Early Theories of Mountain Origination

One of the thrusts of this paper is to exhibit how mental dogmatism obscures the truth. The mind acts as a filter to the senses. In trying to make order out of a seemingly chaotic world, our mind simplifies the data. In this simplification truth is often the victim. WeÕve seen my many misconceptions about mountains, shattered one after the other. WeÕve seen how I hold onto my truths with nothing invested. How much harder it is to divest when an investment has been made.

We saw how hard it was for the academic community to accept ancient glaciers and Ice Ages because they had invested so much mental energy into a Biblical conception of the world. We saw how the Biblical conception was threaded into the western worldÕs religious, political, and academic system in an integral way. Because this way of looking at the world was so deeply ingrained, it was also linked with the power structure. When ideas are this deeply ingrained, new ideas, which challenge them, are an attack on the stability of the status quo and so are treated as revolutionary threats. Sometimes these new ideas threaten the very order of the society.

Presumably as a culture we moved past that rigid phase at the beginning of the 20th century. DarwinÕs evolution, ancient glaciers, and Ice Ages were well established in the scientific community. Within a few decades the theory of relativity with its space-time continuum and a constant velocity of light was equally well established. We are in modern times. We are civilized, open-minded, and unbound by religious dogma. To be sure there are strong pockets of resistance to these new ideas but generally the scientific establishment because of their incredible technological successes has attained supremacy. With the scientific method, all those unproved assertions are relegated to the status of superstition unless established by some rigorous, verifiable experiment. The eyes, ears, senses, and minds of these modern scientists should be open and ready for new ideas and information. Right? WeÕll let you be the judge.

In this next exploration of the mechanisms of the Earth that helped to create our mountains, we come across another example of academic blindness. We do not accumulate these examples to poke fun at academia. We examine them in order to understand the power of misconceptions to color our perceptions. By studying it we hope to avoid this blindness.

Biblical Mindset blocks questions of origination

We have come to some understanding of how glaciers sculpt the surface of the earth. Now let us see how the surface of the earth is formed. This is directly related to how mountains are formed. In our exploration of the creation of the Santa Ynez Mountain Ridge, the San Rafael Mountain Range, and the Sierra Madre Mountain Range, we spoke of the collision of continental plates, subduction, island arcs, and the like. In this section of the paper we are going to discover where these theories come from. Let us start with early theories of mountain origination.

Because of the relative stability of our human moment in the space-time continuum, it was originally thought that the earth with its mountains had been created just the way it was, along with the flora, and fauna. This is not crazy or dogmatic. It is intuitive. No one has seen mountains created. No one has seen an Ice Age come and go. The flora and fauna in our moment in time are relatively permanent. From the human point of view, the earth is a seemingly permanent place. The Biblical theory of creation is based upon this common sense view. Practically speaking it is true.

Under this conception, the world is a pretty simple place. If God had created the Universe, the Earth, and all its geology, flora and fauna in seven 24 hour days beginning sometime around 4004 BC, then the earth is a preset affair. Its flora, fauna, and geology are permanent and fixed. Many questions are pre-empted by an easy response. ŅWhere do birds come from?Ó ŅGod made them.Ó ŅWhy are men in charge?Ó ŅGod put them in charge.Ó ŅWhere did mountains come from?Ó ŅGod made them when he created the Earth about 6,000 years ago along with everything else. Since then the Great Flood jumbled everything up. But this event is included in the Bible.Ó

This response went a long way in answering any question of origin. Scientists were very busy categorizing and organizing, but could entertain no thoughts of origination because the Bible had already provided a satisfactory answer to that question.

Even Agassiz, the discoverer of Ice Ages, tried to force his theory into the Biblical mold. His theoretical Ice Age was so complete that it killed all living things on Earth. Then came GodÕs creation of all the flora and fauna on the Earth. This conception continued to pre-empt many origination questions.

The persistent Dried Apple Theory

But then in the mid 1800s Darwin, AgassizÕ nemesis, proposed his theory of evolution. This opened up the origination questions regarding flora and fauna. Further by the early 1900s, the existence of Ice Ages, which was well established, discredited Biblical geology. The scientific community now viewed the Earth as a dynamic place rather than the static Universe envisioned by the prior Biblical worldview. New questions arose that couldnÕt have been asked before. Questions of origination could now be entertained. For the first time scientists could now ask where did mountains come from?

