dietz, R., ‘Continent and ocean basin evolution by spreading of the sea floor’, Nature, 1961, 190, 854–7.

23 Wegener, , op. cit. (3), p. 175.

24 Lake, , op. cit. (7), p. 339.

25 Ibid., p. 339.

26 Jeffreys, H., The earth, London, 1924, p. 261.

27 My italics. Wright, , op. cit. (12), p. 31.

28 van der Gracht, , op. cit. (6), pp. 119200.

29 Wegener, , op. cit. (3), p. 60.

30 Joly began investigating the interplay between radioactivity and geology as early as 1908. Cf. Joly, J., ‘Uranium and geology’, Annual report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1908, pp. 355–84.

31 Joly, J., ‘The movements of the earth's surface crust’, Philosophical magazine, 1923, 45, 1167–88 (1188).

32 Daly, R., Our mobile earth, New York, 1926.

33 Cf. Marvin, , op. cit. (5), 98.

34 Cf. Dunham, K. L., ‘Arthur Holmes’, in Biographical memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1966, 12, 291310.

35 Holmes, A., The age of the earth, London, 1913.

36 Holmes, A., ‘Radioactivity and the earth's thermal history. Pt. I. ‘The concentration of the ratioactive elements in the earth's crust’, Geological magazine, 1915, 2, 6071. Pt. II. ‘Radioactivity and the earth as a cooling body’, ibid., 1915, 2, 102–12. Pt. III. ‘Radioactivity and isostasy’, ibid., 1916, 4, 264–74. Pt. IV. ‘A criticism of Parts I, II, and III’, ibid., 1925, 62, 504–15. Pt. V. ‘The control of geological history by radioactivity’, ibid., 1925, 62, 534–44.

37 Ibid. (Pt. IV), p. 504.

38 Ibid., p. 507.

39 Ibid., p. 515.

40 Ibid., p. 515.

41 Ibid. (Pt. V), p. 534.

42 Ibid., p. 534.

43 Ibid., p. 544.

44 Holmes, A., ‘Radioactivity and earth movements’, Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, 1931 (for 1928–1929), 27, 567606.

45 Holmes, A., ‘Some problems of physical geology and the earth's thermal history’, Geological magazine, 1927, 64, 263–78.

46 Ibid., p. 263.

47 Ibid., p. 263.

48 Ibid., p. 276.

49 Ibid., p. 276.

50 Holmes, A., ‘Radioactivity and continental drift’, Geological magazine, 1928, 65, 236–38.

52 Holmes, A.. ‘Continental drift’, Nature, 1928, 122, 431–3.

53 Holmes, , op. cit. (19).

54 Holmes, , op. cit. (45).

55 Holmes, , op. cit. (50), p. 237.

56 Ibid., p. 237.

57 Ibid., p. 237.

58 Holmes, , op. cit. (52), p. 432.

59 Holmes, , op. cit. (44), p. 574.

60 In modern parlance ‘substratum’ is ‘mantle’.

61 Ibid., p. 569.

62 Ibid., p. 574.

63 Ibid., p. 579. Figures reproduced by kind permission of the Geological Society of Glasgow.

64 Ibid., p. 580.

65 Ibid., p. 577.

66 Ibid., p. 577.

67 Ibid., p. 577.

68 Holmes, A., Principles of physical geology, New York, 1945, p. 508.

69 Holmes, , op. cit. (19), p. 347.

70 Holmes, , op. cit. (44), p. 585.

71 Ibid., pp. 580–1.

72 Ibid., pp. 580–1.

73 Ibid., p. 600.

74 Ibid., p. 600.

75 Cf. Marvin, , op. cit. (5), p. 105 and Hallam, , op. cit (5), p. 36.

76 Jeffreys, H. in ‘Problems of the earth's crust: a discussion in Section E (Geography) of the British Association on 28 September 1931 in the Hall of the Society’, Geographical journal, 1931, 78, 433–55 (453).

77 Cf. Jeffreys' comments about Holmes in Jeffreys, ibid.

78 Ibid., p. 453.

79 Cf. Holmes, , op. cit. (19), p. 346 and Holmes, , op. cit. (68), pp. 505–6.

80 Holmes, , op. cit. (68), pp. 505–6.

81 Hallam cites as a possible reason for the neglect of Holmes' hypothesis the fact that his major paper (1931) appeared in such an obscure journal. However, I am sceptical about this because, as we have seen, Holmes stated his hypothesis in more popular journals, and included it in his widely circulated Principles of physical geology—the first edition of which was reprinted 18 times.

82 It is certainly true that there were geologists who did not belong to the contractionist programme, namely those who followed permanentism. The first real champion of permanentism was James Dana, who proposed it in 1846 in an article entitled ‘On volcanoes of the moon’. The work appeared in The American journal of science and arts. Bailey Willis resurrected Dana's permanentism in 1907 and 1910. Most permanentists, like Willis and Dana, lived in America.

83 Jeffreys, , op. cit. (76), p. 452.

84 Ibid., pp. 452–3.

85 Holmes, A. in ‘A continuation of problems of the earth's crust: a discussion in Section E (Geography) of the British Association on 28 September 1931 in the Hall of the Society’, Geographical journal, 1931, 78, 536–44 (542).

86 Cf. Marvin, , op. cit. (5) and Hallam, , op. cit. (5). In addition, the changes in geology brought about by the development of techniques which could test hypotheses similar to Holmes' (e.g. Hess' hypothesis of seafloor spreading), through the advancement of oceanography, is dramatically illustrated by Menard. Menard traces the spectacular rise in the number of citations given to Hess' ‘History of ocean basins’ (the first published explication by Hess of his seafloor spreading hypothesis) after its corroboration by the confirmation of e.g., the Vine-Matthews hypothesis. Menard, H., Science: growth and change, Cambridge, Mass., 1971, pp. 119–25.

87 Cited in Marvin, , op. cit. (5), p. 103.

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