Alfred Russel Wallace, Erratic Boulders, and More

[Correction: I had Wallace’s middle initial as E, instead of the correct initial R – for Russel… Oct 24, 10:53pm]

Alfred R. Wallace is the OTHER guy who came up with Evolution.

I am going to address something Alfred E. Wallace wrote back in 1893, The Ice Age and Its Work — I. Erratic Blocks and Ice-Sheets. (S481: 1893)


I am going to try to punch holes in some of what Wallace said about erratic boulders.  In “(4) Erratics and perched blocks” [[pg 621]], Wallace begins with

(4) Erratic blocks were among the phenomena that first attracted the attention of men of science. Large masses of granite and hard metamorphic rock, which can be traced to Scandinavia, are found scattered over the plains of Denmark, Prussia, and Northern Germany, where they rest either on drift or on quite different formations of the Secondary or Tertiary periods. One of these blocks, estimated at 1,500 tons weight, lay in a marshy plain near St. Petersburg, and a portion of it was used for the pedestal of the statue of Peter the Great. In parts of North Germany they are so abundant as to hide the surface of the ground, being piled up in irregular masses forming hills of granite boulders, which are often covered with forests of pine, birch, and juniper. Far south, at Fürstenwalde south-east of Berlin, there was a huge block of Swedish red granite, from one half of which the gigantic basin was wrought which stands before the New Museum in that city. In Holstein there is a block of granite 20 feet in diameter; and it was noticed by De Luc that the largest blocks were often found at the greatest distance from the parent rock, and that this fact was conclusive against their having been brought to their present position by the action of floods.

Note that ALL these countries are VERY flat – Denmark, Sweden, Northern Germany, Prussia, St Petersburg, and Fürstenwalde. Mostly these areas are under 300 feet elevation , with little variation in elevation – over an area at least 400 x 500 miles (~200,000 square miles). Which specific areas of Sweden , I can’t tell. Southern Sweden is quite flat, while northward and toward Norway it begins to elevate. So, the area might be somewhat larger, but probably not much smaller.

With Wallace, it is important to watch the pea here.  He shifts around in a rather sneaky way, and you can miss it if you aren’t paying close enough attention.

After mentioning these erratic boulders in this large flat area, Wallace then shifts to the most mountainous region in Europe, Switzerland – where glaciation is well documented and glacial evidence (as we know it) is everywhere. And he then seems to just believe that finding stuff in the mountains of Switzerland explains what was going on in a nearly pool-table flat area unconnected with any mountains whatsoever.

It is, however, in Switzerland that we find erratic blocks which furnish us with the most conclusive testimony to the former enormous extension of glaciers…

Actually, look at this map:


Note the small area denoted “28 Ice” just above Italy. This SMALL GLACIATED AREA is the area that Wallace goes into great detail describing, and which he describes as having “the most conclusive testimony to the former enormous extension of glaciers.”

Actually, NO. Two other areas are shown and designated  “28 Ice.” One of those areas IS “enormous” — but that one and the Swiss one are geologically very different.  The large one, the “enormous extension”, is FLAT.  The smaller one is very mountainous.  The areas Wallace referenced in the first quote above are that area (part of the “21 Polar/MontDes” area and the extreme southern part of the northern “28 Ice” area).

He is claiming that comparing apples and oranges is valid.  Flat equals mountainous.  I disagree.

I think it is significant that he never does come back to discussing the erratics in the flatlands that he started out with.

Then he abruptly switches to North America, where he accurately describes the evidence and then blows off the illogic of it:

On the Kentucky hills, about twelve miles south of Cincinnati, conglomerate boulders containing pebbles of red jasper can be traced to a limited outcrop of the same rock in Canada to the north of Lake Huron, more than 600 miles distant, and similar boulders have been found at intervals over the whole intervening country. In both these cases the blocks must have passed over intervening valleys and hills, the latter as high or nearly as high as the source from whence the rocks were derived.

