An interesting thing in technology and the path of the human race in general is how most of the very large developments in knowledge seem inevitable. The future converges on ideas, rather than just landing on them in moments of ingenuity. “Aha!” moments are less singular leaps of invention than civilization arriving at concepts, right on schedule. In other words, technological/scientific innovation is evolutionary. A step forward in knowledge is just a summation of the knowledge preceding it, which basically just creates a hole in the shape of the next advancement.
This seems obvious, I think, but it goes against what most of us are taught in school and by the media, where inventors and scientists are celebrated as brilliant singularities in civilization. It’s no use to ask “What if the airplane hadn’t been invented,” because the answer is, “That’s impossible; it had to be invented.” (One can extend this very, very broadly; Jesus, for example, arose because that particular era was so incredibly shitty and there was a need for a Jesus. Muhammad: times were shitty again. Etc.)
It follows then that “discoveries” probably don’t always happen as singular events; if we’re preordained to discover something, then we shouldn’t be surprised when that innovation arises in multiple places at more or less the same time. Examples of multiple discoveries include Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s discoveries of calculus, and Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both identifying evolution at about the same time and totally independently. (Our reliance on the notion of singular inventor-genius usually means someone gets shafted on recognition.) Then there’s the internet—about six different development programs arose in the ‘60s and ‘70s all chasing after the same basic idea of packet switching. You’ve probably heard of one of them, ARPANET.
This is an idea that fucks with everything. Think about the entire patent system, developed to encourage innovation by tying the profits resulting from an invention to one inventor—and only one (one idea, one patent). Another example of multiple discoveries might be farming, often argued to have arisen in one general location near the Mediterranean Sea. Farming is a pretty huge deal, of course, that thing that allowed humanity to take its next steps into full-blown civilization. You could even say that farming is the invention, the one that allowed all others. And new research strongly suggests that farming had at least two discoveries in two distinct regions of the Middle East.
Most attention to early farming has focused on farming villages in Palestine, Syria, and eastern Turkey, where carbon dating has placed the earliest crop cultivations at 13,000 years ago, with domesticated crops first arriving 10,500 years ago. Five years ago, however, a crew of archaeologists began working at the site in western Iran, excavating a village called Chogha Golan. In 2009 and 2010, the team, hailing from the University of Tübingen in Germany and the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research, uncovered loads of evidence for early farming, including mortars, pestles, and around 21,000 pieces of charred plant remains. It dates back to roughly the same time period as the previously uncovered evidence in more western regions: between 12,000 and 9,700 years ago. Their report is out in the newest edition of Science.
A blog post at Science explains:
The team concludes that the advent of farming at Chogha Golan, and in the eastern Fertile Crescent, was an independent event that paralleled developments much farther west. This suggests, researchers say, that farming was more or less inevitable once the Ice Age had ended and climatic and environmental conditions were right for it, rather than being a fluke that arose in just one location.
Evolutionary knowledge is such a natural-feeling concept and I think most people understand it at some level. But, generally, we act otherwise. Think about deified personalities like Steve Jobs. Or, better, Albert Einstein, a veritable miracle worker in popular culture. But, Michelson, Lorentz, Poincaré? Those are just some names, just some scientists. Einstein is, however, much more than a scientist. A genius doorway to understanding.
The notions of Multiple discovery and evolutionary technology don’t soothe our species’ need for stories and narrative very well (unless it involves some theft or other drama), so are we just stuck with the lie of miraculous innovation? Probably for a while anyhow; we are after all still mostly stuck with notions of actual supernatural miracle workers, so figure that scientific ones are here to stay. This is a bad thing.
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