What Day Most Changed History?

Who said women weren’t influential?
Such was the title of The Atlantic’sThe Big Question” column of March, 2013.

This is the sort of piece one finds uppermost in the toilet’s magazine rack. So now you know exactly where this blog belongs, because we’ll all have a turn answering.

Eleven celebrity intellectuals were queried. No answer would make a university’s Chief Diversity Officer cringe.

W. Kamau Bell, who the internet informs me is the gentleman who placed the Superbowl white-guys-with-Jamaican-accents on his “The Most Racist Things Of All Time” list, thought the most momentous day was “when Michael Jackson first performed the moonwalk on TV. I think it’s one of the reasons we have a black president today.” I gather this was meant humorously. Very funny.

Neera Tanden (pres., Center for American Progress) said it was when American women won suffrage. Oliver Stone, emailing from his secret hideout, entered Henry Wallace’s defeat by Harry Truman in 1944. Stone says Wallace would not have nuked Japan. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who might have won her post(-ing) position by being a contributing editor, said the Fourth of July. Equality of sexual orientation, she said. Would John Hancock’s quill have ventured those political alleys?

Higher up the ladder of reason we find Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series (these any good?), who said the best day was when Anton van Leeuwenhoek peered through his microscope. Christina Paxon, president of Brown, said it was when Johannes Gutenberg’s physical blogging machine went live.

Professor Philip Jenkins thought the day when Hitler attacked Stalin, in Operation Barbossa, was tops. Professor Timothy Snyder put it as 11 December 1241, the day Batu Kahn keeled over unexpectedly, after which the Mongol horde went all Shakespeare. Ken Burns said it was the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand met an activist who wanted change; and boy, did he get it.

Finally, the entry which takes top prize, is Freeman Dyson who said all history shot off in an orthogonal direction when a hefty asteroid crashed in the Yucatan.

None of these are entirely satisfying. Only Dyson’s is in the true spirit of the question: the day which most changed the course of history. This is a stringent qualification.

Women winning suffrage in the States did change the flow of history, but no more than putting a fair-sized boulder on the banks of the Mississippi would divert its waters. We always see Gutenburg, may God bless him, on these lists. But writing existed before him, and don’t forget that it’s the press that churns out such fare as Donald Trump’s autobiography.

I vacillate between two entries.

The day when the first man—call him Adam—stood erect and realized he was different than the other, similar looking animals around him. Or perhaps it was the time shortly after when he first uttered, “Madam, I’m Adam.” In the days afore the Fourth of July, it took two of opposite biology to tango, you see. It was Adam and his mate who, by doin’ what Irving Berlin said comes naturally, set the course of history on its path.

And then there was the horrible, yet glorious in hindsight, day when Christ was crucified. Even if we moderns are too sophisticated to believe in Jesus’s divinity, many tens of billions have. Islam might not have emerged, or at least it would have been radically different, were it not for Christ. Music, art, architecture, literature, politics, hospitals, etc. almost without end.

A similar case can be made for Buddha. Moses and Confucius also make the short-list. All four men (sorry, ladies) surely perturbed the phase space of events to a much vaster extent than did Batu Kahn, Hitler, Henry Wallace, or Gavrilo Princip (the Archduke’s assassin).

So much more influential were these men that it is a wonder none of the intellectuals thought of them. Maybe we are so saturated with their influences we have become like the lady who complained the Bible and Shakespeare were full of clichés.

Those are my entries. What are yours?


  1. Except for Dyson, the people you quote are incredibly short-sighted. They reminded me of the quote from T. S. Eliot “There was never a time so completely parochial, so completely shut off from the past.”

    I’d vote for April 5, 33 as the turning point in history, the day Christ rose from the dead.

  2. Leaving religion to its own, since there are so many choices there, my vote goes to the the Pill was introduced.

  3. Sander van der Wal

    The “day” the Universe started to exist. None of the other events would have happened if there wasn’t a Universe to happen in.

    If that doesn’t count, the day the Earth started to exist. Before Earth existed, you can argue that there are no days as such.

  4. Charles Boncelet

    12 October 1492 when Columbus and his crew saw land.

  5. Luis (&Ken Burns) nothing could have stopped WWI at that point – it didn’t need a match!

    Dyson’s is without a doubt the most significant specific day in the story of life but might fail on a technicality – depending on how you define “history”

    I tended at first to agree with Briggs on this (whether or not the event really happened) but on further consideration I think it may rather be the day that Saul of Tarsus “saw the light” and, whether as an agent of Rome or out of genuine belief, proceeded to put his own stamp on the emerging cult – which both changed its emphasis and vastly expanded its eventual influence.

