The Great Person Theory of History

While I was writing my post  about the history of Darwin and the discovery of the solar nuclear furnace,  I was reminded of one of my pet peeves:  The Great Man Theory of History (wiki, also here).  This theory claims that history should be understood through famous people.  The montage on the right, would be a way to envision his small story through the eyes of the Great Man Theory.

The Great Man Theory of History views history as the impact of “great men” but the foibles of this simple theory can be seen in the story of the solar furnace.  In fact, I intentionally structured that post to illustrate this tempting yet mistaken theory of history by filling the right column with the big pictures of all the “Great Men”.  OK, there was one woman in the story and a modern day version of the theory should, of course, include women and rightly be called “The Great Person Theory of History”.  But “Man” or “Person”, the theory would still be deceptively wrong.

I see two huge main problems with The Great Person Theory of History:

  1. Interdependence: The creations of these “Great People” are almost inevitably dependent on many people who came before them — both those who made mistakes and those who approximated reality closer than those before them. Almost all ideas or discoveries can be shown to be dependent on the many discoveries or ideas that proceeded them.  The Solar Furnace post shows just a minuscule number of the discoveries that feed Bethe’s discovery.
  2. Co-Discovery:  Ideas are often born of several people independently and often simultaneously showing that any particular “Great Person” is not a necessary as one might be tempted to think.  In fact, if any of these great men or women had never been born, the idea most likely would have come out eventually anyway.   It is as if we share knowledge which ripens for any number of people to eventually pick.  For a list of co-discoveries or “multiple discoveries” see this wiki article.  Here are a few famous ones:
    • Calculus: Newton, Leibniz (1600s)
    • Oxygen: Scheele (1773), Priestley (1774)
    • Electric Telegraph: Wheatstone & Morse (1937)
    • Evolution: Darwin (1840), Wallace (1857)
    • Chromosomes: Sutton & Boveri (1902)
    • Sound Film: Tykociner (1922), Forest (1923)
    • Quantum electrodynamics:  Stueckelberg, Schwinger, Feynman, Tomonaga  (1930-40s)
    • Universal Computing Machine:  Alan Turing & Emil Post (1936)
    • Polio vaccine: Koprowski, Salk, Sabin  (1950-63)
    • Jet Engine: Campini (1940), Whittle (1941)
    • Nanotubes:  Bethune and Iijima (1993)

So, though the montage on the right may be a bit improved “Great Person” view of history than the one above, it is still distorted.  The Great Person theory is pervasive.  It permeates the historical models of people all over the world.

This model is a common temptation because of the existence of social hierarchy modules in human brains — we are built to look for leaders and heroes.    We share this with other primates.  These “leader” modules probably lead us into the delusional side of the Great Person Theory of History.   Our minds hunger for heros and leaders for our tribe.  Indeed the larger “tribal” module even has us generate “the other” and villains.  We fill our histories with stories of evil people to explain our lives: Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao and recently, the late bin Laden.  But like the hero stories, the villain stories lack the nuances of the many, many people involved and of the concepts and causes that really feed the phenomena.

The temptations of the Great (or Evil) Person Theory of history is obvious but so are its short-comings.  We must always be diligent not to let our minds fool us.

So, below, in contrast to the Great People Theory map, I have sketch a History Map which is honors both interdependence and co-discovery.  My attempt is to make concepts more central and Great People as less critical.  I will allow readers to imagine pictures of other people for the arrows missing pics as the map is, by necessity, a bit too cluttered already.  Note also that this model shows that mistakes (the source of rejected theories on the left) often serve as foundational material for success (closer approximations).  Tell me what you think:

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15 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion, Science

15 responses to “The Great Person Theory of History

  1. DaCheese

    I think another reason why we represent history this way is simply that it’s easier. We put a name and face to a particular discovery or event, and that person then stands in for all of the individuals involved.

    Describing all of the contributions of team members and rivals for each discovery would be well beyond the scope of most history textbooks. So we simplify it to a single name and a date, and then we make connections between these simplified events. The problem, of course, is that students may forget (or never really understand) that this is just a shorthand and not the full picture.

  2. @ DaCheese
    Indeed, it is easier. Just like it is easier to remember that your orthopedic surgeon is black and not remember anything else after time.

  3. Most of the “great persons” you have listed are on record as expressing a much more nuanced view that recognizes the complexity and interdependence of progress. In my experience, the “great persons” view is mainly what you see in elementary schools and popularizations for people outside the field.

  4. @ JS Allen

    Absolutely agree !

  5. crl

    One fairly simple reason we subscribe to the “Great Man” theory of history is that it is just easier to remember a few famous names than a lot of less famous ones. Since we have learned much of what we know about history and science in academic settings, where no reasonable teacher or professor would expect us to remember an indefinite names per discovery, so while many common men and women may end up in the shadow of their more famous counterparts, this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of a formal education. Additionally, many of small yet important figures are lost to history. If we are to describe the causes of a revolution, it is impossible for us to know the thoughts, feelings, and actions of each individual, yet incredibly easy for us remember a few key leaders. So, while it may be true that the complex interactions of tiny factors control the behavior of individuals, societies, and the universe itself, it is immensely easier to view history or science as a lump of facts shaped by a few great men rather than as continuing processes shaped by people and things which seem unimportant.

  6. @ CRL :
    True. One thing this post was pushing for was the importance of understanding ideas over people.

  7. Sabio,

    Great post, Sabio! This one is a gem. I really appreciate just how much work goes into these posts now that I’m trying to build up something of my own.

    Also, sorry I was so argumentative yesterday without reading this in full. You put far more more thought into it than my objections recognized.

    -Brandon

  8. agreed. nothing further your honor. ;-)

  9. @ Brandon
    [note to readers: Brandon & I meet in a local coffee show occasionally — he has just started a new blog]
    Thanx Brandon. No problem with the arguments — maybe it helps us both, eh?

    @ Zero
    Not sure what you agree with nor what the allusion to the judge is about. But I did like the wink!

  10. just a great post. i never agreed with the great man of history theory (although you put “person” which is very modern of you). i’m all winks these days. be well mi amigo.

  11. Denis

    Very well written post. Just wanted to point out that Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903), famous sociologist said that great leaders were only products of the atmosphere and society they worked and lived in.

  12. Thanx, Denis, excellent addition!

  13. I have re-read this many times because I’m seeing it more and more. There are those in my church who seek to fill a perceived power-void/vacuum now that our senior pastor is gone. They subscribe to this theory and fear losing members and such and want to rush into getting another pastor or having me step into the role.

    Never mind this is counter to our polity since the congregation is the top of the heap and we clergy are but guides. Never mind there’s already a transition team already in place. So it goes. I liked the post before, but I’m loving it now!

  14. @ Ghost
    Glad the imagery and the idea is so fitting for you.
    Your situation sounds simply like people wanting a leader. This is common in all human affairs. People want charisma, power, authority. A few don’t want it, but the majority of sheople crave it.

  15. You are exactly right. They do crave it, but the strange thing is, they already have it, at least in our situation. Just not so much in the ‘named position.’ Everything else is running smoothly and on schedule. I guess they want the power or whatever.. but more importantly they might want someone to blame without actually having to take responsibility on themselves…

    This makes me think of what exactly is leadership… the scapegoat mechanism in societies, and the ending of the Gospel of Mark… I’ll be posting that mess of ideas on my site soon instead of marring your comment posts.

    Just wanted to say thanks for this post, you’re right on the money. Happy to have found your site and have your digital friendship/sparring in my life.

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