If Not Darwin, Who?

Image by by Jackie Ferrentino/Nautilus
Image by Jackie Ferrentino/Nautilus
What would physics look like if Einstein had never existed, or biology without Darwin? In one view, nothing much would change—the discoveries they made and theories they devised would have materialized anyway sooner or later. That’s the odd thing about heroes and heroines of science: They are revered, they get institutions and quantities and even chemical elements named after them, and yet they are also regarded as somewhat expendable and replaceable in the onward march of scientific understanding.

By Philip Ball | NAUTILUS

But are they? One way to find out is to ask who, in their absence, would have made the same discovery. This kind of “counterfactual history” is derided by some historians, but there’s more to it than a new parlor game for scientists (although it can be that, too). It allows us to scrutinize and maybe challenge some of the myths that we build around scientific heroes. And it helps us think about the way science works: how ideas arise out of the context of their time and the contingencies and quirks of individual scientists.

For one thing, the most obvious candidate to replace one genius seems to be another genius. No surprise, maybe, but it makes you wonder whether the much-derided “great man” view of history, which ascribes historical trajectories to the actions and decisions of individuals, might not have some validity in science. You might wonder whether there’s some selection effect here: We overlook lesser-known candidates precisely because they weren’t discoverers, even though they could have been. But it seems entirely possible that, on the contrary, greatness always emerges, if not in one direction then another.

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