Nonsensical Paradigms: Continents

From a young age, I have been taught that there are seven continents. In alphabetical order: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, South America. There doesn’t seem to be any clear definition of what a continent is and why Europe for example, should be considered separate from Asia, but the Arabian Peninsula, which actually has its own tectonic activity relative to Europe and Asia. Furthermore, what makes continents separate isn’t clear. Europe and Asia are “separated” by a relatively small range of mountains (the Urals) a collection of rivers that bear no particular importance, some large salty lakes, and another range of mountains.

Here’s a Pierce Quincuncial projection map of the world (the north pole is at the center and the south pole is at the corners), based on this map posed on the Wikimedia Commons:

What is the unifying concepts that makes this things continents? They are large chunks of land and their boundaries seem to be defined by where they are connected by narrow isthmuses. There seem to be vague cultural overtones to them and an appeal to tradition set when people didn’t know jack shit about geology.

It seems that if you set the definition of continents to be areas of land that are connected above sea level that are the size of Australia or bigger, you could come up with four continents: Afroeurasia, America, Antarctica, and Australia, and that creates the lovely coincidence that they all start with “A”. Of course, you could raise the number to six by considering land separated by canals joining bodies of salt water at sea level to: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America on account of the Panama and Suez canals.

Those are just two simple logically consistent concepts that could be proposed in place of the current system that seems to be taught in just about every elementary school in the United States. You could also consider anything that has its own tectonic plate to be a continent, but things start getting really fuzzy there: Is the sliver of California to the west of the San Andreas fault its own continent? So I prefer the replacement ideas above, particularly the four continent idea, but in the end, paradigms exist only because lots of people agree they do. So, they won’t change until a significant group of people agree upon a new paradigm, and considering how little this topic really matters to most people, I don’t see any change in the near future.


About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
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2 Responses to Nonsensical Paradigms: Continents

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