on what makes machines tick and fields sprout are of course not likely to generate much new useful knowledge. But among those societies that have the potential to create such knowledge, it is simply impossible to predict why a particular scientific area sustained a great deal of progress and knowledge moved in a particular direction rather than in another. Scientific advance is of course a sequential process, in which steps follow from one another and a fair amount of serial correlation is built into the system. At the same time research agendas are set in part as the result of perceived needs (or at least areas in which advances will have a high payoff). There is a great deal of uncertainty in these agendas, however,and they are influenced and constrained by religious, social, and political factors in ways that are poorly understood. What should be stressed is that this knowledge is often influenced by the rather unpredictable advances in research and observation technology. This point was made by Derek Price in 1984, who has termed such advances “artificial revelation.” The invention of the telescope or the Petri dish may have been fairly minor advances relative to what was known before, but they changed the knowledge base of society dramatically by creating better research tools. Such “adventitious” advances as Price calls them explain why astronomy and microbiology advanced as rapid as they did.2
It is in part because of this lack of historical determinacy that many historians and philosophers of science feel attracted to an “evolutionary” approach to knowledge. This school, which originated in the 1950s and 1960s in the writing of Stephen Toulmin, Karl Popper, and above all Donald T. Campbell , feels that much like the historical evolution of living beings, the development of knowledge is subject to contingent forces that cannot be fully predicted.3 The analogy, despite many pitfalls elaborated elsewhere, has the advantage of highlighting what we can and cannot know about innovation.4 This mode of thinking has been applied to the history of technology with some success.5 The lessons we learn from the evolutionary approach is that we can identify the elements that make a particular social environment more innovative, but the general direction of innovation, to say nothing of its exact form,
2Derek J. de Solla Price, “Notes towards a Philosophy of the Science/Technology Interaction” In The Nature of Knowledge: are Models of Scientific Change Relevant? edited by Rachel Laudan. 1984.
3Stephen E Toulmin, " The Evolutionary Development of Natural Science," American Scientist, Vol. 55, No. 4 (December 1967), pp. 456-471. Donald T. Campbell, “Variation and Selective Retention in Socio-Cultural Evolution” in Social Change in Developing Areas: a Reinterpreation of Evolutionary Theory, edited by Herbert Barringer, George I Blanksten and Raymond W. Mack. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Co., pp. 19-47. id., "Unjustified Variation and Selective Retention in Scientific Discovery." in Studies in the Philosophy of Biology edited by Francisco J. Ayala and Theodosius Dobzhansky, 1974, 139-61. Id., “Evolutionary Epistemology” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, edited by P.A. Schilpp, 1974, 413-63.
4Joel Mokyr, “Science, Technology, and Knowledge: What Historians can learn from an evolutionary approach.” Max Planck Institute for Research into Economic Systems, Working Papers on Economics and Evolution, # 98-03, 1998.
5Walter Vincenti, What Engineers Know and How They Know It ,1990. John Ziman, ed., Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process, 2000.