This is exactly true. And it is REALLY important.  Glaciers or ice sheets cannot defy gravity. Like water, ice can only go downhill, unless it is resisted by, say, the side of a hill and the downhill flowing glacier behind it pushes it up the other side.  (This is what Wallace described in Switzerland, and it may or may not be true.  It IS accepted as real and true.)  Glaciers follow valleys.  Glaciers do not – CAN NOT – ride along ridges, nor can they ride along halfway up a slope parallel to the ridge.  The only way a glacier can affect a ridge is if the glacier completely fills the valley or canyon, and then the excess material is dumped as debris down the other side of the ridge.  In the process of doing this, a ridge can be eroded or crumbled.

Wallace went into precise detail about how Swiss erratics ended up 3,000 feet above the valley floor. (See the link.)  Such events cannot have occurred between Ontario and Kentucky. As Wallace honestly notes, “…intervening valleys and hills, the latter [were] as high or nearly as high as the source from whence the rocks were derived.” But there was not just ONE ridge to go over, not ONE hill to ascend, but quite a few – including the St Lawrence River Valley and the ridges on either side of the river.  In this valley the ice should have flowed EASTWARD, not southward. The overwhelming tendency of the ice would be to go east, once it enters the valley, which runs downhill to the east.  Even before that, the ice sheet should have first blown out the land dam at the south edge of Lake Huron – but there is no evidence of this. There is still only a small basin (Lake St Clair) between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and it has a land dam at ITS south edge, too.

Notice that I call it an “ice sheet” not a glacier.  An ice sheet is wide, and it is on basically flat ground (though it may be sloping slightly); a glacier is narrow and is basically at the bottom of a valley or canyon.  BOTH flow downhill.  And, except when resisted by a land form, they ALWAYS flow downhill.

For the erratics to move all the way to Kentucky, Wallace is asking us to believe that the law of gravity was suspended for ice sheets.  This all happened on flat land, as well. Where was the PUSH for the ice sheet to move south? It had to come from gravity (from the weight of the ice trying to push its way downhill).  But on all but flat land, why would it prefer to keep going on the flat  land southward instead of eastward along the St Lawrence valley?

Wallace’s argument/description of the Rhone glacier is always consistent with it flowing downhill, until he says it ran up against the Jura Mountains – at which time the push of the weight of the glacier material coming behind (out of the narrow Rhone pass through the Bernese Alps, just to the left of the word “Bernese” on the map as shown here, from this link)

Notice the Jura Mountains and the Bernese Alps, as well as the path of the Rhone river. Wallace argues – probably correctly – that the Rhone glacier went through the narrow gap at the west end of the Bernese Alps, then spread out and filled the west end of the valley to the north, before it piled ice up against the Jura Mountains, prior to continuing its flow west and south past Lake Geneva.  He argues that THAT was how the erratics in the Juras ended up so high on the south slope of the Juras.
While this makes sense for Switzerland, it does not seem possible for the other – much flatter – locations with erratic boulders

Back to North America, there is also a “mini-continental divide” JUST south of Lake Erie (as there is just around the south and SW and western edge of Lake Michigan. This “berm” did not stop the ice advance, but the berm also was not ground flat, either, by the ice that was supposedly driving southward.

Ice does not MOVE on flat ground – it can only grow thicker or thinner. It’s own weight and the coefficient of friction between the two solids – land and ice – make the stay in one place.

In such terrain, ice can only travel downhill, but if the land is too flat, the friction is greater than the motive force from the weight of gravity.  Can it climb up low hills or up slopes?  No, no, a thousand times no.

And that is not even including the innumerable small bumps and hills and valleys, which are in this kind of situation called “mechanical” gripping. Rough surfaces hold things better; we all know that.  Why? Because one sloping side of a peak on one material literally bumps into a sloping side of a peak in the other material.  And when that happens it puts the brakes on the movement.  It may not be a strong enough pair of peaks.  In that case, the peaks are crushed and create debris.  This process is called “asperity.”

If those erratic boulders in KY started out north of Lake Huron, it is a certainty that no ice sheet moved in that direction that far to carry the rocks there.

