What's a Genius?

What is a good theory of genius? Are they born? Are they made? Are they products of their time and environment? To what can we attribute the appearance of people who affect thinking breakthroughs? Now the Greeks attributed genius to the muses. People were inspired in intellectual fields by forces external to them. Thus, Urania inspired astronomers, Terpsichore dancers, etc. This is in keeping with the Greek view that genius was not wholly a product of rational human control.

Lest we dismiss these Greeks, it's important to acknowledge that their ideas bear a strong resemblance to Freud's notions of unconscious drives. Freud put the driving forces inside us, but they operate just as irrationally and capriciously as the muses did. We are, so to speak, in their power when they grip us. In this view, genius is happenstance. Either the muses kiss you or they don't. Either your internal drives are sublimated into some obsession or they aren't.

In the Middle Ages innovation was rather non-scientific. Consider Dante, perhaps the greatest living mind in the year 1300. He held to the Aristotelian view that any object in motion must have a propelling force acting upon it. Planets in the sky, the moon, etc., must be acted upon by unseen forces (and not, as Newton later realized, because it is the universal tendency of objects in motion to stay in motion). The unseen force was wholly consonant with a God-centered worldview. So despite the fact that Dante's was a mind pre-eminent, he still deferred to Aristotle's commonsensical, albeit wrong, idea about motion. This seems to suggest that genius is somewhat time bound. Even great minds can't make breakthroughs if they are not living in a time when the prefatory groundwork has been properly laid.

To some extent this is borne out by the Copernican revolution. Ptolomey’s geo-centric universe wasn't all bad. It allowed astronomers to predict events in the heavens, but only by imagining a series of perfect spheres upon which celestial objects rotated. The problem was that the mathematics needed to make this system cohere with observed data had grown increasingly complex by the end of the 15th century. Astronomers had 80 some perfect spheres turning at varying rates, and every time they found something new in the sky they had to add another darned sphere. In short, the theory had reached a kind of terminal complexity, and it seemed unlikely to Copernicus that God would make such an unlovely universe. So data was piled on data until someone finally said, "Wait a minute. There's got to be a simpler explanation."

The point here is that shifts in thinking accrue; they just don't pop out from the psyche or Mount Olympus. To a degree, this is what Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Paradigm shifts do not occur because old models stop working. Kuhn's still controversial post-modernist gloss was that science didn't really progress from inferior theories to superior ones. Instead, science changes when the questions scientists ask change (i.e., Copernicus stopped asking how the new data fit into Ptolomey’s model and started asking why the model was so complicated). All this suggests that there is a strong social-constructionist nature to science. Geniuses don't make breakthroughs; they just happen to be living when scientific questions are changing. They may be the first ones to ask the new question, but someone else would have if they hadn't.

But what of the individual genius? Does he or she not play a role? For the Romantics the answer was yes. They held that those creative souls who could free themselves from intellectual conformity were the articulators of ideas that were contained mutely in all human souls. For Emerson, Man-Thinking--his name for the ideal scholar--learned that "in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds." The key is self-trust in one's own vision. The stormy genius is an iconoclast, a free-thinker, a rebel against all orthodoxies. He sees where others do not in his “daring sallies of the spirit.”

By the time you get to a modernist like Virginia Woolf, we are back to social construction, but not completely. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf argues that genius must be nurtured. She posits Judith Shakespeare, the fictional sister of the bard, and Woolf speculates on the fate of a woman who hoped to develop a Shakespearean-caliber genius in Elizabethan society. Of course such a female genius dies broken and impoverished. It's important to note that Woolf wasn't arguing that you could make geniuses with the right nurturing. Rather, she was saying that possessing even the greatest innate genius isn't enough. You have to have an environment conducive to its development.

A more recent theory builds on the Darwinian revolution. Frank Sulloway wrote a book a few years ago called Born to Rebel in which he argued that birth order played a role in making geniuses. Sulloway compiled a list of accomplished thinkers and "geniuses" in a wide range of areas, and he found that a statistically improbable percentage were the youngest child. His theory was that children compete for parental attention as a survival strategy. They are in effect organisms seeking to survive in an environment. The youngest children in this environment will quickly realize that many common attention-getting strategies have already been taken by older siblings. So they must to come up with something new. In this way, environment and survival instinct habituate the youngest born to think differently.

There are some caveats on Sulloway's theory. The children must be spaced no more than five years apart, and he doesn't explain why some older and middle children are geniuses as well. Still, it's an interesting idea. It causes me to laugh when I read Darwin's argument for doing away with primogeniture in The Descent of Man. Darwin, by the way, was the youngest son. My own hunch is that genius is a combination of personal qualities, inherited smarts, luck, and the right environment. A kid in Mongolia may be a tennis genius, but if there are no tennis courts in Ulan Bator, it's unlikely she will win Wimbledon.


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