Foundations of Science

, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 17–35 | Cite as

Drift Theory and Plate Tectonics: A Case of Embedding in Geology

  • María Caamaño-AlegreEmail author


The purpose of this paper is to elucidate the semantic relation between continental drift and plate tectonics. The numerous attempts to account for this case in either Kuhnian or Lakatosian terms have been convincingly dismissed by Rachel Laudan (PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association. Symposia and Invited Papers, 1978), who nevertheless acknowledged that there was not yet a plausible alternative to explain the so called “geological revolution”. Several decades later, the epistemological side of this revolution has received much attention (Ruse in The darwinian paradigm, essays on its history, philosophy and religious implications. London, Routledge, 1981/1989; Thagard in Conceptual revolutions. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992; Marvin in Metascience 10:208–217, 2001; Oreskes in Plate tectonics: an insiders’ history of the modern theory of the earth. Westview Press, Boulder, 2003), while the semantic relation between drift theory and plate tectonics has remained mainly unexplored. In studying this case under a new light, the notion of embedding, as distinguished from other sorts of intertheoretical relations (Moulines in Cognitio Humana—Dynamik des Wissens und der Werte. XVII, Institut für Philosophie der Universität Leipzig, Leipzig, 1996, Time, chance, and reduction: philosophical aspects of statistical mechanics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, Metatheoria 1(2):11–27, 2011), will have a particular significance. After formally analyzing the relationship between continental drift and plate tectonics, it will become evident that the models of drift theory are part of the models of plate tectonics, thereby fulfilling the conditions for embedding. All theoretical concepts from drift theory are presupposed in some theoretical concepts from plate tectonics, and all empirical concepts of the former are shared by the latter. Furthermore, all the successful paradigmatic applications of continental drift are also successful applications of plate tectonics. As a consequence, under the label “geological revolution”, we actually find a salient historical case of cumulative progress across theory change.


Embedding Geological revolution Plate tectonics Continental drift Partial substructures 



I am thankful to José Díez for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Thanks also to the participants in the 8th and 9th editions of the Latin American Conference on Structuralist Metatheory (Mexico DF 2012, Barcelona 2014), where I had the chance to get a valuable feedback on different aspects of this work. Thanks specially to Matías Aimino and Adriana Gonzalo fo their illuminating discussion on the principle of isostasy. My gratitude also to Jurgen Strehlau for his useful suggestions to improve my analysis of the historical case. Finally, this paper has greatly benefited from comments by three anonymous referees. This research was financially supported by the research projects "Pragmatics as the Driven Force Behind the Study of Semantic Flexibility: Conversational Contexts and Theoretical Contexts" (FII 2012-33881, Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness) and "Models and Theories in Physical, Biological and Social Sciences" (PICT-2014-1741, ANPCyT, Argentina).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of ValladolidValladolidSpain

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