I was reading Konrad Lorenz’s book On Aggression (guess what it’s about) the other day and I found his opening to the concluding chapter to be quite interesting. When big ideas in science (i.e. heliocentrism, evolution, continental drift) come about, how well are they accepted and how far ahead of the times are such ideas? If you’re popular during your own lifetime, how likely is it you’ve made a big impact (and what does this say about the willingness of scientists to objectively ponder new ideas)? Here’s what Lorenz writes;
I do not mind admitting that, unlike Faust, I think I have something to teach mankind that may help it to change for the better. This conviction is not as presumptuous as it might seem; it is certainly less so than the opposite stand, which is usually based not so much on a man’s distrust of his capacity to teach us as on the haughty assumption that humanity is not ready to understand the profound truths of his new doctrine. This is true only in those very rare instances when an intellectual giant is centuries ahead of his time. He is misunderstood and runs the risk either of becoming a martyr or being brushed aside as a crank. If his contemporaries pay attention to a teacher or even read his books, it can safely be assumed that he is not an intellectual giant. At best he can flatter himself that he has something to say that is “due” to be said at that moment. His teachings will be most efficacious if his ideas are only a short head in front of his hearers. A new truth has really convinced when the hearer exclaims, “How silly of me not to have thought of that,” as Thomas Huxley is reported to have said on reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species
Sometimes I wonder what the future will hold in the evolution debate; will anyone, 25, 50, or 100 years down the line recognize the names Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Bob Bakker, or even Ken Ham, Duane Gish, or Kent Hovind? I really don’t know, although I’d say the safe money is on the former set. While I differ a bit from Lorenz in that things are not so easily clear-cut and I think we’ve reached a point where grand, universal truths are harder to come by (science is less ruled by alchemy, natural theology, and superstition than I has in centuries past), I do wonder what impact today’s scientific headliners will have, or even the impact I may (or more likely, may not) have. I actually have quite a different problem that the one Lorenz describes (although there are many “obvious” questions that have gone unresearched); everything I come up with seems to have already been discovered, contemplated, or dismissed by real intellectual giants before me. I’ll never forget how proud I was when I came up with an idea for how evolution could occur quickly in the wake of mass extinctions, only to have my wife (then my girlfriend) tell me that it’s called punctuated equilibrium and adaptive radiation; I had been scooped before I even fully formulated my idea. Such is the same with a recent post about the tiny arms of tyrannosaurs; Henry Fairfield Osborn had the idea they were used to assist in mating over 100 years ago, so my idea was far from original.
In reading many books that discuss the history of science and ideas, I’ve found there are always more names and more to the story than I could have ever expected. Sure, some may get the credit for coming up with an idea or discovering something unknown as if it came out of nowhere, but we all stand on the shoulders of giants. How many of these people, however, are lost to history, or (like E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh in dinosaur books) get an obligatory reference in every book written on a subject, but no more than a paragraph is spent on the topic. Everyone has heard of the name Charles Darwin, yet I would be a fool to say everyone that knows the name has read his books or could even attribute a quote to him. All is not lost, however; there are always those few who recognize that in order to understand evolution, you must also understand the evolution of the idea.