The myth of the solitary genius

by Geoff Olson

Darwin cartoon

One night recently, I slapped a disc into the DVD player, fell back onto the man-cave couch and pressed play. A half-hour into the 2009 Nova episode, What Darwin Never Knew, my patience was wearing thin. I wasn’t expecting or particularly wanting a long or complicated explanation of evolutionary theory, but I did expect more than just a series of balding heads raving about the OMG genius of Charles Darwin.

Alternating with praise was the predictable stock film footage: clips of lumbering Galapagos tortoises with their foreskin-like necks, shots of finch species and their evolutionary toolkit of diverse beaks, and a parade of portraits of Charles Darwin.

To accent Darwin’s scientific sainthood, New Agey choral music accompanied daguerreotypes of his bearded noggin. The music repeated whenever a computer generated twist of DNA twirled into view. As this pop-science hagiography wore on, I half-expected to see a circle of nerds in lab coats, reciting Richard Dawkins’ quotes around Chuck’s burial plot at Westminster Abbey.

As a science fan, I’m all for the triumph of reason over superstition. But there is a weirdly religious angle to many of these pop-science productions, stretching from Carl Sagan’s PBS series Cosmos to the rebooted Fox television version with Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the effort to ‘humanize’ science, the media has a bad habit of turbocharging the “great man” theory of history.

I sighed and pressed eject. The DVD player obligingly spat out What Darwin Never Knew like a week-old scone.

Science has its secular prophets and saints and Darwin is a combination of both in the popular imagination. A guy with the beard of an Old Testament patriarch who kicked creationist ass back into the Dark Ages with lovely prose and nuanced reasoning? What’s not to love?

There is no denying the man’s brilliance, though his career-defining concept didn’t just occur to him in a sudden ‘aha’ moment. Science historians are well aware that a loose idea of biological evolution was floating around European intellectual circles decades before the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species. It was the ‘how’ of evolution that was in question and the naturalist who boarded the exploratory ship, the HMS Beagle, was part of a network of 19th century thinkers zeroing in on the same answer.

The reserved collector of beetles and botanical specimens didn’t just fear a backlash from biblically inclined readers; he was a world-champion procrastinator who only finished The Origin of Species when he learned that Welsh naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had independently hit on the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin decided to publish rather than perish. But even the standard biographies will tell you that.

I bring up Darwin as an example because of the recent backlash against the notion of the solitary genius who gives more to society than he or she gets.

The word “genius” first showed up in Middle English and originates from Latin, meaning an “attendant spirit present from one’s birth, innate ability or inclination.” Only after the Enlightenment era’s emphasis on the autonomous individual and the Romantic era’s notion of creativity fired in the crucible of loneliness did its dominant meaning arrive: “a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.”

In his book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, historian Joshua Shenk notes how great minds feed off creative partnerships. Picasso had Georges Braque to kickstart the cubist movement; Freud had the physician Wilhelm Fliess to consult; Einstein bounced his theory of relativity off the engineer Michele Besso, whom he lauded as “the best sounding board in Europe.”

In a recent New York Times article, Shenk notes that when sociologist Michael Farrell looked at movements from French Impressionism to that of the American suffragists, he “…found that groups created a sense of community, purpose and audience, but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Monet and Renoir, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” In his own study of pairs, Shenk uncovered the same pattern – “most strikingly with Paul McCartney and John Lennon.”

The same could be said of the titans in the business world. Two whip-smart Stevens cofounded the world changing computer company, Apple Inc. Steve Wozniak departed early and Steve Jobs leveraged his smarts by identifying, collaborating with, coercing and sometimes humiliating people even more brilliant than himself.

Also, Jobs took many of his best ideas from Xerox PARC and other non-Apple sources, just as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen looked to some Apple innovations for the first clunky Windows software. And, needless to say, the software wizardry of both Apple and Microsoft would have withered on the vine without venture capital, friendly press and other social inputs.

Shenk’s ideas of pairs is a praiseworthy start at deconstructing our near-religious ideas of solitary ‘genius’ – particularly among male scientific leaders. But it doesn’t go quite far enough in acknowledging the social dimensions of science, artistry and invention, including their dark sides.

