Theories of the Earth and Universe: a History of Dogma in the Earth Sciences. 5. Warren Carey. 414 pp. Stanford University Press, 1988. $45. Book review by Richard Lee Armstrong, Geological Sciences, University of British Columbia, Cananda. It was published on the American Scientist, Volume 77, 382-384, 1989.
This is not a dispassionate scholarly work on the history of a science. It is a personal statement, at times autobiographical, and to a considerable degree self-congratulatory. It captures the essence of the man himself, his strongly felt views, his bold style, his favorite themes and cherished whipping posts, and his evaluation of his own role in the revolution that has taken place in earth science over the past 50 years.
Carey and I met 30 years ago at Yale, where he taught the graduate structural geology course in a way that has never been done before or since. He was there at a critical moment in the development of tectonic ideas in North America and clearly has to be credited with planting the seeds of the plate tectonics revolution in many places as he promulgated the gospel of continental mobility and ocean expansion. He was newly arrived at the inspiration to explain everything by accelerating earth expansion, but most of his audience did not catch that particular infection. Many, including Hess and Wilson, were persuaded to give a serious look at mobility, and, as they say, the rest is history. Being a skilled orator and able to manipulate his audience like a magician did not hurt his cause.
The ensuing three decades have flooded us with information and new interpretations of geologic processes. The plate tectonics model has undergone considerable detailed testing, modification, and embellishment. Meanwhile, Carey has gone on to champion earth expansion from ever-more philosophical and universal perspectives. But his views on earth expansion have changed little since 1959. The new dogma he espouses is largely a static one-the same arguments, the same fallacies, and the same points of debate are repeated here with little accommodation to new discoveries. Of course Carey was nearly 100% right in 1958 about what was going on in the oceans. His detailed view of sea-floor expansion in 1958 preceded and was not much improved upon by the views of Hess or Deitz in the 1966s. Carey has a right to feel slighted here. And he correctly analyzed marginal basins and arcuate orogenic belts decades before others discovered the truth and accepted credit for it. His feelings sometimes show: "The precocious visionary bears a sinister taint, and the accolades for the great advance are worn by the nouveau-wise."
But the essential flaw in Carey’s view of the world is his firm belief that compression in mountain belts and subduction of the ocean floor are "myth" "illegitimate faith" and "spurious concept" He minces no words in his dismissal of these essential components of the plate tectonics hypothesis. His arguments are exemplary of the failures he sees in others, but not in himself-the blind eye to contradictory data, the resort to fallacious arguments, and the mustering of nonunique "explanations" of data. Students of tectonics can only stare in disbelief and amazement as he assaults the "myths." His discussion denies volumes of modern and ancient literature on mountain belt structure, decades of study by seismologists, deep seismic profiles, deep-sea drilling results, and endless lists of quantitative models of stress and strength distribution, lithosphere bending, earthquake source mechanisms, gravity field measurements, and virtually all of geochemistry and petrology.
In one rare confrontation with recent science, he discusses the observation of the short-lived, cosmic-ray-generated species 10 Be found in some volcanic rocks erupted above Benioff zones. Conventional wisdom says the isotope is dragged from Sea floor into mantle and thence to the source of the magmas. Carey asserts that the observation favors his expansion model for orogens. For those of us who see such an isotope in rocks being erupted through 100 million years old crust, that proposition is an absurdity. Elsewhere he denies the high-pressure origin of blueschists implied by laboratory experiments, reverting back to a stress mineral concept. Metamorphic petrologists would not applaud. More than once there are nonsubtle dismissals of "labbound expert number jugglers and twisters of dials on black boxes" or statements like, "Numerical mumbo-jumbo always carries respect in science." Carey holds Lord Kelvin as his star villain, the DarthVader of physics whose "elegant numbers" impeded progress in the geological sciences for decades. His references to things geophysical are few and often negative. (I recall Carey, in the discussion following a lecture, rising up—majestically, with arms raised-to dispute a skeptical questioner with the words, "I see the ghost of Kelvin." This broke up the audience and effortlessly deflected the scientific argument. Oratorical devices won the day over rational debate.)
