Main content

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Science progresses, not so much by 'eureka!' moments as through simultaneous discovery. Are the processes of science the same as those underlying cases of convergent evolution?

"If Newton hadn't lived, his laws would have been elaborated by someone else. If Shakespeare hadn't lived, no one would have written his plays." What is it about science that throws up so many examples of simultaneous discovery, or indeed invention, from Newton and Leibniz, to Wallace and Darwin. Another field in which this sort of parallelism seems to be common is music, and also for that matter, the history of technology.

But the field in which it is increasingly clear that simultaneous invention is much more common than previously thought, is life itself. Convergent evolution is famously exemplified in the similarity of eye structure in unrelated species. But other instances are myriad and it also happens on all scales, from large population dynamics, down to fundamental molecular patterns.

Our question is: Are the same processes of change at work in science as in evolutionary biology itself?
Through discussions with a wide variety of practitioners and commentators in diverse fields, including Lynn Margulis, Paulien Hogeweg, Barry Cunliffe, Dan Dennett, Lewis Wolpert, Eva Jablonka Denis Noble, Rupert Sheldrake, Lucy Duran and Simon Conway-Morris, it appears that something like a revolution in evolutionary theory is underway and it's happening very fast.

Symbiogenesis, bioinformatics, epigenetics and the reinvestigation of Lamarckism are all extending what we understand to be the processes by which evolution promotes change, throwing light on the astonishing sophistication of cooperative and collaborative patterns in nature, in contrast to the harsh competition in neo-Darwinian theory. This emerging variety of evolutionary pathways provokes strong opinions on whether patterns in the development of music, science and life itself, can appear to be inevitable.

Presenter: Richard Collins

Producer: Mike Greenwood
A Pier Production for BBC Radio 4.

Available now

30 minutes

Last on

Wed 13 Jul 2011 21:00