Theories that explain everything
Finnish Biochemist/Bioengineer Dr Matti Leisola says that “The story of phlogiston (see Appendix A) shows how an established paradigm may persist in the face of contrary evidence because its supporters patch it up ad nauseum instead of following the evidence. The Darwinian theory of evolution is the phlogiston of our day, festooned with a myriad and growing number of patches.”
“Evolution is slow and gradual except when it is fast. It is dynamic and creates huge changes over time, except when it keeps everything the same for millions of years. It explains both extreme complexity and elegant simplicity. It tells us how birds learned to fly and yet also lost that ability. Evolution made cheetahs fast and turtles slow. Some creatures it made big and others small; some gloriously beautiful and others boringly grey. It forced fish to walk and walking animals to return to the sea. It diverges except when it converges; it produces exquisitely fine-tuned designs except when it produces junk. Evolution is random and without direction except when it moves toward a target. Life under evolution is a cruel battlefield except when it displays altruism. Evolution explains virtues and vice, love and hate, religion and atheism. And it does this with a growing number of ancillary hypotheses. Modern evolutionary theory is the Rube Goldberg (see Appendix B) of theoretical constructs. And what is the result of this speculative ingenuity? Like the defunct theory of phlogiston, it explains everything while explaining nothing well.”
Lesson for us
Let’s beware of theories like phlogiston and Darwinian evolution that are used to explain everything, despite contrary evidence. It’s better to follow the evidence and be aware of the presuppositions such theories are based on.
Appendix A: Phlogiston
For almost a century it was thought flammable materials burned because they contained a colourless, odourless, tasteless substance called phlogiston. Phlogiston is a nonexistent chemical that, prior to the discovery of oxygen, was thought to be released during combustion. In this theory of combustion, all flammable objects were supposed to contain a substance called phlogiston, which was released when the object burned. When loopholes were identified in this theory they were patched up with new variations and new terms – such as assuming that phlogiston had negative weight! And objections were consistently countered with new information.
The phlogiston theory received strong and wide support throughout a large part of the 18th century until it was refuted by the work of Lavoisier, who revealed the true nature of combustion and the role of oxygen. He reasoned that oxygen had gone into the burning substance (rather than phlogiston coming out). At this time experiments switched from purely observational efforts to quantitative analysis that tried to measure changes and reactions without giving in to notions of fancy expanded from what the eyes alone observed.
Phlogiston teaches us that just because a theory is widely accepted among scientists, is believed to explain all the evidence, and reigns supreme for a long time, does not mean that it is true. Phlogiston seemed to explain so much. But it was wrong.
Appendix B: Rube Goldberg
Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg (1883 – 1970) was an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor. Goldberg is best known for his popular cartoons depicting complicated gadgets performing simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways.
The English equivalent is William Heath Robinson (1872 – 1944) who was a cartoonist who also drew elaborate machines to achieve simple objectives. The name “Heath Robinson” was used in the UK for complex inventions that achieved absurdly simple results.
Leisola M and Witt J (2018) Heretic: One scientist’s journey from Darwin to design, Discovery Institute Press, Seattle, 198-199.