Rollin' Like Sisyphus

The Most Important Innovation In Human History

Posted in Life's A Gamble by Huckleberry on July 25, 2014

The beginnings of personal agency.

The beginnings of personal agency.

So I’ve talked a lot about “innovation” and human industry and all that quite a bit lately. An idea I’ve been tussling around in my head for a while now is the question of what is the most important truly innovative product of human ingenuity. The list of potentials is long; the internal combustion engine? The telescope? The assembly line? The nuclear reactor?
A case can be made for every one of those, but for the breadth and depth of an innovation’s impact on the course of human civilizational development, I’m going to make a case for an invention far more humble but ubiquitous.
The small firearm.
While it’s probably not a hard sell to the readership here, it bears noting that the pistol is, hands down, the most influential innovation in human history. Without it, we likely wouldn’t have developed any semblance of the concept of individual liberty, personal agency or institutional domain over ourselves and our effects – the Magna Carta and its ensuing revisional charters really didn’t have much in the way of teeth until “free men” could arm themselves.
For thousands of years, the strong subjugated the weak through physical strength; a king’s agents tended to be the strongest warriors in the land. For a man to be “armed” meant little without both extensive training and a select set of physical attributes. You needed strength, agility, a high reflexive response and a measure of endurance to successfully wield a sword in defense from an aggressive and experienced transgressor. The physically weak and diminutive, for most of the course of human history, were always at the mercy of the physically strong to such a degree that the idea of every individual being possessed of personal agency was laughable. You did what the bigger guy with the sword commanded, or you got to watch your intestines slither out of a slice in your gut, coiling neatly onto the ground below. A weak man with a sword is simply no match for a strong man with a sword 99 times out of 100.
The pistol changes this dynamic drastically, and the proliferation of small arms coinciding with the development of institutional due process for all men – even the serfs – is inextricably linked. The tenants of the magna carta didn’t really have teeth until the pistol allowed the weak to protect themselves from the strong with no more strength than is necessary to pull a trigger. The formation of the individual will follows right along with the development of the matchlock, the flintlock, the musket and the revolver.
I’ve heard many supposedly bright people wonder why all of a sudden human civilizational development shifted from a rather static status quo suffered through for thousands of years to one that quickly developed the ideas of due process, habeaus corpus, individual property rights and self agency.
It’s because of the gun.
Without it, the past 500 years would have been a whole different story.


3 Responses

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  1. El Borak said, on July 25, 2014 at 11:07

    Yes, I’ll agree with the personal firearm. I would also note the printing press and its bastard child, paper money, as co-runners up.

  2. Huckleberry said, on July 25, 2014 at 16:08

    paper money

    Well yeah, but in the same vein that “terrific” used to mean terrible.

  3. Doom said, on July 25, 2014 at 22:26

    I think the nuke was next in line, but agree with the pistol as first. I’d love a flintlock or matchlock, and may yet have to figure that out. Not just for nostalgia, or art, but for prep. When bullets are used up, a flintlock, of pistol, rifle, or blunderbuss will do just fine. Yeah, maybe not the matchlock, so much…

    The nuke has changed how wars are fought, or not. When populations reached a certain density, in all of history, as Hitler suggested, elbow room was sought. Whether by hook, or crook, war was had. Even if a nation lost, they got more elbow room. Now? Those elbows have too serious of a hook for to be jabbing. Our whole notion of reality has shifted since the invention and proliferation. And they may yet end us. Thirty minutes to an hour and done. Further, we have enough secular idiots with nukes that the risk is more real than ever.

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