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Geniuses are more common than you think


Big ideas abound around us – but paradoxically remain hidden.

We all know the “eureka” feeling: that moment when two aspects of the world reveal their intimate mutual connection that makes sense and creates beauty and, sometimes, knowledge.

However, the romanticism and mystification of thought have promoted the incorrect idea that eureka moments, those flashes of true inventive genius, are exclusive to artists and scientists of the ancient world or to reclusive poets shut up in ivory towers.

The truth is that brilliance abounds because, as sociologists William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas said, “invention is inevitable.”

In an essay published in 1922, the two colleagues attempted to explain the curious phenomenon when, at times in history, two of more people reached similar conclusions or the same invention. Four scientists working independently of each other in 1847 described the law of energy conservation. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone at almost exactly the same time. There are many examples: the decimal point, nitrogen, the pendulum clock, and the theory of evolution. There are, in fact, 148 examples.

This reveals something interesting; brilliance abounds, but it is not necessarily associated with originality.

Originality is a concept associated with the commercial exploitation of an idea, to its patenting within a legal framework of copyright laws that allows a person, artist or inventor to make money from the spread of their idea. But from the guilds of Renaissance-era artists to the modern day digital think tanks, collective creativity can work as an orchestra rather than as a soloist. It’s not about being the first, but being the best.

Another explanation why geniuses crop up in many places simultaneously and separately could be the fact that inventors and artists are exposed to the same stimuli and economic and social contexts, to the same state of science, the same geopolitical circumstances, in a world that, at the end of the day, appears to need the inventions that come along. A good example is the telegraph. Many failed attempts (60 are registered in the Ogburn and Thomas book) piled up before a definitive and working version was patented. After that, the telecommunications era was imminent, and in a short time the telephone, telex and fax were invented, and then the Internet, which follows a similar principle.

The writer Alan Moore has described this same phenomenon through the concept of Mindscape, a mental landscape where the ideas that we all have become part of the collective wealth. If somebody thinks something up, that thought or idea exists as a new element in the universe and it becomes accessible to everybody else. This version of creativity as a form of intangible communication (a kind of ‘organic Internet’ among the members of the same species that depends on all of its members in order to evolve) goes against the mercantile idea of originality as private access to individual creativity. Genius is not therefore an isolated incident, but the substance that makes us human. Creative temperament and character, on the other hand, are much less frequent…

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