Blind spots in scientific discovery

An interesting remark I came across: to learn how technological innovation happens, study the people who nearly produced some major innovation, but failed because of some blind spot that seems obvious in retrospect. One example from the link is the person who invented sound recording on a wax cylinder decades before Edison. The inventor had a blind spot: not considering playback, instead viewing recording as a form of stenography.

I’m now wondering if this applies to science. What scientific insights or discoveries were almost made by someone other than the person(s) who made them, except for a blind spot that prevented full, correct development of the insight or discovery?

I’d suggest Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. The Origin is tremendously successful at explaining the origin of adaptation, but its explanation of the origin of new species is infamously hard to pin down. Following James Costa (and I hope I haven’t misunderstood him!), I think that’s because Darwin had a blind spot: his “success breeds success” mental model of selection (to borrow Costa’s phrase). Darwin imagined that, when better variants arise, they eventually sweep to fixation everywhere that they can spread to. That mental model prevented him from quite recognizing modern notions like frequency-dependent selection, and caused him to underestimate the extent to which selection favors different variants in different places. So instead of hitting on modern ideas about how selection can drive speciation (Schluter 2000, Kassen 2014), Darwin ended up treating the production of diversity as itself a heritable trait that selection might favor, thereby promoting speciation (that’s Darwin’s “Principle of Divergence”). There are circumstances in which something like Darwin’s idea can work, for instance when there’s selection for bet hedging (Beaumont et al. 2009). But in general, it’s not a correct picture of the origin of species.

What other scientific discoveries or insights were prevented by some crucial blind spot? See here for a couple of possible examples.

1 thought on “Blind spots in scientific discovery

  1. Pingback: Pick and Mix 25 – Natural History, Entomology & Ecology | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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