(This is a blog post version of the process of “thinking out loud.”)
In a book I read recently – it was Michael Shermer’s first book, WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS, my comments posted here) — the author made the point that “Most scientists who’ve ever lived are alive today.”
This is of course mostly an effect of the increase in the global population in recent centuries, but also of the rise of the scientific revolution, beginning with the Enlightenment; there simply were no scientists, in the modern sense, until 300 or 400 years ago.
But the thought led to this idea. Never mind scientists per se; how about wise men (or women) are there now, have there ever been, in any sense?
Thus, the major religions of the world defer to ancient wise leaders who are presumed to have had all the answers to the big questions of life, thousands of years ago, despite having no awareness of the size or scope of the world they lived it, or any true awareness of how the world worked, beyond intuitive notions. Jesus, Buddha, Mohamed, Solomon, others. Regardless of their presumed supernatural status, they’ve been revered, supposedly, for their teachings or writing, and thought to be wise.
And, for that matter, American “patriots,” defenders of Constitutional “originalism,” and so on, defer to the wisdom of the founders, as if their wisdom and insights trump anything anyone might think today.
(I suppose there is a named bias for this, though I can’t think of it at the moment. Part of the “everything was better in the old days” bias, that motivates the MAGAs; that the ancients knew better than anyone can know now.)
Still, let’s stipulate that, out of any population, whether a million in Year 1 or 6 billion today, there is a certain percentage of people who are unusually wise, however you might define that. Worldly? Perceptive of human psychology? Insightful to the ways of the world? Recognizing of the biases of others?
I Googled a bit and found a couple relevant sites. (I’m sure better research could be done; but I’m only looking for ballpark figures from seemingly reliable sources.)
Let’s compile a few very basic stats from these two sites, and play with the implications a bit.
PRB (Population Reference Bureau), 23 Jan 2020: How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?.
Short answer: since 50,000 years ago, about 108 billion humans have lived. Shaving off pre-history, i.e. before 8000 BCE, hardly makes a difference: say 107 billion. Let’s filter to the eras when the presumed ancient wise men live, between, say, 8000 BCE and 1 CE: from this chart, about 46 million.
Here’s Scientific American, 2007: Fact or Fiction?: Living People Outnumber the Dead.
The conclusions here suggest 5 million people lived in 9000 BC, and about 300 million by AD 1. And total who have ever lived (again using 50,000 years ago as a base): some 106 billion people. That’s reasonably close to the 108 billion of the previous source.
Here’s where I’m going with this. Rounding off considerably, let’s say the ancient wise men – let’s add some of the Greek and Asian philosophers, say, a dozen, like Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, et al; though there may have been many more we don’t know about, whose works were lost with the burning of the Library of Alexander – numbered a couple dozen, at least, by AD1 (or 1CE).
The population up to then was some 46 million. Let’s stipulate that between 8000 BCE and AD 1, half of the wise men who’d ever lived had gone unrecorded into history. So let’s say there were a couple dozen wise men out of, say, half that, 23 million.
That would be one wise man out of every 958 thousand. Roughly 1 in a million.
Now: what is the population of the world today? About 6.5 billion.
There’s no reason to think the proportion of wise men to general population is any different now than it was a couple thousand years ago. Genetics has not change by natural selection significantly, if at all, over that period.
So by the proportion of 1 in a million, there should be some 6500 such wise men alive today.
Who are these wise men? Probably not politicians or preachers.
More likely philosophers and scientists. Poets, perhaps, and certain types of writers.
What are these wise men, currently alive, doing?
Again, probably not being politicians. Politicians are more like Paul, who built a church on the (largely imagined) reputation of Jesus, who may well have been a wise man (though I find some of his teachings dubious).
No, I suspect the wise men of today are likely university professors, writers of books, and perhaps entrepreneurs creating new things in the world. They don’t defer to ancient wisdom; they seek to learn new things, refine and replace previous beliefs, and to make progress.
That the modern world, after so many centuries, still aligns allegiance to a handful of ancient wise men, is I think largely sociological. It’s analogous to the young reader who never gets beyond the beloved books of childhood, and keeps reading them over and over. It’s societal allegiance to the first wise men who came along, or perhaps the first who came along around the time writing was invented and their own writing, or writings about them, were recorded. Cultures around the world tend to stick to the most ancient wise men they know of, and have stuck with them because of the dead weight of history, the sunk-cost fallacy, the simplification of life to not ever having to change one’s mind.
Despite which, there are more wise men today alive than ever before, and they have the advantage of history, the advantage of having built on the teachings and insights of the ancient wise men.
They are who we should be paying attention to now. Not the ancients. The reason we don’t is, partly that dead weight of history, and partly because there are so many of them, now, there’s no easy way to identify them, or keep up with them. At best, the ancients are the training wheels humanity has used on the way to building the body of knowledge and wisdom than now exists in our global culture.