Wednesday, April 7

Five most influential geniuses.

Who do I think were the top five geniuses in history who (and this is important) contributed their gifts to humanity in a very significant way? After all, there are closet geniuses who go mad or die in anonymity, the depths of their understanding of things never to be known. And then there are great contributers to humanity, like Edison and Bell, who to me while obviously extremely bright individuals, don't rate up there with the "top shelf" geniuses*.

In fact, true, pure genius coupled with the appropriate circumstances of birth, the right temperament to get their ideas out, and generally to not isolate themselves in their own island of insight would seem to be a rare thing, with one not in any way implying or needing the other. That's what makes this list so special. Here they are, for me. And not in any order, that would only make me tear my hair out!

Isaac Newton
Albert Einstein
William Shakespeare
Charles Darwin
Leonardo da Vinci

You'll notice my list isn't politically correct. All five are white. There are no women. There are three Brits (what are the odds?), one German, and one Italian. All Western Europeans, in other words. And three are outright scientists, one is a man of many trades including what we now call science, and only only is a master of humanities (writer) and not a scientist at all.

Still, I stand by them.

Is cultural bias a factor is my determination? Oh, without a doubt. I speak English and four of these five did too. I was brought up indoctrinated in Western concepts about science and literature, and my choices reflect that. That women seldom had a chance to make a truly large impact on society is one of the great tragedies of history, but that's how it happened and I can't change it, even if I do deeply regret that is was so. The same goes for non-Western peoples in general. I know relatively little about China's long, glorious and tumultuous history. I know about Sun Tzu. Similarly, I don't know as much about other cultures whose peaks have already come and gone, nor do the fickle pages of history. We are looking through a lens, darkly, and there is no way to be "fair."

But here you'll get many an argument, and many good ones. The person I had the most trouble leaving off the list was The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, for I believed he did truly change the world in as profound a way as anyone who has ever lived. Buddhism is a hugely influential philosophy (I refuse to call it a religion) which has had an enormous impact in India, China, Southeast Asia, and nowadays all over the globe, as it grows and gains favor in Europe, the United States, and just about everywhere else. But was The Buddha a genius? That is my reason for ultimately leaving him out. He was almost an anti-genius, in the sense that he had to unlearn everything he had learned as a well-educated prince and get back to the very seed of what it means to be human, what existence means or rather, how to unask that very question and simply live. In this way, he enlightened himself and millions of others, but in our rather narrow view of 'genius' in the West equating to great thought and ideas, he actually deliberately moved away from that paradigm entirely. For "genius" as a concept inherently implies a dualism within human beings - some must be smarter than others. That is anathema to The Buddha's vision that we're are all waves on one big ocean, parts of a whole, not things in and of ourselves, separate from existence, but part and parcel of it. Existence itself is unity and since one cannot get outside of it, it can never be understood. The act of even trying to "understand" is actually folly and self-deception, and true contentment comes when the Self lets that idea go and then ultimately, lets the Self go as well.

THEN, depending on your bent, there is Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Pascal, Descartes, Lavoisier, Hammurabi, Imhotep, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Aristarchus, Archimedes, Democritus, Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Camus, Galileo, Von Neumann, Turing, Cantor, Leibniz, Euler, Riemann, Hilbert, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Schumann, Bach, Debussy, Mohammed, Lao-Tzu, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau, Paine, Roger and Francis Bacon, Chaucer, Fermi, Feynman, Flemming, Goddard, Watson & Crick, Goedel, Hubble, Keynes, Salk, Picasso, Gutenberg, Adams, Hamilton, Adam Smith, Lincoln, Marx, Mandela, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates, Ford, Mao, Schroedinger, Heisenburg, Bohr, Boyle, Preistly, Maxwell, Mendeleev, Gordon Moore, Tim Berners-Lee, and even some of my own personal favorites, Isaac Asimov, JRR Tolkien, Sylvia Plath, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, Edward O. Wilson, Martin Rees, Bob Marley, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Drake, Thom Yorke, Morrissey, Robert Smith, Brendan Perry, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon!

