Classical Geeks Were Smarter Than You Think

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When I was growing up and learning some history, I used to think that people in the past were, well, stupid.  Why didn't they realize that bleeding you made you worse, not better?  Why didn't they understand electricity?  Why didn't they figure out you could burn oil for heat and light?  How come they didn't invent the steam engine sooner?  What were they, a bunch of stupes?

Then I got older and learned that it was 'way more complicated than that, and that in a lot of ways, plenty of those folks were easily as smart as "modern" folks, and in some cases smarter.  Why didn't they figure out all that stuff?  Well, partly because they didn't have the tools--calculus, for example.  But partly because you need a foundation of tech to build more tech.  It takes a while.

Lately, I've been watching the HBO series "Rome," and I've come to believe that we're not really smarter than those folks at all.   I think a lot of our rapid advance is due to the fact that there are just so durn many of us--if there is 1 "genius" for every, I dunno, 10 million people, well, when the planetary population is 7 billion, there're a lot more geniuses than when it was only a few millions or tens of millions, yeah?  I mean, seriously:  with the simple tools they had advailable at the time of the Romans, do you think you could make a tens-of-miles long acqueduct that would still be functional 1000 years later?  (Yeah, me neither.)  Could you have invented the arch?  The caisson?  These were not dumb people.

What brought this to a head for me, though, was reading about the Battle of Pharsalus which, in case you didn't know (I sure didn't), was basically Julius Caesar's decisive win, the battle that pretty much turned the Roman Republic into a nascent Empire.  After the battle--in which a greatly-outnumbered Julius basically kicked Pompey Magnus' ass all the way from Greece to Egypt--the people flocked to Caesar's side.  Here's how the Wikipedia entry reads: 

"After Pompey's defeat former allies began to align themselves with Caesar as some came to believe the gods favored him, while for others it was simple self preservation. This mentality is difficult to understand in our modern age but the ancients took great stock in success as a sign of favoritism by the gods. This is especially true of success in the face of almost certain defeat as Caesar experienced at Pharsalus."

I read that and I thought, "Really?"  Are we modern folks really that different?  We don't say "the gods favor him;" but how many sports games have you watched where you (or the commentators) say, "They really have the momentum now!"  How is that concept of "momentum"--which when it comes to battles, sports, political races, or anything other than physics is a purely mental construct--any different from "the gods favor him"?  

Or consider the concept of "streak shooting" or "streak hitting" or "clutch performance".  Once again, this is a concept for which many, many people have tried to find a physical of mathematic basis, and failed.  But if you ask most people, they deeply believe in the concept that, say, Big Papi of the Red Sox is a "clutch performer", or that Will Clark was a "streak hitter", or that sometimes in a game a player gets "into the zone".  And I submit that there is no quantitative difference between believing that, and saying, "The Gods favor Eli Manning today."  Furthermore, given how many people felt that God was, literally, favoring Tim Tebow, where do we get off saying that  "this mentality is difficult to understand in our modern age"?  I don't think it's hard to understand at all, because we're still doing it.

Put it this way:  After Caesar kicked Pompey's butt at Pharsalus, "he had the momentum", people recognized that, and got on the Caesar bandwagon.  That's how we'd put it today, in our "modern, enlightened" age, but let's face facts:  it's no different than what "the ancients" were doing.  We just say it differently, is all. 

So when you're asking yourself why Hero of Alexandria, who invented the steam engine around 100 BCE, didn't just go that extra step and start the industrial revolution 2000 years earlier, remind yourself that tech is built on existing tech, and he didn't have the existing tech to build on.  

Or look at poor Leonardo da Vinci; the guy was an epic genius.  He's one of the people for whom the term "Renaissance man" was invented.  If he had had the tools, he (no fooling!) would have created:  The helicopter; the glider; the parachute; the submarine; the deep-sea diving rig; the machine gun; tanks; self-propelled vehicles.  He had drawings for all of these!  (Hell, the guy invented ball bearings, for crying out loud!)  Can anyone truly say someone like Leonardo was dumber than us simply because we've got GPS and iPhones and he couldn't even get his parachutes to work?  Transport Leonardo, or Hero, or Archimedes, or Pythogaros, or whoever to the modern day, and you don't think they'd be cranking out the next gen Facebook or rocket design or whatever?  Damn right they would be.  They weren't stupid; they just didn't have the means.

Just remember:  Those ancient geeks were every bit as sharp as modern ones; they just didn't have all the tools is all.  So let's give them credit, shall we?

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