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3 Ancient Wisdoms We Needed To Leave Behind To Create The Modern World

2022 October 30
by Greg Satell

I recently visited Panama and learned the incredible story of how the indigenous Emberá people there helped to teach jungle survival skills to Apollo mission astronauts. It is a fascinating combining and contrast of ancient wisdom and modern technology, equipping the first men to go to the moon with insights from both realms.

Humans tend to have a natural reverence for old wisdom that is probably woven into our DNA. It stands to reason that people more willing to stick with the tried and true might have a survival advantage over those who were more reckless. Ideas that stand the test of time are, by definition, the ones that worked well enough to be passed on.

Paradoxically, to move forward we need to abandon old ideas. It was only by discarding ancient wisdoms that we were able to create the modern world. In much the same way, to move forward now we’ll need to debunk ideas that qualify as expertise today. As in most things, our past can help serve as a guide. Here are three old ideas we managed to transcend.

1. Euclid’s Geometry

The basic geometry we learn in grade school, also known as Euclidean geometry, is rooted in axioms observed from the physical world, such as the principle that two parallel lines never intersect. For thousands of years mathematicians built proofs based on those axioms to create new knowledge, such as how to calculate the height of an object. Without these insights, our ability to shape the physical world would be negligible.

In the 19th century, however, men like Gauss, Lobachevsky, Bolyai and Riemann started to build new forms of non-Euclidean geometry based on curved spaces. These were, of course, completely theoretical and of no use in daily life. The universe, as we experience it, doesn’t curve in any appreciable way, which is why police ask us to walk a straight line if they think we’ve been drinking.

But when Einstein started to think about how gravity functioned, he began to suspect that the universe did, in fact, curve over large distances. To make his theory of general relativity work he had to discard the old geometrical thinking and embrace new mathematical concepts. Without those critical tools, he would have been hopelessly stuck.

Much like the astronauts in the Apollo program, we now live in a strange mix of old and new. To travel to Panama, for example, I personally moved through linear space and the old Euclidean axioms worked perfectly well. However, to navigate, I had to use GPS, which must take into account curved spaces for Einstein’s equations to correctly calculate distances between the GPS satellites and points on earth.

2. Aristotle’s Logic

In terms of longevity and impact, only Aristotle’s logic rivals Euclid’s geometry. At the core of Aristotle’s system is the syllogism, which is made up of propositions that consist of two terms (a subject and a predicate). If the propositions in the syllogism are true, then the argument has to be true.  This basic notion that conclusions follow premises imbues logical statements with a mathematical rigor.

Yet much like with geometry, scholars began to suspect that there might be something amiss.  At first, they noticed minor flaws that had to do with a strange paradox in set theory which arose with sets that are members of themselves. For example, if the barber who shaves everyone in town who doesn’t shave themselves, then who shaves the barber?

At first, these seemed like strange anomalies, minor exceptions to rules that could be easily explained away. Still, the more scholars tried to close the gaps, the more problems appeared, leading to a foundational crisis. It would only be resolved when a young logician named Kurt Gödel published his theorems that proved logic, at least as we knew it, is hopelessly broken.

In a strange twist, another young mathematician, Alan Turing, built on Gödel’s work to create an imaginary machine that would make digital computers possible. In other words, in order for Silicon Valley engineers to code to create logical worlds online, they need to use machines built on the premise that perfectly logical systems are inherently unworkable.

Of course, as I write this, I am straddling both universes, trying to put build logical sentences on those very same machines.

3. The Miasma Theory of Disease

Before the germ theory of disease took hold in medicine, the miasma theory, the notion that bad air caused disease, was predominant. Again, from a practical perspective this made perfect sense. Harmful pathogens tend to thrive in environments with decaying organic matter that gives off bad smells. So avoiding those areas would promote better health.

Once again, this basic paradigm would begin to break down with a series of incidents. First, a young doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis showed that doctors could prevent infections by washing their hands, which suggested that something besides air carried disease. Later John Snow was able to trace the source of a cholera epidemic to a single water pump.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these were initially explained away. Semmelweis failed to format his data properly and was less than an effective advocate for his work. John Snow’s work was statistical, based on correlation rather than causality. A prominent statistician William Farr, who supported the miasma theory, argued for an alternative explanation.

Still, as doubts grew, more scientists looked for answers. The work of Robert Koch, Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur led to the germ theory. Later, Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain would pioneer the development of antibiotics in the 1940s. That would open the floodgates and money poured into research, creating modern medicine.

Today, we have gone far beyond the germ theory of disease and even lay people understand that disease has myriad causes, including bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, as well as genetic diseases and those caused by strange misfolded proteins known as prions.

To Create The Future, We Need To Break Free Of The Past

If you were a person of sophistication and education in the 19th century, your world view was based on certain axiomatic truths, such as parallel lines never cross, logical propositions are either true or false and “bad airs” made people sick. For the most part, these ideas would have served you well for the challenges you faced in daily life.

Even more importantly, your understanding of these concepts would signal your inclusion and acceptance into a particular tribe, which would confer prestige and status. If you were an architect or engineer, you needed to understand Euclid’s geometric axions. Aristotle’s rules of logic were essential to every educated profession. Medical doctors were expected to master the nuances of the miasma theory.

To stray from established orthodoxies carries great risk, even now. It is no accident that those who were able to bring about new paradigms, such as Einstein, Turing and John Snow, came from outside the establishment. More recently, people like Benoit Mandelbrot, Jim Allison and Katalin Karikó had to overcome fierce resistance to bring new ways of thinking to finance, cancer immunotherapy and mRNA vaccines respectively.

Today, it’s becoming increasingly clear we need to break with the past. In just over a decade, we’ve been through a crippling financial crisis, a global pandemic, deadly terrorist attacks, and the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II. We need to confront climate change and a growing mental health crisis. Yet it is also clear that we can’t just raze the global order to the ground and start all over again.

So what do we leave in the past and what do we bring with us into the future? Which new lessons do we need to learn and which old ones do we need to unlearn? Perhaps most importantly, what do we need to create anew and what can we rediscover in the ancient?

Throughout history, we have learned that the answer lies not in merely speculating about ideas, but in finding real solutions to problems we face.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Image Credit: Flickr – Carsten ten Brink

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