Suck it, Napoleon; In ‘Who’s Bigger,’ Jesus is Crowned the Most Important Figure in History

It’s a fool’s errand but still amusing: Who’s the most important person in history?

Steven Skiena, a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University, and Charles Ward, an engineer at Google, analyzed data from Wikipedia to answer that question.

You can find out about their methodology here and here. In summary,

Skiena and Ward mount the argument that historical figures are like memes — ideas about formerly real people that propagate or fade through history. In this view, Wikipedia represents an acute listening device — a kind of unsupervised ongoing poll of who matters. Centuries on, the meme of Martin Luther is still strong, but the meme of his influential contemporary Huldrych Zwingli has grown so weak we barely hear it.

Skiena and Ward rank their historical figures based on two factors. One, which they called celebrity, they assessed by the length of a person’s Wikipedia entry, how often it’s viewed, and how often it’s edited. The other, gravitas, weighed the impact of a person’s achievements by looking at where a person’s Wikipedia page sits within a network of linked pages. So, Barack Obama (number 111) gets a gravitas boost because Bill Clinton’s (number 115), George W. Bush’s (number 36), and Osama bin Laden’s (number 765) Wikipedia pages all link to his.

Very Google-esque. The idea of the ranking itself isn’t new, by the way:

In 1972 astrophysicist Michael Hart published “The 100,” a book-length attempt to answer the question. Rather than being applauded for his daring, however, he took heat for his choices: Mohammed at number one, Jesus Christ at number three, and the fight was on.

Ward and Skiena have now corrected Hart’s “mistake” (cue the angry Muslims). Christianity’s Savior is number one with a bullet, and Mohammed dropped to fourth place. In the rest of the top 10, we see no fewer than three American presidents palling around with Shakespeare, Aristotle, Hitler, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon.

  1. Jesus
  2. Napoleon
  3. Shakespeare
  4. Mohammed
  5. Lincoln
  6. Washington
  7. Hitler
  8. Aristotle
  9. Alexander the Great
  10. Jefferson

In part because the duo relied on the English-language version of Wikipedia, the Euro- and U.S.-centric bias of the data is evident.

The Boston Globe also issues a caveat:

People are as significant as we say they are. We see this effect with the recent revising down of John F. Kennedy’s (number 71) stature by historians, and it’s evident in movements to give overlooked historical figures their due. Measuring significance inevitably raises the question, significant to whom? In that view, maybe Miley Cyrus isn’t the 2,009th most important person who ever lived — but she is, at least, to us.

Ward and Skiena have poured their data into a book called Who’s Bigger. You can check it out here.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Fractal Heretic

    King Louis X abolished slavery in France in 1315, but Lincoln gets all the credit for doing it 500 years late.

    • Trickster Goddess

      Yeah, Lincoln was something the last or second last one to ban slavery. Basically he gets credit for driving the final nail into the coffin.

      Kind of like that guy who gets his name and face in the history books for the the photo of him driving in the last spike to complete the trans continental railroad, even though it was the only spike he ever hammered on that long railway.

      • skinnercitycyclist

        Lincoln didn’t ban slavery, the 13th Amendment did.

        The Emancipation Proclamation was limited in scope.

        I agree Lincoln was the best president ever, well, maybe Franklin Roosevelt.

        • abb3w

          Lincoln was also the primary political will driving the Congressional passage of the 13th Amendment. Po-TAY-toh, po-TAH-toh.

      • abb3w

        It’s more the penultimate Western nail… but through one of the most obdurate boards in the coffin. Princess Isabel’s decree in Brazil came later, but did not involve such massive resistance; and when John Peters Humphrey’s was making his efforts crafting the UN Declaration of Human Rights to ban it globally in international law post-WWII, it was probably akin to nailing balsa wood.

        The difficulty of subsequent bans in the Arab world seens largely neglected — possibly because of Western-centricism, possibly because the bans have been less than entirely effective in practical effect. (Contrariwise, the US has almost a century of Jim Crow sharecropper peonage after the 13th Amendment’s ratification by the states, so Americans are in somewhat poor position to throw stones over it… but in good position to recognize that sort of shenanigans.)

