6 World-Changing Ideas That Were Originally Rejected
(This article first appeared at lifehack.com on 23 Jul 2013)
Millions of years ago, humans’ ancestors developed a fully conscious thinking brain. While its emergence is surely nature’s greatest achievement, tragically it came without a program, and so the long journey to find understanding of our universe and our place in it began and science was born. It was not so long ago that we didn’t have fire, or the wheel, or an understanding that thunder and lightning weren’t caused by angry gods. Our history has been one of ever increasing understanding.
The Greeks in their golden period had the wisdom to formalise the search for knowledge into the discipline of science, and since then it has been adopted by humanity as its designated vehicle for gaining understanding.
Image courtesy of the film The Man They Could Not Hang
However, the road for science of scientific progress has not been a smooth one. Religious intolerance has been common, with George Bernard Shaw famously saying, ‘All great truths begin as blasphemies’ (from his play Annajanska, 1919). Less well known is that intolerance has often come from within the ranks of the scientific community itself. The dictum that ‘science progresses funeral by funeral’ (see his Scientific Autobiography, 1948) proves that scientists are just as much victims of the human condition as the rest of us, with all the prejudice and frailties that entails. As Arthur Schopenhauer recognised, an important idea or truth must ‘endure a hostile reception before it is accepted’ when he said ‘…First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.’ (www.brainyquote.com)
What follows is a list of six important scientific discoveries that were fiercely resisted in their time, five of them to be vindicated years later. They represent incredible breakthroughs in understanding without which the human race would have been completely stalled, life as we know it would not exist. The sixth discovery, relating to understanding of the human condition itself, awaits its vindication and is surely the most important of all.
1. The Earth is Round – 330 BC
In the 6th Century BC, Pythagoras declared the world was round although other Greek philosophers remained unconvinced until 330BC when Aristotle championed the idea of a round Earth. However, it took many more centuries before the fear of falling off the edge of the Earth was quelled by explorers such as Christopher Columbus when he set sail around the globe in 1492. Today the term ‘flat-earther’ is used to describe someone who stubbornly adheres to an outmoded idea.
2. The Earth Revolves Around the Sun – 1600s
It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that we originally thought we were at the centre of the universe. The church believed in the idea so much that in the early 1600s they burnt Giordano Bruno at the stake and later sentenced Galileo to house arrest for supporting the Copernican theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. However, the real opposition was from other scientists who held to the view established by Aristotle almost 2000 years before, that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. Today, Galileo is often referred to as the father of modern science.
3. Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection – 1838
Before Darwin put forward his scientific theory of natural selection in 1838 (he withheld its publication for eight years for fear of opposition), it was generally believed that life on Earth had been unchanging through the millennia. While some scientists were prepared to accept that species evolved, few thought natural selection was important, preferring to believe in the notion that supernatural forces were responsible. Despite the opposition, when biologist Thomas Henry Huxley’s first heard the idea he famously exclaimed: ‘How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!’ (The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, Leonard Huxley, Vol.1, 1900, p.170) Over time the evidence has become overwhelming and Darwin’s idea of natural selection has become the cornerstone of modern biology and science, with aspects of natural selection even being incorporated into the teachings of the Church.
4. Pasteurization: Diseases are spread by germs – 1850s
Louis Pasteur thought that disease was spread by germs. He made the discovery after three of his five children died from infectious diseases. When he first put forward his theory in the 1850’s he was met with violent resistance from the medical community. Today, in large part due to his work, we know that certain bacteria are responsible for sickness, and minimizing germs is a key to promoting healthy immune function.
5. Bacteria Causes Stomach Ulcers – 2005
In 2005 Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery that bacteria is responsible for stomach ulcers. However wind the clock back 20 years and Marshall and Warren’s idea was being ridiculed by the scientific establishment who maintained that bacteria couldn’t live in the acidic environment of the stomach, and that it was just stress or bad diet that was to blame. In the end Marshall changed the face of medical science when he swallowed a petri-dish of dangerous bacteria to prove his theory. Said Marshall, ‘everyone was against me, but I knew I was right.’ (H. Pylori and the Making of a Myth 23 May 1998, Academy of Achievement website)
6. Breakthrough Biological Theories on the Human Condition – 1983
Finding understanding of the human condition, or ‘why we are the way we are’, was the all-important task facing humanity. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson recognised this when he said, ‘The human condition is the most important frontier of the natural sciences’ (Consilience, 1998, p.298 of 374). In 1983 the biologist Jeremy Griffith presented his theory of the human condition that explained humans’ capacity for so called ‘good’ and ‘evil’. After coming across Griffith’s ideas Professor Harry Prosen, a former president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association said, ‘I have no doubt this biological explanation of Jeremy Griffith’s of the human condition is the holy grail of insight we have sought for the psychological rehabilitation of the human race!’ (humancondition.com). Yet there has been a great deal of resistance—indeed no idea will be more fiercely resisted than the explanation of the human condition because the arrival of understanding of the human condition is an extremely exposing and confronting development.
But, just as humans today take the truth of discoveries such as a round Earth for granted, future generations will shake their heads at the idea that we lived without this understanding of the human condition.