1999 : WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION IN THE PAST TWO THOUSAND YEA

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Professor of Anthropology and Adjunct Associate Research Scientist, Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan
Paleoanthropologist, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan

Science, because it brings us explanations of our world we may act on, is by far the most important invention of this time. The fact that the explanations are usually wrong brings the partial illusion of progress, as well as tenure, which is a consequence of the publications debating the various wrongnesses.

At its best, science works in a sort of Darwinian frame, where hypotheses are the source of variation (cleverness counts) and disproofs are the extinctions.

Developments from hypotheses are the analogues of ontogeny, and there are various other processes that parallel the biological world such as the roles of randomness (first publications carry excess influence by virtue of being first, just as Microsoft systems succeed by being most common but not necessarily best), and punctuated equilibrium (scientific revolutions are complete replacement events). There are even biological-like terms like "memes" that may describe how hypotheses are transmitted. All and all, ever since when well before Neandertal times we hominids developed significantly complex culture, that extrasomatic way of transmitting hierarchically structured information, we have enjoyed (in the sense of the Chinese curse) interesting times.