Science in Christian Perspective




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

John Wiester*

Westmont College
Santa Barbara, CA 93108

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 50.4 (December 1998): 276-278.

ß This paper was presented at the 52nd Annual Meeting of the ASA in Santa Barbara CA on August 4, 1997.

The years 1857˝1859 were seminal years for theory proposals. In 1859, 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.1

Ayala further clarifies the opposing paradigms by stating:

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.2

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 explanation accounting for the "obvious design of organisms."3

In 1857, during an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, James Hall, a respected paleontologist, proposed a theory to explain the origin of mountains and their thick packages of sediments. 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, 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 planeˇa crucial distinction which set it apart from the theory of continental drift. As late as 1960, geosynclinal theory reigned as the established theory with the concept of continental drift being largely ignored (or ridiculed) by geologists working in the northern hemisphere.

In 1859, Antonio Snider, who had noticed the remarkable jigsaw-puzzle fit of the continentsˇespecially that of Africa and South Americaˇproposed the hypothesis of continental drift (the precursor to plate tectonics). In the early 1900s, meteorologist Alfred Wegener developed Snider's concept into a coherent hypothesis. To Snider's jigsaw-puzzle fit of the continents, Wegener added impressive lines of evidence from ancient rock matches, glaciation, mineral belts, mountain ranges, and fossil sequences. By 1950, evidence that supported the hypothesis of continental drift included:

1. The jigsaw-puzzle fit of the continents (especially when continental slopes were taken into account).

2.  Matching ancient rock sequences, mineral belts, and mountain ranges across the continents (see Figure 1). The late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic rock sequences matched the southern continents like the pages of a book torn in half. Further, the more recent Cenozoic layers were different in both composition and stratigraphic sequence.

3.  Ancient (late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic) animal and plant fossils were similar, while Cenozoic fauna and flora were dissimilar, just as today's African flora and fauna are distinct from those of South America.

4.   Ancient (Permian) glacial till match-up, plus the direction of glacial striations, agreed 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. This was especially true for North America and Europe. The latter 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. (Rocks in North America pointed to a position for the ancient north pole that was geographically widely separated from that to which rocks in Europe pointed.) More important, the continual movement of even one magnetic pole about the globe was doubtful scientifically. A more logical conclusion was that the continents (rather than one or more magnetic poles) had moved. 

Yet, despite this substantial evidence for continental drift, geologists largely ignored or scorned this hypothesis. Why? The most frequently cited reasons 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 was not noted until after the triumph of plate tectonics.) The sociological reasons often mentioned for the ridicule of continental drift include the fact that Wegener was not a geologist (How dare a mere meteorologist propose a geological theory?), and furthermore, he was a German. Post-World War I animosities still existed in professional circles.

However, I suggest that the main reason that continental drift was ignored or scorned was the power of the "established" geosynclinal theory (the static, rather than mobile, continent paradigm) to blind the geologic community to new ways of thinking. 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," with 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.4

Within ten years following the publication of the above geology textbook, geosynclinal theory was replaced by the theory of plate tectonics (which combined the hypotheses of continental drift and sea floor spreading). Key to the success of this paradigm revolution was the 1962 proposal of Harry Hess of Princeton, that the continents and ocean crust move together driven by the mechanism of thermal convection in the mantle. In 1963, the death knell of geosynclinal theory was sounded when Vine and Matthews published their model of magnetic-stripe evidence for sea floor spreading which confirmed the Hess hypothesis. The sea floor itself was spreading apart at the mid-oceanic ridges, carrying their attached continents further and further away from one another. The collisions between plates were the major explanations for the formation of major mountain ranges. It then became obvious to most geologists that geosynclinal theory had never 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 (the mutation-selection hypothesis) is well established as an explanation for both the variation within species and the origin of new species, whether it explains the origin of major innovations, such as higher level taxon, is an open question that few Darwinists will acknowledge. While many scientists recognize the benefits of multiple working hypotheses, Darwinists prevent the hypothesis of intelligent design from being considered. Their dismissal of design theory is reminiscent of the pre-1960 ridicule of 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., the origin of the animal phyla in the 40 million-year-long Vendian revolution/ Cambrian explosion).

2. Irreducible complexity, especially at the molecular level.5

3. The apparent inability of natural causes (chance and necessity) to account for the origin of complex specified information.6 In essence, the informational content in DNA appears to transcend and is not dependent upon the properties of its material medium. In an analogy to language, the physio/chemical properties of the neucleotide sequences do not explain the origin of information contained therein.7

In any event, I hope that biologists can learn from the humbling lessons of geology and consider the possibility that old theoriesˇespecially those that protect the philosophy of naturalismˇmay be hindering the search for truth. Conversely, design theorists should recognize that the key to consideration of their proposal lies in the development of rigorous methods for detecting intelligent design or exclusion of natural causes or both.



1Francisco J. Ayala, "Darwin's Revolution," in J.H. Campbell & J.W. Schopf, Creative Evolution!? (1994), 4.

2Ibid., 5. It should also be noted that Ayala insists that the haphazard nature of the fossil record describes events that "are not compatible with a preordained plan, whether imprinted from without by an omniscient and all-powerful Designer, or the result of some necessitating force driving the process toward definite outcomes. Biological evolution differs from a painting or an artifact in that it is not the outcome of a design preconceived by an artist or artisan" (p.16). This position was reiterated by Ayala in his lecture, "Darwin's Devolution: Design Without Designer," at the John Templeton Foundation Science and Religion Course Program, hosted by The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, January 18, 1998.

3While Ayala refers to the "obvious design of organisms," Francis Crick states that "Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved" (What Mad Pursuits [New York: Basic Books, 1988], 138). Thus, Crick agrees on the main point: Darwin's mechanism of natural selection replaced the concept of intelligent design as the creator of organisms which appear to be designed. Richard Dawkins, who occupies the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, states the case as follows:

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose....Natural Selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind The Blind Watchmaker [New York: Norton, 1986], 1 and 5 respectively).

Similarly, the marketing flyer for the BBC video, The Blind Watchmaker, states that "the beautiful complexity of living things" was not produced by "an intelligent designer like God" but rather by "Evolution, the Blind Watchmaker."

4T.H. Clark and C.W. Stern, Geologic History of North America (1960), 43.

5See Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

6See William A. Dembski, "Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49, no. 3 (1997): 180˝90.

7See Stephen C. Meyer, "The Origin of Life and the Death of Materialism," The Intercollegiate Review 31, no. 2 (1996): 24˝43.