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9 folks who were way ahead of their time
These great thinkers remind us that taking an unpopular, bold stance might not be madness.
- Sometimes, people are so far ahead of the curve that it takes everybody else hundreds of years to catch up to their ideas.
- While many people are content to quietly sit back and flow with popular opinion, these nine thinkers let the world know what it was doing wrong, often with major consequences.
- These great thinkers remind us that taking an unpopular, bold stance might not be madness.
It's been said that when you're one step ahead of the crowd you're a genius but that two steps ahead make you a crackpot. In some cases, people were so far ahead of their time that they would seem progressive even today, despite hundreds of years of history slowly working to catch up to them.
Here, we have nine scientific and social visionaries who were well ahead of everybody else. The names of others like them have been lost to history, buried under the weight of popular opinion. These bold few are the ones we know about.
Dante, 1450, painted by Andrea del Castagno.
(Photo by: Picturenow/UIG via Getty Images)
The author of the Divine Comedy, Dante had more than his share of ideas that were well ahead of the 14th century.
The first and most famous part of the comedy, Inferno, slips a serious jab at Catholic teachings past the radar. In the story, sodomites are placed in the same circle of hell as murderers; in line with church teachings. Dante, however, expresses sympathy for the damned here that is absent in other chapters.
The sequel to Inferno, which features purgatory, also has depicts homosexual characters in a favorable light, implying that Dante didn't consider it a sin to be gay. Historian John Boswell called Dante's treatment of the subject "revolutionary" in comparison to theological consensus at the time.
Dante also wrote books on political philosophy which were a few centuries early. In De Monarchia he argued for separating secular government from religious authority and called for a universal monarchy to unite all secular governments in the interests of peace.
Hero of Alexandria
(Public Domain/Wikimedia commons)
An inventor who nearly touched off the industrial revolution two thousand years early, Hero has several fantastic credits to his name. He invented the windmill, the vending machine, and the automatic door.
He is best known for his description of an aeolipile, an early steam engine. It is a simple device and consists of a boiler with two jets. When heated, water in the boiler escapes and causes the whole thing to spin. The device, often called 'Hero's Engine' was described by him in the 1st century C.E., but may date back earlier.
The aeolipile was first used to demonstrate the power of the weather but was later used as a temple curiosity. While some historians argue Hero understood its possible uses, this is controversial. It wasn't until 1543 that we can confirm that anybody came up with the idea to attach the engine to something and do work with it.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull
Woodhull presidential campaign.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The first woman to run for the office of President of the United States, Victoria Woodhull's platform would seem radical even today. She also did this before any woman could have voted for her, though Susan B. Anthony famously tried.
Running for the Equal Rights Party, Woodhull campaigned for labor rights, progressive taxation, equal rights for men and women, free love, an international system of preventing war by arbitration of disputes, total employment through public works projects, and the end of the death penalty.
The Equal Rights party also nominated Fredrick Douglass for vice president; he never acknowledged it and campaigned for President Grant. Woodhull received a negligible number of votes and was too young to take office anyway, but still has the distinction of being the first woman to run.
Her progressive stances didn't end there; her personal life shocked the Victorian moralists of her day. She and her sister were the first women to be stock brokers on Wall Street. They ran a newspaper that discussed issues of sexual double standards, how long a skirt needed to be, vegetarianism, and other social problems. It also featured the first English printing of Marx's Communist Manifesto. While she later walked back on it, she was also a supporter of free love during her more radical years.
Christine de Pizan
Madam de Pizan giving a lecture.
An Italian poet writing in France during the 14th century, Christine de Pizan was a celebrity in her own time with big ideas. Simone de Beauvoir called her works "the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex." She was the first professional woman of letters in European history.
Left without an income source after the death of her husband and father, she embarked on a writing career at a time when nearly all other female writers wrote under pseudonyms. She wrote love poems, biographies, and prose works.
