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Incorrect Theory and Scientific Progress: Phlogiston and a Case for Ecumenism of Evolutionists and Creationists | Righting America

by Mark Masthay

For his third post, Dr. Mark Masthay uses the historical example of the “Phlogiston Hypothesis” to discuss how scientists negotiate the meaning of scientific discoveries. In doing so, he provides a very generous proposition for unifying Evolutionist and Creationist Scientists. 

A (Very) Brief History of the Phlogiston Hypothesis
Those who have never studied the history of chemistry will be unfamiliar with the phlogiston hypothesis. In brief, phlogiston (Greek for “inflammable”) was a mysterious substance bound to combustible material and was released—along with heat and light—during combustion. Phlogiston was first proposed by the German scientist Georg Stahl in the early 1700’s; the phlogiston theory of combustion held sway throughout most of the 18th Century and was supported by many of the great scientists of the period, including Scheele, Priestly and Cavendish. Antoine Lavosier’s 1779 negation of this hypothesis was one of the major triumphs of modern science. By combining results obtained by these other scientists with experiments of his own, Lavoisier was able to show that combustion occurred when combustible substances combined with oxygen. Hence, though it was consistent with a great number of physical observations, and though it was believed in by the greatest scientists of the day, the phlogiston hypothesis of combustion was incorrect: phlogiston does not exist.

Incorrect as it was, the phlogiston hypothesis nevertheless contributed greatly to the advancement of chemistry. Still, many of the greatest scientists—including those who contributed to Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen—remained convinced phlogistonists even after Lavoisier’s discovery. This raises an important question: can an incorrect theory and the scientists who hold to it genuinely contribute to scientific advancement? Historian of science A.R. Hall answers this question in the affirmative, writing in his book The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800: The Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude (1960):

Such were the strategic few, among a great number of other major discoveries made by chemists who thought without reservations in the framework of which phlogiston was an essential part. Two of the pioneers of gas chemistry, Priestly and Cavendish, were never reconciled to Lavoisier’s doctrines. Their refusal was no doubt due to rigidity of mind, but it points also to the fact that the phlogistic theory had imposed no barrier upon the activities of these skillful experimenters. It also emphasizes Lavoisier’s own originality in devising new interpretations of their experiments. While the adherents of phlogiston were by no means agreed in the details of their exposition – Priestly, for example, thinking of oxygen as dephlogisticated air, and Cavendish preferring to treat the gas as dephlogisticated water – a situation by no means unusual on the frontier of research, these hesitations did not inhibit inquiry; on the contrary, it is quite clear that Scheele, Priestly and Cavendish were each at times induced to make certain fertile experiments by reasoning in the phlogistic manner.
The situation in which the further progress of a branch of science is directly dependent upon an adequate matching of theoretical concepts and experimental facts is by no means uncommon. This was certainly the case when Galileo and Newton, respectively, revised the concepts of mechanics, and again with physics in the nineteenth century. But though such a matching of fact and theory is always useful it is far from being invariably essential. Did such a situation exist in chemistry at the end of the eighteenth century? The evidence would seem to suggest that it did not. The empirical attitude of the great experimenters was in reality far more important than their theorization: it is therefore the less likely that any plausible modification of the doctrines prevailing through the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century would have had much influence on the course of events. No one would deny that Lavoisier was the first chemical theorist of genius. No one would deny that his interpretation of the phenomena was far superior to that of the phlogiston theory: it was one upon which the ultimate advancement of chemical knowledge depended. Yet it is also perfectly clear that the inventive empiricism of his contemporaries was just as necessary for this as his own logical, interpretative intellect, … (332-334 – emphasis mine)

“Phlogistonists” such as Priestly and Cavendish contributed to the advancement of chemistry by addressing—from their phlogistonist framework—questions which ultimately led to the discovery of oxygen by “oxygenists” like Lavioisier. Is it not possible then, that creationists might contribute science in a unique way by addressing—from a creationist framework—questions which would not so readily occur to evolutionists? Is there no way for—to use Solomon’s phrase—creationist iron to sharpen evolutionist iron today, and vice versa? The following story shows that cooperation between these two camps is indeed both possible and productive.

