Friday, 27 October 2017

John Farndon’s “fifty greatest ideas”

  1. The Internet
  2. Writing
  3. Contraception
  4. Music
  5. Use of Fire
  6. Abolition of Slavery
  7. Evolution by Natural Selection
  8. The Scientific Method
  9. Sewerage
  10. Computer Programming
  11. Hope
  12. Logic
  13. The Wheel
  14. Democracy
  15. The Zero
  16. The Telephone
  17. Vaccination
  18. Bread
  19. Feminism
  20. Printing
  21. Quantum Theory
  22. Electricity Grids
  23. The Self
  24. Arable Farming
  25. Calculus
  26. Government
  27. Marxism
  28. Refrigeration
  29. Simplified Chinese Characters
  30. Universities
  31. Laws of Motion
  32. Mass Production
  33. Romance
  34. Wine
  35. Coffee and Tea
  36. Pottery
  37. The Steam Engine
  38. Banking
  39. Copper and Iron
  40. The Sail
  41. The Welfare State
  42. Capitalism
  43. Qi
  44. Epic Poetry
  45. Honour
  46. Monotheism
  47. The Aerofoil
  48. The Stirrup
  49. Weaving and Spinning
  50. Marriage
This list, to me, is very much flawed. Even Farndon himself in writing The World’s Greatest Idea admits the flaws behind even sacrosanct ideas such as democracy, although he does not go nearly so far as Hans Hoppe or anti-democratic critics since the fourth-century Simon the Theologian have, or even mention them. It would logically be very valuable to distinguish good form harmful ideas in such a list.

There is also many things underrated or unmentioned in the list. #47 (the aerofoil, which permitted the airplane) should have been much, much higher given the direct and indirect impacts of aviation. The speed at which people can travel would be utterly impossible without aviation unless high speed rail could be developed or – as the PIGs often suggest – pay-as-you-go roads could be made to allow the speeds modern cars are capable of to be safely driven. #17 (Vaccination) and #27 (Refrigeration) should also have been much higher. Both affected the distribution of human settlement to an extreme extent and helped permit major social changes by allowing longer periods of individual development. #9 (Sewerage) falls into this category too.

#23 (The Self) and #20 (Printing) were inventions that allowed the growth of modern philosophy and of the European global empires, and thus I would certainly agree with them as potentially higher.

Fertilisers – which have meant that Australia has not only superabundant minerals but unlike the Gulf States also the ability to use hyperabundant flat land that is extremely deficient in essential thiophile elements evaporated by fire over tens of millions of years – are another omission. Modern fertilisers allowing land previously far beyond the “productive soil margin” to be cultivated have not only saved many lands from regular famine, but have also:
  • allowed the democratisation of numerous nations where large landowners were previously too powerful obstacles due to their fear of taxation, including:
    • post-Stalinist Eastern Europe (except Czechoslovakia)
    • all of Southern Europe
    • almost all of Latin America
    • Japan, Taiwan and South Korea
  • been a primary cause of the rapid decline of Christianity in these nations as the highly secular urban working and academic classes were not longer faced with economically viable political opponents
  • much more destructively had severe impacts on the ancient, slowly-speciating biological hotspot of Southwest Western Australia, where dirt-cheap land has been and continues to be opened for unsustainable farming with severe global climate impacts
  • had lesser but also severe impacts on sub-Saharan Africa, where it has increased comparative advantage in agriculture and retarded alternative economic developments that are undoubtedly more environmentally critical than in the Enriched World, Asia or Latin America
Fertilisers ought certainly in my opinion to have been in the top five. Even when Farndon talks about arable farming he does not recognise how a transformation from cultivating naturally hypereutrophic soils to geologically less unrepresentative oligotrophic ones is certainly so crucial as the invention of arable farming itself.

Film is another invention that should have been on there, as could its related invention Television. The influence of film on humanity since its invention cannot be denied. Apart from film and television as entertainment in themselves:
  • film has allowed the exposure of parts of the world that cannot be visited due to climate or politics
  • film has allowed the exposure to the public of scandals and secrets that in previous generations were never known. Whilst this may have made people more suspicious of authority and weakened communities, it has certainly made deadly corruption less likely
  • many sports (e.g. basketball and volleyball) would be very specialised interests without the aid of television owing to the specialised body types required
Organic pesticides – even if banned due to their persistence in the environment – were a major improvement on using un-selective and toxic toads to eat pests, or un-selectively poisonous and naturally extremely scarce lead and arsenic compounds to kill them. These pesticides were critical to the “Green Revolution” discussed in the previous paragraph and briefly hinted at in #24 of the book; however, the radical change they were to agricultural practices cannot be overlooked.

Electrolysis – which via its ability to isolate metals with powerful bonds to oxygen transformed Australia from a non-arable wasteland of uniquely low fertility into the planet’s richest nation – should have been in the top ten but was not mentioned at all. Electrolysis and the resultant ability to exploit metals more reactive than iron had an incomparably greater effect on the world than iron metallurgy. Without the ability to use metals more reactive than iron the Earth’s resources would have been exhausted at almost the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

I could probably think of a lot more omissions than these if I looked harder; however, I am not in the mood with so much to think about at present.

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