As you see we could keep going on like this endlessly. I inevitably left off dozens or hundreds of equally brilliant or influential people, some of whom might be amongst your own personal icons. I know I gave short shrift to religious figures. There's no doubt they influence many, many people (the Pope, for example), but are they geniuses? I say no. A few - Thomas Aquinas comes to mind - come close to being extraordinarily bright and influential. Yet how to tell who is "smarter" than another, or who had the most true impact, rather than just riding the crest of a wave whose time had come, and receiving the most credit. And notice I still didn't name any women (except Plath). This was deliberate, because there have been lots of great, brilliant, influential women, and to mention any few of them (like Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Ada Lovelace, Margaret Sanger...) would be to do a disservice to them all. So I leave that long list out, just because making more and more lists isn't getting back to my point.

My point is, we live in a world dominated by Western thought, technologies, and lifestyle, whether we like it or not. Yes, China is on the rise, but largely because it has Westernized itself economically and somewhat socially. Japan certainly has become a 'Western' nation since WW2 in everything but geographic location. Islam and Catholicism sadly have the Middle East and Africa living largely in medieval conditions, surpressing any great thinkers or doers that may arise from there. And Latin America has had its share of great leaders (Simon Bolivar for one), but has always struggled with poverty, political upheavals, and the inability to unite to form a true continental identity, the way America's "Manifest Destiny" triumphantly and tragically did for North America. Great Britain led the way for the colonization of most of the world in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, with France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, and Germany playing their parts, and thus in a sense "Westernized" nearly the entire globe in some way. "Idea-flow" certainly went more from Europe into the third world than the other way around. And in the 20th century, especially the latter half, it was the United States who ascended and exported its culture to the rest of the world, and continues to do so to this day (much to the dismay of many).

So, in this climate, it's not a question of cultural relativism or who would be such-and-such in a hypothetical "fair" world. It's a question of looking at the real world as it is, the only one we've got, and deciding which figures in history have, by dint of their extraordinary original ideas and their successful application to and propagation within society in general, contributed the most to that world which we now inhabit, physically, culturally, socioeconomically, philosophically, and in every other way.

And my contention, though I've a supremely open mind on the subject and would love to hear YOUR lists, arguments for and against my choices, and so one, is that the five people I named above have "netted," if you will, the largest totals of pure genius + extraordinary impact with regards to their continued influence on our modern lives.

Any takers?


*Nikola Tesla did in my opinion, but he didn't have the same kind of impact as did Edison did at the time due to being somewhat blacklisted by that man; although he did invent radio (though Marconi used to get the credit), X-rays (though Roentgen still gets the credit), radio controlled devices, alternating current (AC) power (the kind used throughout the world; batteries use DC or direct current power, which cannot be transmitted far), and many, many other things that are still not appreciated to this day because he seemed also to have no head for business, unlike Edison, and failed to patent many of his inventions. He was pretty true to the stereotype of "the absent minded professor."


An Gabhar Ban said...

Hmmmm, you've got a rather spectacular grouping and present a really good argument for why they're there. I, being of a scientific bent myself, am going to agree with you. Partially due to being a bit lazy and also because I'm not able to think of a soul I'd rather see added to the list. There have been lots of geniuses over the years but when you add in influence? They are names that any child in school could tell you and most adults could name at least two or three of them. Not so with many of the others you listed. Ask me tomorrow and I might change my mind but tonight I'm with you. :)

Metamatician said...

Thank you Karen, you're very kind and wise at the same time. I might not be right, but I do try, and I do care.

I like that you agree with my choices (at least for tonight!) - it makes me feel more sure that I am onto something true, after all.

Metamatician said...

And I like how you note that they are names "any child in school could tell you and most adults could name at least two or three" - brilliant!

billybytedoc said...

Could we add Alan Kay? I don't think he is in there.

Regarding Jesus, If he is what much of the world believes, a God, then he is omniscient and really can't be compared with mere humans.

on the other hand, if he exists at all, and is human with a huge myth attached to him, I would not call him a genius but he sure had a huge effect on human history. I guess we can leave him in.

Very interesting blog!

Metamatician said...


