First, Let’s Get This Basic Truth Out of the Way
The Law of Firsts or the Surprising Truth Behind Discoveries and Precedents
The best kept secrets are basic truths. Let me explain by highlighting “first facts,” a particular dimension upon which conventional wisdom often goes awry. First facts are the first-order answers to questions about discoveries and precedents like who discovered the Americas, what was the first constitution, what is the earliest known code of law, who discovered calculus, and what is the Lion King based off? If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised by some of the answers to these questions.
You probably already know that Christopher Columbus was not the first person to discover America. But, did you know the Magna Carta is neither Europe’s first constitution nor a major innovation in protecting civil liberties, Hammurabi’s code is not the oldest written code of law, and neither calculus nor the theory of evolution were solely discovered by Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin? This list of surprising firsts verges on endless. It turns out Whitney Houston’s hit song “I will always love you” was a #1 billboard hit by another singer-songwriter, the story of Genesis shares many similarities with a much older creation myth, and the creative genius of The Lion King draws from ancient Egyptian mythology. What ties together our knowledge of discoveries and precedents across history, law, science, music, religion, philosophy, and film is the law of firsts.
“Whenever you prove who was first, the harder you look you will find someone else who was more first. And if you persist in your efforts you find that the person whom you thought was first was third. Someone will appear on the scene who was more first than you thought was first in the first place.” - Elliot Sivowitch
In other words, there’s always a firstier first. Naturally, Sivowitch's law of firsts is predated by another. Stephen Stigler's law of eponymy states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. This sounds humorous and a bit absurd. Could this law of firsts or law of eponymy be true? And if it is true, why would that be the case?
The rest of this essay shares several stories that illustrate the law of firsts, but before diving into examples, I’ll share an idea about why first facts and their beckoning questions are so tricky. Questions concerning the the origins of something not bad questions but rather genuine questions stemming from a natural, human curiosity to understand how things came into being. The tricky aspect of these questions is that their framing makes them seem easier to answer than they really are. Questions like when the first constitution was written or who invented calculus appear to require nothing more than a date and a name. But neither a date or name would be accurate. A great answer might instead offer insight into why the answer is elusive.
Let’s consider some examples.
The Obvious Case - Christopher Columbus
In elementary school, American school children learn that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. Neither Columbus nor his European contemporaries had any idea that America existed. So, it seems fair to say that Columbus discovered the existence of the American continents for himself and the Spanish Crown. Given that Columbus met indigenous people on his voyage, it is easy to say that he was not the first person to discover the Americas. Our best guess is that the first inhabitants of the Americas arrived 16,000 to 40,000 years ago.
Columbus was likely not even the first European to discover the Americas. Five centuries before Columbus was born, Leif Erikson is storied to have travelled to what is today New Foundland. The evidence comes from two sources: (1) the Sagas of Icelanders, a collection of narratives based on historical events around Iceland in the 9th to 11th centuries, tells of Erikson sailing to North America and spending a winter there (2) archeological evidence of a Norse settlement in what is today known as L'Anse aux Meadows, New Foundland. The tricky thing is as we go back in time, it is more difficult to track evidence, but sometimes we develop clever techniques like radiocarbon analysis and can precisely identify when the Vikings (Norse) were in America: 1021 CE (see Kuitems et al 2021). Moreover, we know much less of Erikson’s voyage to America because it did not change history (or the way history was told) in the way that Columbus’ voyage marked the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas.
On the topic of Columbus and misguided conventional wisdom, many children also learn that Columbus's voyage disproved the Earth is flat. But, that's also not true! Thousands of years before Columbus was born, people knew the Earth was round. In the 3rd century BCE, Eratosthenes not only knew the Earth resembled a sphere but correctly computed the circumference of the Earth by applying geometry to shadows cast by objects at two separate locations.
These misconceptions of Columbus may be a bit familiar, but next the story of the Magna Carta is much less well known.
The Magna Carta
In 1215, King John of England signed the Magna Carta, which has come to be known as the first written constitution in European history. Given the theme of this essay, you might expect that it was not the first European constitution. And, you would be right. For example, one hundred and fifteen years before the Magna Carta was signed, King Henry I of England signed the Charter of Liberties, which promised to “abolish all the evil customs by which the Kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed.”
