Convergent Evolution of Thought

A few weeks ago, I considered the power of collaboration in science. We’re all familiar with the idea that “two heads are better than one” and, to a certain point, even more are even better. But a more interesting interaction of scientific minds has caught my attention recently. More often than you might expect, great ideas come about independently and almost simultaneously.

There are a TON of examples in biology!

  • Alfred Lotka and Vito Volterra
  • Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace
  • G.H. Hardy and Wilhelm Weinberg

Sometimes they even come about in threes!

  • J. Mark Baldwin, Lloyd Morgan and H.F. Osborn
  • Friedrich Traugott Kutzing, Charles Cagniard-Latour and Theodor Schwann

There seems to be the general belief that big ideas come from brilliant minds. However, the fact that independent derivation of great ideas is fairly common might hint at another mechanism. Maybe the big ideas are already “out there”, floating around as part of the climate of thought for that time. The brilliant minds are just so in tune with that climate that they pick up on the big ideas. This would suggest that these field-shaping discoveries, paradigm shifting theories and groundbreaking papers are eminent and would come to fruition no matter what. If it weren’t Darwin, natural selection would have eventually been proposed by someone else (Wallace or maybe even another person entirely).

Of course, this is not to take any credit from the brilliance of these ideas or the people who present them. It takes a creative and insightful mind to thoroughly develop and provide support for a complex idea like natural selection. Ultimately though, the credit may go to the person who captures the idea the fastest.

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