Is There Truth Behind the “The Lone Genius Myth” and “Great Man Theory”?
Is the Idea of Individual Greatness and Creative Genius a Myth? Can a Person Actually be “a Lone Genius”?
A person can be a “lone genius”, but as an essay called “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth” points out, genius is in many ways a collective process.
In other words “the Lone Genius Myth” and “Great Man Theory” both have aspects of truth to them, but are each too absolutist to be true as absolutes.
Below we will debunk both the idea that there are, in general, lone geniuses (who operate removed from the world) and that there aren’t lone genius (for who there is a clear replacement).
BOTTOMLINE: All great men and women stand on the shoulder’s of giants. Even Atlas needed something to stand on and something to hold up.
TIP: See a related discussion on individualism vs. collectivism.
The Myth of the Lone Genius, and the Myth of the Lone Genius Myth
There are rarely lone wolves who operate completely removed from the pack, but there are often pack leaders for who there is no clear replacement.
For example, we can’t say Isaac Newton, despite his reclusiveness and genius, invented calculus (Leibniz), the laws of motion (Descartes), or the laws of gravity (Hooke) entirely alone in a fortress of solitude with no input from the outside world, so in this way “there is no lone genius”. Yet, we aren’t exactly going to replace Elon Musk with Steve in accounting, and in this way, there are lone geniuses.
Given the above logic, we can confidently say that there are “outliers“, and there is “lone genius”, but we can just as accurately say, “humans are social creatures“, and, “there are no new ideas, just better ones“.
If we take an honest look at how individuals create groups, how groups create the collective, and how both groups and the collective have leaders, it is hard to conclude with a straight face anything other than the importance of all these dynamics. Humans are important on individual, interpersonal, collective, and even spiritual levels, the relationships between the parts matter just as much as the parts (see analysis synthesis and systems thinking).
Because our collective and individual nature is so fundamental to who we are, there are many ways to approach the “lone genius myth.” There is essentially no situation in which the group’s influence can be entirely dismissed, but, by extension, there is no instance where an individuals influence can be dismissed either. We sometimes overvalue the figurehead in western culture, but there are many situations where one remarkable person deserves special recognition and admiration for extraordinary ability.
Devaluing the individual is just as dangerous as over-valuing them. One could argue statements passed around media like “Edison never invented anything,” and, “there are no lone geniuses” are misleading and downplay the importance of individual greatness. They are interesting insights into how humans network, but they are not scientific theories.
- The essay, “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth: Toward a Contextual View of Creativity“, argues against “lone genius” by saying, “American individualism and methodological reductionism have prevented laypersons and researchers from fully exploring the implications of the larger social-historical context, both in terms of the research on the creative person/process and the actual discourse of creativity itself.” One can’t argue much with that, but one can argue shifting too much in the other direction.
- A Forbes article points to a Nature.com article about how the Theory of General Relativity really came into being. It examines the way in which Einstein was influenced by the work of others to uses this to support the idea that lone genius is over-rated.
Ultimately, we can conclude that an answer depends on the frame of reference and semantics, but generally lays somewhere in between understanding the collective nature and individual nature of humans.
Below we further clarify the overarching “Lone Genius Myth” and give more detailed examples.
TIP: See our breakdown of the left-right spectrum for a closely related conversation.
3 Myths of Genius Debunked. This video is another example of “the idea of the lone genius myth” being propagated. I really like this video. I LOVE Big Think, but it struck a nerve. Our understanding of collective intelligence will make or break us, but part of what makes America great is it’s individual. As with all things, the true answer is a balance.
TIP: Multiple discovery is a phenomenon arising from the fact that a number of people tend to discover things at the same time. Multiple discovery shows us how greatness occurs on both individual and collective levels.
What is the Lone Genius Myth?
The lone genius myth can best be summarized by saying, it is the idea that there are no lone geniuses who deserve all the credit. Rather all genius is a collective effort. It implies that all ideas are ultimately formed by different social systems with people “copying, transforming, and combining ideas” (learn more about new ideas).
While I agree there is no person who deserves all the credit, I strongly disagree with the devaluation of individuals. There are many opinions on the way in which group dynamics works, but when one looks at Apple, the Beatles, Microsoft, America, or any other collective with strong leaders, one must acknowledge the influence of the leaders.
