People have a habit of taking a “great men” view of history. Even those who regularly deride it place too much importance on the individual. Let’s start with a topic near to home – science. It’s Dawin’s birthday, so we should investigate: how important was Darwin to evolution? The economist has the answer:
It turns out, though, that even Darwin and Wallace were not the first to put the pieces together. In 1813 William Charles Wells, a Scottish doctor, had presented a paper on race to the Royal Society, in which he introduced the idea of natural selection to explain why people might vary in skin colour in different climates. And in 1831 Patrick Matthew, a Scottish landowner, provided a description of natural selection in an appendix to a book about growing the best trees to make warships.
What’s this? Darwin didn’t create the idea of natural selection out of whole cloth? I don’t think that will come as much of a surprise to most people, but think about it this for a second: what if Darwin never was? Would science be set back for lack of the concept of evolution? Surely not. Darwin made contributions, but the same idea would have cropped up in full form independently of him, and probably not much later.
This crops up all the time. Quick! Name the greatest scientist of the last hundred years! Okay, chances are you just thought of Einstein. After all, he came up with those crazy ‘relativity’ theories. Except, both Lorenz and Poincare arguably came up with most of the formulations first. This idea that space and time are really kind of the same thing? That was Minkowski, not Einstein. Partly, Einstein gets credit for it because Poincare was too much of a mathematician, and Einstein believed in it more; to the others, it was just a conjecture of how the world might work. To Einstein, it was how the world worked. A world without Einstein would have, in the end, been a pretty similar world. Einstein was important to its development, but the question of who invented relativity does not have a simple answer. I suggest reading the article if you are at all interested in history and/or science
So with all that, it should be unsurprising that I was pleased to read this intriguing book review of Europe Between the Oceans, which examines history through the lense of geography. The idea is that most of history can be examined through macro trends and geography, not individuals. Obviously all of history is not reducible to the orientation of land masses, but the broad outlines? They probably are. I guess in the grand scheme of things, we’re no different than any other creature.