Leonardo. Michelangelo. Newton. Mozart. Einstein. They have altered the shape of Western civilization; some of whom, while dead for over 500 years, we know by their first names. We venerate them, hold them in awe—we have even pickled Einstein’s brain in the hope of someday grasping the source of his brilliance. Their contributions are so extraordinary that when we hear the term, “creative genius,” our first association is likely to one of them. Indeed, one of the synonyms for genius listed in the Thesaurus is “Einstein.”

The term, “creative genius”, is freighted with intimations of the divine. Creation is a sacred act. All religions have creation stories about our origins to explain the miracle of our existence so as to answer the most haunting existential question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Something appears, inexplicitly, beyond our imagination, and we are left only to wonder. So, too, do we wonder about the unfathomable acts of creation by people like Leonardo and Einstein. The word, “genius,” also intimates wonderment and suggests supernatural origins: The Latin origins of the word refers to an “inborn deity or spirit that guides a person through life.”1 And we do confer a quasi-deity status to them.

This deification, however, misleads. Although, indeed, remarkable, these individuals could not have conjured their creations without the benefit of being in a very special place and time, afforded opportunities, and being embedded in a deep and extensive socio-cultural network that not only gives rise to the occasion for their creative acts, but also provides the means for their execution.

Newton’s Law of Gravity

Newton is reported to have discovered the law of gravity after observing an apple fall from a tree. Miraculous, indeed. But if Newton was an Eskimo, I can confidently say: no Newtonian discovery.  Same for Mozart and the rest of the pantheon of creative geniuses. Not simply because the Arctic lacks apple trees or pianos, and certainly not because Eskimos lack the capacity for such genius. Consider Newton’s law of gravity with its bizarre jumble of letters and numbers. What the hell does this mean? You need many years of very intense, specialized schooling to grasp its meaning. Or, take a score of Mozart’s music. Again, impenetrable, except with years of specialized study.  

Each of these geniuses profited from the good fortune of opportunity and circumstances. Newton was educated—a extremely rare and privileged opportunity—and was a professor at Cambridge University in the 17th century. At the time, England was the driving force of the scientific revolution, and Cambridge was the white-hot center of English science. A similar pattern of good fortune and opportunity is found for the rest of the quintet of geniuses.

We venerate these individuals but fail to venerate the remarkable cultural networks, contexts and opportunities that provided the soil for their individual genius to arise and flourish.

These notable individuals are not apart from the rest of us, but are the apex of the creativity that is our human birthright. Our survival as a species depends on our inborn capacity to create and share ingenious discoveries that are drawn from and, in return, profit the larger community. Genetic mutation enables biological adaption, but the process is very slow; many generations long. The creation of new, adaptive innovations, in contrast, can occur in leaps and gain widespread use within a generation. Human adaptation occurs primarily through memes, not genes.

Our lives are densely packed with the gifts of the long history of human ingenuity, almost all by nameless individuals. The simple screw affords an example. Who invented the screw? We don’t know. When was it invented? Again, not sure, maybe ancient Greece, maybe ancient Egypt. Our world is literally held together by screws; by this original innovation created by unknown, ingenious individuals passed to us from long ago.

What is true for screws holds for sewing needles, bread, chocolate, and most of the rest of what compose our modern lives—-all products of nameless creative geniuses. We are part of this ongoing history, making our contributions, some far reaching, most more local. We each contribute to the network in our own, often humble way. It takes a village for a Newton to thrive. For a screw to be invented. And to create a village.