Debunking the Myth of the Sole Genius

History_Spencer_Delivers_Edison_Phonograph_Speech_SF_still_624x352Innovations don’t require heroic geniuses any more than your thoughts hinge on a particular neuron. This is what Michael Muthukrishna and Joseph Henrich defend in a recent paper(1), not what we are usually taught:

[] children are taught that Edison (or Swan) invented the lightbulb, Gutenberg the printing press, and Ford the automobile; that Newton invented “the calculus”, Priestley discovered oxygen, and Darwin developed the theory of natural selection. The underlying intuition is that innovation is an individual endeavor, driven by heroic geniuses and then passed on to the masses.

Michael and Joseph argue that innovation is fundamentally a cultural and collective process. Just as thoughts are an emergent property of neurons in the brain, innovations arise as an emergent consequence of our species’ psychology. Our societies act as collective brains. Cumulative cultural evolution results in technologies that no single individual could recreate in a lifetime, and do not require its users to understand how and why they work. Such cultural adaptations appear designed to meet specific problems, yet they lack a designer.

Inadvertently, the authors seem to take sides with Mark Lemley, a professor of law who wrote “The Myth of the Sole Inventor.” If they are right, the names we associate to great inventions: Edison, Gutenberg, and the like, would serve more like brand narratives, a vivid way to create a lasting and meaningful impression in our mind.


(1) Muthukrishna, M., & Henrich, J. (2016). Innovation in the collective brain Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371 (1690) DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0192

Featured Image: Thomas Edison


  1. This is absolutely right. When it comes time to build railroads, you fish or cut bait. And those who are remembered as ‘the innovators’ are simply those who were most successful at self-promotion at the time. For instance, have you ever heard of Konrad Zuse? No? Well, he was the first to build a programmable computer. It’s no surprise that, as this happened in 1941, and him being a German, the achievement has only not been recognised by most of the world, but that others have been credited with this achievement (such as Tommy Flowers). I note that Wikipedia credits both of these as being the builders of the ‘first programmable computer’. Meanwhile, in the USA, they’re taught that ENIAC was the first computer… it all depends on which nation you’re rooting for!

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