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)

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.

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