I recently enjoyed watching Everything is a Remix, a series of videos that explain how nothing is created in a vacuum, but rather are built on what has already been done. Only three of the four episodes have been released so far, but they are definitely worth watching.
The first looks at how musicians (Led Zeppelin in particular) and elements of their music have used and been used by many other artists. The second focuses on movies, and starts off by claiming that 74 of the top ten movies of the past ten years have been remakes of older movies, sequels, or based on books or games (not to mention the fact that movies fall into genres and subgenres which each work according to their own formulas). It takes a closer look at how so many elements of Star Wars (plots, scenes, characters, etc.) have been borrowed from other movies. This is not criticising George Lucas at all, but is just making the point.
I found the third episode the most interesting. It looks at ideas in general and argues that ideas/inventions/intellectual discoveries never form in a vacuum. There is always a background to an idea, and the greatest are often when ideas from multiple domains are combined. For example, Henry Ford neither invented the motor car, the production line or interchangeable parts, but he invented the automobile industry as we know it by combining them all.
Interesting questions come out of this. What would happen if some great mind never had that great idea that we couldn’t imagine not existing today? Think the telephone or the internet or calculus. But, as the video points out, after thousands of years where no patents on telephones existed, there were two submitted independently on the same day. And Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz famously invented calculus at the same time.
As Newton said:
If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
But even this is a reworking of an earlier idea:
We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.
Does this mean that the great ideas that shape our world today don’t totally depend on any particularly great mind at some time, but just depend on there being good enough minds to continue the intellectual trajectory that mankind is on? Having or not having the right minds might push an idea forward or back some number of years, but could it be that all ideas are inevitable? And does this mean the great ideas and discoveries that mankind will make in the future are, in a sense, foreordained? And is there any way to change this trajectory (which isn’t already part of the trajectory)? Imagine “intelligent” aliens exist: Would an alien “history of alienkind” look about the same as man’s “history of mankind”?
(This was written at four in the morning. Hopefully it makes sense.)