Jake Richardson April 1 2018

Leonardo and Friends Lead Us Into the Future


Imagine for a moment if Leonardo Da Vinci had never been born. Wouldn’t there be a gaping hole in Western culture and history? His influence extends beyond that, however. About 6 million people from around the world visit the Mona Lisa in the Louvre each year. He was an artist, inventor, engineer and scientist -- in short, a polymath. People like him might seem weird, but they can make enormous contributions to human civilization.

The Future Of Our Species (Directed by Tiffany Shlain)

In this short film, director Tiffany Shlain talks about her father’s death and last book. Her father was writing a book about cultural creators like Leonardo Da Vinci. In it, he examines the outliers like Da Vinci and how they sometimes lead the rest of society with their creativity and ideation. In fact, their influence may span centuries. These individuals might seem strange to us because they are driven by something different than the typical social expectations and boundaries. In fact, they regularly venture into the unknown and explore it in order to create something new and somewhat alien.

Evolutionary Jerks and Gradualist Creeps (Directed by Duncan Marquiss)

What scientist left a persistent, massive legacy which influences hundreds of millions of people’s views today? It must be Charles Darwin.

In this documentary, Marquiss investigates two major ideas within the field of evolutionary theory -- gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. The narrator applies an evolutionary lens to the making of culture -- specifically that of pop music. He explains that when an artist wants to make a new song he or she does this by referencing the existing ‘catalog’ of music, in other words the body of known music, and then uses it as inspiration. The use of the existing music may occur consciously or unconsciously.

It turns out that life forms at times seem to have adapted in the ways predicted by evolutionary theory based on analysis of the geological fossil record. Similarly, the body of pop music and its history might be seen as a kind of cultural fossil record. Within the geological fossil record you see very little change for periods of time, and the same turns out to be true in pop music.

In music, various elements can be identified across thousands of songs and they can be quantified. Measuring the complexity of music breaks it down into these elements so patterns can be detected. In the biological realm, a similar approach is taken to study species and their variations over very long periods of time. Even the moments when change is taking place might be slow moving, though compared with other periods when there is no change, they might appear as being somewhat fast.

Animated Life: Mary Leakey (Directed by Sharon Shattuck and Flora Lichtman)

Mary Leakey may not be as well known as her husband Louis, but this oversight is probably a reflection of the sexist attitude of her day and the corresponding lack of female scientists then.

Together, their work grew a great deal of attention to the African fossil record and its connection to human evolution in a time when the focus was elsewhere. One of her most remarkable discoveries was the footprints of hominids which had been preserved by the eruption of a volcano. It was the first discovery of footprints that confirmed hominids were walking upright several million years ago. Mary Leakey was outspoken and forthright, but women of her era typically were not. She also drank whiskey, smoked cigars and was very shy.

Semmelweis (Directed by Jim Berry)

Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician in the 1800s who correctly observed that childbed fever in obstetric clinics was being spread by healthcare workers who did not wash their hands. He implemented a regular hand hygiene in his delivery areas and noted a dramatic drop in the number of childbed fever cases and mortalities.

He tried to tell other physicians of his day about his successes in reducing deaths but very few would listen to him. His frustration led him to write outspoken, or angry letters to his medical peers, but the letters were perceived as the rantings of an unstable person. His own wife had him committed to a mental institution where he died at the age of 47. His hygiene practices came into greater use years after he died, which again reduced contagion and mortalities. He was a hero a head of his time, but was not recognized.

About the author

Jake Richardson has enjoyed the outdoors and nature since he was 6-years-old in the woods of central Illinois and now lives in California not far from the John Muir house.


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