I've been told personally by a well-known (even famous) geologist that Alfred Wegener doesn't get credit for continental drift because he didn't elucidate a correct mechanism, or even a mechanism. This despite his understanding and description of isostasy and the less dense continents floating on the heavy basaltic crust, and despite his measurements of the yearly separation of Greenland from continental Europe.

A day later I thought of a reply. Under that logic Isaac Newton does not deserve credit for identifying gravity.

I've seen the same argument on popular educational programs. This leads me to believe that it is a taught opinion. A cynic would say that it is taught so that the identifiers of the Atlantic separation zone could get credit.

In the 1920's the British sought to punish German science after World War One. Perhaps this action enabled geologists to "forget." Albert Einstein attempted at that time to stop this unprofessional kind of action.

In my own experience, I was taught about the Mendeleev Table while a schoolboy in California. In the US we hardly ever see that term, only "Periodic Table." On the other hand, my Russian book on solid state physics refers to J. Willard Gibbs as Canadian.

Speaking of schoolboy, I believed the Fifth-Grade teacher when she discounted another student's observation that the continents seem to fit together. It was a lesson I have not forgotten.

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    $\begingroup$ You're going to have to support your premise of Wegener's marginalization a lot better than a single appeal to an anonymous authority. Wegener is the first name most people associate with continental drift. $\endgroup$
    – Spencer
    Nov 15, 2016 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ Newton does not get credit for "identifying gravity", he gets credit for conclusively demonstrating that it obeys the inverse square law and building a systematic theory based on it. The law was guessed by a number of people before him however. There is some analogy between Newton giving up on the "nature" of gravity and Wegener not offering a "force that can move continents", but the overall situation was different: Wegener's theory was incomplete and his evidence inconclusive. Die Herausbildung did not create consensus in geology that Principia did in celestial mechanics. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Nov 16, 2016 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ How long ago did your teacher in California refer to the Periodic Table as the Mendeleev Table, and was your teacher Russian? It sounds strange to use that name in English, but even though Mendeleev's name is not part of the English name nobody disputes Mendrleev's role behind it. (In topology the Russians have referred to the product topology as the Tychonoff topology, although I do not know how widespread that usage is nowadays there.) $\endgroup$
    – KCd
    Nov 23, 2016 at 5:16
  • $\begingroup$ Yesterday 13Oct18 the docent at Mt Wilson Observatory, a retired astrophysicist, repeated to my group that Wegener did not identify a mechanism so doesn't get credit . To my original point, an astrophysicist is likely taught this view since this is not his field. I mentioned to my group that Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler were also empiricists. Wegener measured movement between Greenland and Germany which is on the order of meters per year. This supported his discussions of cross-ocean similarities among flora, fauna, minerals and fossils. Isostasy came from changes in ice pack and elevation. $\endgroup$ Oct 16, 2018 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


First, a correction:

This despite his understanding and description of isostasy and the less dense continents floating on the heavy basaltic crust, and despite his measurements of the yearly separation of Greenland from continental Europe.

The less dense continents do not float on the heavy basaltic crust. Instead, both the continental crust and oceanic crust float atop the upper mantle, which in general is denser than either continental crust or oceanic crust. While Wegener did measure the separation of Greenland from Europe, his measurements were flawed. His reported separation rate of 250 cm/year was 100 times greater than the very slow 2.5 cm/year that is observed by a number of modern techniques.

Why don't geologists adopt Alfred Wegener as the founder of Continental Drift?

For a number of reasons.

Wegener proposed that the continents somehow plowed through the denser oceanic crust. This is contrary to what plate tectonics says happens. Wegener's concept of continental drift and plate tectonics are distinct theories.

Another issue is that Wegener was far from the first to propose that the east coast of the Americas and west coasts of Europe and Africa fit very nicely together. The basic concept predates Wegener by over 300 years. Those early proposals regarding continental drift were intimately tied with catastrophism (vaguely scientific explanations for Noah's flood). Nineteenth century geology was in part a war between catastrophism and uniformitarianism. Geologists of the late 19th / early 20th centuries who proposed ideas similar to Wegener's were told in no uncertain terms that they needed to stop lest they never publish or get a job in geology.

Continental drift was not Wegener's idea. What set Wegener apart from his predecessors who proposed similar ideas was his dogged persistence. This persistence made many of those who later developed the theory of plate tectonics see a grain of truth in Wegener's concepts, even though much of what Wegener proposed was incorrect.


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