Most noteworthy is The Book of the City of Ladies, a story of Christine using the achievements of famous women in history to build a city. In the book, she argues by allegory that men and women were both equally capable of goodness, a radical notion at the time. She also claimed that women should be educated and wrote an accompanying manual for it, another stunning departure from medieval practice. Her books remained in print for two centuries.
Ada Lovelace as depicted by Alfred Edward Chalon.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace was directed towards math and science by her mother out of fear that she would otherwise turn out like her father. While science didn't save her from an early death, it did allow her to become the first computer programmer in history.
In 1842, she translated an article about an incomplete mechanical computer devised by Charles Babbage into English. At the end of the article, she added a series of notes which included the algorithms necessary for the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers, the first published computer program. In the same section, she argued that artificial intelligence was impossible, explaining that the device could only act as ordered.
In addition to being the first person to write computer code, she was the first person to realize how much computers could do. Computer historian Doron Swade argues that she was the earliest person to understand that the numbers a computer was crunching could represent anything, not just quantities. This jump, which nobody else at the time made, predicted our current use of computers as more than mere calculators.
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A famous French scientist and philosopher, Descartes was also a few hundred years early on one of his inventions.
After reviewing an idea for improving vision pitched by Leonardo da Vinci, Descartes invented the contact lens. Consisting of a glass tube filled with liquid and placed directly on the eye, it was able to correct for vision problems. However, it was so large that it made blinking impossible. The first practical contact lenses would not be invented for another 250 years.
This was on top of Descartes successful career inventing modern philosophy, fusing algebra and geometry, and laying the foundations for the invention of calculus, which happened shortly after his death.
The last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, Marcus Aurelius was a stoic philosopher whose ideas on life and governance make for great reading.
His excellent rule was progressive on many fronts. His dedication to free speech was particularly noteworthy. He wrote in Meditations of the nobility of "the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed."
He practiced what he preached and ignored satirical depictions of him when he could just as easily have killed the people making fun of him. While he wasn't the only person holding this stance, he was one of the few people to allow such liberties before the modern era. His statement is held as one of the ancient origins of liberal political philosophy.
Jeremy BenthamJeremy Bentham
(Edward Gooch/Edward Gooch/Getty Images)
One of his first reform efforts was the creation of a better prison, the Panopticon. The design featured a single watchtower surrounded by cells, which were arranged in a circle. Bentham proposed that since every prisoner could be seen at any time, all prisoners would behave themselves. The building was never constructed, though Michel Foucault remarked that core concept spread throughout the criminal justice system and every other part of our society.
Bentham, convinced that the rejection of the Panopticon was caused by a conspiracy against the public, set his sights on reforming everything else. During his lifetime he argued for animal rights, women's rights, and law reform. A paper arguing against the criminalization of homosexual acts was published after his death, making him the first person in England to write an essay in support of gay rights.
He is still ahead of the UK on the issue of no-fault divorce, which he supported and they still haven't gotten around to.
Chanakya was an Indian statesman, philosopher, and economist in the 4th century BCE who was one of the architects of the Mauryan Empire.
His treatise Arthashastra, which was thought to be lost until the 20th century, and has been favorably compared to Machiavelli's The Prince. Unlike the European work, the Arthashastra encourages a king to rule justly and empower the people he rules.
Several points in the book would be considered progressive today. He argues for giving welfare to those who could not work, giving out land to the peasants if the landed elite weren't using it, a mixed economy, conservation, and giving animals which had worked their entire lives a comfortable retirement.
Privatized prison labor: Will you be on the right side of history?
New anthropological research suggests our ancestors enjoyed long slumbers.
- Neanderthal bone fragments discovered in northern Spain mimic hibernating animals like cave bears.
- Thousands of bone fragments, dating back 400,000 years, were discovered in this "pit of bones" 30 years ago.
- The researchers speculate that this physiological function, if true, could prepare us for extended space travel.
Humans have a terrible sense of time. We think in moments, not eons, which accounts for a number of people that still don't believe in evolutionary theory: we simply can't imagine ourselves any differently than we are today.
