New discoveries of old ideas

People have a habit of taking a “great men” view of history. Even those who regularly deride it place too much importance on the individual. Let’s start with a topic near to home – science. It’s Dawin’s birthday, so we should investigate: how important was Darwin to evolution? The economist has the answer:

It turns out, though, that even Darwin and Wallace were not the first to put the pieces together. In 1813 William Charles Wells, a Scottish doctor, had presented a paper on race to the Royal Society, in which he introduced the idea of natural selection to explain why people might vary in skin colour in different climates. And in 1831 Patrick Matthew, a Scottish landowner, provided a description of natural selection in an appendix to a book about growing the best trees to make warships.

What’s this? Darwin didn’t create the idea of natural selection out of whole cloth? I don’t think that will come as much of a surprise to most people, but think about it this for a second: what if Darwin never was? Would science be set back for lack of the concept of evolution? Surely not. Darwin made contributions, but the same idea would have cropped up in full form independently of him, and probably not much later.

This crops up all the time. Quick! Name the greatest scientist of the last hundred years! Okay, chances are you just thought of Einstein. After all, he came up with those crazy ‘relativity’ theories. Except, both Lorenz and Poincare arguably came up with most of the formulations first. This idea that space and time are really kind of the same thing? That was Minkowski, not Einstein. Partly, Einstein gets credit for it because Poincare was too much of a mathematician, and Einstein believed in it more; to the others, it was just a conjecture of how the world might work. To Einstein, it was how the world worked. A world without Einstein would have, in the end, been a pretty similar world. Einstein was important to its development, but the question of who invented relativity does not have a simple answer. I suggest reading the article if you are at all interested in history and/or science

So with all that, it should be unsurprising that I was pleased to read this intriguing book review of Europe Between the Oceans, which examines history through the lense of geography. The idea is that most of history can be examined through macro trends and geography, not individuals. Obviously all of history is not reducible to the orientation of land masses, but the broad outlines? They probably are. I guess in the grand scheme of things, we’re no different than any other creature.


4 thoughts on “New discoveries of old ideas

  1. History gives credit to the first person to really market a new idea. While the Chinese and the vikings may have been the first to visit America (post Siberian immigrations) Columbus gets the credit because he let the world know. Same with Darwin. Same with most of the great scientists. They could market the concept as well as think it.

    Back in the 70’s a friend of mine, Rich Gilbert, who later became the economics chair at Berkley, downplayed Intel’s invention of the microprocessor. He claimed that all they did was engineering. The research was done elsewhere, but Intel claimed all the credit. While he was intellectually correct, the world got the benefits of the microprocessor from Intel, because Intel packaged it in a useful way. Same with Apple. Almost all of Apple’s early innovations came from Xerox’s lab in Palo Alto. However, Xerox could never put the innovations into a product people wanted to buy. I had a researcher from Xerox describe computer networking in my living room in Palo Alto two decades before it took off, but it was other companies that made it useful.

    So happy birthday Darwin. Thanks for letting us know about your great insights and taking the heat for it.

  2. Yeah, that further reinforces the point I was attempting to get across. This wasn’t really an anti-Darwin/Einstein screed; I was trying to say that focusing on singular people in terms of history is a little misleading. Clearly a lot of what came out of Apple/Intel would probably happen in their absence, they just happened to be the first/best to market it!

    Which is great, because I’m okay with getting computers sooner rather than later.

  3. same with crick and watson

  4. In the case of Darwin at least, it was much more than the marketing of an idea. Darwin’s Origin of Species is a systematic and thorough presentation, much more thorough than that of Wallace, or than that of others who anticipated Darwin. By the way, Sean B. Carroll in his excellent book The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution discusses William Charles Wells in some detail.

    Einstein also gave systematic formulation and exposition to an idea that had been proposed by philosophers centuries earlier. The idea was not new, but its scientific formulation was new. The science done by Einstein and Darwin still stands today as a model of excellence, though by their time their work has been substantially extrapolated by others.

    Best wishes,

    Nick Nielsen

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