The Seven Wonders of Human Intellect

Duane Smith put up a post about what he called Intellectual Monuments which he thinks every­one should visit. By this he meant that there were some ideas so import­ant that people should make the effort to engage with them the same way they would with his­toric monu­ments. No so much by buy­ing a ticket to see Thermodynamics, but being able to ‘answer senior col­lege level ques­tions about them’. I’ve put that in quotes because, hav­ing not gone through the USA’s edu­ca­tional sys­tem, I’m not entirely sure what it means.

He has a good list, but Aydin Örstan also has a good cri­ti­cism in the com­ments, which is that you only have so much time on the planet. You can’t study them all. That’s a fair com­ment. You also can’t visit every his­toric monu­ment on the planet, but some are acknow­ledged as more import­ant than oth­ers. Taking the ana­logy to break­ing point we can do the same by ask­ing what the Seven Wonders of Human Intellect are.

Why seven?

Well first off there’s seven won­ders of the world. More import­antly it’s a good num­ber to argue with. It’s small enough that some pretty major achieve­ments will be left off the list. For instance I think the Michaelson-Morley exper­i­ment which dis­proved the exist­ence of the aether is a bril­liant piece of think­ing. Even so it doesn’t make my list. At the same time it’s not such a small fig­ure that the selec­tion becomes purely arbit­rary. Choosing one thing won’t neces­sar­ily make some­thing sim­ilar irrelevant.

Here’s my list. I’m sure I’ll over­look some of your favour­ites too. You can cor­rect me in the com­ments, or on your own blog.

  1. Deep Time
    I’ll start with the dis­cov­ery of Deep Time, by which I mean pre-biblical time, because it’s the con­text which many of the other achieve­ments fit into. The Earth is the stage which every human has walked upon, yet in com­par­ison the time of our own spe­cies is so brief. When look­ing at time in the con­text of bil­lions of years humanity’s suc­cesses, which are built on a found­a­tion of just a few thou­sand years’ writ­ing, become all the more stunning.
  2. Natural Selection
    If the Earth is the stage, then nat­ural selec­tion provides the scenery. There is beauty in the idea that so much com­plex­ity could be derived from such a simple algorithim. The res­ults are astound­ing. I share around half my DNA with the cab­bages grow­ing in my garden. Not a reg­u­lar basis, that would be wor­ry­ing. What I mean is the DNA found in the nuceli of the plant cells shows that way back it and I shared a com­mon ancestor. It’s an extraordin­ary state­ment of the con­nec­tions between all life on the planet.
  3. Modern Atomic Theory
    The next mind-boggling sim­il­ar­ity is that the cab­bage and I, if you ground us down suf­fi­ciently into out atoms, would be made of very sim­ilar stuff. I don’t know exactly how many things there are on the planet, but if I were to haz­ard a guess I’d say more than 88. I picked the num­ber 88 because, when you ignore Technetium, Promethium, Astatine and Francium, there’s only 88 nat­ural ele­ments that hang around for long. Yet every animal, veget­able and min­eral is made from com­bin­a­tions of these 88 ele­ments. The cyc­li­city of the beha­viour of the ele­ments is even more odd. Why does Potassium act more like Sodium than Calcium. The peri­odic table explains how the build­ing blocks of real­ity fit together.
  4. Classical Mechanics
    Plenty of people know that Newton’s work on mech­an­ics is con­sidered to be pos­sibly the greatest sci­entific work of all time. Considerably less know that it was Galileo, rather than Einstein, who inven­ted relativ­ity. In the 16th and 17th cen­tur­ies, these two, along with other sci­ent­ists of the day put together the know­ledge of how things move, how they don’t and how they can fit together. When men landed on the moon they were, like Newton, stand­ing on the shoulders of giants. And the moon too — obviously.
  5. Geometry
    This is the first of two lan­guage choices. This one is a nod to poetry. Mathematics is a lan­guage but I’d fol­low Sundar Sarukkai in say­ing that it is a unique lan­guage. Sarukkai argues that math­em­at­ics is a lan­guage which refers to itself, yet this exer­cise in numer­ical naval-gazing has pro­duced things like π. Hard ‘n’ Phirm described π as an altar. If so this is prob­ably the only altar whose power is acknow­ledged around the world. Apart from a pos­sibly apo­cryphal American state.
  6. Music
    My other nod to lan­guage is Music. I wondered which sort of music, but that kind of misses the point. Music seems to be another uni­ver­sal which may even exist out­side humans. Steve Mithen has argued that singing was the pre­cursor to lan­guage. Looking at the calls of gib­bons, who sing duets or even whale and bird song, there may be some­thing in this. At the same time I would give a nod in par­tic­u­lar to the music of 19th and 20th cen­tury America. From the Blues, to Ragtime, to Jazz bey­ond even to Hip-Hop it’s an art-form which has spread across the world.

And now I’m stuck. I’d like to add the Moon land­ings, which were some­thing I think must have been a dream of a lot of Humanity from the time human­ity first exis­ted. Still, look­ing at Duane’s list I’m also aware of so much else I’ve over­looked. Writing is a very strong con­tender, the abil­ity to pass inform­a­tion through time to future gen­er­a­tions is incred­ible, but it needs some­thing more. Hence:

  • Settlement
    Sometime around the end of the last Ice Age some­thing unpre­ced­en­ted happened. Remains dat­ing from this period have been found which are noth­ing like any­thing that exis­ted before. The first set­tle­ments formed. Humans are unbe­liev­ably social creatures. It’s espe­cially hard to believe if you’ve ever been stuck in a cheap hotel in Benidorm with some of them. Nonetheless humans live together in their mil­lions. It’s the kind of com­plex­ity that you only see in other creatures like ants or ter­mites, yet at the same time a human set­tle­ment is unmis­tak­ably dif­fer­ent. It star­ted with the stage and scenery. The devel­op­ment of set­tle­ment provided the act­ors, the stage­hands, the tech­ni­cians and even pos­sibly the play (that last is a bold claim and I’ll try and jus­tify it in a future blog post). It allowed for the cre­ation of all the monu­ments above. One of the most stun­ning achieve­ments of human intel­lect is that they have found a way of liv­ing together.

Feel free to tell me I’m wrong and add your own list below, bet­ter still write it up on your own blog and leave a link to it here.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

3 Responses

  1. Geoff Carter says:

    What, no men­tion for the Bible, the Koran, or the book of Mormon?
    This post should have a light­ning con­ductor and sand bags, since you may pro­voke divine retri­bu­tion or terrorism .

  2. Mike Simpson says:

    I would say that under­stand­ing how our own bod­ies work has to be on any list of this nature. Call it physiology, call it human bio­logy, call it whatever. Doctors and schol­ars have been sli­cing open cada­vers since the time of Ancient Greece without mak­ing more than fairly basic advances of the kneebone-connected-to-the-shinbone variety.

    Harvey’s dis­cov­ery of the cir­cu­la­tion of the blood was unbe­liev­ably import­ant, on a par with Crick and Watson’s double helix (there’s another one!) or nat­ural selec­tion, because from that bril­liantly simple concept all else flows. Blood cir­cu­la­tion is straight­for­ward enough that any­one can under­stand it, while com­plex enough that it can be used to address the most advanced bio­lo­gical or med­ical ideas.

  3. Alun says:

    I can’t sign into WordPress eas­ily as I’ve had to use my phone for the web this past week. Monday to tomorrow’s posts are all sched­uled. Why are they sched­uled? Well tomorrow’s post will show the wrath of the FSM is indeed mighty. :)

    I men­tioned it on Twitter, but I’ve only just real­ised I should have men­tioned it here too.