Debunking the Myth of the Sole Genious

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s