(But the ice sheets were MILES thick, so little bumps wouldn’t stop them, right?  Two things about that.  One is that they NEED to make the ice sheets miles thick, in order to move across hills and valleys and ridges.  This is a case of the tail wagging the dog.  It is also circular reasoning:  The ice couldn’t have moved like that unless it was miles thick; therefore it WAS miles thick and thus moved like that.  Secondly, miles thick ice would have done much more damage to the flat ground between Ontario and Kentucky.  It would be striated everywhere.)

Wallace goes on…

Returning to the main question, of the possibility of glaciers or ice-sheets moving over long distances of generally level ground with intervening hills and valleys, there is an important piece of evidence, the bearing of which appears to have been overlooked by objectors. The former existence of the great Rhone glacier carrying erratics to the slopes of the Jura from beyond Geneva on the south-west to Soleure on the north-east, is universally admitted. This glacier passed out of the gorge between the Dent du Midi and the Dent de Morcles, and a little below St. Maurice enters on the alluvial plain which extends to the lake. [This is what I described above…] From this point to Geneva, a distance of about 60 miles, may be considered a level plain, the descent into the lake being balanced by the ascent out of it. Yet it is admitted [actually, it is only asserted] that the glacier did move over this distance, since erratics which can be traced to their source on the left of the valley below Martigny are found near that city. But the main part of the glacier curved round to the right across the Lake of Neufchatel, and extended at least as far as Soleure, a distance of about 90 miles. To do this it must have ascended 500 or 600 feet to the country around Fribourg, and before reaching Soleure must have passed over a hill 300 or 400 feet higher. Yet on the flanks of the Jura above Soleure there are erratics which have been carried on the surface of the glacier from the east side of the valley below Martigny, and close to Soleure itself there are [[p. 628]] remains of a terminal sub-glacial moraine of compact boulder-clay. …

…It is evident that, to have produced such effects as are here described, the glacier must have extended much beyond Soleure, and have been very thick even there. It thus proves to demonstration that a glacier can travel for 100 miles over a generally level country, that it can pass over hills and valleys, and that, even near its termination, it can groove, and grind, and polish rocks, and deposit large masses of hard boulder-clay.

Again, watch the pea. Apples and oranges.

In Switzerland the glaciers were coming out of VERY HIGH mountains, which gives them great force, even crossing a whole valley and filling it up. He talks about some erratics coming off 14,000-foot Mt Blanc. He talks about erratics 3,000 feet above the lake and on the other side of the flat western Swiss valley. No one is going to argue that such a thing can happen in such geography.  10,000 feet vertical (and more) of a glacier will have much force behind it.  Is such force available on “generally level ground”?  No.  The weight is insufficient.  Again, this is WHY they MUST have miles-high ice sheets in Canada.  The logic is insupportable.  Circular reasoning always IS.

In no way is such a Swiss scenario applicable to areas the do not have 14,000-foot mountains as starting points for the ice sheets/glaciers.

Apples and oranges.

Where are the Mt Blancs up in Ontario? Where are the gravity drivers high enough to overcome the coefficient of friction of ice on rough land, to plow over the land, to obliterate small hills ? (…which were never obliterated in the first place…)  Where are the north-south scars upon the land?

In addition, that Swiss valley was only 90 miles across. In no way does that equate to driving ice sheets across 600 miles and (in some cases quite a bit) more of “generally” flat land and over intervening hills, without mountains to do the driving via gravity – and then to end up at the same elevation.

Engineering-wise and physics-wise, it is all nonsense. Wallace was playing with walnut shells and peas, and using slight-of-hand – pointing to the problem areas and then putting up supporting straw men in terms of Swiss glaciers.

NOTE: I do not disagree that glaciers as we know them do things IN VALLEYS. Moraines, erratics, striations, all yes, yes, and yes.

But when valley glaciers are mis-used as arguments to support erratics going over “generally” FLAT land for VERY long distances, and in the wrong gravitational direction (i.e., not down the St Lawrence when it had the chance), I have to disagree with that part.

