If one looks through the history of human evolution, it is surprising to see that humanity has on several independent occasions, in several different locations, figured how to produce food, make pottery, write, invent the wheel, domesticate animals, build complex political societies, etc. It is almost as if these discoveries and inventions were an inevitable part of the evolution of humans. More controversially, one may extend such arguments to include the development of science, mathematics, medicine and many other branches of knowledge (more on this point below).
The interesting part about these ancient inventions is that because they originated in different parts of the world, the specifics varied geographically. For instance, native South Americans domesticated llamas, while cultures in Southwest Asia (today’s Middle East) domesticated sheep, cows, and horses, while the Ancient Chinese were able to domesticate chickens among other animals. The reason that different cultures domesticated different animals was because these animals were by and large native to the regions where they were domesticated.
Now, there are also many instances in human history where inventions were not made independently, but diffused geographically. For instance, writing was developed independently in at least a couple locations (Mesoamerica and Southwest Asia), but likely diffused from Southwest Asia into Europe and other neighboring geographic locations. While the peoples in these other places would have likely discovered writing on their own in due time, the diffusion from Southwest Asia made this unnecessary. These points are well-made in the excellent book by Jared Diamond entitled Guns, Germs and Steel.
At this point, you are probably wondering what I am trying to get at here, and it is no more than the following musing. Consider the following thought experiment: if two different civilizations were geographically isolated without any contact for thousands of years, would they both have developed a similar form of scientific inquiry? Perhaps the questions asked and the answers obtained would have been slightly different, but my naive guess is that given enough time, both would have developed a process that we would recognize today as genuinely scientific. Obviously, this thought experiment is not possible, and this fact makes it difficult to answer to what extent the development of science was inevitable, but I would consider it plausible and likely.
Because what we would call “modern science” was devised after the invention of the printing press, the process of scientific inquiry likely “diffused” rather than being invented independently in many places. The printing press accelerated the pace of information transfer and did not allow geographically separated areas to “invent” science on their own.
Today, we can communicate globally almost instantly and information transfer across large geographic distances is easy. Scientific communication therefore works through a similar diffusive process, through the writing of papers in journals, where scientists from anywhere in the world can submit papers and access them online. Looking at science in this way, as an almost inevitable evolutionary process, downplays the role of individuals and suggests that despite the contribution of any individual scientist, humankind would have likely reached that destination ultimately anyhow. The timescale to reach a particular scientific conclusion may have been slightly different, but those conclusions would have been made nonetheless.
There are some scientists out there who have contributed massively to the advancement of science and their absence may have slowed progress, but it is hard to imagine that progress would have slowed very significantly. In today’s world, where the idea of individual genius is romanticized in the media and further so by prizes such as the Nobel, it is important to remember that no scientist is indispensable, no matter how great. There were often competing scientists simultaneously working on the biggest discoveries of the 20th century, such as the theories of general relativity, the structure of DNA, and others. It is likely that had Einstein or Watson, Crick and Franklin not solved those problems, others would have.
So while the work of this year’s scientific Nobel winners is without a doubt praise-worthy and the recipients deserving, it is interesting to think about such prizes in this slightly different and less romanticized light.