Laura Deming recently tweeted on the matter of this post, and I replied:

To expand on my tweet, I wanted to think here about what would it mean for something to be a "Darwin-level insight".

My first thought was that such an insight, besides being correct, would:

  • Be applicable to a large domain (Darwin's applies to all living matter)
  • Overturn a widely held prior conception, as in a paradigm shift (Creationism, or Lamarckism)

In that regard, other similar insights might be heliocentrism (geocentrism), Newtonian mechanics (Aristotelian physics), modern chemistry (phlogiston theory, alchemy), QM&GR (classical mechanics), general computation (the idea that complex thought cannot be reduced to simple mechanical operations).

All of these happened a while ago. Are there any recent such "Darwin-level insights" in recent times? If there are not, that may be because maybe we have gotten used to have our scientific conceptions changed, so the shock that would cause us to classify something as revolutionary might be lessened: the revolutions are happening but no one is getting all that excited about them. Or it could also be that we have figured out sufficiently well the nature of Nature, exhausting the repertoire of possibe such insights: it is different to transition to a completely different theory than to tweak an existing one.

Physics has been all about completing the picture we already had for decades, so we won't find any recent worldview changes there.

Biology would be a better candidate, as it is a far more complex subject, not as amenable to first principles thinking and simple clean models as physics is, but if one looks at any list of achievements in biology in recent decades one might find CRISPR or cancer immunotherapy, or mapping the human genome, or single cell sequencing. These are all useful discoveries, but they do not seem Darwin-level. The closest here might be the fundamental underpinnings of immunotherapy: the idea that the immune can actually fight cancer (Whereas it was previously thought that it couldn't, because it's our own cells) does overturn the opposite idea, although what it overturns is knowledge of how the immune system works, which is a subsystem of only those organisms that have immune systems, and specifically adaptive immune systems.

Going further to the past, another contender is clearly the discovery of the structure and function of DNA. Note also that while we would be inclined to agree with this, we may be less inclined to agree with a similar and also highly functionally relevant discovery: that of epigenetics, perhaps because we see it as similar enough to the case of DNA, to make a simile here it's like going to Mars, given that we already went to the Moon, that achievement is not as striking.