The Smart Cow Theory of History

Perhaps you have heard of the Great Man Theory of History,

The great man theory is a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of great men, or heroes; highly influential and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, or divine inspiration, have a decisive historical effect.

I’m not really on board with that one to be honest. Mostly because I think the real changes in history happen due to technology, and not ideology, warfare, or singular heroism or leadership. The invention of firearms, antibiotics, and alternating current have changed average lives much more than most of the Herculean achievements supposedly attributed to the Heroes of History.

But, how did those technological and scientific advancements occur? This brings me to my proposal: the Smart Cow Theory of History.

The Smart Cow idea is derived from the Smart Cow Problem:

The smart cow problem is the concept that, when a group of individuals is faced with a technically difficult task, only one of their members has to solve it. When the problem has been solved once, an easily repeatable method may be developed, allowing the less technically proficient members of the group to accomplish the task.

The term smart cow problem is thought to be derived from the expression: “It only takes one smart cow to open the latch of the gate, and then all the other cows follow.”[1]

Imagine that each advancement we make in technology brings us, a metaphorical herd of cows, to a new, greener pasture. For instance, the development of the internal combustion engine by a Smart Cow, or small group of smart cows, suddenly gives us massive power and abilities. Tesla figures out Alternating Current to unlock the gate of power transmission, and then the regular cows can build the power grid.

But then we inevitably come to another locked gate: not enough fuel, dangerous vehicles, carbon emissions. We bang against these gates until the smart cows, the technologists and scientists and yes, the capitalists who fund them, figure out a way to unlock these gates. Then we all blunder through, blindly, into the supposedly greener pastures of our future.

Smart cows would be folks like: Tesla, Edison, Curie, Einstein, Ada Lovelace, Ford, Taiichi Ohno, Oppenheimer, Herbert Boyer, Tim Berners-Lee and so on. Every woman and man working in a lab coat somewhere or pounding on a keyboard is likely a Smart Cow in some way. Because really smart and effective cows don’t do it alone; it usually takes a cowteam to unlatch those gates.

And what are those gates? Those are the problems we face. Energy, food, travel, health, understanding, control.

The Smart Cow Theory of History implies a few things. One, is that us cows that blunder through the unlocked gates have no idea what lies on the other side of the fence, and most of us don’t even know that gate was there in the first place.

Second, and more importantly, the Smart Cows don’t know what lies on the other side either.

Sure they can theorize and discuss, but Smart Cows are just individuals who can apply their focus to a single issue and solve it. They are just looking for a solution to the unhappy mooing around them

Oppenheimer didn’t know how nations would negotiate power through nuclear weapons. He was more worried that the initial atom bomb tests would ignite the oxygen on the planet and kill us all.

The Smart Cows building AI, putting computers in our pockets, and editing our genes have No Idea what the outcome of these actions will be. They can’t, the universe and humans are just far too complex to know what the next pasture and gate will look like. But we do know that these gates are getting more and more complicated, the pastures more dangerous, and the Smart Cows are going to keep unlatching.

Telling Smart Cows to stop fiddling with the locks isn’t going to slow them down. But if we all just spend a few moments asking the right questions, and enshrining the right values, maybe, just maybe, we can set our boundaries in time to prevent disaster.

Perhaps some gates need to remain locked to keep the herd from wandering onto the highway, or into the slaughterhouse.


To hear a couple of very Smart Cows discuss some upcoming gates around biotechnology and CRISPR, I highly recommend episode 50 of the After On podcast with Kevin Rose.

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