Among the most famous pairings in the history of science are James Watson and Francis Crick, two Cambridge scientists who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for their discovery of DNA’s structure with King’s College physicist Maurice Wilkins. Actually, there was a fourth member in the picture. But at the time of the Watson/Crick/Wilkins Nobel Prize win, King’s College virologist Rosalind Franklin might as well have been the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl.

Born in Notting Hill, London into an affluent and influential Jewish family, Franklin studied chemistry at Cambridge. After a stint in Paris, she came to King’s College’s biochemical unit. The material in the cell’s nucleus, DNA, was suspected to be the “molecule of life” and the race was on to decode its structure.

Through her superior technical skill, Franklin produced much better X-ray diffraction imagery than her competitors at Cambridge. Unfortunately, through a series of manoeuvres behind her back, Watson and Crick were shown her photographs from Kings College without her knowledge or consent. Even though unpublished drafts of her papers reveal she had already cottoned on to the helical structure of DNA and the arrangement of phosphate groups on the outside of the molecule, her absconded photographs allowed Watson and Crick to decode DNA’s structure before other competitors, including chemist Linus Pauling.

Franklin died of cancer in 1958. James Watson’s memoir, The Double Helix, appeared on bookstore shelves 10 years later. The author portrayed “Rosie” as unattractive, uncooperative and incompetent at interpreting X-ray images, while acknowledging he and Crick used her data without her knowledge.

Franklin’s critical contribution to her colleagues’ work became a footnote in scientific history. But is anybody all that surprised that a standout woman scientist met such a fate in the mid-twentieth century? Across a range of disciplines, it’s been a longstanding tradition for tenured professors to take credit for the grunt work, and even the ideas, of postgraduates working under them. “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research,” said playwright Wilson Mizner.

But back to Darwin and a heretical question about the high priest of biological science. Was he really the first to hit upon the theory of evolution of natural selection? The debate has mostly been limited to obscure journals and limited corners of the Internet, but it hinges on scientific papers from 1835 and 1837 by naturalist Edward Blyth.

Referencing adaptation and selection, Blyth mused in 1837, “To what extent may not the same take place in wild nature? May not then, a large proportion of what are considered species have descended from a common parentage?”

These quotes, along with other passages too lengthy to cite here, predate The Origin of Species by three decades. In the late fifties, anthropologist and writer Loren Eiseley came across Blyth’s work in a dusty archive of 19th century periodicals. “I nearly fell off my chair,” the anthropologist reminisced in 1975 when he determined that Darwin would very likely have read Blyth’s work during his voyage on the Beagle.

Eiseley recorded his findings in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society in 1959, arguing that Darwin’s epochal discovery was really the property of Blyth. To say the paper was as welcome as a fart in a faculty room would be understating the stench. In the following years, academic heavyweights like Stephen Jay Gould and Ernst Mayr argued against Eiseley’s thesis, insisting Darwin recognized the creative potential of natural selection while Blyth did not.

“I believe I may say that I resurrected him [Blyth] sufficiently that considerable energies at Cambridge and elsewhere have been devoted to laying his ghost, not with entirely satisfactory results,” the anthropologist dryly remarked in his 1975 memoir, All the Strange Hours.

The critics’s other principal objection hinges on the later discovery of Darwin’s unpublished notebooks, which they insist prove Darwin had his theory of evolution figured out earlier than previously thought. There is one problem with this argument. Academic priority is not determined by who discovered what first, but by who published what discovery first. In any case, Loren Eiseley passed away in 1977 and his posthumously published 1981 book, Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists, has long since been out of print.

Regardless of who discovered what and when and in whichever field, we should always be wary of the cult of intellectual celebrity that inflates flawed human beings into demigods and makes bright people – educated or otherwise – doubt their own capacity for critical thinking or creativity.

Of course, there are phenomenal people of immense talents among us, but their opportunities to shine didn’t occur in a social vacuum. Nearly all of them owe something to mentors, colleagues, advisors and authors living and dead, to say nothing of friends and family members who encouraged them to keep going. If we keep this in mind, we’ll be in a better position to honour the nearly forgotten ones who slipped through history’s cracks – like Edward Blyth and Rosalind Franklin. It’s time to bury the myth of the solitary genius for good.

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