“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton.
Newton acknowledged that his revolutionary theories found their roots in the work of others. Building knowledge is a cumulative process, and the results, for better or for worse, accumulate around us. As knowledge becomes accepted more widely then human ideas lead to human creations that become objects and concepts we integrate into our lives.
It’s a good thing we never have to start from scratch. Consider the difficulties – we would have no home, no clothes, no farming, no way of cooking – nothing we did not create ourselves. Should we find time for creating images, we artists would have to make our colours from earth and clay and plants, and paint on rocks or other natural surfaces. Writers would have to tell stories instead of write them, carry their stories with them to share with one or two or a few instead being able to send their words in books or files around the world. Because every one of these things and many, many others we take for granted were created by someone else who developed them based on knowledge developed by someone else before them, starting at a time so long ago and in a place so far from here that we find it hard to imagine a world in which such knowledge and skills did not exist. We stand and build our lives on the shoulders of many, many who have gone before, whether or not we acknowledge it.
Why would I bring this up? Because we so often ignore the fact that we are nothing without all the things that those who came before us learned and passed on. We would not even be able to read this if someone else had not invented the alphabet we use – never mind enjoy the benefits of printing, books, computers. Counting would be pretty difficult too, if others had not figured out how to do it and then how to write down numbers. Someone had to figure out how to measure things, draw maps and charts to guide others, make the wheel – never mind engines. The list goes on and on.
What kind of people created the many things we take for granted? We will never know about the lives of many of the early inventors and explorers, but we can be sure that they were people who observed, learned, explored, analysed, created. Perhaps they had to create new things to survive; perhaps they invented new things to meet a need; perhaps they simply enjoyed the pleasure of achieving a new understanding, finding new way of doing things.
In the end, I’m not sure that their motivation matters. But I do think we owe it to all who have struggled to understand and to create to treat the gifts of knowledge they have left us with respect, to acknowledge them, use them well and add, if we can, our own little bit to the store. For those who will stand on our shoulders.