Thankfully, scientists and researchers have vast imaginations. Their findings often depend on creative problem-solving. Anthropologists are especially adept at this skill, as their job entails imagining a prehistoric world in which humans and our forebears were very different creatures.
A new paper, published in the journal L'Anthropologie, takes a hard look at ancient bone health and arrives at a surprising conclusion: Neanderthals (and possibly early humans) might have endured long, harsh winters by hibernating.
Adaptability is the key to survival. Certain endotherms evolved the ability to depress their metabolism for months at a time; their body temperature and metabolic rate lowered while their breathing and heart rate dropped to nearly imperceptible levels. This handy technique solved a serious resource management problem, as food supplies were notoriously scarce during the frozen months.
While today the wellness industry eschews fat, it has long had an essential evolutionary function: it keeps us alive during times of food scarcity. As autumn months pass, large mammals become hyperphagic (experiencing intense hunger followed by overeating) and store nutrients in fat deposits; smaller animals bury food nearby for when they need a snack. This strategy is critical as hibernating animals can lose over a quarter of their body weight during winter.
For this paper, Antonis Bartsiokas and Juan-Luis Arsuaga, both in the Department of History and Ethnology at Democritus University of Thrace, scoured through remains of a "pit of bones" in northern Spain. In 1976, archaeologists found a 50-foot shaft leading down into a cave in Atapuerca, where thousands of bone fragments have since been discovered. Dating back 400,000 years—some of the fragments may be as old as 600,000 years—researchers believe the bodies were intentionally buried in this cave.
Evidence of ancient human hibernation / human hibernation for space travel | Dr Antonis Bartsiokas
While the fragments have been well studied in the intervening decades, Arsuaga (who led an early excavation in Atapuerca) and Bartsiokas noticed something odd about the bones: they displayed signs of seasonal variations. These proto-humans appear to have experienced annual bone growth disruption, which is indicative of hibernating species.
In fact, the remains of cave bears were also found in this pit, increasing the likelihood that the burial site was reserved for species that shared common features. This could be the result of a dearth of food for bears and Neanderthals alike. The researchers write that modern northerners don't need to sleep for months at a time; an abundance of fish and reindeer didn't exist in Spain, as they do in the Arctic. They write,
"The aridification of Iberia then could not have provided enough fat-rich food for the people of Sima during the harsh winter—making them resort to cave hibernation."
The notion of hibernating humans is appealing, especially to those in cold climates, but some experts don't want to put the cart before the horse. Large mammals don't engage in textbook hibernation; their deep sleep is known as a "torpor." Even then, the demands of human-sized brains could have been too large for extended periods of slumber.
Still, as we continually discover our animalistic origins to better understand how we evolved, the researchers note the potential value of this research.
"The present work provides an innovative approach to the physiological mechanisms of metabolism in early humans that could help determine the life cycle and physiology of extinct human species."
Bartsiokas speculates that this ancient mechanism could be coopted for space travel in the future. If the notion of hibernating humans sounds far-fetched, the idea has been contemplated for years, as NASA began funding research on this topic in 2014. As the saying goes, everything old is new again.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
It is impossible for science to arrive at ultimate truths, but functional truths are good enough.
- What is truth? This is a very tricky question, trickier than many would like to admit.
- Science does arrive at what we can call functional truth, that is, when it focuses on what something does as opposed to what something is. We know how gravity operates, but not what gravity is, a notion that has changed over time and will probably change again.
- The conclusion is that there are not absolute final truths, only functional truths that are agreed upon by consensus. The essential difference is that scientific truths are agreed upon by factual evidence, while most other truths are based on belief.
Does science tell the truth? The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems, and my 13.8 colleague Adam Frank took a look at it in his article about the complementarity of knowledge. There are many levels of complexity to what truth is or means to a person or a community. Why?
