How good were the ancient greats?

Summary: In many fields, the ‘greatest’ (be they philosophers, playwrights, composers, etc.) are selected disproportionately more from those who lived in the distant past. I speculate as to what might be driving this bias towards ‘ancient greatness’, but one important takeaway is that we can be confident that the greatest of the past are likely inferior to the greatest amongst us today in terms of ‘innate ability’. So perhaps we should not regard them so highly.

[Very rough draft: advice/criticism on data, analysis, or style welcome, as is advice on whether this is worthy of going into academia, and if so how. Thanks to Rob Wiblin, Will Crouch, Catriona McKay, and Sam Bankman-Fried for ideas/prior discussion.]

Introduction

If you look at a field of human endeavour (mathematics, philosophy, the arts, military strategy – pretty much anything) the reputedly ‘greatest ever’ in these fields have tended to live in the distant past.
Take philosophy as an example. Polls of the ‘greatest philosopher’ of all time broadly agree on a corpus of ‘ancient greats’. Here’s the top ten from a poll from Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog, with their dates added:

  1. Plato (428-348 BC)
  2. Aristotle (384-322 BC)
  3. Kant (1724-1804)
  4. Hume (1711-1776)
  5. Descartes (1596-1650)
  6. Socrates (469-399 BC)
  7. Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
  8. Locke (1632-1704)
  9. Frege (1848-1925)
  10. Aquinas (1225-1274)

The list is dominated by ancient Greeks and enlightenment Europeans, with only a couple of thinkers in the last couple of centuries getting a look in. I think Leiter’s poll (modulo some quibbles with the exact ordering) broadly captures the consensus view amongst who are the greatest philosophers, at least in the western tradition.

On the face of it, having the ‘greatest ever’ philosophers spread out from antiquity to the present day seems plausible. But consider how the human population has grown over time (data from Wikipedia):

population-300x300

The population has grown dramatically, so if we think about birth order rather than time, the greatest philosophers were generally among those born first. Why? Continue reading