The myth of the "genius creator" requires that we ignore the people they build on, or insist they don't matter


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/02/07/standing-on-the-shoulders.html


#2

It’s a very capitalist myth, as it deifies the individual at the expense (maybe even exploitation of) of the community. It’s a myth of self sufficient sui generis conjuring, as opposed to communicated knowledge and shared cooperative efforts, ie society.


#3

Plug for a book addressing the same in the sciences: Conner, C. D. (2005). A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks. Nation Books.


#4

#5

Just to clarify this, Galton’s work changed the common meaning (and Stanford-Binet even more so) but the word genius is quite literally ancient. It was around before English was even a language, and occurs in Medieval English texts.

And incidentally Newton’s remark about standing on the shoulders of giants is sometimes interpreted as a dig at his archrival Hooke, who was very short (Newton himself was freakishly tall for his time).


#6

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#8

What about Stable Genius? We have a very stable genius in the WhiteHouse…


#9

Whereas what’s being pushed here is a very socialist myth, denying the role of the acting individual in favor of the masses. So much better. Just add a bit of moronic guilt by association on top (“Did you know the guy who popularized the term was a eugenicist!?” - It intensely reminds me of Ben Stein declaring that he can’t accept Darwinism because it’s the root of social Darwinism and that resulted in the Holocaust. Checkmate, evolutionists.).

It’s both. Nobody creates in a vacuum and every genius is standing on a huge pyramid of previous though and people who form, run and protect the society he gets to peacefully work in. On the other hand, no number of average college professors constitutes a viable substitute for Newton or Einstein.


#10

It is odd that Termin never questioned whether his preselection methodology was faulty, rather than concluding that genius must not exist, because he could not predict it.

And I don’t think anyone believes that even the greatest leaps in innovation are not built on lots of existing knowledge. It is reasonable to believe that some people are able to use the same knowledge and skills available to everyone else, yet are able to produce something extraordinary.


#11

But the truth is you don’t have to be superhuman to create. It’s all based in ordinary thinking.

No. No it’s not.

Maybe any one of us could pen the next Sound and the Fury, if only we believe in ourselves. But very few people could take the Michaelson-Morely experiment and make the leap to general relativity. And how many of the ones who could, could also use quantum mechanics to describe the piezoelectric effect?

Didn’t think so.


#12

I enjoy coming up with novel combinations of things, which has resulted in people calling me a genius now and then. The original idea typically comes from thinking about solving a problem in an inappropriate manner, or using an inappropriate device as part of a gizmo. Seeing the non-obvious connection between this and that is the stroke of genius, as it were.

It’s an act of rebellion against standard problem solving, as far as I can tell. The trick is to not reject the idea, just because it sounds unlikely to work.

I also never finished college, which means that I am demonstrated to be not capable of obeying the rules for long enough. So there, staid academic world.


#13

Yeah, Roman animism hung around an awful long time after they tried to anthropomorphise their gods in the style of the Greeks.


#14

The Great Man / Historical Inevitability argument will never die, providing lecture fodder for high school history teachers forever.


#15

GENIUS: Person clever enough to be born in the right place at the right time of the right sex and to follow up this advantage by saying all the right things to all the right people.

–Unsourced, from the *nix “Fortune” file

ETA: Gee, Google found the last time I quoted that.


#16

Human success as a species has been our sociability, we are the beehive of the great apes. An individual human (a true feral) is not all that, in either the food chain or intelligence.


#17

Under the same circumstances as those that did? Many.

Nouns are mythos, a thing outside of its environment is just a concept, not part of the grander verb.


#18

. . . or Liebniz?


#19

Calculus was far from the only thing Newton contributed. And Leibniz was definitely no average Joe either.

There are some inventions that could be said to be the product of a gradual, step-by-step process of discovery and refinement - something to be arrived at just by putting enough qualified man-hours into it. (And we can debate what level of minimal qualification constitutes a genius-level barrier.) But there are also paradigm shifts (like relativity) which require someone who not only understands the field as it is but is able to transcend the accumulated scaffolding and see beyond the limits imposed by the previous system of knowledge.


#20

Mozart? Mendelssohn? (Also their sisters, apparently.)

Of course, one could substitute “prodigy,” but that’s just swapping labels. Something is going on with such people, and it’s not just hard work and incremental improvement.