First, "truth" itself is hard to define or even to identify. How do you know for sure that someone is telling you the truth? Do you always tell the truth? In groups, what may be considered true to a culture with a given set of moral values may not be true in another. Examples are easy to come by: the death penalty, abortion rights, animal rights, environmentalism, the ethics of owning weapons, etc.
At the level of human relations, truth is very convoluted. Living in an age where fake news has taken center stage only corroborates this obvious fact. However, not knowing how to differentiate between what is true and what is not leads to fear, insecurity, and ultimately, to what could be called worldview servitude — the subservient adherence to a worldview proposed by someone in power. The results, as the history of the 20th century has shown extensively, can be catastrophic.
Proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted.
The goal of science, at least on paper, is to arrive at the truth without recourse to any belief or moral system. Science aims to go beyond the human mess so as to be value-free. The premise here is that Nature doesn't have a moral dimension, and that the goal of science is to describe Nature the best possible way, to arrive at something we could call the "absolute truth." The approach is a typical heir to the Enlightenment notion that it is possible to take human complications out of the equation and have an absolute objective view of the world. However, this is a tall order.
It is tempting to believe that science is the best pathway to truth because, to a spectacular extent, science does triumph at many levels. You trust driving your car because the laws of mechanics and thermodynamics work. NASA scientists and engineers just managed to have the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter — the first man-made device to fly over another planet — hover above the Martian surface all by itself.
We can use the laws of physics to describe the results of countless experiments to amazing levels of accuracy, from the magnetic properties of materials to the position of your car in traffic using GPS locators. In this restricted sense, science does tell the truth. It may not be the absolute truth about Nature, but it's certainly a kind of pragmatic, functional truth at which the scientific community arrives by consensus based on the shared testing of hypotheses and results.
What is truth?
Credit: Sergey Nivens / 242235342
But at a deeper level of scrutiny, the meaning of truth becomes intangible, and we must agree with the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus who declared, around 400 years BCE, that "truth is in the depths." (Incidentally, Democritus predicted the existence of the atom, something that certainly exists in the depths.)
A look at a dictionary reinforces this view. "Truth: the quality of being true." Now, that's a very circular definition. How do we know what is true? A second definition: "Truth: a fact or belief that is accepted as true." Acceptance is key here. A belief may be accepted to be true, as is the case with religious faith. There is no need for evidence to justify a belief. But note that a fact as well can be accepted as true, even if belief and facts are very different things. This illustrates how the scientific community arrives at a consensus of what is true by acceptance. Sufficient factual evidence supports that a statement is true. (Note that what defines sufficient factual evidence is also accepted by consensus.) At least until we learn more.
Take the example of gravity. We know that an object in free fall will hit the ground, and we can calculate when it does using Galileo's law of free fall (in the absence of friction). This is an example of "functional truth." If you drop one million rocks from the same height, the same law will apply every time, corroborating the factual acceptance of a functional truth, that all objects fall to the ground at the same rate irrespective of their mass (in the absence of friction).
But what if we ask, "What is gravity?" That's an ontological question about what gravity is and not what it does. And here things get trickier. To Galileo, it was an acceleration downward; to Newton a force between two or more massive bodies inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them; to Einstein the curvature of spacetime due to the presence of mass and/or energy. Does Einstein have the final word? Probably not.
Is there an ultimate scientific truth?
Final or absolute scientific truths assume that what we know of Nature can be final, that human knowledge can make absolute proclamations. But we know that this can't really work, for the very nature of scientific knowledge is that it is incomplete and contingent on the accuracy and depth with which we measure Nature with our instruments. The more accuracy and depth our measurements gain, the more they are able to expose the cracks in our current theories, as I illustrated last week with the muon magnetic moment experiments.
So, we must agree with Democritus, that truth is indeed in the depths and that proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted. Fortunately, for all practical purposes — flying airplanes or spaceships, measuring the properties of a particle, the rates of chemical reactions, the efficacy of vaccines, or the blood flow in your brain — functional truths do well enough.
Using urinals, psychological collages, and animated furniture to shock us into reality.
