Scientific discovery is popularly believed to result from the sheer genius of intellectual stars such as Darwin and Einstein. Their work is often thought to reflect their unique contributions with little or no regard to their own prior experience or to the efforts of their lesser-known predecessors. Conventional wisdom also places great weight on insight, preconception and design in promoting breakthrough scientific achievements, as if ideas spontaneously pop into one’s head – fully formed and functional.
There may be some limited truth to this view. However, as an experimental psychologist and a philosopher of science, we believe that it largely misrepresents the real nature of scientific discovery, as well as creativity and innovation in many other realms of human endeavor.
Setting aside the Darwins and Einsteins – whose monumental contributions are duly celebrated – we suggest that innovation is more a process of trial and error, where two steps forward may sometimes come with one step back, as well as one or more steps to the right or left. Instead of revolution, think evolution. This evolutionary view of human innovation undermines the notion of creative genius and recognizes the cumulative nature of scientific progress.
Wrong Ideas on the Path to Right Ones
In a recent book, one of us (ERS) discusses seven little-known scientists whose partly “wrong ideas” yielded major advances in the hands of others.
Consider one of those unheralded scientists: John Nicholson, a Cambridge University mathematical physicist working in the 1910s, when atomic theory was in an early stage of development. Nicholson postulated the existence of “proto-elements” in outer space. Using a fanciful atomic theory, Nicholson estimated the relative weights of his atoms of coronium, nebulium, proto-fluorine and so on. By combining different numbers of these alleged proto-atoms, Nicholson could recover the weights of all the elements in the then-known periodic table. On a dramatically larger scale, Nicholson could also account for astrophysical details in the Milky Way’s Orion Nebula.
These successes are all the more noteworthy given the fact that none of Nicholson’s proto-elements actually exist.
Yet, amid his often wild speculations, Nicholson also proposed that a defining aspect of atoms – what physicists call the angular momentum of their electrons – can have only certain discrete values, or quanta. Niels Bohr, the father of modern atomic theory, jumped off from this interesting idea to conceive his now-famous model of the atom.
What are we to make of this history? The central idea of angular momentum quantization sprang directly from Nicholson’s mostly off-target theorizing. One might simply conclude that science is a collective and cumulative enterprise. Ideas spread and some scientists are more adept than others at exploiting them. That may be true, but there may be a deeper insight to be gleaned.
Orderly March or Random Stroll?
We propose that science is constantly evolving, much as species of animals do. In biological systems, organisms may display new characteristics that result from random genetic mutations. In the same way, random mutations of ideas may help pave the way for advances in science. If mutations in either biology or science prove beneficial, then the animal or the scientific theory will continue to thrive and perhaps reproduce.
In this decidedly Darwinian scenario, there is no design, intelligent or otherwise. There is only random variation and selection, with biological or behavioral evolution unfolding in a trial-and-error fashion.
Support for this evolutionary view of behavioral innovation comes from many diverse realms of human endeavor, as one of us (EAW) has recently documented. Consider one striking example.