TIP: People like to say Einstein wasn’t a lone genius. This is a great illustration of why taking the idea to the extreme is nonsensical. Einstein didn’t invent physics or relativity, but his mind held the key to perfecting them with his theories of Special and General Relativity. Einstein was a lone genius, influenced by other lone geniuses, who together comprised groups, and together those groups comprise the collective, out of those relationships relativity is born.
Humans are Hardwired to Be Social, But a Group is Only a Collection of its Members and Their Relationships
As humans we naturally cooperate and form groups, as they say, “it takes a village”… but it also takes a village leader. That admired individual fit to lead the group (for any reason) inspires people to bring out their best (in the best cases at least). When all the group functions at their best, under a single leader (or many), “true genius” emerges from the collective intelligence of individuals working together. The Beatles under the guidance of George Martin are an excellent example of this.
Even looking at the example of “most evil leaders of all time”, it is hard not to see the historical importance of the figurehead.
Why There are “No Lone Geniuses”?
As eluded to above, humans are hardwired for cooperation and competition. We can’t have new ideas without prior input (we only copy, transform, and combine ideas), and essentially everything about our existence as individuals (down to our 37 trillion cells built out of star stuff) and as a society (we are 7 billion networking individuals made of star stuff) is dependent upon our inter-workings and group dynamics. It is overly naive to credit Steve Jobs with the iPhone, but it is equally naive to act as though there would have been an iPhone without Jobs. Jobs inspired Apple and led Apple to greatness. He drew from the Beatles; he drew from his team; but he sure the heck didn’t single-handedly build every computer.
Makkah (Mecca) Live HD. Makkah, or Mecca, is the holiest of holy spots for many faiths. But that isn’t why it is important to this conversation. It is important as a symbol of the circle of life and the brother-sister-hood of humanity. We are one, and we are individuals, we are more than one thing. At Makkah, this is displayed by people continuously walking around in a circle and gathering collectively in individual prayer. Essentially, this is a metaphor for the truth about how individuals and groups work together to form “true genius”.
Why There are “Lone Geniuses”?
What is Barack Obama? What is Hillary Clinton? What is Bill Gates? What is Ada Lovelace? What is Alan Turing? What is Mark Zuckerberg? What is Kayne West? What is Malala? Aren’t they each a lone genius of sorts? I would submit the answer is perhaps a pack leader and inspiration, an individual genius in a group of collective genius, and other individual geniuses.
Under the inspiration of great leaders, a group and its members can reach new heights. None of the men or women talked about on this page operated in a bubble. They drew inspiration from those before them, worked with their peers, and inspired new generations. There is nothing “lone” about these greats, aside from the fact that they were, in ways, lone leaders in their position. Failing to respect the fact that they represented the group as a figurehead, collected the group, or helped to drive the group is doing a serious injustice to these people.
Edison may have never invented much of note, but he did lead a team who developed the modern light bulb and built General Electric. Who else was going to fill those shoes? Tony in accounting? Maybe Tony could do it, but Tony wasn’t Edison, and he didn’t put in the 10,000 hours in Edison’s shoes to be him.
TIP: Take a look at Edward Bernays and tell me he wasn’t individually important. Sure, his uncle Freud was important, and sure, he played off the findings of others. But, if you think the guy wasn’t individually a lone genius you are missing the bigger picture. Individuals are just as important as the groups they form, and group dynamics involve leadership. Instead of teaching kids to devalue the greats, we have to teach them to mimic the greats and lift-up the groups they are part of. We need a strong positive message today more than ever.
Why Do We Overvalue the Individual?
“Scientometrics” is the phenomena in which peer-reviewed papers that get cited, get cited exponentially(ish) more often (or, in a modern context, websites that get cited more, get cited more, or this can be applied to social media, see Price’s model). The socio-economic version of this is the Matthew effect, that says, “the rich get richer”, and multiple discovery theory points out that people tend to invent and discover simultaneously.
Effects like these help explain why certain individuals tend to get “too much” credit. There is also simply the fact that we are inspired by heroes and strong leaders. It is in our nature to want Liberty and leadership. Humans are complex, but for our conversation, it takes active effort to remember to have appreciation for the individual and the group.
It can be good and healthy to turn Steve Jobs, Issac Newton, or Alexander Hamilton into a symbol of Civic Religion, inspiring a new generation, but to act like that can somehow be removed from the group as a whole is a little single minded.
Scientometrics. Johan Bollen: Social Network Analysis.