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The Alzheimer Photo

A professor recently brought my attention to this photo of Alois Alzheimer and his colleagues in Munich (source):

Alzheimer is the very-German-looking guy with the silly mustache third from the right on the top. Far right is Friedrich Lewy, discoverer of Lewy bodies and Lewy body dementia. Bottom, second from the left, looking kind of like Petyr Baelish, is Ugo Cerletti, inventor of electroconvulsive therapy.

Other members of Alzheimer’s team didn’t make it to the group photo. These include Alzheimer’s mentor, Emil Kraepelin, who discovered bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc, etc, etc (there’s a reason modern psychiatry calls itself “neo-Kraepelinian”). They include two of Alzheimer’s assistants, Hans Creutzfeldt and Alfons Jakob, who discovered Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human version of mad cow. They include Alzheimer’s collaborator Franz Nissl, who discovered Nissl bodies and the Nissl stain at the same lab.

If you come across a neurological disease that sounds like a guy’s name, there’s a not insignificant chance that guy is either in this picture or else just barely missed it.

This made me think of a lot of the discussion around when fields of science prosper versus when they go stagnant. The last few decades haven’t really been great for neuropsychiatry. But one group of people in one lab came up with entire textbooks worth of advances. Why? Do we need to resurrect Alois Alzheimer and put him in charge of NIMH?

Part of it was that good histological staining had just been invented and Alzheimer’s lab was on the bleeding edge, so they were just sitting around picking off the low-hanging fruit that could be discovered by staining stuff. But Kraepelin’s and Cervetti’s discoveries didn’t have much to do with staining.

Part of it was that Alzheimer was in the right place at the right time. If he’d really wanted an impressive photo, he could have gotten together with his chief competitors, a group centered around Carl Westphal (cf. Westphal’s sign, Edinger-Westphal nucleus) which included his students Arnold Pick (cf. Pick’s dementia) and Karl Wernicke (cf. Wernicke’s area, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome). Heck, if he wanted to go further, the number of people within a day’s train journey staggers the imagination. Rudolph Virchow, Eugen Bleuler, Robert Koch, Sigmund Freud. Fin de siecle Central Europe was just a really good place for neurology and psychiatry.

Part of it was that the whole thing was arranged by Kraepelin, who besides being a scientific genius, was apparently an organizational genius as well. According to Wikipedia, “Kraepelin has been described as a ‘scientific manager’ and political operator, who developed a large-scale, clinically oriented, epidemiological research programme.” See also Psychiatric Governance And The German Institute Of Psychiatry In Munich. Kraepelin grabbed all these people, threw them at the most interesting problems, and made sure they always had all the funding they wanted – although the final form of all of this as the Institute for Psychiatric Research didn’t coalesce until after Alzheimer’s death.

And part of it is the natural tendency for some institution to gain a reputation for being the best, and then attract the best people. I’m sure you could find some pretty impressive conjunctions of people if you looked at photos of Harvard departments.

My theory of apparent scientific stagnation has always been that it’s easier to pick low-hanging fruit in one paradigm than to get entirely new ones – in other words, the problem is at least as much in the territory itself as in our engagement with it. I was interested to learn that one of the big hurdles to faster aircraft is a nonlinearity in fuel costs, which grow exponentially for physics reasons right when you start getting faster than modern planes. I think something similar might be going on here. Through painstaking trial-and-error, psychiatric hit upon a really fruitful paradigm of combining clinical observation, histopathology, and and random wacky ideas, right about when Alois Alzheimer opened his lab. Anybody who happened to be in the vicinity when the new paradigm was invented ended up getting a disease named after him. Eventually all the stuff that was easy to discover this way got discovered, and right now there just aren’t any equally fruitful paradigms coming to our attention.

This story has a sad ending. Alzheimer (ironically) died young. He was succeeded by his student Walther Spielmeyer (cf. Spielmeyer-Vogt-Sjögren-Batten Disease), and then Kurt Schneider (cf. Schneider’s first-rank symptoms). Schneider invented the modern concept of psychopathy, but unfortunately he was probably working from personal experience – this was in the middle of the rise of the Nazis. He was fired for political reasons and got replaced with Alzheimer’s fellow Kraepelin protege, Ernst Rudin, who re-centered the whole thing around the role of psychiatry in sterilizing the feeble-minded. The chain that started with Kraepelin and Alzheimer ended in Rudin’s own student, Josef Mengele.

After the war, Rudin was fined 500 deutschmarks, apparently the going penalty for leading a Nazi eugenics program at the time, and Kraepelin/Alzheimer’s institute was re-founded as the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. As far as I know they’re still around, but I haven’t heard of them discovering any interesting new diseases lately.

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92 Responses to The Alzheimer Photo

  1. Murphy says:

    Sort of the same pattern happened in genetics in the last decade.

    People who I work with only 8 or 9 years further into their careers laugh about how easy it was to find new genes even 4 or 5 years ago and many of them have genes to their name. Some of them talk about working in labs where every week their team was banging out a paper on the location/function etc of new genes or linking a gene to a known disease. We’ve still not totally left that phase but it’s slowed down a great deal.

    It does come down to capability. Someone comes up with a technique or machine which can do X and then there’s a flurry of discovery while all the good knowledge deposits that can be reached with that machine are mined. New machines are built and new techniques discovered when key knowledge has been mined in that area or others to allow improvements or new approaches.

    DNA sequencing begets understanding of proteins, better understanding of proteins gives us the ability to engineer custom enzymes and those custom enzymes yield better sequencing machines.

    Some of it is about better understanding but some of it is that even as a not very special junior working with tools that only a few labs in the world have yet it can be almost easy to find things nobody else has yet.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Can confirm: used to work at a company that had a bioinformatics pipeline that would start up in the morning, download new data, predict a bunch of genes in the afternoon, then send them to the patent office in the evening. Our gene predictions were extremely high quality, too (at least, compared to the garbage in public domain at the time, where half the CDS genes didn’t even start with ATG).

      This pipeline came to a grinding halt when new regulation made it impossible to patent an arbitrary series of letters, without at least explaining what you think those letters actually do. Our company lost money, but IMO humanity gained a lot more in return…

  2. Jacob says:

    I would guess that after a new paradigm is invented and is very fruitful, it then becomes very hard to break out of it and do something new. Once all the senior people in some institute became successful by doing clinical observation + staining histopathology who would think to do anything else in that institute? There have been similar foci for physics research at the turn of the 20th century and in other fields, it seems that there’s a half-life of ~30 years or so before yesterday’s groundbreaking ideas become today’s horse-blinders.

    • John Colanduoni says:

      What foci are you referring to? The main field in physics I can think of that’s running in circles around old ideas is quantum gravity and high energy in general (the foci of course being string theory and the standard model), but those weren’t ideas from the turn of the 20th century. Social factors are definitely a big part of this stagnation, but mother nature deserves some blame for refusing to provide us with confusing new data.

      Otherwise I think things have gone fairly well in physics over the last hundred years. Most other domains are still finding completely new avenues to explore: quantum information and biophysics being the two that are currently making the most rapid progress.

