900 hand-carved stone sculptures. That’s really the only thing the Rapa Nui people have to show for the 500+ years they inhabited Easter Island. Despite the fact that they were able to build a complex Stone Age civilisation, their culture suddenly collapsed a couple of centuries later.
David Attenborough described these stone sculptures as "astonishing... vivid evidence of the technological and artistic skills of the people who once lived here" in The State of the Planet. However, he warned that if we are not careful, we may end up like the Rapa Nui people, with a rich, fertile world that ends in a wasteland.
But 25 years earlier, Jacob Bronowski, a Polish-British mathematician and philosopher, made a 14,000 km voyage to Easter Island to deliver a very different message, one that also formed the core thesis of his book, The Ascent of Man: we are unique in history in our ability to make progress.
What led to their collapse isn’t entirely certain, but the prevailing theory is that they brought disaster on themselves by chopping down most of the trees that covered the island to build roads to transport their statues. This might have led to an inability to build shelters and rafts for fishing.
The specifics don’t matter. What matters is that they became a static society as a result of their inability to take this initial step in logical knowledge, and therefore couldn’t make progress.
David Deutsch, in The Beginning of Infinity, explains it well:
It provided them with a way of life, but it also inhibited change; it sustained their determination to enact and re-enact the same behaviours for generations. It sustained the values that placed forests - literally - beneath statues. And it sustained the shapes of those statues, and the pointless project of building ever more of them.
Bronowski’s central message about the island inhabitants starkly contrasted with Attenborough’s: we are not like them, we are a dynamic society, and all the dynamic individuals scattered throughout history's timeline are proof of that.
Roger Bacon, a 13th century philosopher, was known for rejecting dogma, promoting observation as a way to find new truths, and foreseeing telescopes, flying machines, self-powered vehicles, and submarines.
The world witnessed a brief period of enlightenment, but because Bacon wasn’t part of a culture of criticism, his optimism to push the human race forward, tragically died with him.
It wasn’t until a few centuries later, that a new flame was ignited. The Medici family was in the center of establishing the Golden Age of Florence by promoting innovation through humanism (valuing knowledge above dogma, intellectual independence, and curiosity).
Unfortunately, this mini-enlightenment, like Bacon's, was short-lived. A Florentine monk, Girolamo Savonarola, made sure that this new-found optimism and creativity got stifled by preaching apocalyptic sermons against humanism and everything that sparked innovation.
By the mid-1400’s, the monk had seized power and had prohibited all secular music, imposed plain clothes, made frequent fasting compulsory, and expelled the Jews.
Deutsch continues to tell this tragic story:
Gangs of ruffians inspired by Savonarola tamed the city searching for taboo artefacts such as mirrors, cosmetics, musical instruments, secular books, and almost anything beautiful. A huge pile of such treasures was ceremonially burned in the so-called Bonfire of the Vanities' in the centre of the city. Botticelli is said to have thrown some of his own paintings into the fire. It was the bonfire of optimism.
There may have been a lot more mini-enlightenment moments filled with what Deutsch calls "experiments of optimism." He continues to explore the outcome by saying that, "if any of those earlier experiments in optimism had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars by now, and you and I would be immortal."
And, so, here we are... Not to wish we could change the past, but to change the future.
Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Sir Richard Branson, John Lennon, Thomas Edison, Ted Turner, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Martha Graham, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Pablo Picasso were among the "crazy ones" honoured by Steve Jobs in 1997.
The ad was spot on for its time and a true reflection of Apple’s ethos. However, it’s tempting to believe the human race is only propelled ahead by notable figures. By definition, we make progress through criticism and creativity. That places anyone, anywhere in the world, who chooses to "think differently" squarely in the path of events that could be viewed as mini or major enlightenment moments decades from now.
Deutsch wonderfully articulates this thinking:
There is only one way of thinking that is capable of making progress, or of surviving in the long run, and that is the way of seeking good explanations through creativity and criticism. What lies ahead of us is in any case infinity. All we can choose is whether it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge, wrong or right, death or life.
Here’s to all who think differently...