The shoulders of giants

There is a theory that inventions are not actually the product of individual minds, but rather a manifestation of the zeitgeist. When it is the right time for an invention to appear, it will generally appear in multiple places at once.

There are many examples of this, the canonical one being the simultaneous invention of Calculus by both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Yet this phenomenon is not really such a mystery, if you think about it.

After all, human intelligence may be impressive, yet it is also bounded. The original and novel thoughts that arise from any one human mind are inevitably influenced by available knowledge.

At any given year in history, there is a certain shared base of available knowledge. In that sense, all would-be inventors are starting on a roughly equal footing.

After all, we wouldn’t expect advances in Quantum theory before anybody had discovered the atom. Similarly, we wouldn’t expect somebody to come up with the algorithms underlying Google search before the advent of the Web itself.

As Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

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