  6. Dr K.A. Rodgers

    The day the world first saw sexual reproduction as opposed to simple cell division. Without it we would still be living in, “the drowsy days of identical twins and the nights of the protozoa.”

  7. MattS

    You are all nuts. The day that most changed history is today. Everything that ever happened happened today, as it was today when it happened.


  8. David

    In Dyson’s vein, the most important day would have to be the day of the Big Bang (not the show, the other one). But I guess it’s not as much a day that changed History as much as a day that started History. Or maybe we could come up with a different definition of History. If you think of Lucy (or Adam), you could say it’s part of pre-history, and History started with writing, so it would mean we have to chose an event that happened in the last 5000years and is documented. One way of looking at things is to see the last 5000 years as a first phase of traditional developpement (Malthusian world, small societal change, low level of innovation), and the accelerated pace of the last 200 years (think industrial revolution). So the major change would be what brough the industrial revolution. Galileo’s work, Copernicus’ model, Watt’s engine, the fall of Constantinople, the printing machine,…? I guess I’m overthinking and taking the fun out of this…

  9. bernie

    I agree that Christ’s death and resurrection were key to the world that we have today – much of the good and some of the bad.
    I would also say that the dropping of the two bombs that ended WWII has been critical for the last 70 years. I hope that there will be no need to repeat that lesson.

  10. VXXC

    The day that most changed history is 19 March 2011 when Anne-Marie Slaughter, Samantha Power, and Michelle Flournoy implemented Responsibility to Protect Warfare in Libya, aka R2P. It is to my retro masculine mind a strangely maternal idea of warfare, but I’m hopeless.

    MattS actually wins for most Prog consumers. They’re trained to reboot every day.

  11. Ken

    How can any particular day Christ did anything constitute a significant turning point/inflection point? Given the question asked, that is??

    The question was the “day” that most changed history — that’s different than an event, or movement, or other lengthy process that had a major effect.

    While the events cited (crucifiction, raising from the dead) may be momentus…their immediate measurable effect was nil. It was the entirety of the mission and its follow-up that, thru incremental changes over a very long period, had thier effect. The Gospels don’t appear to even have been written for a generation or more after He was long gone.

    Think about Emperor Constantine–his decreeing that Christianity was a legal state religion (Edict of Milan) undoubtedly had a much greater impact for a single day’s event.

    Put another way, imaging if Constantine kept Mithras as the offical religion & made Christianity illegal & started serious persecutions & never adopted the sign of Christianity (the Chi Rho symbol, not cross,which then was still known as a Phonecian torture device adopted by Romans, by the way)? Polytheistic societies we might very well have & be living in to this day.

    And think about this God Diety — today most people are Christian–notorious for espousing peace (per their “Prince of Peace”) & killing & murdering each other (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.html) like they’re their own worst enemy; Jews, that have until reigned in killed everybody else; and now Islam, with fanatatical groups rising up & trying to kill everyone else (and sometimes each other). Jews, Christians & Muslims–all linked to the very same God. One would thing this omnipitent Diety would settle on one official religion and keep the slate clear of imposters & so forth. Really, how hard can that be for someone who is the avowed creater of Heaven AND Earth, ALL that is seen AND unseen (humans, angels, ghosts, etc.), for Eternity? Think about it. And if that’s not enough, the History Channel (or similar) had a bit about how this Pope decreed that infants, unbaptized, now go straight to Heaven–no more limbo for them; this was an episode that included considerable discussion of the changing history of the hereafter, Catholic style: die, go nowhere & wait for the ressurection; or, die & go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory-then after a cleansing time go to Heaven. The offical plan keeps changing (why, in one monestary the big painting of the delayed resurrection had to be moved & hidden when instant-upon-death salvation & delivery to Heaven or Hell became the policy. So, this omnipitent Creator is still making up the rules as we go along it seems…or maybe its just people & their creative writing still trying to tie up the loose ends in the story… One curious one is in Acts 10 & 11, where Paul gets “called on the carpet” by the Apostles (Jesus’ original followers, some of the select/original 12) for preaching the message of Christianity to the Gentiles (mixed in is some concern about eating non-Kosher food, but that’s a distraction). Paul relates a vision he had saying preaching to the Gentiles was ok–and there & then this new faith took off outside the Jewish circles. Maybe one could argue that was the momentus day–when Paul got the message of Jesus to spread, with approval, far & wide; no more Jewish sub-cult anymore. Of course, the interesting considering is trying to reconcile that bit of history–the need for Paul’s vision to spread the news–when elsewhere its written that Jesus Himself proclaimed His “Great Commission” to go and spread His news to “all nations.” So, in the story, why was Paul’s vision necessary & why did the original Apostles not “get” (i.e. “understand”) this directive “right from the horses mouth” [so to speak] but it finally sunk in when Paul relayed a vision? That one curious logical error in the official story’s plot. And there are more… So, if long drawn out changes stemming from a seemingly innocuous and largely, at the time, unnoticed event occurred count for this question, the real turning point occurred with whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark–that seems to be the first from which the others were derived & that author’s creativity & record-keeping/storywriting is profoundly significant. Probably along with his probably charismatic preaching capability to get things moving along.

