When we look back in history, we recognize moments in which a real revolution in thinking or technology occurred which changed the world and human history. But at the time of these great paradigm shifts and intellectual revolutions, the change was hardly earth shattering. Two examples come to my mind.
In the Great Hall of the Library of Congress one can view the Giant Bible of Mainz and the Gutenberg Bible, two books together in one room which represent a moment in history in which our human world changed dramatically. At one end of the room, the Giant Bible of Mainz is one of the last great handwritten Bibles made in Europe. The scribe who wrote it began his work on April 4, 1452, and ended on July 9, 1453 – he recorded the dates. At the other side of the Great Hall of the Library of Congress is displayed the Gutenberg Bible which was made in 1455. According to the Library of Congress:
“The Gutenberg Bible is the first great book printed in Western Europe from movable metal type. It is therefore a monument that marks a turning point in the art of bookmaking and consequently in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world. Gutenberg’s invention of the mechanical printing press made it possible for the accumulated knowledge of the human race to become the common property of every person who knew how to read-an immense forward step in the emancipation of the human mind.”
We all can recognize the contribution that the printing press made to the world – to the dissemination of knowledge, to the rise of literacy, to the Enlightenment and to the founding of America in its drive for independence and establishment of a democratic republic. But at the moment when Johann Gutenberg printed his bible, the revolution he began went unnoticed. Gutenberg himself went bankrupt. He envisioned his printing press as a way to copy manuscripts, and it was only later that its use as a means to produce books for popular distribution was recognized. The man who is credited with inventing the technology did not grasp the change he had brought to the world. Really the invention which is credited with being “the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world” was experienced locally as a new fangled machine by an unknown inventor who had no intention of pushing humanity into the modern world but really was looking for a better way to preserve the world that he knew – a way to make beautifully crafted bibles on parchment in a slightly more efficient way.
The second example that comes to my mind is the rise of evolutionary thinking as proposed by Charles Darwin. In 2009 the world will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species” which revolutionized the entire science of biology including all scientific studies of humans. But the reaction to Darwin was at first somewhat muted, even though several different scientists had already begun writing about the idea of evolution and many were looking for the key to unlock what was then a scientific puzzle. On July 1, 1858, Darwin along with another scientist Alfred Russell Wallace presented their ideas on natural selection to the Linnean Society in London. As Olivia Judson describes the Darwinian non-impact at the moment: “Indeed, the meeting had so little impact at the time that, at the end of the year, the president of the Linnean Society said, ‘The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.'” Boy was he wrong! Of course according to historians Darwin would produce six revisions of his “Origin of Species” as he kept refining and correcting his ideas, so even for himself the import of what he had written “evolved.” Darwin revolutionized the scientific world, and really pushed science into being a study separated from a dependency on ancient wisdom and religious revelation; his work was a seminal step in the birth of modern science. However, in the moment of his publicly unveiling his theory, it went remarkably unnoticed.