Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Great Man Theory Is Not A Great Theory

The other day, while reading the local newspaper, I came across an article titled Living With Autism Is Awesome! The author described how autism is less of a disability and more of a superpower. Exhibit A of this superpower, she claimed, is the fact that Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb, was autistic. The thrust of the example is this: where would society be today without A Great Man like Thomas Edison coming along and inventing the lightbulb? We’d all be living in the dark! 

I’ve been thinking of writing about the idea of the Great Man Theory of History for a while, specifically how it relates to creativity, innovation, and discovery. Reading this article finally influenced me to do it. It’s probably fair to say most people intuitively believe the flow of history can be explained by the select few men and women we learn about in history class. If not for these great people surely you and I would still be trying to figure out fire and the wheel.

Human Storytellers

Before getting into the flaws of the theory, let’s examine why so many believe it in the first place. Look no further than perhaps humanity’s true superpower, the ability to tell stories. In fact, our success on Earth can be attributed to this superpower. Humans think abstractly, analyze the past, apply lessons to the future, and control enormous groups of individuals based on stories. Yuval Noah Harari writes about humans - homo sapiens specifically - in his book Sapiens:
But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
Story telling is what we do best. When we tell the story about Thomas Edison, its easier to get the point across by exploiting the binary outcome of light bulb/no light bulb based on Thomas Edison being born rather than to discuss at length all of the incremental discoveries and ideas leading up to Edison's breakthrough. It’s also not a very good story to say if Edison weren’t around, we’d still have light today, even though we undoubtedly would. Certainly, Thomas Edison’s autism and genius is a triumph for those with autism and their loved ones - and rightfully so. Stories are powerful. That’s why we love good ones. That’s our super power. But the story isn’t so simple.

Human Colossus

On Tim Urban’s blog, Waitbutwhy, he discusses the concept of the Human Colossus:
Knowledge, when shared, becomes like a grand, collective, inter-generational collaboration. Hundreds of generations later, what started as a pro tip about a certain berry to avoid has become an intricate system of planting long rows of the stomach-friendly berry bushes and harvesting them annually. The initial stroke of genius about wildebeest migrations has turned into a system of goat domestication. The spear innovation, through hundreds of incremental tweaks over tens of thousands of years, has become the bow and arrow. 
Language gives a group of humans a collective intelligence far greater than individual human intelligence and allows each human to benefit from the collective intelligence as if he came up with it all himself. We think of the bow and arrow as a primitive technology, but raise Einstein in the woods with no existing knowledge and tell him to come up with the best hunting device he can, and he won’t be nearly intelligent or skilled or knowledgeable enough to invent the bow and arrow. Only a collective human effort can pull that off.
A great example of the colossus at work is Milton Friedman’s pencil:
Look at this lead pencil. There’s not a single person in the world who could make this pencil. Remarkable statement? Not at all. The wood from which it is made, for all I know, comes from a tree that was cut down in the state of Washington. To cut down that tree, it took a saw. To make the saw, it took steel. To make steel, it took iron ore. This black center—we call it lead but it’s really graphite, compressed graphite—I’m not sure where it comes from, but I think it comes from some mines in South America. This red top up here, this eraser, a bit of rubber, probably comes from Malaya, where the rubber tree isn’t even native! It was imported from South America by some businessmen with the help of the British government. This brass ferrule? I haven’t the slightest idea where it came from. Or the yellow paint! Or the paint that made the black lines. Or the glue that holds it together. Literally thousands of people co-operated to make this pencil. People who don’t speak the same language, who practice different religions, who might hate one another if they ever met! When you go down to the store and buy this pencil, you are in effect trading a few minutes of your time for a few seconds of the time of all those thousands of people. What brought them together and induced them to cooperate to make this pencil?
Friedman argued that the story driving the thousands of people to create the pencil is the free market. Regardless which story brought about the pencil, it is clear that even a simple pencil requires countless inventions and ideas to come into existence. Nobody could create it from scratch. No matter how great.

Simultaneous Discovery

The list of discoveries made simultaneously by multiple people might surprise you. We’ve come to believe it takes singular genius with radical ideas to change the world. That may make a great movie but the fact is it takes hard work, dedication, and unique thinking of many people over long periods of time to create the next big thing.  While it no doubt took true insights and determinism to connect the dots and make the discoveries below, the names we’re familiar with weren’t the only ones to contribute. 

  • Calculus: Isaac Newton and Gottfried William Liebniz 
  • The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection: Charles Darwin and Russel Wallace 
  • Telephone: Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray 
  • Phonograph: Thomas Edison and Charles Cros 
  • Lightbulb: Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan 

Notably Thomas Edison wasn't the only one to invent the lightbulb!

The list is much more extensive and drives home the point that the world is constantly ripe with great ideas just waiting for somebody to come along and pluck them. 


The purpose of this post isn’t to gloat about knowing who invented the lightbulb but to point out that as humanity's collective knowledge accumulates it lifts us all to the point of discovery. Isaac Newton, the simultaneous discoverer of Calculus put it best: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” 

History is not the story of a select few individuals but the story of each and every one of us. We are riding the tsunami of history and those who surf it best appreciate what has come before and are determined to contribute to the story by putting new and innovative twists on what has come before. If you are willing to dedicate time, attention, and focus, you can make the next great discovery, author the next classic novel, invent a world-changing gadget, or introduce the world to a new perspective.

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The Great Man Theory Is Not A Great Theory

The other day, while reading the local newspaper, I came across an article titled Living With Autism Is Awesome! The author described how au...