    But I digressed again.

    I’d say the “Big Bang” doesn’t count because before that,”history” as “history” is most commonly understood didn’t exist. Creating history doesn’t count as “changing history” as it must first exist. Ditto for the day the Earth was formed–what does that mean? When it was first formed, or, after the mini-planet crashed & rearranged things to include Earth’s proportionally huge moon? Either way, does any of that still count if noone is there to record “history”? It comes down to definitions I suppose, & might go either way — good fun to debate over beer & pork rinds.

    If you don’t like the Yucatan impact (does “history” before humans count as “history”?), the “day” with the greatest impact on humanity may have occurred about 74,000 years ago when Mt. Toba (near India) erupted, causing a six year “nuclear winter” and reduced Earth’s human population to about 10,000 individuals — a near-extinction event as indicated by DNA (see: http://bradshawfoundation.com/journey/ ). Just imagine the diversity in the human species if the vast majority of genetic variation from the preceding 70,000-ish years didn’t go extinct!? Apparently some of us have a bit percent of Neanderthal DNA in us, so at least we’ve got that!

    Though, MattS at 1:06pm, ‘today is the most important day’ certainly has a point! Tough call there.

  12. Doug M

    In addition to dates already named (big bang wins).

    I will add D-Day — it was an enormous gamble, and had it been a failure, the 2nd half of the 20 century looks completely different.

  13. Doug M


    Whether or not you beleive in the divintity of Christ, it is indisputable that his followers dramatically changed the world.

  14. Gary F.

    I vote for that day long ago when a butterfly fluttered and caused a hurricane and every other event that followed. But then again, perhaps it was some other butterfly. I can’t recall. 🙂

  15. MattS


    My nomination of today as the most important day has nothing to do with rebooting.

    What day was it on 12 October 1492, it was today; it is today on 3/1/2013 and it will be today on 12/31/2014.

    Yesterday never was and tomorrow will never be for yesterday it was today and today was tomorrow, but tomorrow it will be today and today will be yesterday.

    I am never lost, I always know where I am, I am here. I always know what day it is, it is today.


  16. bernie

    When exactly were you born?

  17. MattS


    Today 🙂

    Seriously though 9/17/1969

  18. Noblesse Oblige

    According to the multiverse interpretation of the quantum mechanical measurement problem, no day has changed history at all. All possible outcomes have always happened.

  19. G. Rodrigues

    The day that I was born.

    This day was the most important because it was the day that I was born. Arguably if I were not, the world would be a better place; but that is neither here nor there, and anyone pointing this out is clearly acting out of resentment of the momentous importance of my birth. For if I were not, I would not be here answering the question of what is the most important day in the history of humanity. The very possibility of me answering the question presupposes my existence, so ontologically prior to any possible answer I can or could give is my own existence. But what is ontologically prior takes precedence and is more important in the order of explanation; thus it follows that my day of birth was the most important day in the history of humanity.

    Objection 1: But by parity of reason, Mr. Briggs can say the same thing.
    Reply to Objection 1: I answer thus: true enough. Mr. Briggs can *say*, but can I, or should I hear him? For once again, suppose I were not. In such a possible world, the utterances of Mr. Briggs would be hollow to me for I do not exist in such a possible world to hear the utterances of Mr. Briggs. Since any argument that Mr. Briggs can make to convince me presupposes that I exist to be convinced, it follows necessarily that whatever Mr. Briggs has to say to me follows upon my existence, and thus once again, the very possibility of Mr. Briggs making an argument to convince me of what is the most important day in the history of humanity (e.g. his own) presupposes that the day I was born came to be, so it follows that such a day was the most important one.

    Objection 2: It seems that you are committed to a vicious regress; for you would not be born if your mother was not born; and so the day of her birth was the most important. But your mother would not be born if your grandmother was not born, and so the day of her birth was the most important, and so on ad infinitum.
    Reply to Objection 2: I answer that no such regress can be formed. For the regress to be formed, it relies on the implication that whatever causal factors or agents are involved in my birth, then in virtue of they being the causal source of my existence, they are more important. But such I deny; if I was caused to exist then I am the final cause of the agent’s action. But the Philosopher asserts that the final cause is the cause of causes, or most important of causes, it thus follow that I am more important that what possibly gave me existence.