      • John Colanduoni says:

        That article completely misunderstands the relationship between general relativity and quantum mechanics.

        We could have called Newton’s law of universal gravitation a proof—and for a long time, it certainly seemed like one—but then what happens when Einstein comes around and shows that Newton was actually “zoomed in,” like someone calling the Earth flat, and when you zoom way out, you discover that the real law is general relativity and Newton’s law actually stops working under extreme conditions, while general relativity works no matter what. So then, you’d call general relativity a proof instead. Except then what happens when quantum mechanics comes around and shows that general relativity fails to apply on a tiny scale and that a new set of laws is needed to account for those cases.

        That’s not the issue at all. In terms of predictions, GR had very little relevance for subatomic physics before you even find out that subatomic physics is weird. Classical gravity (Newtonian or GR) is way too weak for it to be observed in the usual domains for quantum mechanics (yes, there are speculative theories like Penrose’s that implicate it on these scales, but that’s well into the quantum gravity programme). The part of GR itself that is relevant for these problems is that which is inherited from special relativity, which has already been integrated wholesale into our QM theories in the form of Quantum Field Theory (and therefore into the Standard Model). So on small scales, GR and QM already agree (in that GR doesn’t make any predictions in that domain), and for non-relativistic cases they always did.

        The disjoint nature of these domains is in fact the core of the problem. We have almost no places to even look for new data to distinguish between theories of quantum gravity that reproduce GR and QM in the proper limits. Even just string theory is not one theory (not even close!), but a family of competing theories.

        The incompatibility between these is related to formalism, not predictions. GR shares with classical mechanics, Newtonian gravity, and classical electromagnetism the same core framework, in that all of these can be formulated purely in Lagrangian/Hamiltonian mechanics. Basically there is a single scalar quantity for each you can plug into the same kind of equation to end up with the entirety of each theory. Then you can add these together and put it into the same equation (though there is some subtlety here) and get a “unified” theory.

        QM unfortunately speaks a completely different language. We have “translations” that work for classical mechanics and electromagnetism (called quantization), but these have totally blanched when it comes to GR. But still, doing things separately in each domain works awesomely for prediction.

        So ignoring QM or GR like the non-flood scientists did theology isn’t being a pure, open minded empiricist. It’s in fact being the complete opposite, since both have done stupendously well at predicting reality! We’re still cashing the checks from both, gravitational waves and (the circumstantial evidence for) the tetraneutron both being very recent observations.

        Adhering to their formalisms is a different story (historically this has usually meant adhering to QM’s), but that’s very different and a good portion of quantum gravity research (which is unfortunately less visible in pop science than string theory) does look to break the mold. Trivializing the problem as “(theoretical high energy) physicists are sheep” ignores these efforts and the real problem.

  3. What is G.I Gurdjieff doing there, second left. top row?

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Huh, it does look like him, doesn’t it? The Wikimedia Commons info on the photo just lists that figure as “unknown”… (along with several other people in the photo).

      • Deiseach says:

        By a quick look at the Wikipedia article about him, nobody quite knows where exactly Gurdijeff was before he turned up in Russia in 1912/13 (supposedly he was travelling in Central Asia and parts unknown), so if anyone wanted to write fiction where in 1909 he’s moonlighting in Munich in Alzheimer’s lab, there you go! 🙂

  4. Randy M says:

    This reminds me of reading Tom Wolfe’s history of the development silicon valley in his collection Hooking Up. William Shockley’s lab included Intel founder Robert Noyce and several other household names in electronics came from those labs.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Related to Silicon Valley, that picture made me think of this one, the Plan 9 team at Bell Labs, a whose-who of computer science at the time. (though alas I can’t name those in the picture other than Dennis M. Ritchie)

      Fortunately we’ve had another generation or two since then.

  5. Vermillion says:

    My ‘favorite’ disease named after a person would probably be Huntington’s Chorea. Chorea is a kind of uncontrollable dancing and is a hell of a lot less whimsical than it sounds. He didn’t have a lab or new techniques or anything like Alois did, what Huntington had was an inherited medical practice in Long Island. And in this practice he, his father, and grandfather, had all observed a dreadful phenomena, writing in 1872:

    The hereditary chorea, as I shall call it, is confined to certain and fortunately a few families, and has been transmitted to them, an heirloom from generations away back in the dim past. It is spoken of by those in whose veins the seeds of the disease are known to exist, with a kind of horror, and not at all alluded to except through dire necessity, when it is mentioned as “that disorder.” It is attended generally by all the symptoms of common chorea, only in an aggravated degree, hardly ever manifesting itself until adult or middle life, and then coming on gradually but surely, increasing by degrees, and often occupying years in its development, until the hapless sufferer is but a quivering wreck of his former self.

    The paper he wrote, one of only two that he published in his life, starts with a long description of the history of Chorea as it’s commonly known, strikes mostly children, predominantly girls, responds to purging, bleeding, electrostimulation of the spine and eventually subsides with or without treatment. Then he contrasts this with the form that would eventually be named after him, laying out three criteria that distinguishes it and that haven’t really changed in 140 years:

    There are three marked peculiarities in this disease: 1. Its hereditary nature. 2. A tendency to insanity and suicide. 3. Its manifesting itself as a grave disease only in adult life.

    You didn’t mention it but I think another factor in who makes these discoveries is age, probably related to being able to look at phenomena without preconceptions, or maybe just having less to lose if you’re advancing something controversial. Huntington was 22 years old when he wrote that paper.

  6. The Element of Surprise says:

    As a physics undergrad I was really surprised when I saw one of those pictures from the Solvay Conference and knew theorems with about half of the names listed below. Among the attendees: Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger. Maybe the interwar period had good enough funding for science that many discoveries could be made, but not so good funding that you couldn’t fit everyone from the subject on one big picture.

    • As physics graduate, I was pleased to spend a while living near the Solvay centre.

      > Maybe the interwar period had good enough funding for science that many discoveries could be made, but not so good funding that you couldn’t fit everyone from the subject on one big picture.

      Bohr was able to assemble a crack team thanks to funding from the Carlsberg brewery.

  7. Dahlen says:

    My guess? The late 19th/early 20th century was something special in itself. Such a time to be alive. (That does not mean it made for pleasant living, just that it was a fascinating time to be watching history happen all around you, as the world stood on the cusp of modernity.)

    Think about it. An astounding rate of scientific discoveries, much of which trickled down into everyday applications (electrification! modern plumbing! appliances! cars! cinemas!), literary/artistic reactions to modernism along with expansion of art into new mediums, the best fashion (specifically referring here to the 1910s), whacky political visions whose effervescence wasn’t yet diminished by the stigma of post-experimental disaster, the palpable shift away from the religious mindset which had been foundational to the human experience for thousands of years… and, on top of all that, a still-too-recent premodern cultural foundation to which those times owed a zeitgeist more conducive to cultural and intellectual development.

    (Let alone the fantastic changes that these generations, if lucky, lived to witness.)

