Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Multiple Independent Discoveries: genius or monkeys?

As a follow-up to my last post, dcr in a blog post entitled “Isaac Asimov: Prophet?” wrote:

“Nina, a.k.a. The Alien Next Door, has an interesting post today on Isaac Asimov and al-Qaida. Did bin Laden model his efforts off of Asimov’s Foundation series? That is something you will have to figure out for yourself. As Nina mentions, sometimes life imitates art…The examples she mentions are of individuals that have been inspired by certain books. But, there have been other cases where an author has written about events eerily similar to events that later occurred in real life, where no individual can be said to have been moved by the novel to take certain actions.”

He then goes on to provide a few compelling examples such as Morgan Robertson’s 1898 novel Futility that uncannily described the catastrophe of the British ocean liner, Titanic. “Prophesy or coincidence?” dcr poses the reader. He then provides a more recent ‘coincidental prophesy’: “…people may remember The Lone Gunmen series that was a spin-off of The X-Files. The pilot episode aired in March 2001. In it, a secret U.S. government agency plans to crash a plane into the World Trade Center and blame the attack on a foreign dictator in an effort to increase the military budget. The origin of conspiracy theories? Or prophecy for those who believe in the conspiracy theories?”

This is all wild conjecture and open for active debate.

Dcr leaves us with this challenge: “Prophecy? Or is it just a case of thousands of monkeys pounding away at their keyboards for numerous years finally, and randomly, producing works which mirror real life?” While Jon at Chimeric Daydreams astutely answers, “it’s always the monkeys,” I suggest another, less random (though no less chaotic) route for much of what we actually perceive as ‘coincidence’.

In my book, Darwin’s Paradox, one of my characters, a scientist named Zane, describes to the main character (Julie) some farfetched premises for ‘coincidence’:

He’d pushed his intense face close to hers and they stared at one another until she finally blinked and sat down as if she’d been struck. “You’re talking about the whole of our society behaving like an autopoietic system, self-organized, adaptive and evolving . . .”

Zane leaned back like a teacher proud of his favorite pupil. “How many times have we seen this sort of thing happen? Like the independent formulation of calculus by Newton and Leibniz or the theory of the evolution of species by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Or McFadden and Pocket independently but at the same time coming up with electromagnetic fields being the seat of our consciousness. Multiple, independent discoveries have increased in society a thousand-fold since the nineteenth century. Did you know that? Why? The reason
is obvious: the fabric of our society is acting like a neural network, learning, interacting and sharing toward the achievement of a common zeitgeist.

Julie, your father’s model of creative destruction shows how a society can operate as an evolving ‘organism’, interconnected through shared knowledge and thought and cycling through nodes of focused ‘strange attractors’. We’re all part of our own evolutionary story, too -- all we’ve been missing is the communication. Communication is the vehicle for achieving spontaneous, persistent synchrony. Fireflies communicate with light; planets speak through the force of gravity; heart cells share electric currents. We . . .” He flung his arms out like Moses on the mountain and a little spittle flew out of his mouth. “Imagine what kind of entity we [humanity] will be when all our individuals connect with Darwin [the virus] and the A.I.s!”

So, which really came first? Art mimicking life or life mimicking art? Or are they one in the same? And what is the writer really tapping into when she speaks of tapping into her muse?
Multiple Independent Discoveries: coined by Columbia University sociologist of science, Robert K. Merton, who believed that multiple discoveries, rather than unique discoveries represent the common pattern in science. Scientist, E. Garfield stated, “Interest in the multiples in science had rekindled a philosophical debate on the process of discovery and creativity in science. One side of the debate has its roots in the “great man” or “genius” theory of history, proposed in the 19th century. Traditionally opposed to this theory is the “social determinist” or “zeitgeist” argument. More recently a “chance” theory based on probabilistic models (those monkeys of dcr’s) has tried to account for the occurrence of the multiples.”

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

I was unaware that 'The Lone Gunman' pilot episiode was about that. How scary.

Nina Munteanu said...

Yeah....isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Hi Nina,

With all these interesting theories floating around, it's a good time for a blogging meme . . . and I'm tagging you. Here are the rules:
I hope you enjoy it.


Nina Munteanu said...

Aw... gee, Terry... Thanks! Guess you heard that I love memes! :) Will get to it in the New Year. Looks like fun!