If you could meet the first humans and share just one modern idea with them, which would you choose?
Perhaps the most powerful insight you could pass along is the scientific method: By establishing a falsifiable hypothesis, then modifying one variable at a time in a controlled environment and rigorously measuring any changes, you can systematically create new knowledge.
This process creates the building blocks that unlock all future discoveries, and we owe so much of our contemporary existence to it.
From our vantage point, it can be hard to appreciate how much progress humans have made in just the past couple centuries.
Consider the advances in medicine, for example. As the physiologist Lawrence Henderson once pointed out:
At some point between 1900 and 1912, a random patient with a random disease, consulting a doctor chosen at random, had for the first time in history a better than fifty-fifty chance of profiting from the encounter.
Bleeding people, it turns out, isn’t an effective way to treat diseases, and washing your hands before surgery dramatically improves the patient’s outcome. Today, we take those ideas for granted, but without the scientific method, we wouldn’t have that knowledge, and doctors would still be hurting patients more often than not.
These advances have played out across disciplines, and not just on a species-wide level, but at an individual level as well. Average IQs (an imperfect measure of intelligence, but still a useful metric in this case) have skyrocketed. Here’s David Epstein in his book Range:
The Flynn effect — the increase in correct IQ test answers with each new generation in the twentieth century — has now been documented in more than thirty countries. The gains are startling: three points every ten years. To put that in perspective, if an adult who scored average today were compared to adults a century ago, she would be in the 98th percentile.
That is a staggering rate of progress. As civilization advances, so does access to education.
When we popularized the scientific method at the dawn of the enlightenment, it equipped us to turn on the lights that reveal the inner workings of the universe.
As each light turns on, we reveal the next.
And we’re just getting started.