SOMETHING ELSE moved those rocks.  They WERE moved, therefore something did it.  But it wasn’t ice sheets or glaciers.

I also DO agree with Wallace that floods on the scale that he could imagine would not have been able to move those rocks in that direction and across that distance.  However, Wallace was not privy to modern understanding that BIG meteors have hit the Earth, nor that strings of 1-km comets can hit Jupiter. Wallace, being one of the foundations of Evolution, was ALSO not going to allow his thinking to include mega-tsunamis from catastrophic comets and asteroid hits on the Earth.  Wallace wrote that 15 years before Tunguska, for one thing.

That second-to-last sentence and the facts it enumerates are evidence that a new overall view has to be found.  Comets/asteroids hitting planets means that something external can happen to the Earth.  The Earth can no longer be seen as a closed system, geologically speaking.   And it is not confined only to geology.  It also includes at least climatology, biology, and astronomy.

For us to look at the evidence of these erratic boulders, it is almost NECESSARY that we go back as far as Wallace, over 100 years, because modern geology has buried information on all these things, swept it under the carpet.  (I was even surprised to find this article of Wallace’s from so long ago.) Only when we go back to the time when it was still being argued, when erratic boulders were actually widely under discussion, can we find mention of these erratics in an honest discussion.

WHY were they under discussion?  Because it only takes ONE really solid fact to overthrow the finest, best formulated, hypotheses.  For example, in western Wisconsin and northern Illinois there are some rock spires that are so delicate that no ice sheet could possibly have moved across that region without destroying the spires.  Therefore, when you see the ice sheets mapped in the region west of Lake Michigan, you will ALWAYS see that that area is “ice free”. Those spires TRUMP any idea of there being any ice sheets there.

And yet, glaciers were (supposedly) able to flow over ridges and hills, and no one bats an eye.

Geologists of today are so programmed to think gradualismand only gradualism – that such evidence is not ever included for discussion.  the discussion, we are told (if we are told at all) occurred back in the 19th century, and it is all settled science now.  So there is nothing to discuss.

I am keeping up with an academic hypothesis that argues that 12,800 years ago a comet or asteroid (perhaps multiples) impacted the Earth and caused the then warming Earth to instantly revert to ice age conditions, which then lasted about 1300 years before warming up again.   The concept is controversial at present, but evidence keeps coming in that makes the argument stronger.  CERTAINLY, if multiple land impacts occurred, then an even larger number of ocean impacts would have occurred, almost certainly.   The planet’s surface is, after all, 71% ocean.

If so, then MUCH about the Earth sciences would need to be reevaluated, to include not only such events, but the effects of such events.  One very possible effect of that 12,800 year-ago event was the extinctions of 33 large mammals all over North America (everything bigger than burrowers).  Where did they go?  What killed them?

Also the spear points that represented Clovis Man, long thought to be the first humans in the New World (though that is now no longer seen as true), also seem to have disappeared at that time.  At least the points.  And evidence for humans in North America seems missing for about 1,000 years, too.  Where did the points go?  Do the missing points mean that those humans were made extinct, too?

If there was even ONE ocean impact of a large object hitting the water at, say, 4 kilometers per SECOND, then we should expect to find evidence of whatever sort of tsunami it caused – or maybe even a mega-tsunami. What sort of evidence might there be?  That is what I am trying to help reason out. Right now it is speculation and conjecture time, based on what the concept implies.

I don’t know much yet, and I am just trying to see what we can figure out.

Apparently, no one ELSE is doing it…

2 responses to “Alfred Russel Wallace, Erratic Boulders, and More

  1. ‘Interesting remarks. I’m not sure I buy all of them, but it is nice to see someone saying *something* about Wallace’s glaciology writings. Please contact Charles H. Smith for some possible off-site discussion. –CHS.

  2. BTW, where I wrote, “Those spires TRUMP any idea of there being any ice sheets there,” I need to re-state that:

    Those spires TRUMP any idea of there being any MOVING ice sheets there.

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