    • ObserverDC

      Well to be fair, Napoleon III brought it back during Lincoln’s lifetime, at least outside of Metropolitan France.

      • Randay

        No, it was Napoleon 1 that re-established slavery after the French Revolution had abolished it.

  • skinnercitycyclist

    This is as trivial and fatuous a project as I can imagine. Of zero historiographical worth. Miley Cyrus the 2009th most important person in history? George W. Bush at 39th???

    Why use the term “most important in history” when they mean “most popular in wikipedia”?

  • Greg G.

    If fictional characters are considered for their impact on history, Santa Claus should be on the list.

    • busterggi

      maybe but Superman should be listed above him.

    • $925105

      How about Dr. Who? He’s saved the world so many times.

      • Art_Vandelay

        “The Doctor.” Sorry…it’s a stupid pet peeve.

        • Paul Zimmerle

          I’m not sure I’d call it a “pet peeve” when his name is clearly not Doctor Who.

  • sam

    When you survey professional historian professors, Alexander the Great ranks number one. Jesus (tied with Paul, given that Paul is likely more responsible for xianity) ranks at number 5.

  • busterggi

    Its gotta be tough to lose out to a fictional character.

    • Neko

      Legendary Jesus is probably based on a man who existed.

      • busterggi

        Probably there were many humans named Jesus but that doesn’t mean the biblical superhero was real.

  • Cuttlefish

    Damn. Once again, my name gets misspelled.

    Every single letter wrong….

  • Guillaume Bérubé

    This list is way too english speaking centric. Not even one hapsburg in there. Not one chineese or Indian. Gengis Khan not in the top 10?

    • skinnercitycyclist

      Among Habsburgs I nominate Rudolf II for pure fun (and I love Prague), for importance I guess you have to go to Charles V. Of course Joseph II, a great Enlightenment monarch and patron of the arts

  • Pattrsn

    If we’re including mythical figures how about Yahweh? Over the centuries a good chunk of the planets been laid to waste in his or his alter ego allah’s name.

  • Gerry Mooney

    But if Jesus also tops the list of Greatest Mythical Heroes, we have a problem!

    • skinnercitycyclist

      No worries, my friend, I think Frodo Baggins will always be first.

  • L.Long

    Know what e difference is between my hero Madison and the others in the list—There has not been any bad movies made about him or a number of bad movie characters that have talked about him. The list doesn’t really contain influential people but people many can recognize thru bad media.

  • RedneckCryonicist

    In the coming “Jesus who?” era, some currently obscure names will become more prominent. I think the Baron d’Holbach, the most important atheist you’ve probably never heard of, will see his stock rise because he used his fortune to propagandize the precursor to today’s atheism in the latter 18th Century.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    I thought Zaphod Beeblebrox was a shoe-in.

  • The Captain

    This list is… well pathetically Americanized. Head of the religion most Americans claim to have on top, check. Head if the religion most americans wold claim to be the antithesis of them (even though it;s not), check. Three, count them three Americans who are completely irrelevant to the history of rest of the world, check.

    And no Gengis Khan?! There are more people who’s DNA was directly effected by that guy than have even ever heard of, or lived under a system Jefferson had any part of.

    (They are trying to say that Washington had a bigger impact on history than did Cleisthenes? HA!)

    • SeekerLancer

      This list is ridiculous because it means nothing. It’s “list of most popular figures on the English Wikipedia.” Their “meme” argument is also useless and again is popularity (in the United States) over importance. I don’t even understand what the point of this entire thing was other than to create a fetching headline that ignorant people will read because it has Jesus in it.

  • Buckley

    I think John Lennon was correct: “The Beatles are Bigger than Jesus.”

  • Anton

    I’ll bet Kanye has been slamming doors all morning.

  • Sparky44

    Any list without Constantine is meaningless. Wherever you put Jesus and Mohammed, you have to put Constantine close to them. He made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, and by establishing the Eastern Roman Empire at Byzantium, stopped the flow of Islam into Europe.

  • Fallulah

    Beat out by a guy who most likely never existed in the first place….gotta sting!!

  • John

    In Hart’s book, Mohammed was above Jesus because he had more DIRECT influence on people than Jesus.