Ranking Darwin

Charles Darwin (1880)If the year 2000 didn’t usher in the Apocalypse or devastating computer problems, at least it brought with it a flurry of lists offering to rank the historical figures of the past millennium. So intense was the flurry that I compiled my own list of lists of the most important people or the greatest books or the most significant events (and so on) that included Darwin. In the end, my list included no fewer than seventeen lists, prompting me to comment, in Reports of the NCSE 2000;20(3):40–41, “Millennia end neither with bangs nor with whimpers, neither in fire nor in ice, but with lists. Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about Darwin as is the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who wrote, ‘If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin’ .... Darwin’s place in the millennial list-making frenzy is secure nevertheless.”

Coming a little late to the party, a new book, Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward’s Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank (2013), offers its own ranking of historical figures, relying on a quantitative, as opposed to the usual impressionistic, approach. On their website for the book, Skiena and Ward explain, “We have developed computational methods to measure historical significance through analysis of Wikipedia and other data sources. We rank historical figures just as Google ranks webpages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation (including PageRank, article length, and readership) into estimates of their fame, explained by a combination of achievement (gravitas) and celebrity. We correct for the passage of time in a principled way, so we can fairly compare the significance of historical figures of different eras.”

Despite the methodological innovations, there aren’t a lot of surprises in their list of the top hundred figures; as Skiena and Ward observe, “The success of our ranking methods is best established by the banality of our results.” And it’s no surprise in particular that Darwin is #12 in the list—behind Jesus, Napoleon, Muhammad, Shakespeare, Lincoln, Washington, Hitler, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Jefferson, and Henry VIII, but ahead of Elizabeth I, Marx, and Julius Caesar. He’s also the highest ranked scientist, with Einstein, Newton, and Linnaeus trailing at #19, #21, and #31, respectively. Only eight scientists are in the top 300; besides Darwin and Linnaeus, Pasteur (#112) and Mendel (#250) are the only biologists. All that is broadly consistent with the millennial lists that were published in Reports, which I’m reproducing here (sans URLs).

Amazon.com: Millennium Books (as voted by customers)

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
  2. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
  3. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  4. J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  5. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  6. Stephen King, The Stand
  7. James Joyce, Ulysses
  8. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  9. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
  10. George Orwell, 1984
  11. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  12. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
  13. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness
  14. Frank Herbert, Dune
  15. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  16. William Shakespeare, The Complete Works
  17. William Shakespeare, Hamlet
  18. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
  19. Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind
  20. Joseph Heller, Catch-22
  21. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
  22. John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
  23. Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
  24. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
  25. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

BBC Online: Who was your choice for the greatest man of the last 1000 years?

  1. Mahatma Gandhi
  2. Leonardo da Vinci
  3. Jesus Christ
  4. Nelson Mandela
  5. Sir Isaac Newton
  6. Albert Einstein
  7. Martin Luther King
  8. Sir Winston Churchill
  9. Charles Darwin
  10. Karl Marx

BBC Online: Who was your choice for the greatest thinker of the last 1000 years?

  1. Karl Marx
  2. Albert Einstein
  3. Sir Isaac Newton
  4. Charles Darwin
  5. Thomas Aquinas
  6. Stephen Hawking
  7. Immanuel Kant
  8. René Descartes
  9. James Clerk Maxwell
  10. Friedrich Nietzsche

BBC Radio:  British Personality of the Millennium

  1. William Shakespeare — 11,717 votes
  2. Winston Churchill — 10,957 votes
  3. William Caxton — 7,109 votes
  4. Charles Darwin — 6,337 votes
  5. Isaac Newton — 4,664 votes
  6. Oliver Cromwell — 4,653 votes

Biography: Most Influential People of the Past 1000 Years

  1. Johann Gutenberg
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. Martin Luther
  4. Charles Darwin
  5. William Shakespeare
  6. Christopher Columbus
  7. Karl Marx
  8. Albert Einstein
  9. Nicolaus Copernicus
  10. Galileo Galilei

David Herbert Donald:  The Ten Most Significant Events of the Second Millennium

  1. Invention of gunpowder (in the West), early 1300s
  2. The Black Death devastates Europe, 1347–51
  3. Johann Gutenberg uses movable type to print early Bibles, c. 1455
  4. Christopher Columbus reaches America, 1492
  5. James Watt perfects his steam engine, 1775
  6. The American Revolution, 1775–1783
  7. Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, 1859
  8. Henry Ford begins commercial development of the automobile, 1903
  9. The First World War, 1914–1918
  10. Dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, 1945

(Source: The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2000, Mahwah (NJ): World Almanac Books, 1999, p. 35.)


Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers and Brent Bowers, Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium

  1. Johannes Gutenberg
  2. Christopher Columbus
  3. Martin Luther
  4. Galileo Galilei
  5. William Shakespeare
  6. Isaac Newton
  7. Charles Darwin
  8. Thomas Aquinas
  9. Leonardo da Vinci
  10. Ludwig van Beethoven

(Source: 1000 Years, 1000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium, New York: Kodansha America, 1998.)


