Without loners the world would be a lot worse off.
In a previous article, I wrote that it’s natural for some people to be solitary. In this piece, I’ll argue that the existence of loners is also necessary for the human species to flourish.
The psychologist Anthony Storr in his book, Solitude, pointed out that there is more to life than relationships; companionship and connection may be important, but “… individual self-expression or self-realization” is also “a basic human need”.
“Human beings are directed by Nature toward the impersonal as well as toward the personal”, he said, adding that, “this feature of the human condition is a valuable and important part of our adaptation” (my italics).
Storr argues that some individuals are more inclined towards the impersonal than the personal; such people would prefer to devote themselves to their vocation / hobbies / passion projects, rather than to intimate relationships.
And humanity is all the better for it!
Storr says that some of the most famous figures in history – including the likes of Kant, Wittgenstein and Newton – lead solitary lives, with few, if any, close attachments. And it was precisely their propensity for the inner life, for the impersonal over the personal, Storr argues, that enabled them to make the outstanding contributions to society that they did.
As a result, such solitary behaviour in humans, he says, should be considered “biologically adaptive”.
It’s essential for the betterment of humankind.
Research discussed in Susan’s Cain book Quiet also leads us to this conclusion.
A study carried out at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1956 to 1962,“sought to identify the most spectacularly creative people and what made them different from everybody else… architects, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and writers who had made major contributions to their fields”.
What did they find? Creative people were more likely to be introverts. And why would introverts have a “creative advantage” over their more outgoing peers? Because, says Cain, “introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst for innovation” (Cain’s italics).
Cain points to the example of Steve Wozniak, inventor of the Apple computer, as someone whose preference for lone working enabled him to make the discoveries he did: “When you read his account of his work process on that first PC, the most striking thing is that he was always by himself” (Cain’s italics).
Quiet also includes this quote from Janet Farrall and Leonie Kronborg’s book, Leadership and Development for the Gifted and Talented: “Outstanding introverted leaders, such as Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Patrick White and Arthur Boyd, who have created either new fields of thought or rearranged existing knowledge, have spent long periods of their lives in solitude… developing new techniques in the arts, creating new philosophies, writing profound books and making scientific breakthroughs.”
Just like the ‘men of genius’ discussed by Storr, the likes of Wozniak, Darwin, and the many other introverted individuals who have made significant contributions to humanity’s progress, were able to do so, not in spite of, but because of, their inclination towards solitude.
Had these people been of a more extroverted disposition, had they surrounded themselves with others whilst they worked, it’s perhaps unlikely they would have achieved the things they did.
And the world would be a lot worse off as a result.
There is a great irony to this. Solitary behaviour is often rendered strange, suspect, dangerous even, because it runs counter to what is understood to be ‘human nature’; human beings are pack animals, wired to work together, in teams and in groups. That’s what serves the species best, we are led to believe. The loner, therefore, is considered to be a liability. And selfish – because “solitude evades social responsibility” (Maitland).
And yet, as we’ve seen, this isn’t the case at all. Not only is solitude essential for innovation and creativity, the products of solitary endeavours – whether that be a scientific breakthrough or a groundbreaking television show – can benefit society as a whole; what someone creates in isolation can go on to enhance a countless number of other people’s lives.
The fact is, whilst solitary individuals may not be social in the ‘typical’ sense – because they don’t join in, or form close bonds, with those around them – they can still contribute to the functioning and to the flourishing of humankind.
We no longer need to band together like our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to in order to survive. Human progress is not dependent on us living like pack animals.
In the modern age, the human race can afford for some of its members to break away from the herd, to go their own way. Indeed, as has been outlined here, society can not only afford its loners; it needs them. The solitaries and the hermits are here to bring forth new technologies, new art, new ways of thinking, new science. They have a vital role to play in human evolution.
Therefore, rather than stigmatising those who burrow themselves away to work on a pet project, or who choose to prioritise their vocation over interpersonal relationships, society ought to acknowledge, accept, and celebrate such solitary pursuits- the fruits of which may benefit us all.