    What I’m hinting at is that it may not just be an issue of where these people were on the axis of scientific discovery, i.e. what foundational knowledge they inherited vs. what readily available work was there for them to do by that point. I think it’s more about how these people employed their intellectual resources, and what paths society provided for them throughout their careers. By contrast, it may be that a lot of smarts are not being siphoned by society for the use of civilisational development as of today. Maybe our best and brightest go on to spend their lives on some fantastically lucrative pursuit which does not leave anything to the human civilisational heritage once they kick the bucket. Like Idiocracy warned, spending high-IQ people on curing baldness and erectile dysfunction, or perfecting the addictiveness of prolefeed.

    I remember a post from Scott’s Livejournal which expressed a similar degree of wonder for ancient Athenians. There may be something similar at work here.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      >Like Idiocracy warned, spending high-IQ people on curing baldness and erectile dysfunction, or perfecting the addictiveness of prolefeed

      Or coming up with the most cunning financial instrument the mankind has ever seen (until the next one) , or improving the ability to sell the prolefeed…

    • onyomi says:

      The period between Reconstruction and WWI was arguably the most libertarian time in American governance. When people are like “you want to take us back!” I think, “to the fin-de-siecle minus racism/sexism/homophobia+modern technology? Absolutely.”

  8. Tekhno says:

    I was interested to learn that one of the big hurdles to faster aircraft is a nonlinearity in fuel costs, which grow exponentially for physics reasons right when you start getting faster than modern planes.

    Where can I read about this?

    • Rusty says:

      From Reddit

      [–]Sonorous_Gravity 28 points 2 years ago
      I can explain this!
      Like others have said in this thread, it’s an efficiency issue, namely on how to most effectively counter drag. Drag is the resistance of any object through air, or any fluid for that matter. There are bunches of different kinds of drag, and they depend on a variety of things, namely the shape of the object, how efficient its wings are, and its Mach number (or how fast it’s going).
      Back before we had supersonic planes, when scientists were exploring faster and faster aircraft, they noticed that the drag force on any shape increased dramatically once you crossed the critical Mach number, around Mach 0.7 (0.7 or 70% the speed of sound). As they got closer and closed to Mach 1, the speed of sound, they found the drag increased even more. They (logically) assumed that the speed of sound was a limit, and that the closer you got to Mach 1 the higher your drag would be, giving rise to the term ‘sound barrier’–they thought it couldn’t be overcome (see this image: It turns out that this sharp increase in drag is because of the erratic shock waves and expansion fans that arise once you’re near sonic speed (it’s complicated, but I’m happy to explain in more detail if you want).
      Commercial airliners don’t like drag. More drag means more fuel to burn which means more expensive tickets. So, they like to ride at a speed just below that point where the drag starts to increase, or right about Mach 0.65 to Mach 0.7. Sure, they can push into faster speeds, but the amount of drag is just so colossal that it’s not cost-efficient for the airliner to pull it off. Fighter jets, on the other hand, place high speed and the ability to outperform the enemy at high priority and don’t mind shelling out the fuel cost to meet that goal. They still have tons (literally tons) of drag once they’re in supersonic flight.
      EDIT: Also forgot, you can have geometries optimized for supersonic flight such that they have comparable or marginally higher drag at supersonic speeds than at subsonic, such as the Concorde. However, these supersonic profiles are absolutely terrible at flying below the speed of sound, since their wing and fuselage shapes are not designed for flying in that domain. As a result, they don’t perform very well at low speed areas, such as, say, takeoff and landing. Which coincidentally are the most dangerous parts of flight. So there’s that, too
      Source: Aeronautical engineer, have my copy of Anderson’s Aerodynamics on my lap

    • bean says:

      Any basic text on aircraft design will have gory details. The basic principle is that once bits of the flow over the airplane go supersonic, your drag goes way up. Well, actually that’s not strictly true. The dgrag divergence mach number can be somewhat above the critical mach number (where supersonic flow starts) if you’re careful with your design. This is how modern airliners work. Interestingly, current airliners are slightly slower than older ones, with the exception of the 747. For various reasons, the more recent 747s with the extended hump have less drag than earlier versions, and the passenger variant is faster than the freighter.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        My dad was an engineer at Lockheed and worked on the F-104, which was reaching twice the speed of sound in the mid-1950s.

        It was also an extremely dangerous plane for anybody other than the world’s best pilots to fly. After the Skunk Works geniuses had moved on to new designs, my dad spent much of the 1960s trying to retrofit solutions onto the F-104 to keep West German and Italian pilots from killing themselves so often in it.

        • bean says:

          My understanding was that that had as much to do with the way at least the west Germans were flying the thing as it did with the basic design. Of course, taking a daytime interceptor and making it into a strike fighter is usually a bad idea, too.

    • bean says:

      As an aside, there has been one serious attempt to shatter this paradigm in recent years, the Boeing Sonic Cruiser. But the airlines decided they’d rather have lower operating costs at their current speeds, and Boeing gave them the 787.

  9. dawso007 says:

    I think that neuropsychiatry is the best it has been in 30 years. I just got back from the Harvard course (click on the link in paragraph 3 to see the complete program). As I mention in the post the only thing I might have added was another lecture by the psychiatrists who write the neuropsychiatry of SLE in Lahita’s text.

    • Dahlen says:

      It must have been one hell of a schedule.

      One particular curiosity, since it encompasses your field as well as mine: any progress on methods of neuroimaging that maybe, possibly directly trace neurotransmitters in the brain? I mean, I guess fMRI is good enough, but I still have my fingers crossed…

      • dawso007 says:

        Not much luck beyond clinical imaging with a primary focus on structural and metabolic imaging. I think MRS has current application (list is unedited at this point) for some NT, but work is pending with bigger magnets and more NTs of interest. Not an expert by any means but that is my speculation.

  10. Spookykou says:

    Does this trend show up in other human endeavors, besides science? Are great epochs in writing, music, agriculture(science?), etc, common, where small communities of people who all know each other contribute to a great deal of progress all at once, or is a more slow and steady progress the norm?

    • Randy M says:

      Well that’s the popular conception of the Renaissance, at least. Perhaps the pre-revolutionary philosophers shortly later? The early Royal Society, Newton et al as well.

    • Deiseach says:

      Depending on your opinion as to whether it was contributing to progress, in early 20th century English literature there’s the Bloomsbury Group who were a small set who all knew, slept with, and formed a minor (though influential) literary/artistic/philosophical movement with each other.

    • Barry Cotter says:

      According to Charles Murray’s book, Human Accomplishment, certain times and places are just wildly productive compared to others but progress does proceed outside them. I can highly recommend the book, or even just reading the Wikipedia article about it.

  11. Robert L says:

    It’s biologists I feel sorry for at the moment. They are terrified that the neo Darwinian synthesis is in fact a complete and satisfactory theory of everything and that biology will hence forth be just an exercise in writing footnotes to Dawkins. Hence a lot of moaning about how tired/19th century/Newtonian Darwinism is (but with no hint of a biologist Einstein any time soon).

