In reality, few geniuses did it alone. Perhaps none.


[Via Dave Winer’s linkblog feed]

The End of ‘Genius‘.


Edison was wrong. Or at least the picture is. He was not a solitary genius working by himself, alone in the lab. He had the help of many, many others.

The perspiration did not come only from Edison. It came from over 200 researchers working on his ideas. The number should be 0.5% inspiration (his) and 99.5% perspiration (theirs).

One of the great debates between those who are of the Age of Reason and those of the Romantic: does genius come from the friction between individual drive and social requirements or does it come fully formed from the natural state of a solitary human?

Data supports the former view.

We all live in a social setting and almost all the things we call genius came about through discussions, debates and simple interactions in a community. Even if that community is a simple pair of people.

The idea of a solitary genius was  a construct of the romantics, an authoritarian group that arose as a reaction from the distributed democracy of the Age of Reason. The latter based itself on logical actions of the head – that Nature could be understood – giving us social changes embodied in things like the Declaration of Independence and the Industrial Revolution

The former based itself on the emotional affairs of the heart – that Nature could simply be observed, never understood – giving us artistic changes embodied in people such as Coleridge and Beethoven. The latter championed the connectedness of people, while the former championed the uniqueness of a solitary genius.

Recent research suggests the view of the romantic does not actually match reality; that every genius stood on the shoulders of giants; that social interaction drove and modified the results of a genius; that we often only know of genius because of the very same social interactions that romantics try to pretend are not there.

So why do we continue to support, if not actually require, a view that a single person can drive creativity by themselves, that they  can innovate alone?

I would suggest that we seek a balance – the fame of the individual against the anonymity of the group.. While we value the importance of community, we desire to be seen as more than a node in a network. Things move ahead because a small group (perhaps staring with a single person) change the way a community acts. It is the friction of the individual drives and the community needs that produce the best solutions.

A creative individual alone does nothing. A community without creativity  does nothing. A successful society requite both innovative individuals and communities that value innovation. They need both the head of Reason and the heart of Romantics.

In the end, though, we are social animals and everything needs to be seen through the prism of communities of humans.

As the article states: 

This is just one piece of an impressive body of research in social psychology and the new field of social neuroscience, which contends that individual agency often pales next to the imperatives of a collective.

Or, writing at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, from Thomas Done:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: 

 We are all connected. No one does everything by themselves.

A treasure that exists only for one person has no value. What a genius provides must be valued by a community, otherwise it is no treasure.