Clem Sunter

The most significant humans in history

2013-12-31 08:16

Clem Sunter

Recently, I read an article giving the top 10 historical figures in terms of their influence on human affairs.

This list was produced by Steven Skiena and Charles Ward in a book entitled Who's Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank. They used a similar methodology to Google's system of ranking web pages in a search, but in their case collecting millions of opinions and using Wikipedia as the basis for their algorithm. The list is as follows:

1 Jesus Christ

2 Napoleon Bonaparte

3 William Shakespeare

4 Muhammad

5 Abraham Lincoln

6 George Washington

7 Adolf Hitler

8 Aristotle

9 Alexander the Great

10 Thomas Jefferson

The authors attribute the absence of women to centuries of inequality.

Another ranking comes from the 1992 edition of Michael Hart's book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. His top 10 names are:

1 Muhammad

2 Isaac Newton

3 Jesus Christ

4 Buddha

5 Confucius

6 Paul of Tarsus

7 Cai Lun (inventor of paper)

8 Johannes Gutenburg (inventor of the printing press)

9 Christopher Columbus

10 Albert Einstein

My comments on these two lists are as follows:

1 - I can quite understand why religious icons feature so prominently on both lists since religion plays such a massive role in the lives of billions of people. My only objection is the inclusion of Paul of Tarsus ahead of Moses or Abraham, in the second list.

2 - I have no idea why Napoleon or Hitler feature at all in the first list as influential leaders. Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson all left substantial legacies which are still a beneficial influence as regards democracy and freedom. I would put Gandhi and Mandela alongside them for the same reason. As for Alexander the Great, he, like Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar, wielded enormous influence whilst he was alive but I fail to see why he is important now. His empire is long gone.

3 - While I fully support the inclusion of Newton and Einstein in the second list for their contribution to mathematics and science, the two inventors who have the most influence on life as we know it today are for me a more difficult choice. Lun and Gutenburg are right up there but what about Alexander Graham Bell with the telephone, and the inventor of the alphabet, the computer, the car and the aeroplane? Many inventions are incremental, so whose shoulders do you single out for mention? And why are no medical pioneers mentioned now that we have doubled our average lifespan?

4 - Shakespeare is top of the arts and entertainment world by a long shot so I am not surprised by his inclusion on the first list. However, great composers like Beethoven, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and novelists/poets like Dickens and Homer would surely be included if the list were expanded to the top 100 humans in history.

5 - Confucius and Aristotle are worthy recipients of their ranking in the field of philosophers and thinkers. Joining them without a doubt in an extended list would be Karl Marx and Adam Smith whose ideas still shape the debate between government intervention and the free market.

6 - Christopher Columbus discovered America but plenty of other explorers discovered the rest of the world. Maybe Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong will be in the list one day when space is more fully explored by man.

7 - One woman I would have in my top 10 humans of all time would be Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote. It is also why the list may be very different at the beginning of the next century.

Try this topic out at your next party with friends. You will get some interesting results! As one person said, the truth of the matter is that for most of us, our parents, spouses and children, plus one or two really close friends, are probably more influential than anyone else in the lives we lead. The rest are also rans.

Send your comments to Clem

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