The Heroic Theory of Scientific Development

Posted on January 15, 2007 by Peter Turney

The history of science has been a series of blows to the ego of humanity. Copernicus showed us that our home, Earth, is not the centre of the universe; it’s just another planet. Darwin showed us that our species, Homo sapiens, is not special; it’s just another species of animal. But, although our planet is not special among planets, and our species is not special among animals, we still believe that certain individuals among us are special. For example, we scientists have our great heroes, such as Newton and Darwin.

When I learned that Wallace had discovered evolution by natural selection independently of Darwin, and Leibniz had discovered calculus independently of Newton, I began to doubt the received view of heroic science. I started making a list of independent discoveries, as I stumbled across them. Independent discovery appeared to be common. Then I realized that it was likely that others had independently discovered the commonness of independent discovery. A search using the query “Leibniz Newton Darwin Wallace” soon brought me to Lamb and Easton’s book, Multiple Discovery: The Pattern of Scientific Progress.

Multiple Discovery is a very thorough study of independent simultaneous discovery in the history of science and technology. It seems that there is almost no instance of a great discovery or invention that was not discovered independently and simultaneously. In addition to a careful historical study, Lamb and Easton present a theory to explain multiple discovery, which they call evolutionary realism. They also argue that their conclusions extend to other areas of culture, such as art. They present a convincing attack on what they call “the heroic theory of scientific development”. A chapter is devoted to the implications of their work for priority disputes and competition in the scientific community.

It’s unfortunate that this excellent book is no longer in print. My PhD studies in the philosophy of science began when this book was first published, yet I only recently discovered the book. Why is this work not better known? Maybe the answer is in the 1964 book, Resistance to the Systematic Study of Multiple Discoveries in Science, but I’m having trouble finding a copy of it.