Evolutionists and a Creationists Together: A True Story
I know a professor (let’s call him Chuck) who, many years ago, expressed his concern to me about conferring a Ph.D. upon John, graduate student working in his laboratory. Chuck’s principal concern had nothing to do with John’s work ethic, innate intelligence, or ability to collaborate with other researchers; rather, Chuck was afraid that granting John a Ph.D. would damage his own research reputation as well as the reputation of his department and institution. Why? Because John believed in Young Earth Creationism.

Around this same time, I became interested in the history of chemistry, and had begun reading A.R. Hall’s book. To alleviate Chuck’s fears and encourage him to continue his reluctant–but–productive collaboration with John, I sent him an email encouraging him to allow John to continue working in his laboratory, attaching the extended quote from A.R. Hall above. Chuck never responded to my email, nor did he raise the issue in any subsequent conversations with me. Even so, Chuck did retain John as a graduate student, and John eventually received his Ph.D. under Chuck’s direction. In addition, the anticipated negative effects on the reputations of Chuck, his department and his institution never materialized; John continued to work in Chuck’s laboratory after obtaining his Ph.D., and eventually became a professor himself.

I am not privy to the inside workings of the research collaboration between Chuck and John; I only know that it worked. I don’t know, for example, if John avoided references to evolution in his thesis or if he wrote from an evolutionary viewpoint to satisfy Chuck; I am nearly certain that he did not incorporate his creationist convictions into his data analysis. Even so, Chuck and John’s working relationship—which I observed firsthand—gives me hope that the opportunities for similarly productive collaborations between other seemingly mismatched researchers may be almost ubiquitous. It is my hope that such collaborations may increase in number and effectiveness, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable disagreements between evolutionists and creationists.

Ecumenism Between Evolutionists and Creationists: A Wishful Proposition
The story of Chuck and John above is a small–scale example of cooperation between evolutionists and creationists. However, I would be remiss—and even naively optimistic about the possibilities of such collaborations on a larger scale—if I failed to note that Chuck is not an evangelist for evolution, and considers himself a theist. He is not cut from the same mold as a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens. Likewise, John never struck me as an evangelist for creationism, but more of a theologically conservative Christian with a strong interest in science who wants to work in his chosen profession in relative peace and quiet; he is not cut from the same mold as Ken Ham.

A collaboration like Chuck and John’s would likely not arise between a Richard Dawkins and a Ken Ham, because Dawkins and Ham are persuaded evangelists for their atheistic reductionist evolutionary and theistic creationist schools of thought, respectively. But Dawkins, Ham and their ilk appear to agree on one thing: nature as a whole, and living systems in particular, manifest remarkable complexity, structure, and functionality. These schools of thought could not differ more strongly regarding the origin of these properties, as they ascribe them to different “teleological guiding principles” (which the theistic evolutionists call “the Laws of Physics” and the Young Earth Creationists call “God”). Even so, I wonder if these two highly disparate groups might be able to find some Chuck- and John-like forms of productive collaboration.

Admittedly, all movements directed toward ecumenism and unity are challenging, and occur in fits and starts. But progress has been and continues to be made in overcoming the disagreements between other similarly disparate groups. Fifty years ago, Catholics regarded Protestants as uniquely unenlightened, and vice versa; today, fifty years post–Vatican II, theological differences remain, but the communities are closer and the language of difference less heated. And Muslim–Christian dialogue moves forward today in spite of (perhaps in part because of) the threat of ISIS. In the case of evolutionist–creationist ecumenism, the truth need not be sacrificed; as the example of the phlogistonists and the oxygenists given above demonstrates, members of both schools moved the science forward, even though only one group (the oxygenists) was correct.

As with other ecumenical efforts, evolutionist–creationist ecumenism will demand compromise, humility, and the sacrifice of ego by leaders of the two camps. Given that most creationists are Christians, this should come almost automatically to them. Their ethic—which flows from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—entails meekness, peacemaking, and (should conflicts arise) forgiveness. Such cooperation may come with more difficulty to atheistic evolutionists cut from Dawkins’ mold; but, given the way sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists juxtapose cooperation with genetic adapation and survival advantage, even atheistic evolutionists should perceive such a collaboration to be in their best interest.