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The Seven Wonders of Human Intellect

February 5, 2009

Duane Smith put up a post about what he called Intellectual Monuments which he thinks everyone should visit. By this he meant that there were some ideas so important that people should make the effort to engage with them the same way they would with historic monuments. No so much by buying a ticket to see Thermodynamics, but being able to ‘answer senior college level questions about them’. I’ve put that in quotes because, having not gone through the USA’s educational system, I’m not entirely sure what it means.

He has a good list, but Aydin Örstan also has a good criticism in the comments, which is that you only have so much time on the planet. You can’t study them all. That’s a fair comment. You also can’t visit every historic monument on the planet, but some are acknowledged as more important than others. Taking the analogy to breaking point we can do the same by asking what the Seven Wonders of Human Intellect are.

Why seven?

Well first off there’s seven wonders of the world. More importantly it’s a good number to argue with. It’s small enough that some pretty major achievements will be left off the list. For instance I think the Michaelson-Morley experiment which disproved the existence of the aether is a brilliant piece of thinking. Even so it doesn’t make my list. At the same time it’s not such a small figure that the selection becomes purely arbitrary. Choosing one thing won’t necessarily make something similar irrelevant.

Here’s my list. I’m sure I’ll overlook some of your favourites too. You can correct me in the comments, or on your own blog.

  1. Deep Time
    I’ll start with the discovery of Deep Time, by which I mean pre-biblical time, because it’s the context which many of the other achievements fit into. The Earth is the stage which every human has walked upon, yet in comparison the time of our own species is so brief. When looking at time in the context of billions of years humanity’s successes, which are built on a foundation of just a few thousand years’ writing, become all the more stunning.
  2. Natural Selection
    If the Earth is the stage, then natural selection provides the scenery. There is beauty in the idea that so much complexity could be derived from such a simple algorithim. The results are astounding. I share around half my DNA with the cabbages growing in my garden. Not a regular basis, that would be worrying. What I mean is the DNA found in the nuceli of the plant cells shows that way back it and I shared a common ancestor. It’s an extraordinary statement of the connections between all life on the planet.
  3. Modern Atomic Theory
    The next mind-boggling similarity is that the cabbage and I, if you ground us down sufficiently into out atoms, would be made of very similar stuff. I don’t know exactly how many things there are on the planet, but if I were to hazard a guess I’d say more than 88. I picked the number 88 because, when you ignore Technetium, Promethium, Astatine and Francium, there’s only 88 natural elements that hang around for long. Yet every animal, vegetable and mineral is made from combinations of these 88 elements. The cyclicity of the behaviour of the elements is even more odd. Why does Potassium act more like Sodium than Calcium. The periodic table explains how the building blocks of reality fit together.
  4. Classical Mechanics
    Plenty of people know that Newton’s work on mechanics is considered to be possibly the greatest scientific work of all time. Considerably less know that it was Galileo, rather than Einstein, who invented relativity. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these two, along with other scientists of the day put together the knowledge of how things move, how they don’t and how they can fit together. When men landed on the moon they were, like Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants. And the moon too – obviously.
  5. Geometry
    This is the first of two language choices. This one is a nod to poetry. Mathematics is a language but I’d follow Sundar Sarukkai in saying that it is a unique language. Sarukkai argues that mathematics is a language which refers to itself, yet this exercise in numerical naval-gazing has produced things like π. Hard ‘n’ Phirm described π as an altar. If so this is probably the only altar whose power is acknowledged around the world. Apart from a possibly apocryphal American state.
  6. Music
    My other nod to language is Music. I wondered which sort of music, but that kind of misses the point. Music seems to be another universal which may even exist outside humans. Steve Mithen has argued that singing was the precursor to language. Looking at the calls of gibbons, who sing duets or even whale and bird song, there may be something in this. At the same time I would give a nod in particular to the music of 19th and 20th century America. From the Blues, to Ragtime, to Jazz beyond even to Hip-Hop it’s an art-form which has spread across the world.

And now I’m stuck. I’d like to add the Moon landings, which were something I think must have been a dream of a lot of Humanity from the time humanity first existed. Still, looking at Duane’s list I’m also aware of so much else I’ve overlooked. Writing is a very strong contender, the ability to pass information through time to future generations is incredible, but it needs something more. Hence:

  • Settlement
    Sometime around the end of the last Ice Age something unprecedented happened. Remains dating from this period have been found which are nothing like anything that existed before. The first settlements formed. Humans are unbelievably social creatures. It’s especially hard to believe if you’ve ever been stuck in a cheap hotel in Benidorm with some of them. Nonetheless humans live together in their millions. It’s the kind of complexity that you only see in other creatures like ants or termites, yet at the same time a human settlement is unmistakably different. It started with the stage and scenery. The development of settlement provided the actors, the stagehands, the technicians and even possibly the play (that last is a bold claim and I’ll try and justify it in a future blog post). It allowed for the creation of all the monuments above. One of the most stunning achievements of human intellect is that they have found a way of living together.

Feel free to tell me I’m wrong and add your own list below, better still write it up on your own blog and leave a link to it here.

  1. February 5, 2009 12:28 pm

    What, no mention for the Bible, the Koran, or the book of Mormon?
    This post should have a lightning conductor and sand bags, since you may provoke divine retribution or terrorism .

  2. February 5, 2009 1:46 pm

    I would say that understanding how our own bodies work has to be on any list of this nature. Call it physiology, call it human biology, call it whatever. Doctors and scholars have been slicing open cadavers since the time of Ancient Greece without making more than fairly basic advances of the kneebone-connected-to-the-shinbone variety.

    Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood was unbelievably important, on a par with Crick and Watson’s double helix (there’s another one!) or natural selection, because from that brilliantly simple concept all else flows. Blood circulation is straightforward enough that anyone can understand it, while complex enough that it can be used to address the most advanced biological or medical ideas.

  3. Alun permalink*
    February 5, 2009 1:49 pm

    I can’t sign into WordPress easily as I’ve had to use my phone for the web this past week. Monday to tomorrow’s posts are all scheduled. Why are they scheduled? Well tomorrow’s post will show the wrath of the FSM is indeed mighty. :)

    I mentioned it on Twitter, but I’ve only just realised I should have mentioned it here too.

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