    Edit to add example:

    • Murphy says:

      ??? biology and related fields like biochemistry, genetics are in the middle of a golden age of discovery right now. It’s one of the really good fields to be in at the moment.

      Epigenetic is just opening up properly and there’s constant new discoveries in gene regulation.

    • klfwip says:

      I’ve yet to meet any biologist who is terrified they’re writing footnotes. Darwin discovered an alien language and what it did, the biologists of the last 34 years have learned how to speak it. Why call it a footnote, unless you’d also label “Creating spaceships” as a footnote to discovering fire?

    • nightmartyr says:

      I feel that I strongly disagree. But perhaps I just don’t fully understand your point. Some evidence for thinking that Neo-Darwinian evolution is inadequate to describe life, much less give a predictive model, can be found in some papers described at this site:

      My favorite such paper is the excellent physiology review by Dennis Noble,

      My personal point of view is that we are still struggling to find broad theories that truly explain biological data as we have found broad theories in other fields, like Fluid Dynamics. This is inherently hard because life is inherently non-equilibrium, and a large amount of human theory is set out to understand static or equilibrium pictures, or small perturbations from those. I feel that the current progress in using the modern synthesis to explain aspects of biology itself will likely become a footnote if (and this is a nontrivial) we can find a better fundamental theory. That said, I still think exploring the implications of our current theoretical understanding is useful, as understanding what is well-explained and what is not is crucial for developing further explanations.

    • stevepostrel says:

      The work described in Arrival of the Fittest seems pretty exciting.

  12. nahkatakkimies says:

    Isn’t this just diminishing returns? Like Alexander wrote, the low hanging fruit is picked first and further advances require more investment. Joseph Tainter of Collapse of Complex Societies has looked into this:

    • Murphy says:

      it isn’t always a matter of increasing cost. Sometimes once you actually understand what you need to do the minimum cost becomes trivial.

      once you know exactly what version of polymerase you need and the exact temperatures you need you can build a PCR machine out of a few dollars worth of electronics, a thermos and a lightbulb.

      I’ve seen one used at an amateur lab made from an old bean tin and it allows you to do things that the biologists of the 1970’s and early 1980’d could only dream of.

      Sometimes a cheap advance in one area allows for entire new areas. The same tech which allows for cheap phone cameras for teenagers is part of what allows some of the latest generation of sequencing machines work.

      The equipment prices don’t always go up.

      What counts as low hanging fruit also changes with available tech.

      I remember reading about a very very impressive biologist from before DNA was discovered who spent most of his career mapping the genes in a single virus (he was able to show that it was some kind of linear sequence) and creating a map of loci related to various functions. Now we call doing the same thing for a newly discovered virus “tuesday” and cost can be in the hundreds of dollars range or less.

  13. Psychophysicist says:

    A confounding/explaining factor could be that the professor to postdoc to grad student ratios are much larger today than in days of yore. Most academics these days produce a few publications and then move on to other career paths.

  14. Peter Gerdes says:

    Doesn’t your analysis suggest you are doing a very bad job of rating the importance of various discoveries. If both developing new fields, picking low hanging fruit and picking high hanging fruit need to happen and low hanging fruit is easy but impressive looking doesn’t that mean it’s not really that much progress, i.e., isn’t progress measured via the necessary difficulty surpassed.

    • Murphy says:

      Define “difficulty”.

      Sitting in a cave with nothing but a few rocks to rub together very little counts as low hanging fruit. Add in electron microscopes,computers and particle accelerators and suddenly a lot more counts as easy to reach.

      If there’s a billion possible things to investigate but you don’t have the resources to investigate all of them then it makes sense to incentivize people to search for things which can be discovered with little expenditure of resources at the time.

      Just as it makes no sense to try to drill for extremely deep oil while there’s still untapped locations where it’s just oozing out of the sand there’s nothing particularly glorious about high-hanging fruit that takes the wealth of nations to harvest which we could have grabbed 10 years from now using the spare change under the couch.

    • Saint Fiasco says:

      We also want to give incentive to people who open new paradigms with new low hanging fruits. By rewarding only effort we may get stuck in a situation where people spend time and resources researching things with low return to investment just to show off.

    • Deiseach says:

      What’s low-hanging now (after previous generations picked the fruit hanging even lower) wasn’t at the time, and in the same way we have to pick what’s in reach right now to clear the path to getting at the higher-hanging fruit – which will be the new low-hanging, when we’ve cleared the way to it.

      What is “Eureka!” today is “Duh- how could we have missed the obvious?” tomorrow. Look at the evolution of computers in our life-time, and see how that has been mingled with phone technology – the first mobiles were big, clunky, expensive things only for the few (and the aspiring few). Now anyone can have a cheap (relatively, depending how fancy you want to go) device that is the size of your hand which not alone lets you send and receive calls, you can take pictures, surf the web, send video texts, watch TV and movies on it, store and listen to music, and probably a lot more I’m too out of touch with the youth to know what-all they do with their fancy machines 🙂

      • Jaskologist says:

        I think there’s a distinction to be made between “low-hanging fruit” and “fruit we can reach because we’ve built a skyscraper.”

        If you tossed me and a few of my colleagues back 100 years, I think it is very likely we could build an electronic computer. We could not make one that comes anywhere close to the computer you’re using right now. Computers themselves are pretty simple, once you know the concepts and have basic electronics. Advanced computers like we have now, on the other hand, require billion dollar fabbers and rare earth materials, long complicated industrial pipelines, designs so complicated we mostly have computers do them, and I don’t even know what else. There’s no weird trick or special knowledge I could impart to John Von Neumann that would enable him to create an iPhone. But there are concepts I could give him that would have sped up a lot of his other discoveries and probably enabled new ones.

    • Randy M says:

      Progress is multi-faceted, but it includes at least the impact of the discover as well as how difficult it was to make. Penicillin was more progress in medicine than a multi-billion dollar research project that creates a slightly better drug for one rare disease, for example.

  15. Tyrant Overlord Killidia says:

    Pictures. How long had photography itself been around by this point?

    If the ability to take pictures had existed long before this, there might be more of these sort of famous group pictures taken.

    • Wander says:

      It is worth remembering that that the founders of Western thought as a concept generally all knew each other and regularly had meetings.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Five hundred years ago, Raphael imagined a group portrait of ancient philosophers with Plato and Aristotle at the center for his “School of Athens.” Raphael himself was in a relatively friendly rivalry with Leonardo and Michelangelo.

      Generally speaking, it does matter who you know.

  16. marvy says:

    typo alert: and and

    Also: me no like this log-in required thing

  17. keranih says:

    Have there been ‘centers of excellence’ which are now best known for poor work that was constantly being corrected and/or thrown out within a decade or so?

  18. onyomi says:

    Lately I’ve been leaning more towards a Zeitgeist view of history, as opposed to a “great man” view. I see too many examples of people just fitting into big, world historical trends over which they have not much control. Example: Donald Trump is obviously a very unusual person. But in a universe minus Donald Trump, I think the current right wing populist movement in the US (and England and France and the Philippines and…) would still be happening, maybe a little a slower.