- Dada is a provocative and surreal art movement born out of the madness of World War I.
- Tzara, a key Dada theorist, says Dada seeks "to confuse and upset, to shake and jolt" people from their comfort zones.
- Dada, as all avant-garde art, faces a key problem in how to stay true to its philosophy.
In a world gone mad, what can the few sane people left do? What can someone say when there are no words that seem up to the job? How can anyone hope to express ideas so terrible when doing so will only reduce those ideas?
These are some of the things that inspired the Dada movement, and in its absurd, surreal, and chaotic nonsense, we find the voice of the voiceless.
The origin of Dadaism
Dada was a response to the madness of World War I. Reasonable, intelligent, and sensitive people looked at the blood and mud graveyards of the trenches and wondered how any meaning or goodness could ever be found again. How can someone make sense of a world where millions of young, happy, hopeful men were scythed down in a spray of bullets? How could life go back to normal when returning soldiers, blinded and disfigured from gas, lay homeless in the streets? Out of this awful revulsion, there came one bitter voice, and it said: "Everything is nonsense."
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything.
And so, the Dada movement expressed itself in absurdity. Tzara, the closest you get to a Dadaist philosopher, put it like this: "Like everything in life, Dada is useless. Dada is without pretension, as life should be." Dada rejects all systems, all philosophy, all definite answers, and all truth. It is the living embrace of contradictions and nonsense. It seeks "to confuse and upset people, to shake and jolt". It aims to shout down the "shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners," when actually "everything happens in a completely idiotic way."
In short, Dada is a response to the world when all the usual methods have broken down. It's the recognition that dinner party conversations, Hollywood blockbusters, and Silicon Valley are not how life actually is. This is a false reality and order, like some kind of veneer.
The Dada response to life is to embrace the personal and passionate madness of it all, where "the intensity of a personality is transposed directly, clearly into the work." It's to recognize the unique position of an artist, who can convey ideas and feelings in a way that goes beyond normal understanding. Art goes straight to the soul, but the intensity of it all can be hard to "enjoy" in the strictest sense.
Where is this Dada?
For instance, Dada is seen in the poems of Hugo Ball who wrote in meaningless foreign-sounding words. It's in Hausmann, who wrote works in disconnected phonemes. It's found in Duchamp's iconoclastic "Fountain" that sought to question what art or an artist really meant. It's in Hans Richter's short film "Ghost before Breakfast," which has an incoherent montage of images, loosely connected by the theme of inanimate objects in revolt. And, it's in Kurt Schwitters' "psychological collages" which present fragments of objects, juxtaposed together.
Dada is intended to shock. It's an artistic jolt asking, or demanding, that the viewers reorient themselves in some way. It is designed to make us feel uncomfortable and does not make for easy appreciation. It's only when we're thrown so drastically outside of our comfort zone in this way that Dada asks us to question how things are. It shakes us out of a conformist stupor to look afresh at things.
The paradox of Dadaism
Of course, like all avant-garde art, Dada needs to address one major problem: how do you stay so provocative, so radical, and so anti-establishment when you also seek success? How can maverick rebels stay so as they get a mortgage and want a good school for their kids? The problem is that young, inventive, and idealistic artists are inevitably sucked into the world of profit and commodity.
As Grayson Perry, a British modern artist, wrote: "What starts as a creative revolt soon becomes co-opted as the latest way to make money," and what was once fresh and challenging "falls away to reveal a predatory capitalist robot." With Dada, how long can someone actually live in a world of nonsense and nihilistic absurdity?
But there will always be new blood to keep movements like Dada going. As the revolutionaries of yesterday become the rich mansion-owners of today, there will be hot, young things to come and take up the mantle. There will always be something to challenge and questions to be asked. So, art movements like Dada will always be in the vanguard.
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything. It's an absurd art form that reflects the reality it perceives — that life is nothing more than a dissonant patchwork of egos floating in an abyss of nothing.