The Corner

Re: A Question of Priority

Below, Derb smacks around Tom Wolfe for suggesting that Darwin lifted material from Alfred Russel Wallace. (Derb also says, it should be noted, that he’s otherwise enjoying the Wolfe interviews, which interviews you can see for yourself right here.) I’m scarcely in position to adjudicate who came up with what first, Darwin or Wallace, but by sheerest happenstance I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering in the New Yorker, “In the Air: Who Says Big Ideas are Rare?” Take a look at this:

[The] phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland….

For Ogburn and Thomas, the sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.

Peter Robinson — Peter M. Robinson is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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