    Similarly, I can’t see any way that the US debt could be handled in a responsible way, given political incentives not to do so. Even if people can see it coming from a long way off, there’s seemingly just no non-political suicide way to deal with it before we are forced to. Comparisons to Rome are starting to become passe, but I do imagine being e. g. an ancient Roman and seeing the gradual decline of the empire yet knowing that not only was it inevitable, but that there was no theoretical great emperor who could conceivably show up and delay it by more than a few decades at most.

    • Spookykou says:

      Maybe a great emperor could show up and take the lead out of all their storage containers and aqueducts?

      But more seriously, I have heard it floated that the wide spread use of lead by the Romans might have contributed to their fall?

      Also I think they actually had some, at least vague or superstitious notion that lead made people go crazy?

      Anyone who actually knows about history care to illuminate this a bit for me?

      • onyomi says:

        It’s an interesting idea and reminds me of “Society is Fixed, Biology is Mutable,” which I highly recommend if you haven’t already read it.

        But even if that would have been a decisive factor, which I doubt it could have alone, I guess my point is that that couldn’t, realistically, have happened, given the general level of scientific understanding of the age. Similarly, we might imagine that Bernie could have beaten Trump had he been the nominee, but there is a sense in which he couldn’t have been the nominee, given the current state of the Democratic Party, just as Ron Paul, couldn’t, realistically, have been the nominee in ’08 or ’12, given the state of the GOP then.

        So, we can imagine, say, that the housing crisis might have been avoided if Ron Paul had won in 1988, or that WWII might not have happened without WWI, or that WWI might not have happened without Franz Ferdinand… but the point is sort of like, even if the Archduke had avoided assassination, but probably something else would have started WWI… and then WWII, and then…

        Of course, I’m arguing something of a strong case; of course individual people matter. This is also sort of the opposite of my previous view, which tended more towards the “great man,” theory. I am just tending in the opposite direction lately in my thinking.

        • Spookykou says:

          My default assumption would be a synthesis of the two which might explain a gradual shift in belief from one to the other, if reality is, to pull numbers out of my ass, 60% time and place and 40% ‘great man’.

          To put a finer point on it, there are situations that have a lot of wide spread inertia and are just waiting for anyone or any event that meets a few loose criteria to set them off, like WWI. However you also have things like Buddhism which, at least from my admittedly limited understanding, seem to be significantly focused around a single person and the particular situations of their very particular life that resulted in them being exactly who they needed to be, to found Buddhism.

          • onyomi says:

            I don’t think Buddhism (or any major religion I can think of, actually) is really a good example. I think the time and place were ripe for Buddhism (as 1st century Roman Empire was ripe for someone like Jesus and 6th c. Arab world for Muhammad). I think the emerging social hierarchy of the Vedic period, along with probably pre-existing traditions of esoteric religious practice, were ripe for some monasticism-oriented, egalitarian, movement to provide an outlet/alternative. I don’t know that much about ancient Indian history, but my impression is that Siddhartha was just one of many people at the time challenging religious orthodoxy, as Jesus also happens to be the guy, among many, whose particular brand of iconoclasm really took off.

            Like, we can’t imagine people becoming monks in the stone age when everyone has to struggle just to not starve. But once you reach a level of wealth and urbanization where some people have a surplus, it seems almost inevitable that you’ll get say, some people looking to convert surplus wealth into favor with the gods, which some other holy people, disaffected with the increasingly rigid demands of the growing society, are happy to provide in exchange for say, room and board.

            And of course there is monasticism in the West, too, making it seem more like you just get these kinds of movements at a certain point in a civilization’s development, rather than because Siddhartha Gautama or St. Francis of Assisi were once-in-a-millennium personalities. When the conditions aren’t right, any number of Gautamas can seemingly be born and die in obscurity; once they are right, it’s just a matter of time before someone gets the idea.

            In fact, it’s the historical analogues in geographically remote areas which make me believe less and less in the “great man” theory. The West didn’t develop ahead of, e. g. South America because we had Socrates; we had Socrates because the West was developing ahead of South America. Also there seems to be a particular point in the life of civilizations when you feel an urge to build pyramids or giant mounds.

          • Spookykou says:

            I guess it also depends how important you think any particular element of ‘Buddhism’ is versus some, similar religion. I could certainly see a counterfactual world religion founded around the same time, that has similar trappings to Buddhism, but I wonder what the world would look like, if this counterfactual Buddhism was identical except that it made no reference to peace and kindness as being important on the path to enlightenment. How detail oriented is the ‘time and the place’?

          • onyomi says:

            Well, another example, contra-“Great Man”: around the same time, two guys from Northern Europe independently invent calculus. Isaac Newton is undoubtedly a very unusual person, but subtract him from history and I’m not sure math ends up looking all that different a couple centuries later. Maybe some terminology and matters of emphasis are different. Maybe certain innovations are delayed somewhat, but I imagine it still ends up being about the same.

            Similarly: let’s take Gautama and Jesus: we imagine that, if we subtract them from history, history looks different. But how different? Is it just a matter of iconography and aesthetics? As for the substance of their teachings, presumably it was the substance which was a major factor in their iconoclastic religious movement catching on when others didn’t. Like, it’s hard to imagine that say, Objectivism would have caught on to the same degree in the same circumstances when a religion preaching love and self-sacrifice caught on.

            Like, let’s say you eliminate Jesus from history but replace him with someone with the brain and personality of Ayn Rand. Does the Roman empire adopt an atheistic philosophy of rational self interest? Or does Aramaic-speaking Rand die in obscurity while some other guy preaching love and self-sacrifice’s message takes off?

            Consider the parallels between Ashoka and Constantine. One imagines if they hadn’t had Buddhism and Christianity to latch onto they might simply have latched onto something else. As 20th c. politicians, minus Keynes, would have found some other economist to tell them what they wanted to hear.

          • Spookykou says:

            I agree there is a much stronger case in terms of any great ‘discovery’ that we would get there at some point, but I do think there is potential for fuzziness, in as much as moving the time tables around relative to other important discoveries could be important.

            One of my favorite historical figures is Thomas Midgley Jr. and I think he is a strong example of the “terrible man”(no moral judgement here) variation of the “great man” idea.

            If his work with Chemistry had happened slightly earlier in the time tables relative to other important scientific advancements, he might well have kicked off the Sixth Great Extinction.

          • onyomi says:

            It does seem like maybe history becomes more “great man”-ish as time goes on, especially now, when maybe brainpower is more often the limiting factor than resources and conducive environment, at least relative to the past, and when the world-changing power of any given innovation and its timing is greater.

            Like if whoever invented the long bow hadn’t lived, the ultimate outcome of the Hundred Years’ War probably would have been roughly the same, if slightly different in its superficial details.

            But if someone had caught the Rosenbergs earlier would the Cold War have been the same? Or, projecting into the future, maybe the invention of the “safe AI subroutine” this year, as opposed to next year, makes the difference between Skynet and benevolent genie.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The rise of Christianity seems extremely evitable to me, at least from a materialist standpoint. Constantine was one of 4 emperors at the time. None of the others at his time or before it thought it a good idea to latch onto Christianity. We know that Diocletian was a savvy politician, and he actually tried to wipe it out.

