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The theory that the Victorians were more intelligent than modern populations leads to the expectation that the Victorians were more innovative than moderns, and indeed, a couple weeks ago, an expert helpfully informed me of this extremely impressive paper by Michael A. Woodley, published in the prestigious journal Intelligence, which argues exactly that. Citing scholars such as J. Huebner and Charles Murray, the paper concludes that innovation rates were higher in the 19th century than today, at least in fields like science and technology, which are probably the most important and most cognitively demanding, and thus the most relevant to the paper’s thesis.

Of course measuring innovation rates is an inexact science requiring subjective judgments on someone’s part, however the paper argues that when different independent sources using different methodologies all conclude that innovation rates were highest in the 19th century, then it’s no longer just a matter of opinion.

As I read the paper I was reminded of a fascinating book called The 100 by Michael H. Hart (1992 edition).  In an act of an extraordinary intellectual ambition, Hart attempts to identify the 100 most influential people of all time, and then rank them in order of historical significance, and vigorously defends his choices (see the complete ranking here).  I mention this because on pg 530 of Hart’s book, he has a table documenting when these 100 people flourished:

Before 600 BC:  3% of the list

600 BC to 201 BC: 13% of the list

200 BC to 1400 AD: 16% of the list

15th century: 4% of the list

16th century: 9% of the list

17th century: 9% of the list

18th century: 12% of the list

19th century: 18% of the list

20th century: 16% of the list

So yet another independent source, using yet another methodology (actually no formal methodology, just his own arguments) converges on the conclusion that the 19th century was a period of enormous cultural significance.  It’s especially striking that by Hart’s assessment, the 19th century had more influential people than the 20th century, despite the fact that the latter had far more people with far more opportunity to have an impact.

Ironically, Woodley’s paper did cite Hart, though not for this book, but for his later work on IQ.  Perhaps it was best not to cite Hart’s ranking, because it is just one man’s opinion, though one man who claims to have an A.B. from Cornell University, an L.L.B. from New York Law School, an M.S. in physics from Adelphi University, and a PhD in astronomy from Princeton University.  Given the very linear relationship between IQ and years of schooling, I’m guessing Hart’s IQ is way up there, especially since the degrees include STEM subjects and from prestigious schools to boot.  

Of course one difficulty with assessing historical influence or innovation rates is that we might not have the historical perspective to fully appreciate how culturally significant the 20th century really was.