The book is divided into six parts, each containing several chapters. The first part is the historical review of great geological ideas. Carey may see a bit of himself in A. G. Werner, who he admires for being a great inspiration to other scientists of his time, even though wrong. The material presented in this section is mostly conventional, covered in several other books on the history of geological science, but here it is spiced with numerous Careyisms-many items inserted here for elaboration in later chapters. And he goes to particular length to trace the roots of expansionist thought. The second part of the book, on mobile continents, is probably the most important, because it is on that issue that Careys fame rests. He reviews his role and the work of some others that led to the great revolution.
For the third part one may want to stock up on grains of salt, for here he develops the concept of the expanding earth. The arguments are virtually the same as in his previous book on the topic. Most are well worn. The fallacy that Africa and Antarctica should be crushed by the new ocean floor being created around them is repeated here. As has been pointed out before, numerous times, this rests on the false assumption that the ridges are fixed on their relative positions. But the majority of the paradoxes, which lead him to expansion, arise from his denial of subduction and compression in mountain belts. If that is the premise, then expansion is inescapable. But for all the points he raises there are plausible, often quantitative, plate tectonic explanations. This is a logical standoff.
The opening prejudice, in his case that nothing but expansion occurs on earth, dictates the conclusion. There seems to be little independent of that single assumption that supports the expanding earth hypothesis. Carey expects to be vindicated by geodetic measurements, and cites preliminary results in his favor. But to date the measurements conform within error with the plate tectonics model and deny earth expansion. Carey seems oblivious to a problem with the water in the oceans. His proposition that the ocean waters come up to the earth’s surface with the rocks that make up the new ocean floor would just not wash with petrologists who have proven, beyond doubt, that the water content of ocean floor lavas is exceedingly low. The rejection of subduction at trenches is made using the creationists’ favorite device of selective citation-the quoting of all who have expressed opposition or doubt about subduction, regardless of later discoveries or repudiation.
Section four concerns vertical orogenesis. Carey presents his absolutely idiosyncratic view of mountain building-the expanding orogen, everything moving upward and outward from the center, with secondary lateral spreading driven by gravity. According to Carey, orogens eventually expand into oceans. This is the ultimate con job: something for nothing, new crust and mountain root instandly out of mantle by phase change and hydration. Few have followed him down this particular path, least of all those who have done field work in mountain belts and been concerned with balanced sections and precise paleogeographic reconstructions. The geochemistry and petrology of Carey’s proposed process are magical, rather than believable.
Part five looks at tectonics of the whole earth-global expansion, torsions (another Carey insight that stands quite independent of the expansion model), and global evolution-from Polygons to successive circumglobal orogens to dispersing continents. His expansion accelerates, with the oceans coming into being only after the Permian. He casually dismisses the subject of hot spot tracks with the suggestion that the basement of the island of Hawaii may go back to 80 million years.
As with accelerating earth expansion, the pretense of the book reaches its culmination in its concluding section, philosophy of the universe. Carey presents his speculations on the null universe, where energy and mass cancel one another, where mass is being created in the centers of massive bodies and between galaxies in space. He plays a game of numerology-seeing imlications in magic dimensionless numbers involving powers of 10. But what if we had evolved with four fingers, or six ... we would read these results very differently! The ideas here will confound astrophysicists and cosmochemists who already have an elaborate explanation for the history of the universe and a model for element synthesis that explains observed abundances in terms of the Big Bang and nuclear reactions in evolving stars. Science does not advance by replacing one incomprehensible origin with another, unless the new idea makes successful predictions, or is subject to testing, or provides a better fit to observational data. Carey does not provide that. The "mumbo-jumbo" he accuses others of gets pretty thick here as well!
The book concludes with an epilogue, glossary, and index. In his final cornments we encounter insight ("the greatest thinkers have been blinkered by their beliefs"), disappointment ("really important advances are and will be rejected more often than acclaimed"), and a final warning ("most heresy is doubtless false").
S.W. Carey is a brilliant and original thinker. We honor him for his ideas but at the same time see in him the pathology of genius. He has operated at times on the fringe of science, belatedly achieving recognition for his original ideas, eventually slipping out beyond science. He was fortunate to have played a major role in one scientific revolution. Contributing to two revolutions in one lifetime may be too much to expect.
American Scientist editorial footnote: Richard Lee Annstrong’s review of Theories of the Earth and Universe continues the occasional publication of essay-reviews that treat topics at greater length than our space limitations ordinarily allow.