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TEDSalon NY2013

Malcolm Gladwell: The unheard story of David and Goliath

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It's a classic underdog tale: David, a young shepherd armed only with a sling, beats Goliath, the mighty warrior. The story has transcended its biblical origins to become a common shorthand for unlikely victory. But, asks Malcolm Gladwell, is that really what the David and Goliath story is about?

- Writer
Detective of fads and emerging subcultures, chronicler of jobs-you-never-knew-existed, Malcolm Gladwell's work is toppling the popular understanding of bias, crime, food, marketing, race, consumers and intelligence. Full bio

So I wanted to tell a story
00:12
that really obsessed me when I was writing my new book,
00:13
and it's a story of something that happened
00:17
3,000 years ago,
00:20
when the Kingdom of Israel was in its infancy.
00:22
And it takes place in an area called the Shephelah
00:25
in what is now Israel.
00:28
And the reason the story obsessed me is that
00:30
I thought I understood it, and then I went back over it
00:32
and I realized that I didn't understand it at all.
00:36
Ancient Palestine had a -- along its eastern border,
00:40
there's a mountain range.
00:44
Still same is true of Israel today.
00:46
And in the mountain range are all of the ancient cities
00:48
of that region, so Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron.
00:51
And then there's a coastal plain
00:55
along the Mediterranean, where Tel Aviv is now.
00:57
And connecting the mountain range with the coastal plain
01:01
is an area called the Shephelah,
01:04
which is a series of valleys and ridges that run east to west,
01:06
and you can follow the Shephelah, go through the Shephelah
01:10
to get from the coastal plain to the mountains.
01:14
And the Shephelah, if you've been to Israel, you'll know
01:16
it's just about the most beautiful part of Israel.
01:18
It's gorgeous, with forests of oak
01:20
and wheat fields and vineyards.
01:23
But more importantly, though, in the history of that region,
01:26
it's served, it's had a real strategic function,
01:29
and that is, it is the means by which hostile armies
01:33
on the coastal plain find their way,
01:36
get up into the mountains and threaten those living in the mountains.
01:38
And 3,000 years ago, that's exactly what happens.
01:42
The Philistines, who are the biggest of enemies
01:45
of the Kingdom of Israel,
01:49
are living in the coastal plain.
01:51
They're originally from Crete. They're a seafaring people.
01:53
And they may start to make their way
01:56
through one of the valleys of the Shephelah
01:58
up into the mountains,
02:00
because what they want to do is occupy the highland area
02:02
right by Bethlehem and split the Kingdom of Israel in two.
02:04
And the Kingdom of Israel, which is headed by King Saul,
02:08
obviously catches wind of this,
02:11
and Saul brings his army down from the mountains
02:13
and he confronts the Philistines in the Valley of Elah,
02:16
one of the most beautiful of the valleys of the Shephelah.
02:19
And the Israelites dig in along the northern ridge,
02:22
and the Philistines dig in along the southern ridge,
02:25
and the two armies just sit there for weeks
02:29
and stare at each other, because they're deadlocked.
02:32
Neither can attack the other, because to attack the other side
02:34
you've got to come down the mountain into the valley
02:36
and then up the other side, and you're completely exposed.
02:40
So finally, to break the deadlock,
02:42
the Philistines send their mightiest warrior
02:44
down into the valley floor, and he calls out
02:47
and he says to the Israelites,
02:50
"Send your mightiest warrior down,
02:51
and we'll have this out, just the two of us."
02:54
This was a tradition in ancient warfare called single combat.
02:56
It was a way of settling disputes
03:00
without incurring the bloodshed of a major battle.
03:02
And the Philistine who is sent down,
03:06
their mighty warrior, is a giant.
03:09
He's 6 foot 9.
03:11
He's outfitted head to toe in this glittering bronze armor,
03:13
and he's got a sword and he's got a javelin
03:17
and he's got his spear. He is absolutely terrifying.
03:20
And he's so terrifying that none of the Israelite soldiers want to fight him.
03:23
It's a death wish, right? There's no way they think they can take him.
03:28
And finally the only person who will come forward
03:32
is this young shepherd boy,
03:35
and he goes up to Saul and he says, "I'll fight him."
03:37
And Saul says, "You can't fight him. That's ridiculous.
03:40
You're this kid. This is this mighty warrior."
03:43
But the shepherd is adamant. He says, "No, no, no,
03:45
you don't understand, I have been defending my flock
03:48
against lions and wolves for years. I think I can do it."
03:51
And Saul has no choice. He's got no one else who's come forward.
03:55
So he says, "All right."
03:58
And then he turns to the kid, and he says,
03:59
"But you've got to wear this armor. You can't go as you are."
04:01
So he tries to give the shepherd his armor,
04:04
and the shepherd says, "No."
04:07
He says, "I can't wear this stuff."
04:08
The Biblical verse is, "I cannot wear this for I have not proved it,"
04:10
meaning, "I've never worn armor before. You've got to be crazy."
04:14
So he reaches down instead on the ground
04:18
and picks up five stones
04:20
and puts them in his shepherd's bag
04:22