  20. andyd

    History? What about herstory?

  21. Jonathan

    “One would thing this omnipitent Diety would settle on one official religion and keep the slate clear of imposters & so forth.”

    It’s always interesting when those who so despise the Deity for restricting their free will complain that He should instead abolish it completely. Which will it be?

  22. Andrew Farquharson

    My suggestion is the battle of Aigospotami (possible spelling error here) which ended the Peloponnesian War in Sparta’s favour in 404 BC. As one historian (it may have been Plutarch, but please correct me if I’m in error) wrote, in one hour he ended a war that had lasted, on and off, for twenty-seven years. As with most things to do with Sparta (except for the victory over the Persians at Plataia in 479 BC), this resulted in the distortion of the promise of Hellenic civilization. But this is not USA related, so it may not count.

    Another suggestion is the day in 415 BC when the Athenian assembly voted to send the expedition to Sicily which resulted in Athens losing her supremacy at sea, which made the result of the battle of Aigopotami possible. Again, it’s not USA related, so it may not count.

    All the best,
    Andrew Farquharson.

  23. Andrew Farquharson

    PS. The “he” I referred to in the winning of the battle of Aigospotami was the Spartan leader Lysander. Sorry for the omission.

  24. Andrew Farquharson

    I’ve had another thought. How about the day the Deccan Traps eruption began 65 million years ago, the said eruption being the event that probably sent the Dinosaurs into oblivion, or significantly aided other processes in doing so.

    With the Dinosaurs gone, the way was left open to Others, one of them being Mammals.

    Of course, this line of reasoning could be pushed back even further to the day the Siberian Traps eruption began circa 249 million years ago, which led to the greatest extinction of life lineages in all geological history. All by itself, this changed absolutely everything following.

  25. andyd

    My gong goes to the person who wrote Yahweh’s wife Asherah out of the old testament, thus inventing monotheism.

  26. michael hart

    MattS is thinking along the right lines. My answer was going to be that the rate of change of history would be fastest on the first day.

  27. Patrick Moffitt

    Shouldn’t the question be what day most changed the future? If we select a day as a point in time then history is the fixed set of events that preceeded that point. A day may change the probability of a future but it cannot alter its past. If we don’t assume free will then a day can change neither history nor the future.

  28. Sera

    Unanswerable question- unless you have a time machine and can go back and ‘change’ history. How about: What event changed the course of history more than any other?

  29. revGDright

    June 15, 1215. The day King John signed the Magna Carta. At least Mr. Schneider, my history teacher in high school, said so.

  30. DAV

    The day I had to start taking it a a course subject.

  31. JH

    There have been so many events that significantly changed the world. No way of knowing what has changed the world the most.

    I have a question though. Assuming that Adam was the first man and looked like the photo shown in this post, could someone explain to me how I, a Chinese, could possibly be a descendant of Adam?

  32. Yawrate

    I’ll chime in with Saul’s epiphany on the road to Damascus, without which Christianity would have remained a Hebrew sect. Saul(Paul) believed that converts to Christianity did not have to first becomes Jewish. Remember that James in Jerusalem was the leader of the Christian Jews who believed all Christians had to be Jews which entailed circumcision, a hard sell to adult males! When James died, Pauls version became the only version.

  33. Matthew Nikolaus

    The day in which the moment occurred when God declared “Let there be light.”

  34. Alan D McIntire

    For a day to be really important, it must be memorable. Check out “1066 And All That”, by W.C. Sellar, a humorous history of England. W.C. Sellar, from his investigations on golf links, pubs, etc., found that only two dates in English history were memorable, 55 BC, when Caesar first invaded Britain, and 1066, When William of Normandy invaded.

    For those of us on North or South America, October 12, 1492 is memorable, but what other dates do we remember in common?

  35. Agile Aspect

    Changing history violates causality.

  36. Fletcher Christian

    Leaving aside geological and astronomical events already mentioned and speaking entirely of human-initiated events, I would like to nominate a day that IMHO will be remembered when all the Earthly works of Man are dust.

    July 20, 1969.

  37. “Even if we moderns are too sophisticated to believe in Jesus’ divinity, many tens of billions have” Shome mishtake surely? There haven’t been tens of billions of people on the planet yet, have there?

  38. Briggs

    Stan Mann,

    There have been about 100 billion of us. There’s a billion Christians now living, and a generation ago about that many (to within an order of magnitude), etc.

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