In our modern, scientific world it is sometimes easy to forget that human progress often comes attached to some spectacular intellectual clashes between different ways of looking at things and differing interpretations of what is seen. There have been some notable intellectual mind-fights over the millennia, the following are ten such fights, the outcome of which changed the world into what we know of it today.
A controversy is ongoing today between biological researchers and broader society on the issue of patenting the genes and genomes of living organisms. In 1980 the first patent on a genetically engineered bacteria was granted by the U.S. Supreme Court and the rush was on to patent the “products of nature.” Soon patents were being issued on discovered ‘new’ species of plants and animals even when they weren’t genetically engineered. Isolated and cloned DNA sequences encoding useful proteins are also patentable at present, despite the fact that they are ubiquitous in nature.
This legal and commercial situation has led to giant pharmaceutical companies obtaining patents on genes, gene products and even things like vitamins. Some indigenous people have discovered that the stranger who took that blood test now owns their entire genome! The National Institutes of Health tried in the early 1990s to patent more than 2,000 gene segments sequenced by Craig Venter during the Human Genome Project, even though neither NIH nor Venter knew what their function was. This controversy will not be going away soon, and the biotech industry risks losing public support due to its dismissal of important ethical concerns.
In 1912, just three years before Albert Einstein published his theory of General Relativity [GR], Vesto Slipher measured the Doppler shift of a spiral galaxy and determined that almost all of these celestial ‘nebulae’ were receding from the earth at great speed. A decade later Alexander Friedmann derived equations from GR that showed the universe might be expanding. Two years after that Georges Lemaitre put these findings together and predicted that the recession of distant nebulae was due to the expansion of the universe.
It was Fred Hoyle who coined the term “Big Bang” in 1949 to describe the idea that the universe had a beginning, a derogatory term that stuck better than his own cosmological model, which he called “Steady State.” Hoyle postulated that new matter was being created as the universe expanded, so that it always remained roughly the same at any point in time. With confirmation of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation in 1964 the Big Bang became the ’standard cosmological model’ after half a century of scientific argumentation and theoretical turf-wars.
“God does not play dice with the universe,” said the man who became an icon of physics with his theories of special and general relativity, Albert Einstein. In 1927 Einstein began a series of debates with quantum explorer Niels Bohr about quantum indeterminism, its epistemological basis and interpretation.
The arguments revolved around what is known as the measurement problem and whether or not particles in the quantum state were really both wave and particle at the same time until measurements were made. Einstein wanted to insist that the apparent indeterminacy at the quantum level was just a (temporary) inability to measure certain properties, while Bohr maintained the impossibility of determining precise values of certain properties because at the quantum level the values were by nature uncertain. Bohr eventually won on the striking results of the Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen [EPR] experiment which arose from these debates and established the phenomenon of quantum non-locality.
In 1856 a boy was born in Croatia who became both a genius and an enigma during a time of great scientific, technological and social change. His name was Nikola Tesla and his passion was electricity and electromagnetism. The rivalry between Tesla and native born genius Thomas Edison at the turn of the 20th century became the stuff of scientific legend.
Tesla worked as an assistant to Edison when he first came to America. He designed a DC (direct current) system for Edison, who then refused to pay him the bonuses he’d promised. So Tesla struck out on his own to develop AC (alternating current) transmission. By 1915 the New York Times reported that the Nobel Prize in Physics was to be jointly shared by Tesla and Edison, though so strong was their personal animosity toward each other that both refused to accept it if the other was named. The prize went instead to two other researchers for work on X-ray crystallography. Six months after Tesla died penniless in 1943 the US Supreme Court invalidated 1909 Nobel winner Marconi’s most important patent for radio transmission and recognized Tesla as the inventor.
The nineteenth century heralded many important advancements in scientific theory, including the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859. The idea of evolution had been floating around in the scientific community for some time, with camps arguing for traditional creationism and the inheritance of acquired traits versus an ancient earth timeline and the transmutation of life forms over deep time. Darwin’s theory of natural selection enjoyed the increasing support of science as the debate over geological data developed during the 1830s to establish various ages of rock strata according to the type of fossils that could be found embedded in those layers.