In theorizing about the origin of mountains, scientists looked to the world around them for examples and found an old dried apple with lots of ridges. Perhaps the hot volcanic earth of the earliest times is cooling, contracting, shrinking and wrinkling like a dried apple. Mountains are merely the wrinkles. With modifications this theory was held into the early 1960s. Mountains are the wrinkles of an old and aging earth.

However there were a few problems with this theory. First an apple skin wrinkles uniformly over the surface, while mountains are in no way uniform over the surface of the Earth - as anyone could see who looked at the mountains of the world. They have their own pattern, but it was in no way like a drying apple. But whole generations of scientists invested their careers attempting to justify the theory through subtle refinements.

From the emerging fossil evidence of the time, a second problem arose. It seemed that some mountains are older than others. The cooling contracting earth theory would suggest that all mountains are the same age.

There was yet a third problem with the theory. In 1735 a respected French scientist, dropped a plumb line in an attempt to measure the height of the Andes. He corrected for the gravitational attraction of the mountain but found the plumb line to be much less attracted to the mountain than he had predicted. His conclusion was that the mountain had to be much less dense than the underlying earth. According to the dried apple theory, which posited a cooling and contracting earth, the mountain ridges would be of greater or equal density to the land below. Some scientists of the day, in assuming uniform density of the earth, posited hollow mountains to account for the data.

By the early 1900s scientists had conclusively established that the granite of the land was substantially lighter than the basalt underneath. Further researchers had discovered that the continental crust was much less dense than the ocean crust. A principle of isostatic balance had the continents floating on the ocean crust. In the early 1900Õs the continental crust was called sal or sial, a contraction of silicon and aluminum, relatively lightweight rocks. The oceanic crust was called sima, a contraction of silica and magnesium, much heavier rocks. Although these well known principles of the day contradicted the cooling earth theory, many scientists spent their careers attempting to reconcile the contradictory facts with their implausible ideas.

Now that our planet was recognized as a dynamic, evolving entity, rather than something fixed at creation for eternity, new enigmas about the Earth emerged, which demanded explanation. Many map makers and lovers had noticed how South America and Africa fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Furthermore the flora and fauna were similar as was the geology of the regions. Indeed western Africa was more closely linked with eastern South America than it was with east Africa. As more and more scientific information poured in, it all corroborated the link between these two continents separated by the Southern Atlantic Ocean.

How were the flora and fauna of these huge continents linked? In the recent past, the mysterious ways of God was evoked to explain anything that couldnÕt be explained. ŌBeyond human understanding of course.Õ But now with the successes of modern science, this explanation satisfied no one but the devout Christians, who held to a literal interpretation of the Bible.

The first theory presented was that land bridges had existed, which linked the flora and fauna in prehistoric times. With the cooling of the earth these land bridges had collapsed and sunk under the ocean. The dovetailing of the two theories strengthened both theories and created more scientists and their graduate students to defend the theories because of their growing investment.

Alfred Wegener and Continental Drift

Enter Alfred Wegener, a 31-year-old astronomer and meteorologist, who had already established himself in his fields. In 1911 he read about the land bridge theory. However one enigma immediately bothered him, as well as other scientists of the day. If the continental crust was lighter than the ocean crust, wouldnÕt these land bridges continue to float even if the earth contracted? Also what about the similarity of coastline and geology of the two continents?

After more research in 1912 he presented his theory of continental drift. He proposed that the two continents had been connected at one time and had simply drifted apart. This accounted for all the similarities between the two, i.e. flora, fauna, coastline fit and geology. Besides having serious flaws the land bridge theory only accounted for flora and fauna. In addition WegenerÕs theory turned the flaw of the land bridge theory, i.e. lighter continental crust, into a mechanism. The lighter continental crust floated on top of the ocean crust.

With all these advantages combined with the open academic environment of the time, (after all they had just thrown off the Biblical stranglehold), one would have thought that his theory would have been immediately hailed as a scientific breakthrough and Wegener would have been acclaimed as a scientific genius. Wrong.

Instead of praise, Wegener was met with derision and hostility on both sides of the ocean. The scientists of both Europe and America felt that their intelligence had been insulted by this implausible theory. They felt as if one in their midst had gone counterculture. It was as if he had presented a theory that the aliens had split apart the Earth. WegenerÕs professor and mentor suggested that he stick to his own field.

