The Victorian Arrogance Trap

Back in 1899, Punch magazine carried a satirical sketch looking at the coming century. In it a genius enters a publishers office seeking a patents clerk, only to be told: “Sir. Everything that can be invented, has been invented.”

This quote has since been attributed to various real-life characters with (it appears) very little evidence, and used to support the popular idea that the Victorians, in their arrogance, thought they had invented everything.

You can see why a piece of satire became accepted as fact. The idea has the ring of truth to it. Walk around the cities of Manchester or Liverpool and look up at the architecture from the turn of the century and it is brimming with confidence. The preceding 100 year period had seen incredible progress — the industrial revolution — utterly transforming the UK. To live then, assuming you were reasonably well off, must have felt like you’d arrived in the future.

I think we all fall into this trap sometimes. As I pointed out in my last post, it’s hard to imagine just how much life could yet transform. And yet we know so very little.

I’m reminded of this every time I listen to an episode of Radiolab. Podcasts are one of my primary sources of information. The means by which I try to stay abreast of a lot of areas of science and technology with very limited time. One of my absolute favourites is Radiolab from public radio in the US.

recent episode carried the story of giant viruses, a class of life that has been around for millions of years but that we only discovered since the turn of the century. The discovery of this new class of life that shares traits of both viruses and bacteria shows how many biological things there likely are still on this planet that we haven’t yet witnessed. The gaps in our knowledge of the physics of the universe are greater still. And the things we have yet to invent using that knowledge, near limitless.

A recent episode of another of my favourite podcasts, The Infinite Monkey Cage, guests discussed the possibility that we may well be the smartest beings in our galaxy, based on the lack of evidence to date of other civilisations. Whether or not that’s the case, when measured against the number of things we don’t yet know, we should be very humble about our achievements so far.

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Tom Cheesewright