Does Genius Bloom in Individuals or in Groups?

Is genius an individual or a group gift?

Posted Dec 19, 2009

Wikipedia has shown the power of group genius. When people put their many minds together, they often reach a precision or breadth of ideas more quickly than individuals can.

Another good example of the power of collective genius came this year, when British mathematician Timothy Gowers proposed to solve an elusive math problem--a proof of the density Hales-Jewett theorem--in a wiki-style format online. Masses who come together to do math might work more effectively than individuals, Gowers wrote, because of the following reasons (for his full explanation, see his blog post here):

1. We've historically needed luck in solving our elusive problems. If lots of people are working at once, it's statistically more likely that someone will have good luck.

2. Different people have different pools of information, and one person's knowledge could add a missing piece to someone else's. An example: Consider a filmmaker who wants to make a realistic film about the Cuban Missile Crisis. He might know about making films but not enough about the Missile Crisis. If he hires a team of historians to fill him in, that's quicker and probably goes deeper than spending 30 years studying history alone.

3. Different people have different styles of problem-solving. Some people are great at generating ideas; some are better at organizing established ideas; some are good at the critical task of editing. When we get these minds together, each can productively contribute from her own style.

Gowers posted some rules for contributors to follow--like being as clear as humanly possible--and then posted the math problem online. Within three months, after about 1000 posts by a range of contributors--not all of them specialists in the same type of math--the problem was solved.

This prompts some questions about genius. For instance, have we too often considered genius the product of individual minds, and has that prejudice curbed our impulse to work in teams?

A second question is about genre: Are we more ready to admit that group genius exists in the realms of math and science than we are in the other arts, like music, painting, and literature? After all, perhaps because math and science have driven big organizations like NASA, Google, and scientific research institutes, we've become relatively comfortable with the idea that breakthroughs in science emerge from teamwork. In contrast, we still hold onto a more parochial sense of genius when it comes to the creation of art and literature: We want our novels written by solitary writers in their private studies, drunk if that helps them.

Inspired by the group genius behind Wikipedia, there have been some efforts to form collaborative novels online. Penguin launched A Million Penguins in 2007, in which they used wiki technology to host a group creation of a novel. Access was open to anyone for about three months, and then the book was pronounced finished. The editors were not thrilled with what they got. "No, a community probably can't write a novel," lamented editor Jon Elek on his blog when the project was finished. He felt that the novel had a schizophrenic character: bright in spots but stitched together by an illogical logic.

Other hosting sites allow people to create group novels with some predetermined structure. In Glypho, individuals take tasks: proposing the story idea, suggesting plot and characters, then writing the chapters and voting on what chapters to keep. In Protagonize, an author proposes a plot and some rules for writing, and people contribute branches. Contributors in many of these sites are ranked by popular vote.

But few of these online novels maintain a recognizable storyline, and most of them end up sounding sensationalist and spastic. Maybe one reason that the online novels aren't working out as well as online math is that there's no single necessary endpoint for a novel, so a contributor is tempted to use her stretch of performance by drawing attention to her voice rather than doing the more subtle work of skillfully advancing plot and character with psychological accuracy. There is, after all, a deep psychological logic to what happens in novels, but it's not easily publically identified.

Perhaps people contributing to an online novel feel less pressure to attend to the character development and language preceding them, because if they are less than deft in taking the next step, no one can clearly and definitively call them on it. That is, if someone is contributing to a math problem online and offers a step that does not logically build on the last or lead fruitfully to the next, her work can be voted off for being counterproductive. It's comparatively hard to rate a creative writer. So she can "contribute" without being called out (or even calling herself out) for a lazy contribution.

These are all technicalities. Perhaps, beyond all this, one reason why we're doing more collaborative work in math than in literature is because of a prejudice about genius. We have certainly cultivated the myth of individual genius since at least the Renaissance. We started as a more collectivist society in both art and science: in the group construction of tribal songs and myths, and in the calculations we needed to hunt and cook as a team. But with the rise of individual talents from da Vinci to Shakespeare to 50 Cent, we have prized individual talent. Printing helped in this, because it showed, for posterity, who contributed what notes and words to what songs and what stories. Leisure time also contributed: As people got out of group labor, they could foster individual arts. The rise of private property helped create the myth of individual genius, too: People could work in the non-public space of their studios and emerge with their Great Works. With all this, we increasingly supported the dream that genius belonged to individuals alone.

The internet is probably delivering a wake-up call: That our individualistic society has, for a few centuries at least, underrated the value of group work. And internet experiments in math are making this more clear, more quickly. It's probably simply harder to show that an art like literature could grow through teamwork. Of course it's true that no matter what happens in the public realm, individual genius is a real thing that will continue to exist. But we're also likely entering an age in which we know how much we've falsely emphasized individuality over collaboration, of all sorts.