Last Supper

Try asking a historian to name the biggest person in history and you're unlikely to get very far. They'd probably start by asking you what you mean by "biggest" – before they direct you to the Guinness Book of Records section on giants, you can explain that you mean the most influential, but that still won't get you any closer to an answer.

Well, the historian might say next, it really depends upon your perspective. It'd be easy to fall into the trap of offering a highly Eurocentric answer, when things might look very different from, say, an African, Middle Eastern or east Asian perspective. Then there's the issue of periodisation – a modern French historian would be likely to offer you a very different answer from a medieval Chinese historian, for example.

And all of this is before we even get to the issue of whether this is a valid question to ask. I thought we put paid to all this "great men" (and it's usually men, as we'll discuss later) decades ago, the social historian might say. After all, we should be far more interested in structure.

All entirely fair points, but for those with a slightly less academic interest in history, not particularly fun. I don't care about social structure, you'd be within your rights to say – I just want to know who's the biggest person in history. In which case, be thankful for Steven Skiena and Charles B Ward, whose new book Who's Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank, takes a shot at providing an answer.

So who comes out on top? Conveniently, given the time of year, Skiena and Ward's list represents an early birthday present for one Jesus Christ, who just pips Napoleon and Muhammad into second and third place, with William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln making up the top five. All in all it's a good list for religion – beyond the two heavyweights in the top three, religious thinkers, such as Martin Luther (17), St Paul (34), Buddha (52) and Ali, founder of the Sufis (89) are scattered throughout the top 100.

It's a little trickier, however, to spot the atheists in the list. We could bring up the old and fascinating arguments over the religious beliefs of Abraham Lincoln (5), Thomas Jefferson (10) or Charles Darwin (12), but for the first outright atheist on the list you need to look to Karl Marx (14). For those of you who'd rather skip over that one, there's always the former Rationalist Association member Albert Einstein at number 19.

Beyond the prevalence of religious figures, what else stands out in the list? Blokes, lots of blokes. You need to keep reading down to number 13 to find a woman, Elizabeth I. After that there's Queen Victoria at 16, and Joan of Arc at 95, the only one of the three women in the top 100 whose place in history wasn't secured by virtue of hereditary monarchy.

The list is not only heavily male, but heavily white, European, indeed white Anglo-American male. There are a startling number of US Presidents in the top 100, from Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson in the top 10, to lesser lights such as Ulysses S Grant at 28 (possibly so high up the list due to his role as a victorious Civil War general rather than because of his disastrous presidency), George W Bush (36) and Grover Cleveland (98).

However, before accusing the authors of terrible bias, it's worth noting that the problem almost certainly lies in their methodology. In an effort to avoid the thorny ground of opinion, Skiena and Ward have taken a statistical approach, inspired by Google's method of ranking web pages (Skiena is a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University, NY, and Ward is a Google engineer). I won't pretend to fully grasp their methodology, so here's an explanation in their own words:

"We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value.

Significance is related to fame but measures something different. Forgotten U.S. President Chester A. Arthur (who we rank as the 499th most significant person in history) is more historically significant than young pop singer Justin Bieber (currently ranked 8633), even though he may have a less devoted following and lower contemporary name recognition. Historically significant figures leave statistical evidence of their presence behind, if one knows where to look for it, and we used several data sources to fuel our ranking algorithms, including Wikipedia, scanned books and Google n-grams.

To fairly compare contemporary figures like Britney Spears against the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, we adjusted for the fact that today’s stars will fade from living memory over the next several generations. Intuitively it is clear that Britney Spears’ mindshare will decline substantially over the next 100 years, as people who grew up hearing her are replaced by new generations. But Aristotle’s reputation will be much more stable because this transition occurred long ago. The reputation he has now is presumably destined to endure. By analyzing traces left in millions of scanned books, we can measure just how fast this decay occurs, and correct for it."

Of course, it's an imperfect method, but does that render Skiena and Ward's list useless? Perhaps it would have been more accurate to label it a study of the biggest figures in history from an English-speaking perspective (the authors acknowledge that English Wikipedia forms a key part of their dataset), but it's still a fascinating list, in some ways precisely because of its white, male, American weighting.

The lack of women has proven one of the biggest talking points, but once you have an idea of the methodology, this becomes extremely interesting – in addition to Wikipedia the authors examined millions of scanned books, so we can see from the results the extent to which women have been excluded from the written history of the English-speaking world. In a similar way, the prevalence of Americans highlights American dominance of English-speaking culture, while the low number of non-Americans/Europeans demonstrates the comparative lack of attention paid in the West to cultures beyond Europe and America.

So, unsurprisingly given the scale of the task, Skiena and Ward have produced an imperfect list, but certainly not a pointless one. If nothing else, the study as the potential to be a great conversation starter – it may not provide you with a definitive answer to who is the biggest person in history, but it will certainly provide the basis for a lively argument on the subject.