Is the Lone Genius a Myth?

There is a growing consensus in the scientific community (and society at large) that the idea of a lone genius who makes great discoveries and innovations in isolation is a myth. That may be partially true—the accomplishments of famous individuals in the past were sometimes overstated while diminishing the efforts of others who helped them along the way. However, the pendulum has swung too far in this respect. The truth is that there were lone geniuses (in science and art), without whom certain discoveries and innovations would not have been made.

Evidence for the “myth of the lone genius” is that since scientific research has transitioned into group efforts, there are no longer groundbreaking scientific discoveries being made by lone geniuses like there were in the past (such as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein). Is that because most of the low-hanging fruit of scientific discoveries have already been made by lone geniuses from the past? Or is it because the scientific community now believes “the lone genius” is a myth? Are the potential lone geniuses of today being prevented by the scientific community from making new discoveries?

While it is true that teams working together can accomplish things an individual cannot, it is also true that an individual can accomplish things that a large team cannot. Often the most revolutionary discoveries in science come from heterodox ideas that went against the grain of the way things were thought of and done before. Such a breakthrough requires an individual willing to face antagonism, backlash, and ridicule (sometimes even imprisonment or death) in order to override the current consensus and shift the paradigm. This is more difficult to do in a team setting where conscientiousness and agreeableness are important to maintain group functionality. As a result, groupthink and conformity tends to develop in science/business teams and sometimes entire fields of study.

Heterodox thinkers and disagreeable personalities are often rejected or outright booted from the group because their objections are delaying progress toward the group’s consensus direction. But what if that direction is wrong, and the group is making “progress” toward a dead end? Heterodox theoretical physicists think that is what is currently happing with String Theory. The same phenomenon applies to other fields outside of science, such as business and the arts. Some of the greatest movie directors have been accused of being assholes. Stanley Kubrick psychologically traumatized Shelley Duvall while filming The Shining, but the resultant film was a masterpiece.

Many people today will openly say they’d rather work with a friendly person of average intelligence than a genius asshole—which is the root of the problem. Only those with no concern for social norms and cordiality are willing to go against the grain of firmly entrenched groupthink to make truly paradigm-shifting accomplishments. But those with no concern for social norms and cordiality are often seen by others as weird, crazy, or outright jerks—especially when they disagree with the consensus. The group will dismiss them as “provocateurs who just like to stir controversy” or “grifters trying to make money.” While such figures do exist, many others are falsely put under that label when they are merely out-of-the-box thinkers in pursuit of truth. Certain inconvenient truths can only be uncovered by people who place truth over the feelings of others.

This phenomenon is further complicated by neurodivergent people on the autism spectrum who have difficulty interpreting social cues and the emotions of others. Such people tend to be blunt and can come across as inconsiderate despite having no ill intentions. Many who fall under this category are unjustly perceived as jerks by their colleagues. Some of the most intelligent geniuses in business, science, technology, and the arts are/were on the autism spectrum. They are often introverts who work better alone than in groups. But if the “lone genius” is believed to be a myth, these types of people will never be given a chance in today’s society.

This is less of a problem in the art world because writers, painters, musicians, and other artists can usually create their work in isolation then share it with the world via the internet. Whether or not society believes in lone genius artists, such artists can still create their art. But in the world of science, technology, and business it is a different story.

An essential ingredient for scientific discovery, especially the most innovative, is funding. People need money (sometimes large amounts) to pursue research and development. If the scientific/business communities believe the idea of a “lone genius” is a myth, they will deny funding or fail to hire heterodox thinkers who come across as inconsiderate or mean. Why put up with a jerk if you think true progress is made by large teams anyway? Any single person on a team is replaceable. So why include a disagreeable person on your team when they will delay the progress of the group? That is the danger with believing that lone geniuses are a myth. Though rare, the true lone genius who could potentially upend the status quo of science will never get the opportunity to do so in the current climate.

Of course most jerks are not geniuses, and even geniuses can be wrong. But it would be a mistake to ignore awkward weirdos or disagreeable curmudgeons entirely because when they are right, it can change the world for the better. There are certain types of heterodox paradigm-altering discoveries that can only be made by these types of lone geniuses, just as there are other types of scientific progress that can only be achieved with a large team. But to deny that lone geniuses exist or claim they are inessential is a myth that is holding back civilizational progress.

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