Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Speaking of Darwin . . .


A book review in the Wall Street Journal last week notes that next February 12 will mark Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and that we are also marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, which “will be hailed as one of the greatest works in the history of the sciences.” 

That got me to thinking. Now, “greatest” is hard to define, and “history of the sciences” is too narrow for a non-scientist such as myself, so academics, how about answering this question: What are the ten most influential books of all time?

Here’s my list, not in any particular order:                     

  1. Hebrew Bible
  2. New Testament
  3. Koran
  4. Iliad
  5. Odyssey
  6. Aeneid
  7. Federalist Papers
  8. Wealth of Nations
  9. Principia
  10. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres 

Some thoughts on what’s missing after the jump.

Missing is much great literature: Nothing by Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Milton, or Sophocles. But the problem is that there is no one work by any of them that is influential to the same degree as what’s on the list. If it were kosher to count The Complete Works of William Shakespeare as a book, that would be different, but it’s not.

It is also odd that there is nothing by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Luther. Here again, though, the problem is that there is no one work by any of them that quite makes the list. How about those 95 theses though? Also, no non-Western books. Am I wrong?

As a lawyer, I thought about lots of political writers; in addition to Plato and Aristotle, there’s Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Mill, Burke, Coke, and Blackstone. Still, no one work by them, in my opinion, belongs in the top ten.

I’m rather proud of the fact that Marx and Freud don’t make the list. Darwin typically rounds out that particular triumvirate, and he doesn’t quite make the list either, though On the Origin of Species would be my number eleven. 

In fact, there is no chemistry or biology at all on the list. The problem, it seems to me, is that the advances in the former, especially, have come piecemeal. But I freely admit that, as a non-scientist, maybe I’m missing something.


Subscribe to National Review