            And Constantine’s victory was far from assured. He could easily have lost at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which would have been taken as a lesson for any would-be emperor who abandoned the gods of Rome. Even after that, he still had to go through a long civil war with Licinius before he had all of Rome. I think different outcomes at any of those points would have left the West looking very different.

          • onyomi says:

            What about the rise of some other religion philosophically similar and largely equivalent to Christianity in its world-historical effects? Like, if 1000 years later, Europe looks mostly the same, but all the stain glass windows have a different guy.

          • With the thoughts says:

            Buddhism is one of several Sramana movements that preach ascetism, of them Jainism and Buddhism are the only two extant ones. One of the ones that didn’t make it was Ajivika who competed with Buddhists and Jain whose original works are lost so we know about them mainly through the victor’s writings. Also like Buddhism and Jainism they were able to get patronage of Mauryan emperor, but didn’t last as the other two.


          • onyomi says:

            Good point, the fact that Mahavira and Jainism are dated to roughly the same time as Gautama and Buddhism seems unlikely to be a coincidence.

    • keranih says:

      I wonder if it’s more a view-from-inside vs view-from-outside –

      Hitler had a tremendous impact on the globe in the mid 20th century, but I tend to think we would have had some sort of anti-tech-advance political system arise, and space exploration, and a world-wide epidemic of something, even without him. Those things will, imo, end up having a larger impact than Hitler.

      Likewise, Roman influence in the British Isles was going to fall, never no mind just who Arthur was, and how long he held back the counter forces.

      Where the idea is less stout, I think, is in the area of things like civil wars, where the right or wrong Great Man could have brought about a less disastrous outcome of a division (or reunification) of a country. Here I’m thinking of (duh) the American CW, and how a separation could have gone. We’re lacking the counter-factual, but I am not at all sure that history would have turned out the same if the US had been lacking, say, New Orleans, in 1940.

      Or California.

      • onyomi says:

        I think it’s a good point, but to push against the “Great Man” theory: as a Southerner I may be biased, but my general impression of the Civil War is that it was actually kind of impressive the South held out as long as it did, given the overwhelming manpower and material advantages on the side of the North. I think Lee is generally believed to be a much better strategist, for example, than McClellan or Grant.

        So imagine a hypothetical world in which Grant commands the Southern forces and Lee the Northern forces and the North still wins. We can imagine, in such a world, a Southerner saying, “if only we had had Lee on our side, history might have turned out differently!” But we know, in fact, that even with the “great man” on the South’s side, it wasn’t enough to change the course of history.

        • Spookykou says:

          But, at least from what I was taught, that is not a great example, because it was not a close war, and we never had much of a chance because of northern industry,shipping, and other infrastructure related issues.

          It would be more interesting to try and find examples of very close/important wars, and swap military personal around.

        • keranih says:

          Oh, I said that poorly – my Great Man for the ACW was Lincoln, and my counter-factual that he (or his alternate) had said to the South, “good riddance,” and the war either not begun or petering out to a series of border skirmishes.

          (One of the things I would most like to know is how long slavery would have been tolerated in the North, without the Holy Cause to hasten the institution’s removal.)

          There are a great number of things which I think would have changed – the Indian wars, for starters, and the Mexican-American Wars, and Texas – would Texas have stayed? Have become the defacto center of the CSA? – not to mention the impact on the growth of industry in Chicago, etc, if trade down the Mississippi had been moving cross-border.

          If California didn’t become a state, – or, given the geography, had withdrawn from the north-USA and joined the Texas-flavored CSA – would the n-USA have added Alaska & Hawaii? Without Pearl Harbor, would the USA have gone to war with Japan?

          In short – no, not arguing that a different set of generals could have won the war and secured southern independence, but that perhaps a different set of politicos might have. And I surely dunno if that would have been better for anyone, or any sets of anyone.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      I think I can provide a couple of examples where the “great men” actually might have made a difference.

      Russian revolution at the end of WW1. If you look at the details, it’s not a clear path to the victory of the communists and Stalin, it is a confusing, tangled mess.

      Assuming the WW1 happens as it happens and the Russian monarchy is as ill-equipped to deal with it as it was, some kind of revolution and / or a civil war is very likely to happen. But if the Germans did not put Lenin into the special train to St. Petersburg, or maybe done it bit later, would the bolsheviks as we know them have came on the top in the aftermath? Even if the Lenin’s party is the most efficient and “likeliest” of the movements “destined by the Zeitgeist” to take over Russia, how it would have affected the history if the internal party dynamics are different, and instead of Stalin they would have Trotsky at the helm, with more effort given to the attempts of further revolution in Europe? Stalin famously fell of a horse-carriage at the age of 12, and broke his arm. What if it would have been his neck? Wikipedia also tells that earlier he caught smallpox — the disease that has a fatality rate of 30%.

      Or later during the civil war, it has been argued that if Gen. Yudenich would have been more ready to support the independence of ex-parts of the Russian Empire or had slightly different personality, he maybe could have secured the support of Gen. Mannerheim in Finland, with not insignificant number of troops at his command, (and not to mention a maybe more enthusiastic support of the Baltic governments) and thus could maybe have taken St. Petersburg in 1919. Or maybe if Trostky wasn’t there, and the politburo decides to abandon Petrograd…

      The details of what kind communism – or other authoritarianism – prevails in Russia could have significant consequences on what kind of war the WW2 would be and how the world looks like after it.

      Or consider the protestant reformation and its consequences in Europe. Emergence of figures like Calvin and Luther gives credence to the idea that the “Zeitgeist” was in the favor of something like that happening around then. But the fact that there were so many different reformist leaders such as Calvin and Luther around, each giving a birth to similar yet distinctly different schools of thought. The peculiarities of the Lutheran and Calvinist thought by no doubt influenced the details what kind of paths e.g. Switzerland and Sweden took, but the effect is not easy to measure. And stances various princes in Germany and kings elsewhere in Europe take, well, it looks like essentially random. If Henry VIII had been more fertile, would have there ever been an Anglican church? Papist GB for ever?

      And would there have been anything like the reformation, if instead of Christianity, the remnant of the Roman Empire embraces some other vaguely similar religion, say, cult of Mithra? Even if there would have been reaction against the Catholic-church-equivalent thousand year later, would it have been so focused on teaching the populace to read some book?

      Without protestants, would there have ever been a republic in America? Would there ever been any libertarians?

      The men can’t change the large trends of the history, merely ride on their waves. But each trend does have very long roots, and at their roots they are only thin streams, at a stage where might very well be susceptible to the tiniest perturbations.

