An enlightening list

Nov 2, 2008
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Interesting biographies, provides better understanding of world history, fun list

Cons:Not objective science, non-serious concept

The Bottom Line: This book makes you think about who the influential people really were and why. The book will have many enlightening surprises for you.


Who were the most influential people in history and why? If you know some world history you also know that someone's fame and the impact that he has had on history are two different things. There are many individuals whose impact on history has been enormous even though most people have never heard of them, and there are many household names that would not make it on any reasonable "the 10,000 most influential people" list. In addition, influence is not the same as greatness, or even importance. A drunk driver who kills one of your loved ones will have a great influence on your life, but you would probably not use the words "great" or "important" about that person. Influence is possible to measure to some extent; however, it takes a very knowledgeable historian with a highly analytical mind who also understands science and technology to do it. Michael H. Hart, an astrophysicist and a historian wrote this book about the 100 people he believes has had the greatest influence in world history.

About the book

Most of all, this book is a very interesting collection of biographies of highly influential people throughout history. At the end of each of the 100 biographies the author spends about one or two pages analyzing the impact that the individual might have had on people's lives throughout history. The analysis is to a large extent comparative and he presents many arguments for and against as to why a certain person should be higher or lower on the list in comparison to another person. Influence is difficult to measure, and it is not even crystal clear how it should be defined, so the actual rank or even the inclusion of a person on the list should not be taken too seriously. The author clearly states that the book is "his ranking", and not objective science. However, the author's expertise and analytical mind makes his selections very interesting and enlightening. Even if you don't end up agreeing with his list after you've read the book, your list after you've read the book will be quite different from any list that you would have tried to concoct before you've read the book.

Hart decided to choose Muhammad as the most influential person in history despite the fact that Islam is not the largest religion. Hart attributes this to the fact that Muhammad was successful in both the religious and political realms, and that Muhammad played a larger role in the development of Islam then Jesus did in the development of Christianity. He noted, for example, that St. Paul played a pivotal role in the dissemination of Christianity. It should be noted that mass murderers like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Genghis Khan, are also on the list. However, negative influence is still influence and also often much easier to attain than positive influence.

36 of the 100 persons on the list are scientists and inventors. Some have suggested this is too many. I think this may actually be too few. Because of technology and science the world has been transformed from a planet with abundant misery and death to a planet with just some misery and death. It used to be that more than half of all kids died, the average life span was 30, and almost everyone was dirt poor and ignorant. Today the average lifespan in the third world is 67, infant mortality is way down, starvation relatively less wide spread, and analphabetism is no longer the norm. Just in case someone has missed it, the cause for the population explosion is that people stopped dying like flies.

The book was sold in 500,000 copies and was translated into 15 foreign languages. The first version was published in 1978 and a second revision (this one) was published in 1992. In the 1992 revision there were a few replacements, demotions and promotions. It should be added that he also includes another 100 honorable mentions in an Appendix. Since this boo was written there have been many books written using the 100 greatest/influential/top of something theme.

The Top Ten list

This is his top ten.

1. Muhammad

2. Isaac Newton

3. Jesus Christ

4. Buddha

5. Confucius

6. St. Paul

7. Ts'ai Lun

8. Johannes Gutenberg

9. Christopher Columbus

10. Albert Einstein

My reader experience

This list contained a few people that I had never heard of, but who clearly were a lot more influential then many of the people I thought were the most influential. Take, for example, number seven, "Ts'ai Lun" the inventor of paper (China 105 AD). Largely because of the existence of paper China was able to develop into a powerful and united empire, and when paper reached Europe it had a profound influence on Western Civilization as well. Because of paper we don't need to use clay tablets, sheep skin, papyrus, or bamboo to write. Printing presses and the mass production of books and newspapers has been made possible because of paper. We also have paper money, toilet paper, and paper products thanks to Ts'ai Lun. Would there even be a modern Western Civilization without Ts'ai Lun? Keep this in mind before disagreeing with Hart too quickly. His analysis may change your mind.

However, what I liked the most about the book were the biographies. They were well written and interesting, and typically a great history lesson. The fact that the selections of the biographies were based on something much more profound than fame, the established norm, or political correctness, made the book one of the most enlightening history books that I have read. I also liked the fact that the author clearly understood the scientific topics he was sometimes writing about. I've read this book to my kids and I think it made them much more aware of world history then their peers, perhaps even more so than if I had read an equally "thick" book on world history. That does not mean that I think this book is primarily a book on world history. It is a book that would be a great to read in addition to a good book on world history.

Discussion on the book

Some have complained that the rank of Shakespeare is too low. Edward de Vere (William Shakespeare according to Hart) is number 31. I do not agree with this critique. First of all, anyone on the list had an enormous influence on the world. Secondly, let's compare with another Edward, Edward Jenner. Edward Jenner is number 70 on the list. Edward Jenner invented the first practical smallpox vaccine. Smallpox killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century (which is roughly 7-8% of all deaths in the 20th century). Since 1979 no one has died from small pox because vaccination has eradicated it. Shakespeare was a play write that was influential on the English language. I had never read or heard much about Shakespeare until I moved to the U.S. (I am not a native English speaker). Shakespeare did not have a huge influence on me, as far as I can tell, but the fact that I did not die from small pox did.  So it seems to me that the two Edwards should actually switch rank.

Other people have objected that making such a list is futile guess work. However, the author states that the list and the ranks should not be taken too seriously, and still his arguments for someone's inclusion on the list as well as the rank are impressive. I think you will agree if you read the book with an open mind. There are also few women and individuals from certain parts of the world on the list and therefore he has been accused of bias. Maybe the author is biased, but trying to squeeze in individuals into his list to make it more "politically correct" would make it less believable. For example, the fact that there are fewer female conquerors, dictators, and founders of religions does not mean that women as a group are less influential then men or that it could have been different under different circumstances. Neither is the author claiming such a thing. Another objection to his list is that future world events may prove his list wrong. It should be mentioned that Hart fully accepts this critique. In fact his second revision was changed to a large extent because of the fall of communism.

Summary

What makes this a good book is the fact that it makes you think about who the influential people really were and why. It is also a good book to teach children about history and the people who influenced it. It is also a fun biography collection. Whomever you would like to see on this list, everyone has their viewpoint. My list will not look like yours, or Harts, but Harts list is quite enlightening.


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