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The discovery of Bitcoin is a puzzle



A recurring conversation in the Bitcoin community is the question “was Bitcoin invented or discovered?” At first, this question seems simple. Obviously Bitcoin was invented, isn’t it? New. In my opinion, Bitcoin, like any other scientific and technological “invention”, was discovered and not actually invented. The purpose of this article is to explain this and help you understand why if Satoshi Nakamoto never existed, Bitcoin would eventually have been discovered by someone else. The Adjacent Possible There is a figure in our collective unconscious who shows the lone genius in his garage. This brilliant and misunderstood scientist single-handedly unravels some of nature’s great mysteries. This picture is totally wrong. Even geniuses like Isaac Newton recognized that “If I’ve been able to see beyond, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants”. evidence supports this view. There are several scientific discoveries, such as calculus and the theory of natural selection, which have repeatedly occurred independently of each other. For most of us, the theory of natural selection is classically attributed to Charles Darwin. His story is well known: He sailed around the world on the HMS Beagle, studied finches in the Galapagos Islands, the 1835 earthquake in Chile, and so on. What few people know is that today the authorship of the theory of natural selection is attributed to Darwin-Wallace. That’s because it took Darwin more than 20 years to publish his discovery, and in the meantime, a young naturalist named Alfred Russell Wallace reached the same conclusions Darwin had drawn. Wallace studied the Amazon rainforest and the Malaysian archipelago. Were they two isolated geniuses independently discovering how evolution works? Yes and no. These two brilliant scientists had access to the same credentials. Both cite the work of James Hutton and Charles Lyell, two geologists who discussed how changes happened gradually over a large span of time, known as geological time or deep time. This view is known as uniformitarianism and is opposed to catastrophism, which at the time was associated with the Flood and the idea that the Earth was only 10,000 years old. Thanks to these authors, the concept of deep time began to exist in the scientific community. Both Darwin and Wallace read these works. The same goes for the work of Thomas R. Malthus. Malthus discussed the issue of finite resources and even outlined ideas about “fighting for life” and “survival of the fittest.” But he focused his work on population geography, not on nature in a broader sense. Both Darwin and Wallace cited the work of Malthus as a key piece in the evolutionary puzzle. The same goes for Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who independently discovered calculus. Those mathematicians spent the rest of their lives struggling to determine who the real inventor of calculus was, rather than imagining that it could be developed twice in a short period of time. The term “adjacent possible” was coined in 1996 by Stuart Kauffman, an evolutionary biologist. For him, biological systems are capable of transforming into complex systems through incremental changes. This helps to explain how complex systems are created: step by step. For example, the origin of life hypothetically took place in a primitive environment known as “primordial soup.” The atmosphere had no oxygen and was rich in hydrogen, ammonia, methane and water. Something caused these molecules to stick together and become amino acids. These were able to combine to form proteins and create organic matter. It is possible that this organic material eventually gave rise to biological life as we know it today. Each step in this chain could not have existed before the previous step. Hydrogen, methane, water and ammonium would not bind together to form proteins, but their recombined form, called amino acids, would. The adjacent possible is the essence of the scientific process, when new knowledge is discovered from the available adjacent knowledge, whether books or scientific papers. In short, existing scientific knowledge represents the pieces of a puzzle that have already been assembled for everyone. The scientist making a discovery simply finds the fit of the most recently mounted piece. The original concept of ‘meme’ was defined by biologist Richard Dawkins in the book ‘The Selfish Gene’. This book is an investigation into how genes are the unit of selection in evolution, not the species, group, or even the individual. In the book, the author argues that genes are to biology what memes are to cultural information, and the smallest unit of cultural selection is a meme. In other words, a story, a song and even an image with text on it are memes. Analogous to the ‘gene pool’, there is a ‘meme pool’, where all memes compete for space, are shared or forgotten. These cultural units are located in a meme pool, where all scientists can consult the information. This memepool is shared and limits the possibilities for scientific and cultural evolution to the adjacent possible that these units of cultural information allow. In other words, it would not be possible to have a theory of natural selection without Malthusianism or uniformitarianism. Figures 2 and 3 are schematic representations of the adjacent potential and process of scientific progress. The fictional science of psychohistory, described by Isaac Asimov, illustrates this concept well. In psychohistory, even if a particular individual’s actions cannot be predicted, future events can be predicted using statistics applied to large populations. Both psychohistory, a concept from science fiction, and the adjacent possible, a concept from biology, have a common feature: the actions of specific individuals do not matter for the macro-tendency. We like to think of ourselves as special snowflakes, but really we’re all very common with limited basic variations and a few possible personality archetypes, as the few categories in each personality show tests like the Holland Code (RIASEC) or Myers-Briggs tests. That begs the question: can a human invent something truly new? Bitcoin Discovery “Privacy is Necessary for an Open Society in the Electronic Age.” – Eric Hughes, Cypherpunk Manifesto, 1993 As with the image of the lone scientist, we also tend to portray Satoshi Nakamoto in this way. But in reality, he was also sitting on the shoulders of giants when he conceived Bitcoin. Bitcoin may seem “new”, but in reality it is the culmination of a process spanning more than 30 years by a group of people interested in encryption and privacy. They are called ‘the cypherpunks’. The Cypherpunk Manifesto dates back to 1993; several attempts to solve the problem of transferring value with privacy without the need for a trusted third-party validator had already been made and failed. In a nutshell, we can simplify some of the puzzle pieces of the cypherpunk memetic pool used by Satoshi: In 1997, Adam Back created Hashcash, an anti-spam tool that made it expensive (in time and computational power) to send an email, spam make it economically unfeasible. In 2004, Hal Finney created the reusable proof-of-work (RPOW) based on Hashcash. RPOW were cryptographic tokens that could only be used once. Validation and double-spend protection still happened on a central server. In 2005, Nick Szabo published the proposal for ‘bitgold’, a digital token based on RPOW. Bitgold had no token limit, but envisioned that the units would be valued differently based on the amount of computational processing used in creating them. In 2008, a person operating under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto published the Bitcoin whitepaper, which featured both bitgold and Hashcash. It was by learning from all these attempts that Satoshi was able to reach the magical possible adjacent Bitcoin. But the truth is that, as brilliant as Satoshi was, if he hadn’t discovered Bitcoin in 2008, someone probably would have already discovered it. Image 4: Timeline of Bitcoin’s prehistory from Plan B. Leta’s tweet. The opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.
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