Sunday, May 29, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 257: Biomythography - Note 29, Progress Too Slow

Biomythography - Note 29
Progress Too Slow

When I was eight, I spent a lot of time in my friends' homes. It was the age of fireflies in jars and sleepovers with our faces pressed to the glass.

One of my best friends, Joe Wood, lived down the street. In one of the rooms of his house, his parents hung a mercator projection map on the wall. It showed the entire surface of the world. Their map was one that's now a classic, seen everywhere, but derided for its larger scaling around the northern and southern edges.

Joe's family map had almost invisible country lines. When you stood in the middle of the room and looked at the wall, you couldn't see anything except the earth features. What stood out most were the geographical reliefs, the heights and depths, green parts and deserts, mountain ranges and lakes.

Like many children before me and after, I noticed how South America fit neatly into Africa. North America fit pretty well into western Europe, too. Even the mountain ranges on the continents seemed to match as if they could be zippered up together.

When I mentioned it to Joe, he said, "Yeah, I saw that, too."

When my father came to pick me up, though, I pointed it out again and got a different response.

"Well," my father grumbled. He crouched down a little to see the world map from my point of view. "Yeah, this is good artwork for that. But it's a controversial theory."

“It’s a theory?”

“It's called the Continental Drift. It's not what I was taught in school. Geologists like it now. Look, we've got to go. I'll tell you about it on the way home. And then you have to get ready for a big drive."

"Okay." I let him pull me away from the wall-sized map. He didn't say much about it on the way home. The real explanation came during a conversation with him and my mother on our trip.

My parents had graduated college. They enjoyed learning and they'd made it happen. Although they had become teachers, not scientists, they appreciated reading about scientific progress, controversies, and discussions. They kept track of what was going on.

"I have to say, I don't think continents drift much," my father said. "I've never seen it. If it happens, it's very slow."

"It's not what I was taught, either," said my mother.

"But this guy, Wegener ..."

"Alfred Wegener." She talked like she had read about it.

"He was a German. He had this weird idea, like you, that all of the continents could fit together. He tried to prove it. No one believed him."

Although my father didn't say it, Wegener had gotten support from European scientists during World War I. His ideas got earnest discussion even though he was a German and despite his low rank in the various science communities. Albert cut out maps of the continents and stretched them to pull out the mountains that had crumpled them. He fit them together into a supercontinent he called Pangaea. He showed how animals and plants on opposite sides of the oceans were the same. Not only were the marsupials in Australia and South America essentially identical but so were their parasites. He found layered geological formations that ran along on one side of an ocean and picked up again on the other.

It was the Americans who came down hardest against continental drift. They had invested their careers in the steadiness of the continents and Wegener proposed no clear mechanism for moving them. Especially during World War II, the American geologists launched attacks against Wegener's 'fairy tale' theories. For decades afterward, older American geologists warned younger ones that showing an interest in continental drift would end their careers.

"But then came this stuff on the sea floors," my father said. "I'm trying to remember how it came up in the discussion."

"Divers keep finding places under the oceans where the crusts are expanding," my mother added.

"New lands are rising up and pushing around old stuff. It's slow but now they say everything is moving. All the lands. They're calling them plates."

"Tectonic plates," said my mother. "It was in Science News."

For a moment, I pictured an earth ringed by a crust of thick dinner plates. The naming of the concepts involved could have been easier for eight-year-olds.

"So now we're pretty much just waiting for everyone to agree."

"Why isn't this settled yet?" my mother asked. "When am I going to see continent movement lessons in my textbooks?"

"It's the older generation of geologists." My father clicked his tongue. "They hate this stuff. What I've read from the younger ones is they've given up on convincing the skeptics. They're waiting for the older generation to retire and let continental drift become an accepted theory."

"Why don't the older ones just admit it?"

"People, Ann." That was my father's answer for a lot of academic absurdities.

It may not seem helpful but it's an accurate summation of why societies get anti-science stridency from professional scientists. It's because scientists are people.

Alfred Wegener wasn't an insider. He trained as an astronomer and he worked at weather stations as a meteorologist. His proposal may have seemed like the local weatherman publishing in a journal. In addition, anti-German biases were strong in English-speaking countries during Wegener's lifetime. His lack of a proposed mechanism gets cited as the reason other scientists resisted but that looks irrelevant in hindsight. Darwin didn't propose a mechanism for evolution. Galileo didn't come up with one for heliocentrism, either. Other scientists proposed mathematical models to support them later. The resistance to continental drift appears totally social and generational.

Our societies often seem to come around to the reality of the situation late. My parents were brought up to see the continents as fixed and static. They were told other untruths, too, many of them harmful. They unlearned a lot of those untruths. But it took them time.

Humans reinforce their beliefs in what they think they know. Our old assumptions need to die off in the most literal of ways. When I was nineteen, I got my hands on a copy of a book called My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday. She conducted a reasonably structured study, survey style, about women having sexual thoughts. That seems ordinary today. At the time, people were outraged. Experts thought she had mental problems for suggesting that women had such thoughts. Any women participating in her study were assumed to have problems, too.

A review in Cosmopolitan asserted: ‘Women do not have sexual fantasies, period. Men do.’ The American Psychiatric Association declared that women having fantasies was a sign of mental illness. A decade after her popular book changed the narrative, it was acceptable to admit that a woman having sexual thoughts could be normal. That seems quick - a faster response than Wegener got - but her book didn't come out during World War I. She wasn't a contemporary of Jung; she didn't get shouted down by Freud. Her book came out in 1973.

These changes always come later than it seems they should.

No comments:

Post a Comment