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The Wisdom of the Moderns


originally posted: May 23, 2007
last updated: July 10, 2007

We live in an age of new-fangled ideas. People are always trying to overthrow traditional ideas and ways of doing things with new ideas and new ways of doing things. Isn't it obviously reckless to overthrow fifty thousand years of human experience within the matter of a mere hundred years or so?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.

During those fifty thousand years or so that humans have walked the earth, a total of about 100 billion people have lived. Obviously that's just a ballpark estimate. Other estimates have ranged from 45 billion to 125 billion, but 100 billion is pretty much where most estimates fall, and it's good enough for us. And we can say with a lot more certainty that there are about 6.5 billion people living in the world right now.

That means that about 1 out of every 15 people who ever lived is alive today. If we make the rough guess that the average person living today is about halfway through their lifetime, then the fifty thousand years of human experience that we are being asked to stand in awe of adds up to only about 30 times more experience then the total life experience of people living today.

That's not an impressively high number. Especially considering the other disadvantages suffered by the ancients:

  • Shorter lives. The ancients didn't live nearly as long, so they didn't have time to accumulate as much experience.

  • Less communication. The ancients were each in communication with vastly fewer people then we moderns are. Mostly they could only talk to people in their towns and villages. Having less access to other people's wisdom to build on probably means they were even more likely than we moderns to rediscover the same wisdom over and over again.

  • Less education. The ancients were on average less educated, so they had less ancestral education to build on. That means fewer giants for them to stand on the shoulders of.

  • Less conversation. The 6.5 billion people in the world now, are all living at the same time. If you come up with a good idea, it could make it's way to any of those other people, and their feedback could make its way back to you. The ancients, on the other hand, were spread out over 50,000 years. Copernicus could criticize Ptolemy, but Ptolemy could not benefit from the feedback.

  • Less forgotten. Frankly, the vast majority of the wisdom of the ancients is long forgotten. The moderns are all still here, and so is most of their wisdom.

So, I think it's pretty obvious that the wisdom of the moderns whoops the stuffing out of the wisdom of the ancients. The folks living now know way more than their ancestors ever did. To heck with tradition!

Except for one thing. The ancients had time to see the long term consequences of things. Since they were doing things in much the same way that their ancestors had, they knew pretty well how it would come out in the end.

That's really the Achilles Heal of the moderns. We've done so many clever, clever things that are likely to give us really big problems down the road. That's really the one thing more than anything else we have to get better at: thinking about long term consequences.

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