and starts to walk down the mountainside to meet the giant.
04:24
And the giant sees this figure approaching,
04:29
and calls out, "Come to me so I can feed your flesh
04:31
to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field."
04:34
He issues this kind of taunt towards this person
04:38
coming to fight him.
04:42
And the shepherd draws closer and closer,
04:43
and the giant sees that he's carrying a staff.
04:47
That's all he's carrying.
04:50
Instead of a weapon, just this shepherd's staff,
04:51
and he says -- he's insulted --
04:53
"Am I a dog that you would come to me with sticks?"
04:55
And the shepherd boy takes one of his stones
04:59
out of his pocket, puts it in his sling
05:02
and rolls it around and lets it fly
05:05
and it hits the giant right between the eyes --
05:07
right here, in his most vulnerable spot --
05:10
and he falls down either dead or unconscious,
05:12
and the shepherd boy runs up and takes his sword
05:15
and cuts off his head,
05:18
and the Philistines see this and they turn and they just run.
05:19
And of course, the name of the giant is Goliath
05:25
and the name of the shepherd boy is David,
05:29
and the reason that story has obsessed me
05:32
over the course of writing my book
05:35
is that everything I thought I knew about that story
05:36
turned out to be wrong.
05:39
So David, in that story, is supposed to be the underdog, right?
05:42
In fact, that term, David and Goliath,
05:46
has entered our language as a metaphor for
05:48
improbable victories
05:51
by some weak party over someone far stronger.
05:53
Now why do we call David an underdog?
05:56
Well, we call him an underdog because he's a kid,
05:58
a little kid, and Goliath is this big, strong giant.
06:01
We also call him an underdog
06:05
because Goliath is an experienced warrior,
06:07
and David is just a shepherd.
06:11
But most importantly, we call him an underdog
06:12
because all he has is -- it's that Goliath is outfitted with
06:15
all of this modern weaponry,
06:20
this glittering coat of armor
06:22
and a sword and a javelin and a spear,
06:24
and all David has is this sling.
06:27
Well, let's start there with the phrase
06:31
"All David has is this sling,"
06:33
because that's the first mistake that we make.
06:35
In ancient warfare, there are three kinds of warriors.
06:38
There's cavalry, men on horseback and with chariots.
06:42
There's heavy infantry, which are foot soldiers,
06:45
armed foot soldiers with swords and shields
06:48
and some kind of armor.
06:51
And there's artillery, and artillery are archers,
06:53
but, more importantly, slingers.
06:56
And a slinger is someone who has a leather pouch
06:58
with two long cords attached to it,
07:01
and they put a projectile, either a rock or a lead ball,
07:04
inside the pouch, and they whirl it around like this
07:07
and they let one of the cords go,
07:10
and the effect is to send the projectile forward
07:13
towards its target.
07:17
That's what David has, and it's important to understand
07:20
that that sling is not a slingshot.
07:23
It's not this, right? It's not a child's toy.
07:26
It's in fact an incredibly devastating weapon.
07:28
When David rolls it around like this,
07:32
he's turning the sling around probably
07:35
at six or seven revolutions per second,
07:38
and that means that when the rock is released,
07:41
it's going forward really fast,
07:45
probably 35 meters per second.
07:47
That's substantially faster than a baseball
07:49
thrown by even the finest of baseball pitchers.
07:52
More than that, the stones in the Valley of Elah
07:56
were not normal rocks. They were barium sulphate,
08:00
which are rocks twice the density of normal stones.
08:03
If you do the calculations on the ballistics,
08:06
on the stopping power of the rock fired from David's sling,
08:09
it's roughly equal to the stopping power
08:13
of a [.45 caliber] handgun.
08:15
This is an incredibly devastating weapon.
08:18
Accuracy, we know from historical records
08:21
that slingers -- experienced slingers could hit
08:26
and maim or even kill a target at distances of up to 200 yards.
08:30
From medieval tapestries, we know that slingers
08:36
were capable of hitting birds in flight.
08:39
They were incredibly accurate.
08:42
When David lines up -- and he's not 200 yards away from Goliath,
08:44
he's quite close to Goliath --
08:48
when he lines up and fires that thing at Goliath,
08:49
he has every intention and every expectation
08:53
of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot
08:56
between his eyes.
08:59
If you go back over the history of ancient warfare,
09:00
you will find time and time again
09:02
that slingers were the decisive factor against infantry
09:05
in one kind of battle or another.
09:09
So what's Goliath? He's heavy infantry,
09:14
and his expectation when he challenges the Israelites to a duel
09:18
is that he's going to be fighting another heavy infantryman.
09:23
When he says, "Come to me that I might
09:27
feed your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,"
09:29
the key phrase is "Come to me."
09:32
Come up to me because we're going to fight,
09:34
hand to hand, like this.
09:36
Saul has the same expectation.
09:38
David says, "I want to fight Goliath,"
09:40
and Saul tries to give him his armor,
09:42
because Saul is thinking, "Oh, when you say 'fight Goliath,'
09:44
you mean 'fight him in hand-to-hand combat,'
09:47
infantry on infantry."
09:50
But David has absolutely no expectation.
09:52
He's not going to fight him that way. Why would he?
