Paradigm Shifts in Geology and Biology:
Geosynclinal Theory and Plate Tectonics;
Darwinism and Intelligent Design


by John Wiester

The years 1857-1859 were seminal years for theory proposals. 1859 was the year Darwin published his "theory of natural selection" to replace the reigning paradigm of "intelligent design." According to Francisco Ayala, before Darwin "the functional design of organisms and their features seemed to argue for the existence of a designer. It was Darwin's greatest accomplishment to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent." Ayala further clarifies the opposing paradigms by stating that "Darwin's theory encountered opposition in religious circles, not so much because he proposed the evolutionary origin of living things (which had been proposed many times before, even by Christian theologians), but because his mechanism, natural selection, excluded God as the explanation accounting for the obvious design of organisms."1 Despite both religious and scientific objections, by 1960 Darwin's mechanism of natural selection had completely triumphed over the concept of intelligent design as the scientific explanation accounting for the obvious design of organisms.

In 1857 James Hall, a respected paleontologist, proposed a theory to explain the origin of mountains and their thick packages of sediments during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The idea, later supplemented by J. D. Dana, was that a huge trough-like depression known as a geosyncline became filled with sediments and subsided, until it gradually became unstable, and together with heat from the interior of the earth was crushed, folded and elevated into a mountain chain. Geosynclinal theory, while dynamic in the vertical plane, was essentially a static model of the earth's crust with respect to its horizontal plane, a crucial distinction which set it apart from the theory of continental drift. Nevertheless, as late as 1960, geosynclinal theory reigned as the established theory with the concept of continental drift being largely ignored (or ridiculed) by most geologists. In 1859, the hypothesis of continental drift (the precursor to plate tectonics) was proposed by Antonio Snider who had noticed the remarkable jigsaw puzzle fit of the continents, especially Africa and South America. Snider's concept was developed into a coherent hypothesis in the early 1900s by meteorologist Alfred Wagner, who added impressive lines of evidence from ancient rock matches, glaciation, mineral belts, mountain ranges, and fossil sequences to Snider's jigsaw puzzle fit of the continents. By 1950 the following lines of evidences existed to support the hypothesis of continental drift. Evidence that the continents had once been together and had since drifted apart included:

  1. The jig-saw puzzle fit of the continents (especially when continental slopes were taken into account).
  2. Matching ancient mineral belts, mountain ranges, and rock sequences. The late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic rock sequences matched between the southern continents rather like the pages of a book that had been torn in half. Further, the more recent Cenozoic layers were entirely different.
  3. Ancient (late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic) animal and plant fossils were similar, while Cenozoic fauna and flora were different.
  4. Ancient (Permian) glacial till match ups, plus the direction of striations matched up when all of the southern continents including India, Australia, and Antarctica were put together.
  5. Paleoclimatic and paleomagnetic data indicated that either the poles or the continents had moved (especially true for North America and Europe). The later inference was far more consistent with the data, because it assumed only one north pole, whereas the former required the postulation of two north poles).

Yet, in spite of this substantial evidence for continental drift, this hypothesis was largely ignored or scorned and ridiculed. Why? Reasons most frequently cited by apologists include the fact that most geologists were working in the northern hemisphere (where the evidence was less obvious) and that continental drift lacked a mechanism (later to be known as sea floor spreading) to move the continents through the more rigid, dense sea floor. The fact that geosynclinal theory also lacked a testable mechanism wasn't noted until after the triumph of plate tectonics. I suggest that the main reason that continental drift was ignored or scorned was the power of the "established" geosynclinal theory or the power of the static (rather than mobile) continent paradigm to blind the geologic community to new ways of thinking. In fact, so powerful was the established geosynclinal theory that the 1960 edition of Clark and Stearn's Geological Evolution of North America compared the status of geosynclinal theory which was thought to explain "the origin of mountains from geosynclines," and Darwin's theory of "the origin of species through natural selection":

"The geosynclinal theory is one of the great unifying principles in geology. In many ways its role in geology is similar to that of the theory of evolution which serves to integrate the many branches of the biological sciences. The geosynclinal theory is of fundamental importance to sedimentation, petrology, geomorphology, ore deposits, structural geology, geophysics, and in fact all branches of geological science. It is a generalization concerning the genetic relationship between the trough like basinal areas of the earth's crust which accumulate great thicknesses of sediment and are called geosynclines, and major mountain ranges. Just as the doctrine of evolution is universally accepted among biologists, so also the geosynclinal origin of the major mountain systems is an established principle in geology."2

Five years after the publication of the above geology textbook, geosynclinal theory was effectively dead. It was replaced by plate tectonics (which combined the hypotheses of continental drift and sea floor spreading into the theory of plate tectonics) and it became obvious to most geologists that geosynclinal theory never had possessed a testable explanatory mechanism for explaining the origin of major mountain ranges.

Can biology learn from this lesson of paradigm replacement in geology? I would hope so. While the neo-Darwinian mechanism seems satisfactory as an explanation for the origin of variation, whether it explains the origin of major innovations is an open question that few Darwinists, especially those that control the education establishment, will even acknowledge. While many scientists acknowledge the benefits of multiple working hypotheses, Darwinists are not about to allow the hypothesis of intelligent design to even be considered. Their scorn and ridicule is most reminiscent of the disdain for continental drift. Lines of evidence that may cast doubt on neo-Darwinism and favor intelligent design (or some other mechanism) as the explanatory mechanism for the origin of major innovations (complexity) include:

  1. Patterns of the origin of major innovations in the fossil record (i.e. Cambrian explosion).
  2. Irreducible Complexity, especially at the molecular level.
  3. The intelligent language of the DNA code that is not reducible to chemistry and physics.

In any event, it is hoped that biologists can learn from the humbling lessons of geology and consider the possibility that old theories, especially those that protect the philosophy of naturalism, may be hindering the search for truth.

References

1. Ayala, Francisco J., "Darwin's Revolution," J. H. Campbell & J. W. Schopf, Creative Evolution!?, 1994, pp. 4 -5. return to text

2. Clark, T.H. and Stern, C.W., Geologic History of North America, 1960, p. 43. return to text