Monday, June 5

Was Bitcoin Invented or Discovered?

A recurring conversation in the bitcoinheiro community is the question “was Bitcoin invented or discovered?”. Initially this question seems simple. Obviously Bitcoin was invented, no?

No. In my opinion, Bitcoin, like other scientific and technological “inventions”, was discovered, not invented.

The purpose of this text is to explain the premises of this vision and help you understand why if Satoshi had not existed, Bitcoin would have been discovered by someone else.

The Possible Adjacent

There is a figure in our collective unconscious that is the lone genius in your garage. This brilliant and misunderstood scientist is unraveling some great mystery of nature all by himself.

This image is totally wrong. Even geniuses like Isaac Newton acknowledge that “if I saw further, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This concept seems counterintuitive at first, but historical evidence supports this view.

There are several scientific discoveries, such as Calculus and the Theory of Natural Selection, that have occurred repeatedly independently.

Theory of Natural Selection

The Theory of Natural Selection is correctly attributed to Charles Darwin. Its history is well known: the trip around the world on the Beagle, the study of finches in the Galapagos Islands, the earthquake in Chile and so on. What few people know is that nowadays the Theory of Natural Selection is known as the theory of Darwin-Wallace authorship.

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 came to the same conclusions that Darwin had come to study the Amazon rainforest and the Malay Archipelago. Is it luck that 2 lightning strikes in the same place?

Do not.

These two brilliant scientists had access to the same references. Both cite the work of James Hutton and Charles Lyell, two geologists who discussed how changes occurred gradually over a large span of time, known as geologic 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 age of the Earth was only 10,000 years. 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 of “struggle for life” and “survival of the fittest”.

But he focused his work on population geography, not nature more broadly. Both Darwin and Wallace cite Malthus’ work as a key piece in the puzzle of evolution.

The same goes for Newton and Leibniz, who independently discovered calculus. The mathematicians spent the rest of life fighting to establish who was the real inventor of calculus rather than assuming that it could have been developed twice in a short amount of time.

the origin of life

The term “possible adjacent” was coined in 1996 by Stuart Kauffman, an evolutionary biologist. For him, biological systems are capable of transforming themselves into complex systems through incremental changes. This helps explain how complex systems originate: one step at a time.

For example: the origin of life occurred in a primitive environment known as “primordial soup”. The atmosphere lacked oxygen, and was rich in hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and water. Something caused these molecules to come together and become amino acids. These are able to combine forming proteins and creating organic material.

This organic material could eventually have given 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 bond on their own to form proteins, but the recombined form of them called amino acids would.

The adjacent possible is the essence of the scientific process, when new knowledge is discovered from the adjacent knowledge available, be it books or scientific articles.

Basically, existing scientific knowledge represents the pieces of a puzzle that is already assembled in front of everyone. The scientist who makes a discovery simply finds the fit of the most recently fitted piece.

The original concept of “meme” was defined by biological Richard Dawkins in the book “Egoistic Gene”. This book is a study of how genes are the unit of selection in evolution, not the species, group, or even the individual.

In the book, the author proposes that genes are to biology what memes are to cultural information and the smallest unit of cultural selection is a meme.

That is, both a story, a song and even an image with text on top are memes. Analogously to “genetic pool”, there is a “memetic pool”, where all memes compete for space, are shared or forgotten. These cultural units are in a meme pool where all scientists can query this information.

This memetic pool is shared and makes the space for scientific cultural evolution limited to the adjacent possible that these cultural information units allow. In other words, it would not be possible to have a Theory of Natural Selection without Malthusianism or Uniformitarianism.

Can a human being invent something really new?

The concept of psychohistory, thought by Isaac Asimov, illustrates this concept well. In psychohistory, even if the actions of a particular individual cannot be predicted, future events can be predicted using statistics applied to large populations.

Both psychohistory, a science fiction concept, and the adjacent possible, of biology, have a characteristic in common: the actions of specific individuals do not matter for the macro tendency.

We like to think of ourselves as special snowflakes, but we’re actually banal. With limited basic variations and a few possible personality archetypes, like the few categories of any personality test like the RIASEC Where Myers Briggs demonstrate.

Which raises the question: can a human being invent something really new?

The Discovery of Bitcoin

“Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age.”Eric Hughes, Manifesto Cypherpunk, 1993

Like the lonely scientist image, we also tend to think of Satoshi Nakamoto in this way. But in reality he was also on the shoulders of giants when he conceived Bitcoin.

Bitcoin may seem “new”, but in reality it is the culmination of a 30+ year process by a group of people interested in cryptography and privacy. They are called “cypherpunks”.

The Cypherpunk Manifesto dates back to 1993 and several attempts to solve the issue of transmitting value privately and without the need for a trusted external validator had already been made and failed.

In a nutshell, we can simplify some of the cypherpunks meme pool puzzle pieces used by Satoshi in:

  • In 1997, Adam Back created Hashcash, an anti-spam mechanism that generated a cost (in time and computational power) to send an email, making spam 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 was still performed on a central server.
  • In 2005, Nick Szabo published the proposal for “bitgold”, a digital token based on RPOW. Bitgold did not have a limit on tokens, but imagined that the units would be valued differently according to the amount of computational processing used in their creation.
  • In 2008, the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto published the Bitcoin article, which directly cites both bitgold and Hashcash.

there was also a whole prehistory of development prior to 1997. It was the learning generated by all these attempts that allowed Satoshi to achieve this possible magical adjacent called Bitcoin.

As brilliant as Satoshi was, the truth is that if he hadn’t discovered Bitcoin in 2008, someone probably would have discovered it by now.