Is there a theory in biology that was initially disregarded as false (because of critical or contrasting perspectives) and only recognized as important after a considerable time, possibly only in recent years, thus significantly impeding its development?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to SE Biology. Because I assume your first language is not English and because the question relates to ideas (where language is important) I have rewritten it and made the title fit the question. Could you check that this is what you meant. There is one phrase that is unclear to me — "because of critical or contrasting perspectives". Do you mean "because it went against the prevailing ideas of the time"? If so, substitute that as it would clarify. If not, explain what you mean so we can phrase it better. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Nov 28 '18 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ Extinction was rejected by many on religious grounds until science gained sufficient power and acceptance that the religious opinion no longer mattered. Not a theory though. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 28 '18 at 15:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I took the liberty to modify @David 's edit and add back in part of the original phrasing that mentioned an interest in only recently accepted previously controversial theories. $\endgroup$
    – Armatus
    Nov 28 '18 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think this is a good question for the SE format. There are too many possible answers, and most answers will lead to a discussion of opinion over whether or not that example is an ideal example (and the meanings of words like "theory" "initially" "false" "important" "impeding") rather than anything concrete. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 28 '18 at 20:22

The idea that organisms with mitochondria derive energy from respiration through a proton motive force was considered controversial at the time.

This is the best reference I could find at the time:

His theory explained that it was the energy captured from those protons returning to the matrix and not energy stored in an undefined high-energy covalent chemical intermediate that was then used to drive ATP synthesis. This Nobel Prize-worthy concept (1978) was so counter to the leading theories of the day that the field spurned it for the better part of a decade.

Pagliarini, D.J., Rutter J. Hallmarks of a new era in mitochondrial biochemistry 2013 Genes Dev.


  • $\begingroup$ This is a good example of a hypothesis that was not accepted initially. What took it so long to be accepted? Experimental Support! Once someone else had conducted the "acid bath" experiment (or whatever was the first piece of supporting evidence — I'm just going on Stryer) in support, the X~P intermediate that had never been found faded into obscurity. So it is arguable whether the acceptance of the hypothesis/theory without the experimental systems to study it would have made much difference. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Nov 28 '18 at 20:16


The idea that life is not spontaneously created, but always develops from... well, something.

For decades, centuries even, the notion that invisible micro-organisms were responsible for diseases, mold etc. was controversial.

Louis Pasteur's swan necked flask experiment (in the 1860's!) is one of the last and most famous demonstrations that sterile media must be contaminated and cannot generate life from scratch. He showed that a sterile broth communicating with the outside world through a single aperture was not contaminated if the aperture was long enough to prevent accidental contact with ambient micro-organisms, whereas the broth grew turbid quickly after being directly exposed to air by removing the swan neck.

Before this theory was accepted, the notion that sterility is important notably in hospital settings was often challenged, leading to thousands of people dying of nosocomial infections.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure Pasteur's work influenced hospital procedure. I think that the success rate of surgeons that adopted it (in Britain initially I believe) was key. And remember, Pasteur's work was extremely applied: he consulted with the brewing industry, for example. If his advice worked for the brewers it saved them lots of money, and this encouraged others to consider his approach. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Nov 28 '18 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ I think it did, although not directly. Pasteur's work was a demonstration that there are germs everywhere - regardless of the setting. Pasteur's work was the primary source of Joseph Lister's inspiration to promote aseptic techniques. Pasteur did not make any specific point about hospital acquired infections (Lister did) but he was the starting point of a progressive realization that germs were the prinicpal cause of hospital deaths. An excellent article by Pitt & Aubin (Canadian Journal of Surgery, 2012) tells the full story in greater detail $\endgroup$
    – Mowgli
    Nov 28 '18 at 23:17

I notice from his bio, that the poster is a mathematician, so I have chosen to answer this question as an experimental scientist (a molecular biologist with a chemical education) to a non-experimental scientist:

In my view, for biology, the acceptance or rejection of hypotheses plays only a minor role on the development of the science. This is because actions speak louder than words — it is the experimental validation or support of a hypothesis that is important. If the hypothesis is correct, but the technical or theoretical basis does not exist to test it, then that basis is also lacking to exploit the idea.

This only applies to an open society. An example of the damaging effects of false theory can be seen in the rejection of genetics by the Soviet Union in the 30s (and later) on political grounds (Lysenkoism), a rejection that did not affect science in the West, but was responsible for thousands, if not millions, of deaths by starvation because of its influence on Soviet agricultural practice.

Let us consider the two answers already given (both of which I have upvoted). First @Mowgli on Pasteur and ‘germ theory’. I would maintain that it was only when a mode of killing ‘germs’ by heat was suggested, that practical demonstrations of the effectiveness of measures to prevent spoilage of food and drink (and to prevent sepsis) was possible. And it was these practical demonstrations that overturned the prevailing theories, not the strength of the intellectual arguments against.

The case made by @Cell for the rejection of Mitchell’s hypothesis is perhaps more pertinent. Certainly Oxford biochemists were still taking about X~P (an unidentified ‘high-energy’ phosphorylated intermediate) in the mid 60s, five years after the hypothesis was published in Nature. But the key — and unusual — thing was that this was specifically a hypothesis. It was supported by a variety of arguments and equations, the latter of which would cause many to shrug their shoulders. Clearly some scientists were attracted to the idea, but it took a system with photosynthetic bacteria to provide practical evidence, as well as improved characterization of the membrane ATP-synthase (which was generally referred to as an ATPase, because that was all it could do in vitro). So the maximum of a 10-year lag in acceptance was not caused by the rejection of the idea, but the lack of a means to prove it.

Similar arguments may be made about the non-acceptances of the idea of Avery (1944) that DNA was the genetic material. Although this was based on experiments, one could argue against the experiments. It was only with the determination of the structure of DNA and the development of phage and isotopes, that the means to confirm this idea and develop the field further arose.

That’s how I see it. However I would be interested for suggestions of any other examples (template theory of antibodies?).


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.