Progress is continuous by nature

In my post We never invent anything new, yet progress is made!, I argued that innovation is incremental and social. I derived two recommendations for innovators: be good at communicating your ideas and be networked. Indeed, while you cannot create radically new ideas, you may contribute significantly to the adoption of an important insight.

Frédéric commented:

Sometimes (rarely) a significant breakthrough is achieved by someone who really invent something. Some examples :

  • Copernic and geocentrism give up,
  • Darwin and evolution theory,

Sure that these breakthroughs have been possible by previous incremental progress. Citing Thomas Khun, science progress is discontinuous by nature. It is more rupture than accumulation.

I disagree with the Thomas Khun quote. Let me take the two examples Frédéric submitted.

Copernic did not invent heliocentrism. From wikipedia, we learn that The Greek Aristarchus of Samos, in the 3rd century BC, was the first known person to speculate that the Earth revolves around a stationary sun. Even his mathematical models are not novel. Still from wikipedia, we learn that two centuries before Copernic wrote De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Ibn Al-Shatir, a Damascene astronomer, wrote a lunar theory which is mathematically identical with that of Copernicus.

Darwin did not invent evolution. Lamark’s Inheritance of acquired characters theory published in 1809 clearly describe evolution as we know it, he just misunderstood the mechanism by which evolution occurs. Darwin did not even invent single-handedly evolution by natural selection, since he co-discovered it with Wallace. It is quite possible that others had the same ideas independently as well (see Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology).

In his excellent blog post Convergent Evolution and Multiple Discovery, Peter Turney wrote:

(…) a close study of the history of any particular technology invariably shows a series of small, incremental developments. The apparent jumps are an illusion, caused by the way technology is adopted.

To express it differently, apparent jumps forward are social effects. If you ever become part of history as an innovator, it will not be because of your superior ideas, but because you were at the center of a social phenomenon.

Be humble.

Further reading:

Source: Almost all of the good content of this post must be credited to Peter Turney.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

7 thoughts on “Progress is continuous by nature”

  1. But Darwin did come up with “evolution from natural selection”. The thing is, others did too and his idea was based on the work of one of his uncle and on Lamark and others.

    It is not an “accident” that Wallace and Darwin both had the same idea. That is the point I am making.

    There is no magical “breakthrough” due to one’s superior brain. Our progress does not depend on a few heroes. That is a myth.

  2. It is also a matter of how good you are at *creating* a social phenomenon.

    In general, it is undeniable that there is a huge non-linearity on science and society progress. Our life is plenty of sudden booms and crushes, too use economical terms. Society and social (positive) feedback are the key behind this non-linearity, so that if a perturbation (such as a new invention) doesn’t perturb the system over a given threshold, there won’t be any noticeable long-term modification in it.

    I agree, however, that becoming part of history and having superior ideas are two quite unrelated things!

  3. I believe Kuhn’s viewpoint is not that Darwin or anyone else discovered/invented/… a radically new science *singlehandedly*. His point is that we have both phases of science: normal science which is progressive, and revolutionary phase where previous ideas about how to do science and what is science change.
    My understanding of his book is that it is not that much about how some people were great scientists, as opposed to how the science changes during time.

  4. …and read Simon Winchester’s excellent book on Joseph Needham’s research into China’s history of scientific discovery, The Man Who Loved China ( for a further reminder that much of what we hear of science’s history is Western-centric.

  5. When I heard about Khun’s notion of discontinuous scientific progress, my reaction was the same as yours: “Hogwash!” Darwin and Wallace is a great example of how ideas are built up, not suddenly invented.

    Perhaps Khun is really getting at the appearance of ideas to the general public. Within a certain community, seemingly revolutionary ideas aren’t novel at all (like reflection in programming systems these days or evolution in the mid-19th century) while the larger population outside of that community will have never heard of it. Perhaps, then, it is the appearance of a refined idea when released from the community that has been working to refine it that is the source of the Khun’s discontinuity.

  6. Progress is continuous, but “revolutionary” spurts happen, usually following a build-up phase. E.g. in the case of special relativity, there was a prior accumulation of observations contradicting the aether theory over a few decades.

    The build-up phase is important for an important innovation to be recognized as such. Otherwise the discoverer is classified as a crackpot until the surrounding culture is ready for it. (Of course by that time s/he may be long forgotten.)

    When the culture is ready for an innovation, multiple independent occurences are likely because there are many “prepared minds”.

    There’s a bit of old west wisdom that goes like this: “If you’re ridin’ ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then, to make sure it’s still there with ya.” I like to think that it’s good advice for scientists, too.

    (Daniel, remind me to blog about this someday.)

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