Michael H. Hart, The Most Influential 20 Persons in History

  1. Muhammad
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. Jesus Christ
  4. Buddha
  5. Confucius
  6. St. Paul
  7. Ts’ai Lun
  8. Johann Gutenberg
  9. Christopher Columbus
  10. Albert Einstein
  11. Louis Pasteur
  12. Galileo Galilei
  13. Aristotle
  14. Euclid
  15. Moses
  16. Charles Darwin
  17. Shih Huang Ti
  18. Augustus Caesar
  19. Nicolaus Copernicus
  20. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier

(Source: Michael H. Hart, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, revised edition, New York: Citadel Press, 1992.)


Life:  Top 100 People of the Millennium

  1. Thomas Edison
  2. Christopher Columbus
  3. Martin Luther
  4. Galileo Galilei
  5. Leonardo da Vinci
  6. Isaac Newton
  7. Ferdinand Magellan
  8. Louis Pasteur
  9. Charles Darwin
  10. Thomas Jefferson

Life:  Top 100 Events of the Millennium

  1. Gutenberg’s Bible, 1455
  2. Columbus reaches the New World, 1492
  3. Luther posts the 95 Theses, 1517
  4. Watt perfects his steam engine, 1769
  5. Galileo discovers the moons of Jupiter, 1610
  6. Koch discovers the microbe that causes tuberculosis, 1882
  7. Gunpowder weapons are developed in China, c. 1100
  8. The Declaration of Independence is adopted, 1776
  9. Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany, 1933
  10. Compasses are used for navigation in China, 1117
  11. Edison builds his laboratory in Menlo Park, 1876
  12. The earliest African slaves arrive in the New World, 1509
  13. Jenner invents inoculation against smallpox, 1796
  14. The first television broadcast, 1928
  15. Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, 1859
  16. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945
  17. Ford unveils the Model T, 1908
  18. The First Crusade, 1095
  19. The Magna Carta, 1215
  20. The first telephone transmission, 1876

Philip and Phyllis Morrison: 100 or so Books that shaped a Century of Science

[in the biography section]

  1. Charles Darwin, Autobiography (1950)
  2. [G.] H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology (1940)
  3. James Watson, The Double Helix (1968)
  4. Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979)
  5. Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (1985)

MSNBC: Who are the people, for good or ill, who made us what we are today?

Of 16,895 total votes in the science and technology category:

  1. Albert Einstein, 36%
  2. Thomas Edison, 18%
  3. Isaac Newton, 14%
  4. Galileo Galilei, 6%
  5. Charles Darwin, 5%
  6. Louis Pasteur, 3%
  7. Nicolaus Copernicus, 3%
  8. Jonas Salk, 2%
  9. James Watson and Francis Crick, 2%
  10. Hippocrates, 2%

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: The Ten Most Influential People of the Second Millennium

  1. William Shakespeare
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. Charles Darwin
  4. Nicolaus Copernicus
  5. Galileo Galilei
  6. Albert Einstein
  7. Chrstopher Columbus
  8. Abraham Lincoln
  9. Johann Gutenberg
  10. William Harvey

(Source: The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2000, Mahwah (NJ): World Almanac Books 1999, p. 35.)


Glenn T. Seaborg: The Ten Greatest Scientists of the Second Millennium

(listed chronologically)

  1. Leonardo da Vinci, 1452–1519
  2. Isaac Newton, 1642–1727
  3. Jöns Jakob Berzelius, 1779–1848
  4. Charles Darwin, 1809–1882
  5. Dmitri Mendeleyev, 1834–1907
  6. Ernest Rutherford, 1871–1937
  7. Albert Einstein, 1879–1955
  8. Niels Bohr, 1885–1962
  9. Werner Heisenberg, 1901–1976
  10. Enrico Fermi, 1901–1954

(Source: The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2000, Mahwah (NJ): World Alamanac Books 1999, p. 36.)


Tom Siegfried: The Millennium’s Brightest Ideas

  1. (tie) Evolution – Laplace and Charles Darwin
  2. (tie) Conservation of energy – Julius Mayer, Hermann Helmholtz, James Joule, and others
  3. The experimental method – Francis Bacon
  4. Antimatter – Paul Dirac
  5. Fields – Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell
  6. Genes – Gregor Mendel
  7. Universal gravitation – Isaac Newton
  8. Non-Euclidean geometry – Lobachevsky, Bolyai, Gauss, and Riemann
  9. Spacetime – Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski
  10. Cognitive dissonance – Leon Festinger
  11. Boolean logic – George Boole

(Source: Dallas Morning News, October 11, 1999.)


The Sunday Times (London):  Masterworks for the Millennium

  1. Hamlet — William Shakespeare
  2. David — Michelangelo
  3. Pietà — Michelangelo
  4. King Lear — William Shakespeare
  5. Sistine Chapel — Michelangelo
  6. On the Origin of Species — Charles Darwin
  7. The King James Bible
  8. The Ring Cycle — Richard Wagner
  9. The Ninth Symphony — Ludwig van Beethoven
  10. The Taj Mahal

The Toronto Globe and Mail: The Millennium 100

  1. Albert Einstein
  2. Martin Luther
  3. Karl Marx (tie)
  1. William Shakespeare (tie)
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. Adolf Hitler
  4. Christopher Columbus
  5. Johannes Gutenberg
  6. Charles Darwin
  7. Galileo Galilei
  8. Mohandas Gandhi
Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.