Friday night topic: The golden age of... everything?

— 5:52 PM on November 4, 2011

I've been thinking some lately about how our modern perspective warps our sense of scale about history. The simple fact of the matter is that there are many, many more of us alive right now that at any point in human history. Graphs like this one illustrate how the world population has mushroomed exponentially in modern times, but I don't think we've entirely internalized that truth.

With billions of us on the planet, and with living standards being generally higher than in the past, one wonders about the true worth of our historical precedents on so many fronts. In the arts, humanities, sciences, business—any area of human endeavor, you name it—we are selecting our highest achievers from a much, much larger pool, even versus the size of that pool, say, 50 years ago, let alone further back. Sheer math suggests we likely have more exceptional individuals living among us now than might have existed cumulatively over long stretches of history.

Would today's greatest athletes, for instance, completely destroy the storied heroes of our sports lore in a direct contest? Would Zack Greinke strike out Babe Ruth 95% of the time? Aren't there hundreds of geniuses pursuing breakthroughs in narrow fields of the sciences now who are brighter and more capable than a Newton or a Tesla? Do we have tens or hundreds of Mozarts working in relative obscurity today?

Or has, perhaps, the current cultural cacophony and the leveling effect of industrialized civilization produced an environment less conducive to true greatness? Has modern technology granted survivability and even stature to less physically robust individuals, producing fewer naturally capable athletes?

Yeah, I can't sell that last paragraph to myself. The math of it all seems overwhelming. But what do you think? Discuss.

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