Darwin had worked with geologist Adam Sedgwick before his journey to the Galapagos Islands, and found his theory dependent on stratigraphy as it steadily developed a scientific consensus in the intervening years. The controversy and Darwin’s theory initiated search for what became known as “transitional fossils,” a search that continues to this day.
Sir Isaac Newton was an intellectual scrapper of considerable repute who was never shy of throwing power around or taking ideas and data from others without attribution. The long fight between Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over who discovered calculus is the most famous. Leibniz was unarguably the first to publish on the subjects of differential and integral calculus, 20 years before Newton. Yet letters from Newton expounding his theories of “fluxional” calculus exactly coincide with Leibniz’s work.
A major scientific bruhaha ensued, with defenders in both camps. Leibniz appealed to the Royal Society, allowing Newton as its president to appoint the investigating committee from among his friends, and even to write the committee’s report accusing Leibniz of plagiarism. Historians of science now credit both Leibniz and Newton with the discovery of calculus, probably because neither Newton nor Leibniz are around to argue about it any more.
Galileo Galilei published in 1610 his observations through his telescope to argue in favor of the Copernican sun-centered cosmological model against the then-predominant Ptolemaic view. He demonstrated his telescope to the Jesuit College and encountered little resistance. Then, in 1632 he published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and quickly found himself summoned to appear before the Inquisition on charges of heresy.
Galileo was forced to recant his support for the Copernican model and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, though with rather lenient travel and visitation allowances. His works were finally dropped from the Index of prohibited books in 1835. In 1992 Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the “Galileo Affair” was handled, officially conceding on the part of the church that the earth is not stationary and that the planets orbit the sun.
In the year 1517 the Catholic monk Martin Luther nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany to argue against the doctrine and practice of selling indulgences. These arguments were quickly translated from Latin into German and widely disseminated with the help of the newly-invented printing press, and led to Luther’s excommunication in 1520. The great Reformation quickly ensued.
Pope Leo X issued a lengthy rebuttal to Luther’s charges in an encyclical reiterating Church doctrine, which didn’t sway public sentiment in Germany and other parts of Northern Europe. Protestantism became firmly rooted as a sort of declaration of independence from the control of Rome. This in turn led to tremendous social changes along with the decline of feudalism and the rise of commercialism as well as conflicts between Catholic and Protestant claims to territories in the New World.
Surely the Council of Jerusalem [circa 50 c.e.] has to be counted among the most important of intellectual arguments, for the philosophical sub-discipline of theology. It was a clash between James the Just and the great evangelist Paul within two decades of the crucifixion of Jesus. It was about whether or not Christians would be held to the strictures of Judaic Law.
James was titular head of the Church in Jerusalem, while Paul was busy establishing congregations across the Mediterranean portion of the Roman empire among gentiles. The primary issue appears to have been a requirement for circumcision, but others related to dietary provisions, etc. were also present. While some of these issues are still debated today, the consensus is that Paul ‘won’ the debate so that Christians are not held to Judaic Law which was “fulfilled” by the figure of Christ. The rest, as they say, is history.
Greek philosophy helped to shape the metaphysics of the civilized world in the last half of the first millennium b.c.e. There were many divergent schools of philosophy competing with one another by the time the Sophists came along maintaining that truth was entirely a matter of persuasion by argument rather than something absolute. Socrates rose from among Sophist ranks and became famous for walking the talk so well that he made some enemies in high places.
Socrates taught that ethics were not a matter of divine decree, but are best the result of human reason and individual conscience. Socrates was charged with impiety (disbelief in the state’s gods, corrupting the morals of the youth), convicted by a margin of 6 out of 50 votes, and committed suicide by drinking poison. Through his student Plato and Plato’s student Aristotle, the intellectual tools of reason and logic lived on to become part of the guiding philosophy of the Enlightenment and science.