09:55
He's a shepherd. He's spent his entire career
09:58
using a sling to defend his flock against lions and wolves.
10:01
That's where his strength lies.
10:05
So here he is, this shepherd, experienced
10:07
in the use of a devastating weapon,
10:09
up against this lumbering giant
10:11
weighed down by a hundred pounds of armor
10:14
and these incredibly heavy weapons
10:17
that are useful only in short-range combat.
10:18
Goliath is a sitting duck. He doesn't have a chance.
10:22
So why do we keep calling David an underdog,
10:26
and why do we keep referring to his victory as improbable?
10:29
There's a second piece of this that's important.
10:35
It's not just that we misunderstand David
10:38
and his choice of weaponry.
10:41
It's also that we profoundly misunderstand Goliath.
10:43
Goliath is not what he seems to be.
10:46
There's all kinds of hints of this in the Biblical text,
10:50
things that are in retrospect quite puzzling
10:54
and don't square with his image as this mighty warrior.
10:56
So to begin with, the Bible says that Goliath
11:00
is led onto the valley floor by an attendant.
11:04
Now that is weird, right?
11:08
Here is this mighty warrior
11:10
challenging the Israelites to one-on-one combat.
11:12
Why is he being led by the hand
11:15
by some young boy, presumably,
11:17
to the point of combat?
11:20
Secondly, the Bible story makes special note
11:23
of how slowly Goliath moves,
11:27
another odd thing to say when you're describing
11:30
the mightiest warrior known to man at that point.
11:32
And then there's this whole weird thing
11:36
about how long it takes Goliath to react
11:38
to the sight of David.
11:42
So David's coming down the mountain,
11:44
and he's clearly not preparing for hand-to-hand combat.
11:47
There is nothing about him that says,
11:51
"I am about to fight you like this."
11:53
He's not even carrying a sword.
11:55
Why does Goliath not react to that?
11:57
It's as if he's oblivious to what's going on that day.
11:59
And then there's that strange comment he makes to David:
12:03
"Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?"
12:07
Sticks? David only has one stick.
12:12
Well, it turns out that there's been a great deal
12:15
of speculation within the medical community over the years
12:18
about whether there is something
12:21
fundamentally wrong with Goliath,
12:23
an attempt to make sense of all of those apparent anomalies.
12:26
There have been many articles written.
12:30
The first one was in 1960 in the Indiana Medical Journal,
12:31
and it started a chain of speculation
12:35
that starts with an explanation for Goliath's height.
12:37
So Goliath is head and shoulders above
12:40
all of his peers in that era,
12:43
and usually when someone is that far out of the norm,
12:45
there's an explanation for it.
12:49
So the most common form of giantism
12:51
is a condition called acromegaly,
12:54
and acromegaly is caused by a benign tumor
12:57
on your pituitary gland
13:00
that causes an overproduction of human growth hormone.
13:02
And throughout history, many of the most famous giants
13:05
have all had acromegaly.
13:09
So the tallest person of all time
13:10
was a guy named Robert Wadlow
13:12
who was still growing when he died at the age of 24
13:14
and he was 8 foot 11.
13:17
He had acromegaly.
13:20
Do you remember the wrestler André the Giant?
13:21
Famous. He had acromegaly.
13:24
There's even speculation that Abraham Lincoln had acromegaly.
13:26
Anyone who's unusually tall,
13:30
that's the first explanation we come up with.
13:31
And acromegaly has a very distinct set of side effects
13:34
associated with it,
13:38
principally having to do with vision.
13:39
The pituitary tumor, as it grows,
13:43
often starts to compress the visual nerves in your brain,
13:46
with the result that people with acromegaly
13:50
have either double vision or they are profoundly nearsighted.
13:53
So when people have started to speculate
13:58
about what might have been wrong with Goliath,
14:01
they've said, "Wait a minute,
14:04
he looks and sounds an awful lot like someone
14:05
who has acromegaly."
14:08
And that would also explain so much of what was strange
14:10
about his behavior that day.
14:12
Why does he move so slowly
14:15
and have to be escorted down into the valley floor
14:16
by an attendant?
14:20
Because he can't make his way on his own.
14:21
Why is he so strangely oblivious to David
14:24
that he doesn't understand that David's not going to fight him
14:28
until the very last moment?
14:30
Because he can't see him.
14:32
When he says, "Come to me that I might feed your flesh
14:35
to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,"
14:38
the phrase "come to me" is a hint also of his vulnerability.
14:41
Come to me because I can't see you.
14:45
And then there's, "Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?"
14:48
He sees two sticks when David has only one.
14:54
So the Israelites up on the mountain ridge
14:59
looking down on him thought he was
15:02
this extraordinarily powerful foe.
15:04
What they didn't understand was that
15:07
the very thing that was the source of his apparent strength
15:09
was also the source of his greatest weakness.
15:12
And there is, I think, in that,
15:16
a very important lesson for all of us.
15:18
Giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem.
15:21
And sometimes the shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket.
15:25
Thank you.
15:29
(Applause)
15:30

