The history of science has produced several general theories about how science develops and evolves over long periods of time. A 19th century view is that of Auguste Comte, who argued that there is a hierarchy of the sciences, from the most general (astronomy), followed historically and in other ways by physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology.
Sciences atop the hierarchy are characterized as having more highly developed theories; greater use of mathematical language to express ideas; higher levels of consensus on theory, methods, and the significance of problems and contributions to the field; more use of use theory to make verifiable predictions; faster obsolescence of research, to which citations drop off rapidly over time; and relatively fast progress.
Sciences at the bottom of the hierarchy are said to exhibit the opposite characteristics.
In this view, advances in the “higher” sciences, conceived in terms of findings, concepts, methodologies, or technologies that are thought to be fundamental, are held to flow down to the “lower” sciences, while the reverse flow rarely occurs.
By far the best known modern theory of scientific progress is that of Thomas Kuhn (1962), which focuses on the major innovations that have punctuated the history of science in the past 350 years, associated with such investigators as Copernicus, Galileo, Lavoisier, Darwin, and Einstein. Science, in Kuhn’s view, is usually a problem-solving activity within clear and accepted frameworks of theory and practice, or “paradigms.” Revolutions occur when disparities or anomalies arise between theoretical expectation and research findings that can be resolved only by changing fundamental rules of practice. These changes occur suddenly, Kuhn claims, in a process akin to Gestalt shifts: in a relative instant, the perceived relationships among the parts of a picture shift, and the whole takes on a new meaning. Canonical examples include the Copernican idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, relativity in physics, and the helical model of DNA.