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Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Author,Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed

The Importance of Individual Human Beings

I consider myself a scientist, and the theory of evolution is central to my thinking. I am a social scientist and have been informed by insights from many social sciences including economics. Yet I have little sympathy with hegemonic attempts to explain all human behaviors via evolutionary psychology, via rational choice economics and/or by a combination of these two frameworks.

In a planet occupied now by seven billion inhabitants, I am amazed by the difference that one human being can make. Think of classical music without Mozart or Stravinsky; of painting without Caravaggio, Picasso or Pollock; of drama without Shakespeare or Beckett. Think of the incredible contributions of Michelangelo or Leonardo, or, in recent times, the outpouring of deep feeling at the death of Steve Jobs (or, for that matter, Michael Jackson or Princess Diana). Think of human values in the absence of Moses or Christ.

Alas, not all singular individuals make a positive difference. The history of the 20th century would be far happier had it not been for Hitler, Stalin, or Mao (or the 21st century without Bin Laden). But in reaction to these individuals, there sometimes arises more praiseworthy figures: Konrad Adenauer in Germany, Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, Deng Xiaoping in China. These successors also make a signal difference.

I consider Mahatma Gandhi to be the most important human being of the last millennium. His achievements in India speak for themselves. But even if Gandhi had not contributed vital energy and leadership to his own country, he had incredible influence on peaceful resisters across the globe: Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King Jr., in the United States, and the solitary figures in Tian-an-men Square in 1989 and in Tahrir Square in 2001.

Despite the laudatory efforts of scientists to ferret out patterns in human behavior, I continue to be struck by the impact of single individuals, or of small groups, working against the odds. As scholars, we cannot and should not sweep these instances under the investigative rug. We should bear in mind anthropologist Margaret Mead's famous injunction: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has."