They didn't stand alone most of the time and were heavily sponsored or subsidized by governments to gain a competitive advantage in warfare or any other area.
Not to mention the obvious survivorship bias.
Meh. I don't buy the idea that there's a special "thinking class" who are solely imbued with the magical power of "innovation", or the idea that education is something that is gained at the expense of the "working class."
Education is something that's attainable by pretty much everyone who at least gets over the bar of being literate, and who has some work ethic and access to a library. Not all education means going off to a small, private, (expensive) liberal arts college for four years. Sometimes it's somebody reading books by candlelight after spending their day plowing fields.
> I don't buy the idea that there's a special "thinking class"
> Education is something that's attainable by pretty much everyone
The statement is about a time when productivity was just high enough to free some (few) people from the toils of daily live. It's not like there was no progress at all, that class was getting larger over the millenia, but the explosion (in productivity) happened only in the (late) 19th century.
Who said anything about genetics?
Only in recent times. The original quote starts with "Throughout the centuries...", so this is about a longer period, and throughout most of it that opportunity you speak of did not exist for the majority of the population.
That's all relative and not really relevant to the overall point. There have always been people who managed to innovate relative to their peers, and they haven't always come from a special "thinking class".
> There have always been people
In other words, we were not talking about extremely rare individual cases - the rarer the farther back in time you go. The science for and during the industrial revolution wasn't driven by poor farmers and workers. That statement remains true even if you should manage to find some poor fellow who did manage it. Even today we still have the problem of way too low upward mobility from the working class, even though they could do it without nearly as much trouble as in the past!
Sure, there are a lot of things we should do to promote upward mobility. But we've gotten away from the point of the quote that kickstarted this particular branch of conversation.
> But they won.