“Great Ideas” from Penguin Books

Michael Giberson

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen points to a USA Today story about Penguin Books’ new Great Ideas series. The books offer extracts, the USA Today story called them “samplings”, from great non-fiction. The first twenty books include work by Seneca, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Orwell.

The Penguin website invites visitors to vote on which of the twenty books “you feel has had the most impact on the world.” As of my visit, the voting was close between Darwin/On Natural Selection and Marx and Engels/The Communist Manifesto, each receiving around 20 percent of the vote with a slight edge to Marx and Engels.

Of course, I have no idea which of the twenty books you feel has most affected the world, but on the narrower question of which book has most affected the world the nod would have to go to Darwin’s On Natural Selection.


6 thoughts on ““Great Ideas” from Penguin Books

  1. But Mike, Darwin had to rush to publish The Origin of Species because Alfred Russel Wallace was about to publish the same idea. And that’s not to diminish Darwin, but only to underline the contingent nature of history on the one hand, but also the infinite range of nearly parallel paths that could be “similar but different” by the present time. Then again, one little change in assumptions and the whole thing could have wandered off in a different direction, as the butterfly would have it. 😉

    I hate for the whole science of biology to be pinned on Darwin as if evolution was his lone dangerous idea. Rather, it was an idea whose time had been coming. There was much discussion of the nature of heritable characteristics in the early part of the century. Remember Lamarck? It is most difficult to imagine how we could have gone for much longer without the evolution meme emerging. It is not as if another competing idea would have fit the evidence just as well. Who knows? Maybe Thomas Huxley would have become “Wallace’s Bulldog,” and we’d all be talking about Wallace versus Intelligent Design.

    What’s a Dumb Old Utility Guy doing in this discussion anyway? 😉

  2. Taken simply and literally, we can’t say that Communism resulted from a book any more than biological science resulted from a book. The spread of Communism was forced on many people by people, not all of whom read or were affected by the book. In a previous post, I offered the suggestion that The Origin is just a component of the history of biological science, but since history does not disclose its alternatives, we don’t know what would have happend with out it, except that Alfred Russell Wallace might have gotten lone credit for the mechanism of Natural Selection. Natural Selection was an “Aha!” whose time had probably come.

    I am uncomfortable with comparisons between an “Aha!” that matches physical evidence and *marks* (but did not necessarily create) an advancement in the development of biological science, versus a theory of human economic behavior that has caused great suffering in its proponents’ failed efforts to prove themselves right. These are not the same things. The influence of the book versus the influence of the people or the strength of the ideas… I guess we all know that this is an unknowable thing. These questions are fun to consider, nevertheless…

  3. I liked this phrase clipped from D.O.U.G.’s first comment: “History does not disclose its alternatives.” It certainly sounds profound, and suggests maybe we shouldn’t write off the “old utility guys” when digging into cultural questions.

    These questions are fun to consider, or at least I thought it was fun and that’s the reason I posted. It may also be of some practical value to examine such questions as such examination should contribute to an improved understanding of how society works. At least, when such examinations are done by folks better prepared for the job than I am.

    I also agree with reader_iam’s defining of the territory of interest to include people whether or not they have read the book. The battle between Darwin and Marx becomes a question of the marginal influence of Darwin on advances in science and medicine and of Marx on the practices of governments and social movements. In fact, I was thinking about how understanding natural selection contributes to understanding viruses and development of vaccines, which benefitted many people who haven’t read the book. I suggested above I that thought that communism/socialism would have developed in much the same way without Marx and Engels, but as D.O.U.G. notes, biological sciences may also have developed along similar lines even without Darwin.

    In all, I’m sure the issue of marginal influence is too subtle for me to tease out in these cases.

    Still fun.

  4. Obviously it’s The Communist Manifesto, not Origin of Species or the Bible. Even aside from the The Manifesto’s impact on the great conflicts of the 20th century–intellectual and armed–think how it has affected the lives and thought of one-third of the world’s population in Asia (e.g., 1.5 billion in China).

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