Wegener did more research and became more convinced. He became an academic laughing stock, caricatured as a fringe lunatic. He was denied a post at the prestigious universities and had to settle for a more minor position at a minor university. Wegener made many trips to Greenland in his life to study the geophysics there. Perhaps his theory of continental drift was inspired by the stately icebergs floating serenely in the Arctic Ocean.

In saving some colleagues from the fierce Greenland winter, he overexerted himself and had a heart attack. His epitaph on his untimely death only mentioned his research in astronomy and meteorology, ignoring his most significant contribution. Additionally, because Wegener had become such a laughingstock for his ideas, it effectively aborted the pursuit of his idea for over 50 years. Because of the stigma associated with continental drift the scientists who re-proposed his theories a half-century later couched the idea in subtle language designed to detach it from anything that Wegener might have said.

Reasons for the Rejection of Continental Drift

Why was WegenerÕs theory derided with all of its obvious advantages over the theories of the day? WeÕve mentioned before how the mind clouds the senses by preconceived notions. Which preconceived notions killed WegenerÕs idea of continental drift for the open-minded scientists?

One preconceived notion then, now, and forevermore, is that only someone within the field can make a significant contribution to the field. Wegener was not a geologist by training and was unacquainted with the minutiae of the field. How could he hope to make a contribution when he had not studied geology in college? He didnÕt even know that much about rocks. His specialty was weather, stars and planets. How could he know anything significant about another field? By itself this prejudice would certainly not have shot down his theory so completely. There are actually many examples of outsiders breaking in.

Another preconceived notion that clouded the eyes of scientists was that the continents, as huge landmasses, were fixed and immovable. Although humans evolved, although the earth had gone through many Ice Ages, although the Earth was cooling and contracting, the one thing the scientists could count on was that the continents were fixed in place. Even though they are lighter than the ocean crust how could they possibly move? WeÕre not talking about icebergs, which are moved by ocean currents. We are talking about huge landmasses with mountains on them. What mechanism could possibly split them and move them across an ocean. There are certainly no currents in the land beneath the sea. After all it is denser than the land above. How could it possibly move? This was a big problem.

Additionally, even if, in some unimaginable way, the continents did split and drift apart millions of years ago, wouldnÕt the coastlines have gone through enough erosion to have minimized their jigsaw similarity rather than left it intact - went another argument against WegenerÕs theory? The fit must instead be a huge coincidence.

Patterns: Cause vs. Coincidence

Science, in many ways, is all about turning perceived coincidence into a causal relationship. Every time we see those big fluffy clouds, it rains soon afterward. Is this merely coincidence or is something causal going on? Let us track this correspondence with some hardcore data. Well statistically it seems there is some connection. Now let us look physically at what is going on. Well in measuring pressure systems we come up with a plausible reason why these two events are linked causally. Or vice versa the hard data might indicate no correlation, turning the event into a coincidence. Hence many times science has the job of distinguishing causality and coincidence. However frequently when they canÕt find causality, in the pride of their ignorance they assume coincidence rather than in the humility of their knowledge do they assume ignorance.

With WegenerÕs theory of continental drift this was true. The facts are that there was an incredible fit on four levels: flora, fauna, geology, and coastline. With one of these correlations only, possibly we could claim coincidence. Why not the others we would ask? But if all succeeding data on all fronts continues to connect the two continents this coincidence has moved to connection. Instead of moving from the pride of knowledge to claiming coincidence, a dogmatic response, the scientist should move from a position of humility, and recognize his own ignorance. He might say instead, ŅIt does seem that there is a connection, but we donÕt know what caused it because of our ignorance of the physical world.Ó The stance that something is coincidence in the face of mountains of data is as ignorant a stance as those religious people who ignore mountains of physical data and invoke God. The truth as always is in-between.

Coincidence is a common scientific explanation for perceived correspondences, which they canÕt explain. The argument for coincidence versus connection is furthered by how easily people read patterns into random events. Just as God was previously invoked to explain unexplainable mysteries, now coincidence is invoked to illustrate how modern and non-superstitious we are. Same result - the discouragement of investigation.

Just as GodÕs absence or presence should not discourage the investigation of the phenomenal world, neither should manÕs tendency to discover order where there is none discourage investigation either. In every case, the investigation of reality should be approached with the humility that our field of consciousness limits our understanding.

