Tag Archives: Physics

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:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion, Science