      • nimim.k.m. says:

        Thinking about it, I really should also mention Napoleon. In the aftermath of the French revolution (which itself was a bit of accident of history in the way how overboard it went), surely some other strong general would have emerged. France was full of them. But what if that general would have lost some of the earlier battles? Davout does not arrive in time, and 3rd coalition has a decisive win at Austerlitz? Butterfly flaps its wings, nationalistic sentiment takes a different turn in a different political reality, and just maybe the Germany and Italy are unified in a totally different way. And maybe then the course of WW1 and consequently WW2 are changed for ever.

        (And now that Napoleon got mentioned …without Napoleon, does Orwell ever write Animal Farm? Does that have any consequences? Is Orwell the tiny necessary bit of sanity in the sea of Stalinist leftist thought during the early 20th century?)

        Would there be even be a populist movement (and Trump’s influence in it) to talk about in the West, anno domini 2016?

        • keranih says:

          …without Napoleon, does Orwell ever write Animal Farm?

          …What’s the link here? I don’t understand, and it seems like something I should know.

        • onyomi says:

          There’s a pig in the book named Napoleon?

          • nimim.k.m. says:

            ^That was my initial thought. Mostly I was just associating wildly on that particular line; of course he might just give the pig a different name. But in the alternate history there could be very well some other tiny, minor changes if instead of Napoleon there was some other random French general. For example, the years Orwell lived in France might have been different in some major way. Or consider the time he speng fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Traces of Napoleon’s decisions and their consequences linger all through those countries.

      • onyomi says:

        I think the history of global communism is actually a very strong data point in favor of the “big historical forces” theory, as opposed to the “great man” theory. Apologists for communism (I’m not accusing you of that, but I have met a few) frequently point to specific problems that occurred in the early history of a communist revolution: if only the Mensheviks had triumphed, if only Che had stuck around and staid true to the spirit of the revolution, if only the good intentions hadn’t been subverted by a paranoid, charismatic leader with a lust for power.

        But when it happens roughly the same way ten or so times in different places and with different cultures, it seems ever more likely that it wasn’t the specific individuals that were to blame. “Tell that to Stalin’s victims,” one might say. Okay, but we also don’t know what the counterfactual world in which Trotsky triumphs looks like. Maybe some different enemies get purged, but my guess is it ends up looking pretty similar in the end.

        Re. cases like Napoleon or Lincoln (or Genghis Khan, or…), whom Keranih mentions below: yes, one can imagine a very different outcome if we replace them with some wimpy person. But what were the odds of some wimpy person holding the position of Napoleon or Lincoln at that particular time and place? If Genghis Khan had never been born would the Mongol cavalry just remained quiescent, or was it just a matter of time before some other leader took the reins?*

        Part of the reason the South seceded was because of the election of Lincoln, because of who he was and what he believed. Replace him with some wimpy president and maybe the South doesn’t secede right then. But then there’s still slavery and all the other unresolved issues and cultural differences plaguing the nation. Maybe it could have been resolved peacefully? Maybe the war could have turned out differently had England or France intervened, but it’s actually kind of hard to see how?

        *Which is not to say there’s no place for dumb luck: a Mongol fleet was famously destroyed by storms en route to attack Japan. Maybe Japanese history and many other things related would have turned out differently had the weather been different. Then again, the Mongols were basically Dothraki, so… the Zeitgeisty thing to expect from them is dominance overland, not at sea…

        • nimim.k.m. says:

          That seems a bit silly argument in the sense that the Russian / Soviet Communist Party made its business to influence any and all leftist guerrilla / revolutionary factions / coups it could since they emerged with the control of Russia (and same could be said of Mao w.r.t. China). Data points are not independent.

          All dictators doing purges in totalitarian states look about the same. But the contents of the ideological orthodoxy matter, because as soviets demonstrated, human beings in positions of power have a remarkable capability to stick to the ideological orthodoxy even when it should be evident that it’s not the best economic policy. I’m not convinced that Russia was destined to the particular form of Marxism-Leninism by ineffable hand of history (even if a rise of a paranoid dictator was the most likely outcome), or that the details of major religions don’t matter in the long run.

          But actually I consider the protestant reformation my strongest example of those two. Yes, one could plausibly say that no matter how each battle of the 30 years’ war ended, the endgame would have been similar – Westphalian nation-states rising from the ashes after everyone is too tired of fighting… but a couple of hundred years later those minor details of which kingdoms and duchies are protestant and which are catholic turn out to be the background that matters when the “historical forces” are playing out. For example, that papist Britain mentioned above… (Or does the reformation happen as it happened if Luther does not run away from Diet of Worms and ends up as more Hus-like figure, in the first place?)

          edit. And even those battles of the 30 years’ war that do not necessarily matter in the grand picture, do matter on the medium level picture, even if you don’t get to the level of individual soldiers. There’s no historical force that dictates that Sweden of the all nations involved has enough steam to go on winning enough battles so that in the end it gets to have an small empire for some time, and not e.g. Denmark. And this makes a difference in the history of Denmark and Sweden for a hundred years or so. The “grand Zeitgeist” probably does not care about particular political arrangements of certain descendants of vikings in Scandinavia, but it’s significant when you zoom to the level of Denmark and Sweden for non-negligible amount of time.

      • gricky says:

        Sorry for the lateness of this reply – nobody’s going to see it.

        Lenin or no, the Bolsheviks were, I believe, the only major Russian party that had a significant and operational paramilitary arm. That is why and how they seized power. There were two other major parties that, for the most part, both had better election performance than the Bolsheviks, but as we now see, that didn’t matter, because the Bolsheviks were playing an entirely different kind of game. I don’t know enough about it to say whether the Bolsheviks would have still launched a coup without Lenin pushing for it.

        The “no Stalin” idea is pretty interesting. Trotsky’s influence after Lenin’s death would surely have been greater without a Stalin around. Trotsky would have forced faster land collectivization, which is precisely the issue Stalin fought over most when pushing Trotsky out (right before Stalin himself pushed his own comprehensive and brutal land collectivization effort). I’m not sure if that different timing would have been better or worse from the Communist Party perspective. I also don’t know how harsh Trotsky would be with the peasants – his rhetoric implies he’d be rather harsh, but I’m unaware of any examples of him personally executing any power over such decisions at any time, and, obviously actions speak louder than words. Either way, the communists would have stayed in power, and absent Stalin’s patently insane purges, Russia would have had a much more effective lineup of military officers at the start of WW2. The Kremlin leaders also might not have chosen to conspire in concert with Hitler initially as in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Given what happened in the early years of WW2, less cooperation with Hitler would have been very good for Europe; given the events close to the end of the war, a more effective Russian military might have put more nations and more territory under Kremlin control than happened otherwise.

        None of this really addresses any of your questions; just adding the sorts of things I wonder about to your own wonderings.

    • John Schilling says:

      How many posts on this subject and not one mention of George Washington? Almost any other man, victorious in the American Revolution, would have accepted the inevitable crown of King George I. If not immediately, then after the failure of the Articles of Confederation. And if not with the formal title of “King”, then by making “President” a synonym for it. He was all but begged to do so, and no one could have stopped him.

      And for that matter, victory in the American revolution was hardly assured in the first place, owing a great deal to Washington’s leadership in the critical early years.