In this case, the scientists couldnÕt imagine the tectonic forces that could pull apart continents and move them around the earth. Because they couldnÕt imagine these forces, i.e. the idea of them was outside their field of consciousness, they rejected the mountains (excuse the pun) of data connecting the two continents as coincidental. The prevalent intellectual arrogance of the day was so great that the reigning scientists felt that if they couldnÕt imagine it, then it couldnÕt exist.

The intelligentsia, including scientists, and those who are perfecting themselves must constantly guard against this type of intellectual arrogance. Because of the constant jumps in understanding, which actually only push back the veil of illusion a little further, we tend to overrate our insight, holding onto it as truth. We put it before our eyes as a filter to the world, easily ignoring discrepancies. To neutralize this limiting tendency humility needs to be cultivated. This humility is rooted in the idea that ignorance is at the foundation of knowledge, just as pride is rooted in the mistaken notion that any system of knowledge is both complete and without paradox.

As an aside, causal connections are not the only way that the universe is ordered, although it is the main connection that science investigates. For those of us who are spiritually oriented, the universe is permeated by a divine order, based upon pattern, which may or may not have causality at the base. We believe, and we are not a small group, that divinity communicates through seemingly random occurrence. This communication takes the form of warnings and clues. The warnings allow us to avoid danger and the clues help us to take the right path. Our humility is based around the understanding that while the phenomenon of divine communication through coincidence does seem to exist, that we humans also regularly see patterns where none exist. The divine order and our material universe are actually orthogonal realities, which intersect at the point of life.

Attack the pride and watch the chi rise

While the coincidence argument against WegenerÕs mountain of data was lame, unfortunately his theory that the continents had just drifted apart was counter-intuitive, no matter what the time scale. There are no examples of land breaking exactly apart to form separate landmasses. Continents and islands are eroded, they donÕt just split apart without some reason. Scientists of the day in the arrogance of their intelligence couldnÕt imagine how it could happen, so they assumed it couldnÕt happen. ItÕs like saying that because you canÕt imagine how a radio or computer works that it must be coincidence, magic or divine intervention, which caused it to work.

Wegener was just as ignorant as the other scientists about the mechanisms underlying continental drift. Attempting to explain his data, Wegener had some theories of his own as to how continents could split apart and move. While his data indicating continental drift was sound, his theories of why they drifted were somewhat farfetched and fanciful. Hence he provided the geologists with much to attack. And attack they did. The scientists of the day ignored the core data supporting his theories and instead attacked his theories as unreasonable. Wegener, instead of retreating to a tenable position, attempted to defend the untenable theories that he had developed to explain how continents moved. He lost his center attempting to defend his perimeter.

Coming from the scientific milieu it is easy to see why Wegener did not retreat to his facts but instead attempted to defend his subsidiary theories. He too was trapped by his pride. Instead of saying, ŅI donÕt have any idea how the continents split apart but all evidence indicates that they were attached. Let us work to discover the mechanism. I in my ignorance as a specialist in another field will have to let you geologists work out the details, but I think that you canÕt deny the correspondence nor can you deny that your previous positions are untenable.Ó They attacked his pride. Instead of realizing that his pride was an illusion created by his mind, he instead went out to defend this illusion and left his truth without defense. In defending the illusion he lost his root. (Similarly in the martial arts: when someone becomes angry due to an attack on ego, his chi rises and it is easy to uproot him. For success it is necessary to remain calm and defend your core rather than getting drawn outside the center.)

After Wegener became a laughing stock of the scientific community, no scientist, unless he wanted to risk his career, could even mention the idea of continental drift seriously.

In defense of the scientists of the day, there had been so many spectacular successes with forces, based in incredible cause and effect explanations, that even Einstein, a few decades later, when confronted with quantum theory rejected it out of hand because it didnÕt make any sense. ŅGod doesnÕt play dice.Ó was his famous response. The proper response from a position of humility would have been, ŅI donÕt know how it works but it does. Hopefully some day we will discover why.Ó In WegenerÕs case, it just took a half a century for the mechanisms of continental drift to be understood. Because of the ridicule he was subjected to, scientists reluctantly backed into the discovery of these tectonic forces. LetÕs see how this occurred.


Home   Mountain Page   Table of Contents   Next Page