According to a recent account:
Science demands collaboration. There are no lone geniuses, never evil geniuses, and very rarely any heretical geniuses. Almost all science is done by very normal people working in teams or in cahoots with others in similar or dissimilar fields, and they build knowledge on the shoulders of historical and contemporary giants, as Isaac Newton once suggested…*
The author certainly has a point. Recently I crashed my computer trying to download the citation for a paper written by scientists at CERN that had 5,154 authors!
But the mention of Newton got me thinking. In the summer of the plague year of 1665, the University of Cambridge was closed and the young Isaac Newton (1643-1727) went back to his home at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire (left), just after obtaining his BA degree. Newton has been posthumously diagnosed as a probable Asperger case, and this certainly might explain much of his scientific and mathematical brilliance. But it is an interesting fact of history that it was during his two-year refuge from the plague in Woolsthorpe that Newton did most of his best work in science and mathematics, laying the foundations for his later revolutionary publications on optics, gravitation, and the calculus. Indeed, as he himself put it, he “never minded mathematics so intensely again.”
Robinson Crusoe-like isolation of the kind caused by plagues may not simply emulate autism in its negative features as I suggested in a previous post, but might also sometimes resemble Asperger’s syndrome in being associated with exceptional achievement in the mechanistic skills which, according to the diametric model of cognition, characterize the condition. The reason might simply be that, not only does social isolation remove distractions—what Robinson Crusoe called the General Plague of Mankind—but may also promote the symptomatic originality to which Asperger drew attention as a key feature of his autistics. As he put it: “Autistic children are able to produce original ideas. Indeed, they can only be original;” and a person cut off from the crowd is likely to be so too—at least to a greater extent than otherwise might be the case. Furthermore, when that person is already pre-disposed to independent thinking in a mechanistic mode thanks to an autistic cognitive configuration, quite remarkable originality is possible. Free of conformist constraints from critics, colleagues, or collaborators, such minds can function without the usual pressures that society places on innovative thinking. To use the symbolism I exploited in an earlier post: originality is not a feature of cloud cognition/group-think. On the contrary, as Edward Gibbon commented, “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”
Another example might be Gregor Mendel (1822-84, left), an Augustinian friar (not a monk: there’s an important difference!) who discovered the principles of scientific genetics in the course of breeding experiments with peas in an abbey garden in what is now the Czech Republic. In fact, Mendel was so isolated from other scientists and from the world in general that his work was completely overlooked at the time and had to wait until it was independently rediscovered by several different biologists at the beginning of the twentieth century.
This was despite the fact that Mendel had sent a copy of his original paper (published in German in 1866) to Charles Darwin, whose earlier five-year, round-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle could be seen as yet another example of salutary scientific seclusion. Indeed, you could see Darwin’s subsequent self-imposed exile at Down House in Kent (left) as an equivalent of Robinson Crusoe’s real-life original, Alexander Selkirk’s, mutinous self-marooning, described in a previous post. And it is, of course, a fact that it was at Down House that Darwin formulated his radically new theory of evolution for which his voyage on the Beagle had laid the foundations.
Admittedly, these are only three cases—albeit three of the greatest innovations in science—but many more similar ones could certainly be found. Einstein, Copernicus, and Cavendish are the first that come to mind—and for good measure you could also add Asperger, avoided like the plague by the canny Kanner, who we now know plagiarised his discovery of autism, as I mentioned in another previous post. Indeed, not only did he steal Asperger's ideas and priority, Kanner watered them down with the group-think of the day, and started the blame-the-parents game which his prejudice against Asperger's belief that autism was a genetic disorder entailed, ultimately leading to Bruno Bettelheim's disastrous "refrigerator mother" stereotype.
Tellingly perhaps, Kanner diagnosed himself as a "collector of people," and certainly perpetrated his plagiarism by collecting two of Asperger's key people. Asperger, by contrast, has since been posthumously diagnosed as a case of his own syndrome—along with Mendel, Darwin and Newton as I mentioned above. Much of the social isolation of all of these great innovators might inevitably have originated in their autistic tendencies; but it remains a fact of history that revolutions in mechanistic thinking—epitomized in maths, science, engineering, and technology—very often go against the grain of conventional thought at the time and demand a degree of mental isolation from the General Plague of Mankind that may often be seen in real social seclusion, for whatever reason it may come about and however it might actually be realized.
Gibbon was right. My bet is that future revolutions in science are much more likely to be brought about by isolated individuals with autistic cognitive configurations than by swarms of socializing scientists!
* Adam Rutherford: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016, p. xi