The world of science is ever-evolving, with new discoveries and theories replacing older ones as we learn more about the universe. While some scientific theories stand the test of time, many have been superseded by more robust explanations of the same phenomena. From biology to psychology, from chemistry to geology, the list of discarded theories is vast and varied.
This article explores the history of discarded theories in science and pre-scientific natural philosophy, and how they have been replaced by more accurate explanations. We’ll look at the development of modern theories such as the germ theory of disease, and how some aspects of discarded theories can be reused in our current understanding. We’ll also explore theories that originate in pseudoscience, and why the scientific method is so important in ensuring accurate and reliable results.
In biology, the idea of spontaneous generation was once widely accepted. This principle held that complex life could arise from inanimate matter, and was only disproved when Louis Pasteur conducted his famous experiment. Transmutation of species, Lamarckism, inheritance of acquired characteristics, and Lysenkoism were all early theories of evolution, but have since been replaced by Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics.
Vitalism was a theory that living things were alive because of some “vital force” independent of matter, but this was disproved by the rise of organic chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Maternal impression was the theory that the mother’s thoughts created birth defects, and this was proven wrong by the discovery of DNA. Preformationism was the idea that gametes contained a miniature but complete preformed individual, but was debunked by the invention of the microscope.
In chemistry, the theory of phlogiston was replaced by energy and thermodynamics, while in physics, Newtonian classical mechanics is still used for everyday distances and velocities, but relativistic mechanics and quantum mechanics must be used for long distances and very small objects. In astronomy and cosmology, the out of Asia theory of human origin was replaced by the majority view of a recent African origin of modern humans.
In geography and climate, climatic determinism, topographic determinism, moral geography, and cultural acclimatization have all been replaced by more accurate theories. In geology, the recapitulation theory of ontogeny was disproved, and in psychology, telegony and female hysteria have been debunked. In medicine, germ line theory was replaced by genomic imprinting.
Finally, some theories that are no longer considered the most complete representation of reality remain useful in certain contexts. For example, Mendelian genetics, classical genetics, and Boveri-Sutton chromosome theory are still used, despite being subsumed into molecular genetics.
It’s clear that science is constantly changing and evolving, and that many theories have been discarded in favor of more accurate explanations. By understanding the history of discarded theories, we can gain a better appreciation of the scientific method and the importance of accurate and reliable results.