Tag Archives: multiple invention

Multiple Inventions, Multiple Evolutions

My friend Jayson has emailed me a New Yorker article, “In the Air” by Malcom Gladwell. I previously saw it referenced by Peter Robinson over at The Corner, so it has now caught my eye twice.

The article talks about multiple discovery, where independent researchers or teams invent the same thing at about the same time — but have little to do with each other. The famous example is calculus for which (after being unknown for all of human history) Isaac Newton and Gottfiend Leibniz created systems so similar that their main difference was the philosophical question of whether the super-small things changing were “infinitesimals” or “fluxions.”

In truth, most discoveries are probably multiple discoveries.

Consider two papers, one an article and the other a blog post, which help explain the issues John Sweller’s peer-reviewed article, Instructional Design Consequences of an Analogy between Evolution by Natural Selection and Human Cognitive Architecture,” published in the January 2004 edition of Instructional Science,” describes how thinking relies on stored information in long-term memory, and how the random errors that happen during remembering provide opportunities for feedback, “good mistakes” are rewarded while bad mistakes are discarded. Similarly, Razib’s primer, “8th grade math for the rest of us,” published November 2005 at gnxp, describes the probability of an gene that is helpful actually becoming common in a population.

Essentially, chance operates two ways in evolution: introducing new versions of things by chance, and rewarding or discarding new versions by chance. In order to become common, a new thing both most be lucky enough to be crated, and lucky enough to spread. (Even if a mutation is helpful, for example, if the animal carrying it is struck by lightning, it’s gone.)

The same is true of inventions. Chance operates two ways: for the invention to be created, or the invention to be accepted. Just because an inventor is inspired to build a new product that works, and works better than anything else at its job, doesn’t mean that the creator will be able to convince other people that it’s worth while, etc.

Of course, sometimes multiple versions of an invention become known. This has happened with skin color: East Asian and European “whiteness” derive from different mutations. This has also happened with calculus: Newton’s and Liebenz’s systems derive from different assumptions. But in both cases, the need for the invention was there, the tools needed to create the invention was there: all it needed to do was happen.

Of course, there may have been a third version of calculus, created in about the same circumstances, that is now lost and forgotten. Likewise, there may have been another evolutionary fork for creating light skin that is lost.

All of this has important implications for intellectual property law. But that is a post for another time…