Professor Wilkins of the Bond University, Queensland has posted a truly excellent piece on his blog demythologising Darwin and The Origin of Species and placing its significance as a piece of scientific publishing into context. 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. Copernicus’ work built upon the work of Regiomontanus and Peuerbach and a host of Islamic astronomers, the only original contribution that he made was the concept of heliocentricity. You may think that this was unique but in fact heliocentricity and a moving earth had been in discussion for about 100 to 150 years before Copernicus published the De revolutionibus and if he had not come up with the concept then sooner rather than later somebody else would have done.
The same applies to Galileo’s contributions; his telescopic observations were also made independently and simultaneously by various other European astronomers such as Thomas Harriot, Johann Fabricius, Simon Marius and Paolo Lembo. His work on dynamics in the Discorsi were based on the work of the Oxford calculatores and the Paris physicist from the 14th century and the work of Tartaglia and Benedetti in the 16th century. In the 17th century Harriot, Simon Stevin und Isaac Beeckman produced most of Galileo’s results independently.
The same can be shown to be true for all of the others as well, for example the orbit of Mercury was already considered to be an ellipse in the work of Peuerbach. It might well be that had Newton not lived then his achievements would have been spread out over the work of several scientists rather than one but that his results would still have emerge in much the same form in roughly the same time period is almost certain.
It is perfectly OK to acknowledge the achievements of the scientists who helped create modern science but as John so superbly demonstrates in the case of Darwin it is wrong to place them on a pedestal.