“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.


17 thoughts on ““Great Ideas” from Penguin Books

  1. The Bible, no contest in my view…

    …followed by the “Origin of Species” and the closeness of this ranking speaks volumes, as it were!

    “Das Kapital” probably not because so little of what’s in there has anything to do with the practical application of socialism or communism. In That way it’s very different from Darwin’s great book: “Darwinism” is to a large extent emodied in “Origin of Species” whereas “Marxism” has only a loose connection to “Kapital”.

    Books I delusionally hope will one day maybe pe picked by more people: The Wealth of Nations. Bur don’t get me started…

  2. Yes, surely from the category of all books published, the Bible would be the hands down winner. Filling out the remainer of an “all books” top ten would be more difficult, but I think Darwin’s book would be somewhere up there.

    Narrowing the choice to the twenty books that Penguin selected for its series radically simplifies the vote. Here I went with Darwin for the reasons you suggested. I suspect that socialism and communism would have developed historically in much the same way even in the absence of the work of Marx and Engels. On the other hand, biology and modern medicine would have been dramatically different absent the work of Darwin, and modern culture would likewise be different.

    Personally, I was hoping for Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to appear in the series. I have read some of Wealth of Nations, but not (yet) Moral Sentiments.

  3. What about National Lampoon’s High School Yearbook? Oh wait — they’re looking for “influential” aren’t they?

  4. 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? 😉

  5. I don’t know that Origin of Species has had much affect on the vast numbers of humankind in the 3rd world, or even, under some scenarios, those in the (non-Western) 2nd (and perhaps 1st).

    Part of the consideration here, it seems to me, is to choose a book that has affected people on mass scale whether or not those people themselves have read or even heard of the book. How, for example, has the Origin of Species really affected over time much of the poorer populations and/or less powerful (and especially non-western) nations? I’d say not all that much, on an overwhelming level. In contrast, to the degree that communism and its cousins massively affected overwhelming numbers of common people (whether they ever read or were even aware iof the book) throughout the 20th century and, at least via legacy, even today. This stems not just from the effects of living in a communist system (which one can argue both ways, I suppose, but which I personally feel is negative–but that’s not the point), but as offshoots of being used as “proxies” throughout the Cold War.

    I’m afraid that I’ve not made my point as clear as I would like. I guess the bottom line is that I’m suggesting that a definition of influence should include the practical, day to lives and destinies of the mass (and majority) of people over time, many of whom, far from even being able to read, don’t fall in the class where they’d be reading Origin. (And it’s hard to see how other people reading it or not really affects them.) They wouldn’t have been/be reading the Manifesto either, but other people reading it DID and COULD affect them powerfully.

    Thanks for your patience as I think this through aloud.

  6. 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…

  7. 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…

  8. 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.

  9. I should have put that statement in quotes, even though it often appears unattributed. The statement “History does not disclose its alternatives” is frequently attributed to British historian Lord Acton. Having now attributed it, I can agree with Mike that it is profound, while being nicely concise. The first time I heard it, I said, “THAT’s what I’ve been trying to say!”

    Why, you might ask, would a D.O.U.G. be considering or discussing such things? I suppose it happens in many human endeavors, but in the electric utility industry these days especially, people claim that some policy has/not been a success/failure, often by comparing the present with the past. We often hear, for instance, that competition has not lowered prices in electricity. Relative to what, I ask? Competition (or the threat thereof) has changed everything and everybody in the industry since the late 80s. What we can never know is what would have happened if competition in the industry had never come about.

    History is built on consistent forces [such as the need to eat to remain alive] interrupted by utterly unpredictable contingencies. Where would “we” be if the hydro in the Northwest had returned in 2000 to the surpluses of 1996-1997, instead of dropping 100,000 GWh from Western supply as occurred in 2000-2001? What if First Energy had cut down those trees? It’s really immaterial now. Undisclosed alternatives…

    But, while the specifics are immaterial, what is important, I think, is to realize the breadth of uncertainty that we face every day, whether anything of note actually happens every day or not. And because industries are just part of the fabric of the world economy (the process through which we eat to stay alive), and because the world economy is an unfathomably complex system, we can never adequately predict the effects of events on the system, any more than we can predict the events themselves. Is the key to effective planning to plan as if we don’t know the future?

  10. 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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