Multiple discovery also referred to as simultaneous invention - is where the same innovation is discovered by people working independently from each other. The notion suggests that individuals do not necessarily possess unique insights, but rather the presence of various environmental and cultural factors will engender innovation. A specific individual therefore has no specific genius that sets them apart from others. An alternative hypothesis is that specific inventions have been the work of lone individuals.
The question arises whether this debate links to our understand of God and man.
Who gets the credit?
The following problem is all too common when it comes to inventions:
Richard Julius Petri’s status as inventor of the culture dish that bears his name has been subject to a number of challenges over the years. Both those bacteriologists who claimed self-recognition for the invention, and those to whom it was attributed by their various advocates were all contemporaries of Petri. The evidence assembled here indicates that no single individual—including Petri—ought to be accorded credit for the inception of that shallow, circular, covered culture dish which, it transpires, is a simultaneous invention made by half a dozen bacteriologists active in the mid-1880s and ultimately owes its emergence to the prevailing bacteriological zeitgeist.
Shama, G., 2019. The “Petri” dish: a case of simultaneous invention in bacteriology. Endeavour, 43(1-2), pp.11-16.
People like to be recognised for their efforts and there is always an issue when someone else lays claim to having invented the same thing at the same time or perhaps even earlier. But is the claim on the part of one individual to knowledge that no one else has misplaced?
History is full of inventions that multiple people appear to have arrived at independently at about the same time, from the telescope (Lippershey, Metius, and others, 1608) to the telegraph (Morse, Stein- heil, and others, 1837). Simultaneous independent invention is so common that some commentators have wondered if inventions are inevitable, the byproduct of existing culture rather than the work of individual genius. This philosophical problem has important practical implications in intellectual property law, which is deeply conflicted on the issue. On the one hand, the Patent and Trademark Office has procedures in place to award a patent to the winner of a race between two or more groups for the same invention. On the other hand, the Federal Circuit recently confirmed that simultaneous independent invention can indicate that the idea was obvious and nobody deserves to patent it.
Gratzinger, P.E., 2011. Was the Telephone Obvious: An Inquiry into Simultaneous Invention. Colum. Sci. & Tech. L. Rev., 13, p.71.
Why does it matter?
An early work on this issue I think explains the importance of simultanous discovery and its broader implications.
Several questions are raised. Are inventions inevitable? If the various inventors had died in infancy, would not the inventions have been made and would not cultural progress have gone on without much delay?
Ogburn, W.F. and Thomas, D., 1922. Are inventions inevitable? A note on social evolution. Political science quarterly, 37(1), pp.83-98.
And the link with God?
The literature in this area does not seem to have touched on the link with God, so here's my take. The story could go in one of the following ways.
- Whether simultaneous invention exists or not has nothing to do with our understanding of God (i.e. this post is working on a false supposition)
- If innovations are determined by the social environment and not reliant on a 'genius hero' - this might lend support to the idea that knowledge exists independently of any individual person and is resident in a supernatural being
- If innovations are due to 'genius heros' would this discount the notion of a deity?
Ogburn and Thomas give the example of the steam engine as being an innovation that had many 'parents':
This tendency toward the inevitability of an invention, once given the constituent parts, and the dependence of the inven- tion on these parts, may be seen in the history of the steam engine.' One sees in the interesting development of the steam engine that this invention was not dependent upon any one man and the history indicates that no one man could be expected to invent the various constituent parts as preliminary steps to making the culminating invention.
And their work is summarised as follows:
Ogburn and Thomas took a different approach. They suggested that discoveries and inventions must occur when three conditions are fulfilled;
- there is a defined problem or need,
- there is a desire to fulfill that need, and
- there is a “cultural preparedness” (i.e. a technical understanding exists).
Once these elements converge, inventions and discoveries become inevitable.
So according to the social determinism perspective:
Once the necessary cultural base has accumulated, the advent of calculus was largely predetermined: if neither Newton nor Leibniz had developed the technique, someone else certainly would have quickly done so.
Simonton, D.K., 1978. Independent discovery in science and technology: A closer look at the Poisson distribution. Social Studies of Science, 8(4), pp.521-532.
However, Simonton's empirical analysis seems to have been inconclusive:
Although the results may not endorse the social deterministic perspective, I must end by emphasizing that the so-called 'genius' theory is not supported either.
And there is a challenge to the notion of duplicate inventions.
Tertius Chandler concluded that in all cases except two, the invention or discovery was made by single individual who predated the credited inventors. Chandler says the originator of the first idea is the real inventor; subsequent developments were just incremental improvements.
For the theist, would the a priori position be that the hero innovator is less likely to be a phenomenon compared to simultaneous and independent innovation since the latter points to knowledge existing outside the domain of a specific individual?
There is more on multiple discovery here: