Pick any great historical figure. We often regard them as unparalleled geniuses the likes of which we may never see again.
On the other hand, they were human beings like us. They performed in some areas well beyond average. What if their abilities or traits weren’t once ever but once in a generation? It’s interesting to see what you conclude, as I’ll show. Then we’d expect to see others of comparable abilities or skills.
We could pick any figure, but let’s talk about Mozart for concreteness.
In his time the earth’s population was about 700 million or so, roughly a tenth of today. Could that mean we should expect ten people of Mozart’s ability today?
In Mozart’s times a smaller fraction of the population had access to the means of producing music. He could create music for orchestras because royalty granted him access, meaning they didn’t grant access to others, meaning few had access to resources to do what he did. Other cultures at the time may not have known or cared about that style of music. There may have been other people with Mozart’s abilities and skills creating works we’ve never heard of — maybe those cultures didn’t preserve their music like Mozart’s did, maybe the work got lost in other ways, or maybe we just don’t recognize its greatness.
Today, anyone with a computer and access to the internet can download software to create music like Mozart did. Cultures communicate more freely.
It seems reasonable to suppose more Mozart-level people existed in his time that didn’t have resources to achieve their potential, whose work hasn’t survived to today, or that we don’t recognize, meaning we’d have more Mozart-level people today.
It seems reasonable that if there were more such people then, we’d have them in comparable proportion today. A ten-times population growth suggests we’d have that many more. Greater access to resources and more communication between cultures suggests more of them could create work we could hear, see, or experience and that we’d understand it better.
I’m not trying to look at this systematically, only considering a few potential factors of many. I’m not evaluating how relevant or accurate my assumptions are, just playing around to see where my general impressions take me. Physicists think this way.
I can’t help but conclude that we’d have plenty of people of Mozart’s abilities today. Same with Da Vinci, Confucius, or any other great historical figure.
If there are so many Mozarts around, why don’t we see them?
Maybe they are everywhere. If Mozart were magically born today, would he make music like they made in the eighteenth century?
I doubt it.
I expect he’d make music of today, like hip hop, electronica, or something current. We can expect he’d explore the limits of what genres he worked in, but don’t we see many artists doing that now? A Michelangelo born today might create street art like Banksy.
It makes you wonder how many of today’s musicians might have Mozart’s skills. Why don’t we recognize any today as his peers? The knee-jerk answer is that they don’t measure up to him, but maybe they do but we don’t recognize them.
An alternative view
Maybe the issue isn’t the existence of people with comparable abilities but of how culture selects people and our preconceptions of what we consider great.
Maybe what made them great historical figures includes not just their work but the restrictions on others — that others couldn’t do what he did and how history doesn’t allow for many figures to stand the test of time. If part of their greatness comes from how much others were excluded, might many of today’s artists have comparable talent but live in cultures that don’t keep enough others down to make them appear so much greater?
Potential peers of Mozart born outside major cultural centers in his time could not have competed with Mozart. Today someone growing up in the middle of nowhere can connect with everyone else. Plenty of people today create works as young as Mozart did and devote themselves to their work like he did. Do we permit ourselves to compare them to historical figures?
Maybe our world is full of Mozart-level creators and we haven’t noticed or closed ourselves to the possibility.
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