Look how far we've come

2011-09-21 00:00

A BOOK crossed my desk titled The World’s Greatest Idea. Author John Farndon believes he has narrowed down the 50 greatest ideas to affect humanity into one small hard-back book.

I was cynical and indeed we all sniggered when we looked at some of the entries in it. “Banking!” snorted one of my colleagues. “I would have been much better off hiding my money under my mattress.” We all agreed. Bank charges are a sore topic these days.

Epic Poetry I was inclined to rubbish. I am personally more in favour of the pithy limerick. But after paging through some of the other entries a whole new world opened up to me. I discovered glimpses of history that I had never known, bringing me a new appreciation for things like tea and coffee, which I had taken for granted. Before, when I dipped a tea bag into my regular cuppa I had no idea of the politics involved in bringing this beverage to the Western world from China. Of course, there was the social politics in drinking these beverages — coffee drinking was strictly taboo and tea was for the upper classes.

Apparently, capitalism is one of the great ideas of the world. I guess that would depend on what side of the income divide you are. If you are a poor person you might favour Marxism which is also one of the great ideas of the modern world. Welfare is also listed as a great idea and it is interesting to see how this concept was originally envisaged after World War 1.

The Internet was voted as the best idea yet. While I am all in praise of the Internet and can’t imagine my life without it, I really believe the invention of the wheel was probably more crucial to the development of humankind. Without the wheel we would still be walking kilometres to fetch food and water. So I am afraid my vote is for the lowly wheel. But I did not factor in other things like the invention of sails which made it possible for ships to cross the seas from one continent to another facilitating trade and exploration.

Coming in at number three is contraception. It seems that birth control has definitely changed society. By choosing to limit the number of children we have, we can improve our standard of living and spend our time raising better educated and healthier children.

The abolition of slavery was a turning point in history. The recognition that no person has the right to own another was a step forward for humanity. It took some governments (the apartheid government) a few decades to learn that we are all born equal, which brings me to the issue of feminism — another great idea.

Women had to fight for the right to vote and to be able to make their own decisions independent of their husbands. Unmarried women were stigmatised. In recent years, women have been encouraged to do jobs traditionally done by men. But they have yet to earn the same salaries.

Fire, farming, logic, scientific principles and mathematics are all great ideas in humankind’s progress and we scarcely stop to think about them as they are so much part of our daily life.

It is amusing to see that marriage comes last on the list of 50 great ideas. As Groucho Marx said: “Marriage is an institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” Apparently over 100 million couples tie the knot every year. Sociologists say married people give society stability, there are less legal complications over property and it assures the man that he is the legitimate father of any children.

This book is worth a read just to appreciate how far we have come and how we take our modern conveniences for granted. From ox wagons to space travel in a century — how quickly we have progressed and how quickly we have forgotten.

• The World’s Greatest Idea by John Farndon is published by Icon Books.

• To comment or share information contact: trish.beaver@wit ness.co.za

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