      Either way, leaving the French to show the world what Democracy means in the post-Renaissance age. Anyone really want to argue that doesn’t change history in a big way?

      • onyomi says:

        I had thought that idea was sort of a myth. Though looking into it a bit more it seems like there were more people than I realized who claimed to be “restoring” the power of monarchy, or “true” monarchy against the unjustified rule of Parliament. But there were many others arguing against such an idea. It’s not clear to me Washington really could have become king or de facto king, though it’s also not entirely clear he couldn’t have.

        Actually it makes me see a parallel, at least ideologically, between the American Revolution and the Meiji Restoration. And reminds me of that idea Jamieastorga, I think, recently linked about how adopting a slightly more extreme version of the dominant ideology can be a way to relatively safely signal disaffection with the status quo: we aren’t rebels; we are just fighting to take authority back from the crooked Parliament getting in the way of our connection to his Majesty, King George. We aren’t rebels; we are just fighting to restore the Emperor to his proper place from his degraded position under the thumb of the Shogun. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill.”

        That said, the case of George Washington does seem to indicate maybe a type of situation where individuals are in a place to make a decisive difference: when there is a genuine edge case and things really could go one or more of two or more ways and some influential person is in a position to give a decisive push.

        As Spookykou said, the best example would be a war where it was really close and having a particular military commander could really make the difference between victory and defeat. Similarly, if your nascent nation has two substantively different ruling philosophies it might adopt, both of which are realistic and viable and have a good critical mass of supporters, a leader might be in a position to decisively push things in one direction.

        That said, I think “wouldn’t it be wild if this one thing turned out differently we’d all be…[speaking German]” as regards the early history of the United States seems to be a kind of meme, and I think most cases are not true edge cases.

        • Peter says:

          That said, the case of George Washington does seem to indicate maybe a type of situation where individuals are in a place to make a decisive difference: when there is a genuine edge case and things really could go one or more of two or more ways and some influential person is in a position to give a decisive push.

          I have a phrase: “the spotlight of history”. The spotlight of history falls upon an individual, great, mediocre or terrible, and their characteristics have a huge effect. Sometimes hereditary succession or something like that puts someone (usually a man, sometimes a woman) in that position, or someone who has great skills in area A is put in a position where their decisions in area B – which they may be great, mediocre or terrible at – would come to the fore.

      • nimim.k.m. says:

        >How many posts on this subject and not one mention of George Washington?

        I’ve been talking about Napoleon quite lot in this discussion, and had a funny thought: What if US had a Napoleon and France had a Washington…?

        • bassicallyboss says:

          Probably, the U.S. Revolutionary war goes a lot “better,” and the U.S. ends up including all of Canada, the Caribbean, and possibly Mexico, in addition to it’s present-day territory. It also ends up a monarchy.

          Hard to say what happens in France. Without Napoleon, they might not have been so greedy for territory. I’m not sure how vital Napoleon’s generalship was to the Republic in the days before he really started running things. If Washington could employ France’s considerable resources to keep Europe’s monarchies off his back, the other nations might be content to sit back and let it stew for a while after being beaten a few times, absent Napoleon trying to annex the whole continent. Either way, Washington doesn’t become Emperor, France probably has a few revolutions more anyway (it’s not like the first one went so well anyway, what with the Reign of Terror and all), Europe doesn’t move as far in favor of Democracy as we’d expect, and maybe in 1919 Russia is overthrown not by Socialists but by Republicans. Probably not likely, I guess (I don’t know enough to say what would be), but it would be interesting.

    • Rusty says:

      You seem to be saying that the ‘right wing populist movements’ in the US, the UK, France and the Philippines are kind of the same thing. To me at least they all seem to have their own causes and histories and to be very different from each other in their character and aims. Putting them together as though they were manifestly the same kind of thing seems misleading to me.
      On the subject of Rome, the best explanations for that always seem to me to take into account the fact that the incentives for the various holders of power within the system were not synonymous with the good of the system itself. Caesar didn’t want to destroy the Republic but had to protect his career and political life. Cato didn’t want to destroy the Republic but couldn’t allow compromise with Caesar. And in the later Empire the ruler of each part of the Empire regarded the other parts as sources of threats far more dangerous and pressing than barbarian invasion.

  19. gardenofaleph says:

    Bioethics/stigma/taboos in experiments strikes me as a cultural impediment to lots of research that is otherwise low-hanging.

    If we were a lot less cautious about protecting research subjects then we’d probably have shorter cycle times for testing new drugs/therapies.

    If we were more cavalier about race/genetics, we could have more definitive answers on IQ by doing large-scale GWAS.

    If we were more cavalier about germ-line engineering we could probably get superbabies faster.

    None of this is to advocate for a relaxation of research ethics, but to point out that increased research ethics are a minor drag on learning more.

    • Murphy says:

      There’s a principle in research ethics that if you’re doing research on treating a condition and part way through the experiment it becomes clear that the treatment is worse than the current best available treatment then the experiment should be halted and that best treatment provided to all participants.

      The principle was adopted as a kneejerk response to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

      note, it mentions nothing about cost. It might as well have been written by a collection of major drug patent holders it advantages them so much.

      The practical effect of this is that it forbids attempts to find cheap/affordable treatments for people in the third world that are almost a good as some patented super-drug going for 20K per pill.

      I’m not talking theoretically, there have been trials attempted to find cheap, affordable treatments for people in third world countries who are getting no treatment, for whom nobody is willing or able to pony up billions of dollars to transport them to a new york hospital. So some researchers try to trial treatments which are less effective but are so cheap that the locals can actually afford them. They immediately get attacked by various people (who’ll themselves will never be lacking for the best drugs) demanding that they pull billions of dollars out of their ass to put the subjects on the tip top best possible treatment.

      I’m not saying that those member of a research ethics boards who enforce this rule are evil or genocidal but some are so stupid that functionally there’s little difference when they’re denying even the possibility of treatments that poor people can actually afford. The rule involved sounds good when you’ve just had a frantic explanation of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment but the reality of such a poorly thought out principle is death and suffering on a scale far more vast than that experiment.

  20. Fingerspitzengefuehl says:

    Paul Graham has written amply about the network effect involved in great work being produced in clusters:

    Good design happens in chunks. The inhabitants of fifteenth century Florence included Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Milan at the time was as big as Florence. How many fifteenth century Milanese artists can you name?

    Something was happening in Florence in the fifteenth century. And it can’t have been heredity, because it isn’t happening now. You have to assume that whatever inborn ability Leonardo and Michelangelo had, there were people born in Milan with just as much. What happened to the Milanese Leonardo?

    There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the US right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greeted daily by artistic marvels. We aren’t, and the reason is that to make Leonardo you need more than his innate ability. You also need Florence in 1450.

    Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence. Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionately from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, the New Yorker, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.

    At any given time there are a few hot topics and a few groups doing great work on them, and it’s nearly impossible to do good work yourself if you’re too far removed from one of these centers. You can push or pull these trends to some extent, but you can’t break away from them. (Maybe you can, but the Milanese Leonardo couldn’t.)

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