Updated: Feb 2, 2021
Giles Manning considers the reasons why some people have been forgotten from history, while others have not.
There are certain figures throughout human history who we consider to have shaped our existence and have made significant contributions, both good and bad, to the future of humanity at one given time. What is it that determines who in particular is remembered and why? Should we make an effort to fill in the forgotten gaps of history where many made equal or perhaps larger contributions to the unfolding of the human spectacle? Indeed, historical figures in fields such as science and politics are often dominated by white males – why is this the case, and can we find a more varied cast of people responsible for change by looking more closely?
When we think of major figures of the past, those such as Aristotle, Galileo and Darwin may come to mind. Did these men as individuals really produce revolutionary ideas and initiate ‘progress’ ab initio, by themselves? It cannot be denied that these individuals possessed innovation and inflicted change. However, would it be more apt to consider these men, or more the ideas they signify, as representatives of contemporary, collective knowledge of the world around them? Are they merely a product of their surroundings and societal beliefs? In a current western education system, it is far easier to associate a collection of ideas with one person as opposed to all those that made it happen. Is this right? Should we make more of an effort to stress that innovation does not come from one person alone but instead is from the contributions of multiple people?
Consider Charles Darwin. He is the individual associated with the theory of evolution through natural selection. Yet, why is it that he is remembered as opposed to Alfred Wallace, a peer who simultaneously posited a similar theory to Darwin’s? Especially considering that during their time, Wallace was greatly appreciated and on a par with Darwin – he received the Order of Merit, the greatest honour that could be given to a civilian. It is largely thought that the reason Darwin’s name is seen in textbooks instead of Wallace’s, is his ambition. Wallace failed to promote his ideas as widely as Darwin and, perhaps, did not take as much credit. In effect, Darwin wanted it more.
Alternatively, think of inventors such as Thomas Edison. He is attributed with many inventions such as the light bulb which have definitely helped human society. However, names such as Margaret Knight are seldom heard, yet she was also a prolific inventor of the 19th century, with 27 patents, including safety devices for textile machines and a rotary engine.
In the general scheme of history, this may be a trend. Those who are in more of a position to have their voice heard, respected and acted upon will be remembered, and those who society irrationally shuts out are forgotten. The works of those we remember have led to progress and innovation, however it is a bad thing when all that can be seen when we look back is white males. These are not the only people capable of change.
History is a powerful tool that enables us to look within, and to thus look forward, and things are definitely changing. It would be a sin though to not constantly check our assumptions and look past the pages of textbooks that so often simplify the world we experience. We must understand that these textbooks would display a much more diverse array of people if it weren’t for the concentrations and continuations of ‘power’ that have shaped our societies.
From Issue 20