While today’s United States Supreme Court justices still cite the Magna Carta in judgements, Jill Lepore argues that the “Magna Carta’s importance has often been overstated, and its meaning distorted.” Long story, short: the Magna Carta was immediately nullified by the Pope, subsequently revised, and largely forgotten until the 17th century when it became a symbol representing the historical precedence of law as a tool to fight against the injustices of arbitrary power. In the colonial America, it became the rallying cry for a revolution. As a symbol, the Magna Carta featured prominently in the 1775 state seal of Massachusetts (see below), which pictures a man holding a Magna Carta in his right hand.
When it comes to mass communications, simple messages based on a single reference are effective tools of persuasion. Like Kim Kardashian, the Magna Carta is but a reference that is notorious for its own notoriety.
Code of Hammurabi
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is brutally unforgettable. The Code of Hammurabi is the oldest code of law that most people have ever heard of. The underlying principle of Hammurabi’s Code is retaliation (lex talionis in Latin), which is, in fact, an evolution of an earlier Sumerian legal framework of pay-to-play.
The earliest known extant legal code, the Code of Ur-Nammu, is at least three centuries older than the Code of Hammurabi. Apart from murder and robbery, which are capital offenses, the Code of Ur-Nammu simply fines people for breaking the law. For example, a man must pay 1/2 a mina of silver for knocking out the eye of another man, 2/3 a mina of silver for severing a nose of another man with a copper knife, and 1 mina of silver for divorcing a first-time wife.
The Code of Ur-Nammu priced crimes, which means anyone who could pay was exempted from the code of conduct. While Hammurabi’s Code is utterly brutal, it represents an evolution in the justice system in how it replaced some of the priced exemptions with non-pecuniary punishments. These retaliatory punishments created aligned incentives such that citizens had skin-in-the-game and could not always pay to avoid punishment.
From calculus to the theory of evolution to non-Euclidean geometry, many of the greatest scientific discoveries have been independent co-discoveries. For example, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz independently discovered calculus at the end of the 17th century. It is quite tricky to ascribe a “first” to either of them because neither of them discovered calculus overnight but rather over the course of a decade. Newton published his first work on calculus in 1687 and Leibniz published his in 1684. It is possible that Leibniz came across Newton’s work during that time, but it is hard to know.
Another example of a co-discovery is the theory of evolution by natural selection which was independently proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. And yet another example is non-Euclidean geometry, which is a term coined by Carl Friedrich Gauss and later independently discovered by two other mathematicians, Janos Bolyai and Nikolai Lobachevsky.
It is much easier to associate a discovery with a single person or team, but the reality is that at different points in time the world is ripe for a certain kind of discovery, which leads to independent co-discovery. Beyond these three examples, a long list of scientific co-discoveries can be found on Wikipedia.
I will always love you
Until recently, I assumed “I will always love you” was Whitney Houston’s song. I love that song. And, it seems like the world over does too—it has nearly 1 billion views on Youtube. Well, it turns out that “I will always love you” has a surprising origin. It was first written and performed by Dolly Parton. In 1974, the song reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs.
Today, Parton’s Youtube video has 10 million views, which is two orders of magnitude fewer views than Houston’s Youtube video. Parton seems totally fine with how most people associate Houston with the song. In an interview, she once said, “Well, a lot of people say that’s Whitney’s song, and I always say, ‘That’s fine, she can have the credit, I just want my cash.’”
Both songs are great, and one Youtube commenter describes them as follows: “Whitney’s version makes your knees weak and gives you goosebumps. Dolly’s version makes you break down and cry like a baby.” What is peculiar here is how easy it is to assume the song was originally Whitney Houston’s, especially for anyone born in the mid-80s and onwards.
Genesis and Enûma Eliš
Speaking of surprising origins, a story of firsts would be incomplete without taking a peek at cosmogonic myths. A cosmogonic myth is a narrative of how the world came to be. The most well-known is likely the story of Genesis, which you may recall begins:
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth—and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a night wind sweeping over the waters—Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.”
What may surprise you is that Genesis strongly resembles a much older story: the Enûma Eliš. The Enûma Eliš is dated to around the 7th century BCE (and the story is likely much older) while Genesis is dated to around the 5th century BCE. There are a number of striking similarities from similar opening lines to the naming of creation, the chaotic waters, the speaking things into existence, the serpent motif, how God delegates dominion and appraises creation, the creation of time, night, day, and the length of the week, how humans originate from bone, the defeat of the serpent, and finally God taking a rest.
Were these origin stories created independently? That’s a hard question to answer. If these stories were created independently, then why do they bear striking similarities? That answer may be a bit easier. Perhaps the subject of these stories is the same as the subject of all literature—it is the human experience. How we handle uncertainty whether in our everyday decisions or our timeless stories gives us a clue to universals of the human experience.