Yeah, definitely Alan Kay of Xerox PARC/Smalltalk, GUI, Dynabook fame added to the long list. Good one, Byte.

Without him, maybe no Mac OR Windows or anything as usable and graphical for another 20 years or something, til finally someone else came up with it. And even then who knows what the metaphor would have been? Not necessarily a desktop with menus and a pointer.

Also an MIT graduate, a UCLA guy (good), worked for not only Xerox but Apple's Advanced Technology Group, where he pioneered some of the early concepts of object-oriented programming that dominate the field today, and even worked for Disney's Imagineering team, in addition to being a professional-quality musician. Definite inclusion!

I considered Charles Babbage, but since nothing really became of his Difference Engines, his genius was a ahead of its time and a bit wasted, unfortunately. Then there was John Harrison, the maker of the first clocks that could keep time accurate on-board a ship at sea, and thus help sailors to find their longitude (the direction in which the stars don't help much) with accuracy, which changed the face of sailing and in part made possible the "conquering" of the world by the British Empire.

Also, Charles Lyell, the "Father of Geology" was a brilliant Scottish scientist whose ideas for a very old Earth whose features had not been formed by Biblical deluges and upheavals but by the ordinary, gradual processes of erosion and deposition (to name a few) caused many people to consider an old earth for the first time, including one young man named Charles Darwin, who brought Lyell's book Principles of Geology on board the Beagle with him when he sailed round the world. It profoundly changed the way in which Darwin, who initially believed the orthodoxy of the day - a 6,000 year old earth with created species and no speciation events - interpreted the natural world he saw around him, and, along with Malthus' work on exponential population growth and fitness without such populations and the limitations of food and other natural resources, probably helped Darwin to synthesize his ideas about natural selection as the mechanism for evolution (though it took decades for the ever-cautious and respectable Darwin to put anything of the sort into print.

The guy who made the first large-scale geological/topographical map of england was certainly a genius whose work paid immediate dividends, as was the guy who wrote the Oxford English Dictionary pretty much all by himself over a lifetime. There are so many fascinating characters, especially when it comes to inventions!

Metamatician said...

And in the pure scientists of course there were the seminal physicists Lord Rutherford and Lord Kelvin (William Thompson), as well as Thomas Young of the famous two-slit experiment, Max Planck of the blackbody radiation paradox, and so many others. Other than Hubble, I gave astronomers short shrift too but there certainly have been many great minds peering into telescope lenses, such as Sir Arthur Eddington, his colleague Subramanyan Chandrasekhar and Harlow Shapley, all of the Royal Institute in England and contributing to relativity theory, black hole theory, and working out the shape of the galaxy.

I don't even think I mentioned Louis Pasteur! Where would we be without him. And of course a long list of medical people before him like Galen, Paracelsus, and Hippocrates paved the way for the modern medicine that so shapes our lives. Ol' Da Vinci was in on that too, performing many animal (and forbidden human) autopsies in his study of anatomy for art, but also to try to understand on its own merits how living things actually worked.

I skipped over many of the great chemists and most of the biologists, and a whole lot of other folks, but I'll stop this comment here and let other readers recommend their favorites, if they choose.

Thanks for reminding me about Kay, Bytedoc. Good list we're forming, here! And yeah, I agree that Jesus is problematic. Like other religious figures, he meets the influential part with ease, of course. But there is so little known about him as a man and what is supposedly grown (from the Gospels, mostly) is so much in question and paints such a confusing picture of the man and his OWN beliefs (never mind what people would make him into after his death), that it's hard to say that he was a genius in the sense we've been using it. Maybe just a very charismatic leader with some strong beliefs, some radical, some tolerant. Maybe he was one of those guys who was in the right place at the right time, in a Judea ripe for rebellion and always willing to make anyone into The Messiah. It would be interesting to know more actual facts about him and his life, such as what he did for the 30 years before his public ministry began. We know almost nothing of that period.

Good conversation.

billybytedoc said...

It is endless isn't it?

Metamatician said...

Yep! It sure is, in a fun way.

About Jesus, that should have been "what is known" not "what is grown" - lol. Weird mistakes I make sometimes.


Archived Posts

Search The Meta-Plane