Now you may ask why I as a historian of Renaissance mathematics should comment on a blog post about a 19th century work of biology and its author? The answer is quite simple; everything that John says about Darwin and his book can and should be applied to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton and a host of other scientist from the early modern period and their works.
Nothing that any of these scholars did or wrote existed in a vacuum and all of their achievements would have taken place roughly within the same period of time if they had never lived.
This is a variant of the “steam engine time” idea, that new ideas and technology don’t really take off until the time is right for them. And it’s certainly true that examples abound of nearly simultaneous invention of the same branches of science by two different people– Newton and Leibniz, Darwin and Wallace, etc.
Of course, this does not beg but rather demands the question: are there any examples of truly revolutionary ideas in science? That is, are there scientific theories that jump well ahead of what was “in the air” at the time of their creation, in such a way that they would not have been discovered for decades more if their discoverer had died young in a tragic zeppelin accident?
My limited knowledge of the history of science doesn’t turn up much. Most of the great discoveries of physics were made in a context where dozens of people were working on the same problems, and sooner or later one of them would’ve come up with the right answer. The only thing that might fit the bill is General Relativity. Special Relativity was in the air– it’s called the “Lorentz-FitzGerald transformation” for a reason– but the notion of explaining gravity via curved space-time is rather different, and doesn’t seem to have the same amount of background support. I can imagine that people would’ve fumbled their way into believing what we now call Special Relativity not too long after 1905 (after all, most of what Einstein did was to make a convincing argument for the validity of mathematical ideas other people had come up with), but not gotten General Relativity for quite a while longer. But then again, the thing that really sold Relativity to the scientific community was the bending of light (as measured by the Eddington eclipse expedition), which is more a General than Special prediction.
So I don’t know. I have readers who are better versed in the history of science than I am, though, so maybe one of you will have something to offer. Are there any examples of scientific ideas that were genuinely far ahead of anything the originator’s contemporaries would’ve come up with?