Multiple Discovery

what technology wants

The concept of multiple discovery is the hypothesis that most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently and more or less simultaneously by multiple scientists and inventors. The concept of multiple discovery opposes a traditional view—the ‘heroic theory’ of invention and discovery. When Nobel laureates are announced annually—especially in physics, chemistry, physiology-or-medicine, and economics—increasingly, in the given field, rather than just a single laureate, there are two or the maximally-permissible three, who often have independently made the same discovery.

Commonly cited examples of multiple independent discovery are the 17th-century independent formulation of calculus by Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and others, described by British historian A. Rupert Hall; the 18th-century discovery of oxygen by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier and others; and the theory of evolution of species, independently advanced in the 19th century by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Historians and sociologists have remarked on the occurrence, in science, of ‘multiple independent discovery.’ American sociologist Robert K. Merton defined such ‘multiples’ as instances in which similar discoveries are made by scientists working independently of each other. ‘Sometimes the discoveries are simultaneous or almost so; sometimes a scientist will make a new discovery which, unknown to him, somebody else has made years before.’

Multiple independent discovery, however, is not limited to only a few historic instances involving giants of scientific research. Merton believed that it is multiple discoveries, rather than unique ones, that represent the common pattern in science. Merton contrasted a ‘multiple’ with a ‘singleton’—a discovery that has been made uniquely by a single scientist or group of scientists working together.

Multiple discoveries in the history of science provide evidence for evolutionary models of science and technology, such as memetics (the study of self-replicating units of culture), evolutionary epistemology (which applies the concepts of biological evolution to study of the growth of human knowledge), and cultural selection theory (which studies sociological and cultural evolution in a Darwinian manner).

A recombinant-DNA-inspired ‘paradigm of paradigms’ has been posited, that describes a mechanism of ‘recombinant conceptualization.’ This paradigm predicates that a new concept arises through the crossing of pre-existing concepts and facts. This is what is meant when one says that a scientist or artist has been ‘influenced by’ another—etymologically, that a concept of the latter’s has ‘flowed into’ the mind of the former. Of course, not every new concept so formed will be viable: adapting social Darwinist Herbert Spencer’s phrase, only the fittest concepts survive.

Multiple independent discovery and invention, like discovery and invention generally, have been fostered by the evolution of means of communication: roads, vehicles, sailing vessels, writing, printing, institutions of education, telegraphy, and mass media, including the internet. Gutenberg’s invention of printing (which itself involved a number of discrete inventions) substantially facilitated the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. All these developments have catalyzed and accelerated the process of recombinant conceptualization, and thus also of multiple independent discovery.

It has been argued that, in regard to multiple discovery, science and art are similar. When two scientists independently make the same discovery, their papers are not word-for-word identical, but the core ideas in the papers are the same. Likewise, two novelists may independently write novels with the same core themes, though their novels are not identical word-for-word.

The paradigm of recombinant conceptualization —more broadly, of recombinant occurrences—that explains multiple discovery in science and the arts, also elucidates the phenomenon of historic recurrence, wherein similar events are noted in the histories of countries widely separated in time and geography. It is the recurrence of patterns that lends a degree of prognostic power—and, thus, additional scientific validity—to the findings of history.

‘When the time is ripe for certain things, they appear at different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.’ Farkas Bolyai, to his son Janos, urging him to claim the invention of non-Euclidean geometry without delay.

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