We don’t usually celebrate a man’s death, and we are not doing that here. But William Matthew (1871-1930) died on this date in 1930, and his appearance on my geo-calendar was a reminder to me to think about this popular lecturer. Popular, but wrong about a lot of things.
Will Matthew was born in Canada and became interested in biogeography – the study of how and why various bits of biology end up in various geographic locales. At the peak of his career, geologists were becoming concerned about the bewildering number of identical fossil species that were being found in widely separated parts of the globe. According to Darwin, whose theories were extremely popular among geologists of Matthew’s time, if creatures evolve in isolation, differing environmental factors always cause divergence, especially after millions of years. Yet, identical fossils of the Mesosaurus, a giant extinct reptile, had its fossils in both South America and Africa – and nowhere else in the world. And there were hundreds of other examples.
We know now that these fossil homologies are due to drifting continents. The separated fossils were not separated until after Pangaea ruptured. You can see what that means in the USGS map just above. But the idea of drifting continents was not popular a hundred years ago. In fact, most reputable geologists, like William Matthew, thought it was a preposterous notion.
Around 1915, William Matthew argued that the problematic species distributions were adequately explained by Panamanian-style isthmus connections. Matthew combined land bridges and cycles of climate change, suggesting these regularly caused some animals to move away from northern regions towards the south, populating South America and Australia, for example.For the Mesosaurus, the loping reptile would have wandered along a narrow critter highway connecting Namibia and Argentina, perhaps.
For more problematic areas, he invoked the idea of “rafting” which is what you might guess – creatures clinging to floating logs, drifting across oceans, colonizing new areas. On the basis of his field work in Asia, Matthew also proposed that humans evolved in Mongolia, then spread to the rest of the world. He was remarkably influential in broadcasting his speculations, many of which later proved erroneous. Matthew was a gifted teacher and became a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, a job he held for over thirty years.
From his museum post, he taught huge undergraduate palaeontology classes with as many as 900 students in attendance. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, but was ultimately disqualified when it was discovered that even after living in the United States for forty years, he was not a citizen, having maintained his Canadian nationality. Because of the enormous respect held for Matthew by North American scientists, his rejection of mobile continents and his alternative solutions for fossil distribution helped persuade a generation of geologists to simply chortle at the idea of continents adrift. But who’s chortling now?