The Induction Problem
One recipe for understanding uncertainty (and writing a New York Times bestseller) is infusing ancient wisdom with modern considerations. Consider Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, which explores the nature of uncertainty and how we can better prepare today for that which we cannot predict. He coined and popularized the theory of Black Swans, which are surprises with huge effects that get rationalized in hindsight as something that should not have been a surprise. The Black Swan infused life into an old idea.
The Black Swan is an extension of the problem of induction proposed by David Hume in the mid-18th century. The problem of induction points out the lack of justification for assuming the future will be like the past. Furthermore, it is concerned with the inability to generalize about something’s behavior when we can only observe particular instances. For example, suppose we live in Great Britain and have noticed that all swans are white. We might make the inductive connection that all swans are white. But, if we travel to Australia where black swans are common, then we would soon realize that we made an error in assuming that what is true in Great Britain is also true in Australia.
We know not if the future will occur as it always has in the past. This problem calls into question any claim made by the scientific method because tomorrow’s universe may be different than today’s. One solution to this problem is to assume it is not a problem. In other words, we can assume the uniformity of nature—that natural laws of the universe have and will always operate the same ways. The tricky follow-up question is which natural laws are safe to assume abide by the uniformity of nature.
This problem was well known to the ancient Greeks. Sextus Empiricus wrote about the impossibility of composing a universal rule from a set particular instances. In short, he wrote that on one hand, if the review of particulars is incomplete, then the “induction will be insecure” and on the other hand, if the review attempts to cover all particulars, then the review is “toiling at the impossible, since the particulars are infinite and indefinite.” What is new in The Black Swan is not this errant induction but rather how to think about it and when we should be wary that statistical models do not fit reality.
Hamlet with Lions
In Adam Grant’s The Originals, he shares a story of how a group of producers at Disney pitched executives on The Lion King. Long story short: after weaving a tale of lions and succession of kings and getting blank stares from the executives, one producer suggested, “This is Hamlet [with lions].” And according to Grant, “Suddenly, everyone got it.” One producer remarked, “Of course it was Hamlet—the uncle kills the father, and the son has to avenge his father’s death. So then we decided it was going to be Hamlet with lions.”
By referring to the storyline as Hamlet with lions, the producer offered the executive team a single point of reference. Likewise, Grant’s rehashing of this story in The Originals offered a single point of reference to his own audience. Everyone has heard of Hamlet, so Grant’s claim that creative ideas start from an unusual place (lions) and are connected to something familiar (a Shakespearean classic) feels true.
But, this single point of reference can also be blinding. Hamlet is part of the Western canon, and the name is quite familiar. But, how did Hamlet come to be so successful? What did Shakespeare do to combine an unusual place with something familiar? And, what do we mean by something familiar? Hamlet may be familiar in name to a particular audience, but it is the familiarity of the human condition that is really essential.
This uncle-father-son murder-vengeance story is much older than Hamlet. The ancient Egyptian myth of Horus is about an uncle who murders the father and the son who ultimately avenges his father’s death. Just as Scar kills Simba’s father Mufasa, Set kills Horus’ father Osirus. And, like Simba who takes refuge in the jungle and confronts Scar as an adult, Horus takes refuge in a thicket of papyrus and confronts Set as an adult. Both Simba and Horus prevail over their sinister uncles to take their place as king and God of Kingship, respectively.
The myth of Horus with lions may be more apt description of the Lion King than Hamlet with lions, but perhaps such an obscure reference would have been less likely to be understood by the Disney executives (or Grant’s readers). A slight amendment to where creative ideas come from is they must start from an unusual place but specifically be connected to a basic truth of the human condition (and need to be initially pitched with a non-esoteric reference).
What’s at stake?
Does it matter if Thomas Edison really invented the light bulb? If we correct the record for credit and context, will anything change? Yes, and it’s not about the credit—it’s the complexity. By embracing stories’ complexities, we are able to see beyond reductionist narratives. We can start seeing how things came to be, open our minds to the hidden forces all around us, and pioneer our own new thing.
Long before the law of firsts or the law of eponymy, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, "everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it." To be honest, most of us were not around to hear everything that has been said before. It is not a bad idea to repeat what is important. And even if we have heard something before, a little bit of vuja de, seeing something old from a new perspective, offers a vital dose of inspiration. Afterall, that’s how Italo Calvino once described the classics:
A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives much pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.”
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