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About the speaker:

Malcolm Gladwell - Writer
Detective of fads and emerging subcultures, chronicler of jobs-you-never-knew-existed, Malcolm Gladwell's work is toppling the popular understanding of bias, crime, food, marketing, race, consumers and intelligence.

Why you should listen

Malcolm Gladwell searches for the counterintuitive in what we all take to be the mundane: cookies, sneakers, pasta sauce. A New Yorker staff writer since 1996, he visits obscure laboratories and infomercial set kitchens as often as the hangouts of freelance cool-hunters -- a sort of pop-R&D gumshoe -- and for that has become a star lecturer and bestselling author.

Sparkling with curiosity, undaunted by difficult research (yet an eloquent, accessible writer), his work uncovers truths hidden in strange data. His always-delightful blog tackles topics from serial killers to steroids in sports, while provocative recent work in the New Yorker sheds new light on the Flynn effect -- the decades-spanning rise in I.Q. scores.

Gladwell has written four books. The Tipping Point, which began as a New Yorker piece, applies the principles of epidemiology to crime (and sneaker sales), while Blink examines the unconscious processes that allow the mind to "thin slice" reality -- and make decisions in the blink of an eye. His third book, Outliers, questions the inevitabilities of success and identifies the relation of success to nature versus nurture. The newest work, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, is an anthology of his New Yorker contributions. 

He says: "There is more going on beneath the surface than we think, and more going on in little, finite moments of time than we would guess."
 

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