February 3, 2013 | 10
There’s a short rumination in this week’s Nature in which Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist from the University of California, Davis asks a question that often surfaces: Is the age of scientific genius over? Will we see another Einstein, Darwin or Newton or is the idea of the lone genius assiduously scribbling at his desk and making a breakthrough a relic of the past?
There’s really two issues at stake here; one is whether geniuses still exist and the second is whether, even if they do, whether they can make the kind of discoveries that were the hallmark of the last five centuries of groundbreaking science. It seems easier to agree on the second count, at least in some contexts. Some things can be done only once. Physics is a good example. For instance nobody thinks that we will have fundamental advances in atomic physics of the kind that marked the discoveries of the proton, neutron and electron. The discovery of the expanding universe, the cosmic microwave background radiation and superconductivity are also one-time events that aren’t happening again. The same applies to other disciplines; evolution by natural selection can be discovered only once, so can the fact that chemical bonds form by the sharing of electrons.
Simonton argues against the future existence of geniuses by recourse to two things; discipline creation and revolution, both of which he thinks will be increasingly scarce in the future. On the first count, he may be right when he says that no new basic disciplines are probably going to be founded in the coming few decades. Most of the research that took place in the last few decades was an offshoot of the basic disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology. This is true even if the latter half of the twentieth century was a phenomenal time for scientific development. In the future we will continue to see interdisciplinary hybrids of these fields. Nanotechnology, synthetic biology, biophysics and neuroscience will continue to make great advances, but none of them will constitute the invention of a new fundamental field.
The second point made in the piece is that new revolutions even in existing fields may be scarce. To some extent he is right; much of the work done even in the arguably revolutionary field of genomics, including the human genome project, has been the extension of existing knowledge to create new domains of application rather than the wholesale creation of new paradigms. And speaking of paradigms, Simonton also talks about Thomas Kuhn. One of Kuhn’s central thesis was that new paradigms are created when existing ones enter a crisis. Quantum theory was created when blackbody radiation and other atomic anomalies posed a challenge to existing theories. Relativity was created when discrepancies like the error in the perihelion of mercury revealed gaps in Newtonian physics.
Simonton thinks that – with the exception of physics – we don’t face crisis in current science that would trigger new revolutions. With this I tend to disagree, partly because as I mentioned in a recent post, revolutions can be Galisonian as well as Kuhnian. But more importantly I think this line of thinking ignores the hierarchy of scientific phenomena. Biology and especially neuroscience are good examples. We now know what the different components of the brain are and we have a fair idea of their interconnections but we have no overriding theory that provides an integrated view of the various hierarchical levels of the brain, from neurons to modules to those parts of the brain that interface with the outside world. Part of what Simonton is missing in my opinion is the existence of emergent phenomena. We may have understood biology at a molecular level by way of chemistry, and we may have understood physics at the atomic level, but we still don’t understand how these levels relate to each other. The noted biologist Sydney Brenner has said that the next revolution will occur when we have a unified theory of biology that connects the molecular workings of the cell through the workings of collections of cells and organ systems all the way to the workings of human behavior, and I agree with him. The revolution after that might connect biology to social sciences like psychology. Where I tend to disagree with Simonton is in thinking that revolutions can occur only at fundamental levels. I think that science keeps building up, and when it gets to a stage when it understands one level of the workings of the natural world, the time is ripe for a revolution that connects that particular level to all the others. It’s a revolution even if it doesn’t discover something that’s all the way down.
What about the principal question posed by the essay? Even assuming that there are revolutions to be made, what’s the possibility that they will be made by single individuals? This is the well-known “low hanging fruit” theory, with the added axiom that low hanging fruit can be plucked by lone individuals. Simonton is not discounting intellect here; in fact he says that today’s scientists are probably smarter than older scientists by the time they get into serious research. There’s also no doubt that discoveries were made much more cheaply in the past, and for that reason alone they could be harder for single individuals.
It’s far easier to see that lone scientists will find it increasingly harder to make discoveries in experimental fields. We are almost certainly past the romantic age when lawyers, clergymen, tax officials and doctors could tinker around in their laboratories in their spare time to discover the inner workings of life and matter. The sheer cost and scope of implementing projects like the Large Hadron Collider or the Human Genome Project is such that it’s beyond the scope of individuals, no matter how smart they are. So I think that Simonton’s main premise may sadly be true. In theoretical fields the question is more ambiguous in my opinion. A brilliant individual possessing all the knowledge uncovered by a massive experimental collaboration could still put the pieces of the puzzle together and come up with a new, revolutionary explanation. In fact one might argue that Darwin did something similar.
More importantly though, while individual genius may be scarce, collective genius may still thrive, and in fact the evidence indicates that it does. When it comes to collective intelligence, projects like FoldIt and others documented in Michael Nielsen’s “Reinventing Science” are clearly demonstrating that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Collective intelligence as applied to hard scientific problems is still a new development but it shows much promise in fields ranging from astronomy to biology. We should not underestimate the value of this kind of genius even as we may be acknowledging the scarcity of individual genius. Because when it comes to making new, revolutionary discoveries, human beings constitute as much emergence as the different hierarchical levels of science described above. Individual genius may be past its prime, but the wisdom of crowds is alive and well.