Genius ExplainedIn Genius Explained Michael J. A. Howe addresses the commonly held belief that genius is born not mad. Genius Explained In Genius Explained Michael J. A. Howe addresses the commonly held belief that genius is born not mad. explaining the purity and perfection of Mozart's music, the editor of a book on genius better understanding of genius and its causes, not least by becoming.
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PDF | On Jan 1, , Saul Axelrod and others published Howe, M. Genius Explained. (reviewed by S. Axelrod). Behavior Analysis Digest, , 16, an enjoyable and informative book His insights are thought-provoking This argument, worked through the case histories, is not only impressive but. GO Downloads e-Book - Author(s): Michael J. A. Howe Publisher: - Category: Psychology Date: Pages: Language: English.
Introduction 9 It would be immensely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to delineate each and every one of the events that had to take place in order for, say, the young Mozart, or the young Einstein, to become capable of their achievements, and then go on to create them. I do not attempt that feat. Some readers may feel that any investigation that stops short of such exhaustive documentation must fail to provide an adequate explanation.
My own view is that this is rather like insisting on believing that although Joe Bloggs has admitted making the crop circle that appeared last week in his neighbour's field, the one that appeared yesterday must have been created by aliens from a distant galaxy, or like saying that even though most of the tricks performed by Mr Uri Geller are within the capabilities of skilled conjurors, his claim to possess mysterious special powers must nevertheless be believed.
In each case the more reasonable assumption would be that where insufficient evidence exists to fully explain a new event, an explanation that is based upon observed causes and broadly follows the lines of one that accounted for a similar event in the past is preferable to one that invokes unverifiable causes or mysterious special powers.
There are gaps in what is known, but these create problems rather than mysteries. That distinction between problems and mysteries is a crucial one. A mystery is a state of affairs surrounding some phenomenon that resists any explanation in terms of known causes. A problem, in contrast, is a state of affairs in which there exists uncertainty about the explanation for something, but in which there is every reason to believe that one can be found, provided that the necessary resources are available.
For me, discovering the best railway route between Madrid and Vienna would be a problem. It is not a mystery, since I am confident I can find the answer, as long as the missing information is forthcoming. In the chapters that follow I show that the challenges involved in arriving at a full understanding of the achievements of geniuses belong within the category of problems rather than mysteries. In principle at least, there are no points at which explaining human accomplishments becomes impossible except by resorting to miracles or magic.
The qualification 'in principle' is needed because in some instances it will never be possible to obtain all the information that a full account would need to draw upon.
For instance, we shall never discover how William Shakespeare became the genius he was, if only because we know too little about his early years. The creative undertakings of a genius involve two broad and overlapping stages. First, there is the matter of acquiring those capabilities the person draws upon. Second, there are the inventive activities that directly contribute to masterpieces. In most of the present book's chapters the emphasis is on the former stage, and I explore the ways in which a number 10 Genius Explained of individuals have gradually acquired the exceptional capabilities that equipped them for their achievements.
How, I ask, did certain men and women become capable of their remarkable feats? We must take pains to be sure that any explanations arrived at are ones that genuinely illuminate and extend our understanding, rather than being pseudo-explanations. It is important to be aware that clues about possible causes of genius that are encountered in commonsense wisdom, can actually impede understanding rather than adding to it.
One widespread belief, hinted at in Kant's suggestion that genius is a quality which nature endows in certain people, is that the causes of individuals' exceptional attainments take the form of special gifts or innate talents. That claim is not necessarily false, of course.
It is entirely conceivable that geniuses are indeed born with special characteristics that partly account for their outstanding achievements. And irrespective of whether the claim is true or false, the fact that many adults are convinced that only those young people who are born possessing special gifts can thrive in fields of expertise such as music has momentous practical implications for numerous children. However, for it to be legitimate to conclude that innate gifts really are an influence, there would need to be independent evidence that they do actually exist.
In the absence of that evidence such a conclusion would be groundless. What often happens, however, is that simply because someone is exceptionally able, in the absence of an obvious alternative it is assumed that the person must have been born with a special gift or talent. Subsequently the person's unverified possession of that innate gift is invoked as the cause of the outstanding ability.
Creative attainments are assumed to be 'explained' by the assertion that their creator possesses special inborn powers, although the person's achievements provide the sole basis for believing in the existence of those special powers. This reasoning is entirely circular: So when it is introduced in this way, the notion of an innate gift and talent is no more than a kind of 'magic ingredient', which provides no more than the illusion of an explanation, as in, Question: The explanatory powers innate gifts may appear to have, in the absence of independent evidence of their existence, are similarly imaginary rather than real.
A not uncommon view that is sometimes linked to the belief that genius is a consequence of a person being endowed by nature with a special gift is that it is only possible for someone to become a genius as a consequence of being designed in advance to be one. That assertion is easily rebutted. The reasons for questioning it are not unlike the arguments with which Darwinian science has refuted the claim that the human species could never have come into being except through some form of 'design from above'.
Darwin's theory contradicted that belief by demonstrating that it was indeed possible for humans to be created as a consequence of evolutionary processes, in the absence of any designer. Our species did not have to be planned in advance. Nor did the lives of individual geniuses. The processes that enable an individual's capabilities to be acquired through learning and experience are very different from the ones that enable new species to evolve.
However, the learning and training experiences that creative people undergo obviate the necessity for their accomplishments to depend upon being designed in advance just as convincingly as evolution makes design from above unnecessary for the emergence of new species.
Before going any further, we should try to decide what a genius is. Precisely what do we mean by the term? A straight answer to that seemingly simple question is not at all easy to find.
For better or worse, there is no straightforward specification or definition of genius. Even listing the defining attributes turns out to be impossible. Why do these difficulties arise? The essential reason is that whilst saying that someone is a genius appears to be a statement about the person's qualities, it is actually not.
What is really being achieved by calling a person a genius is to acknowledge or recognise their achievements. The word 'genius' is ours, not theirs, and it is a kind of accolade that has been bestowed upon certain individuals, usually not until well after the person has died. The term 'genius' has a long history, but until fairly recently the most common use was not for describing a person but for identifying the supposed reason for someone being capable of creative accomplishments.
A person's genius was seen as working in broadly the way that a poet's muse was believed to function: Not until the eighteenth century did the practice of referring to a person as a genius become common. The modern 12 Genius Explained meaning of the word comes partly from the Latin word genius which stems from gens, meaning family, but also from the Latin ingenium, denoting natural disposition or innate ability.
We can call a man a giant because he is very tall, but there is no single attribute of a person that justifies saying that someone is a genius. Describing a person as a genius is not like stating that he or she is tall, or even intelligent or clever. The word is never introduced solely as a description of an individual: If you are unconvinced about that, try to think of someone who is widely regarded as having been a genius but who never produced highly valued creative work: I suspect that you will fail.
There have always been men and women who were exceptionally intelligent, wise, artistic, sensitive, incisive and so on, but unless they have produced major achievements, other people have not called them geniuses. Whenever someone is widely regarded as having been a genius, we can be sure that the person has made a contribution which is valued.
If a baker is someone who makes bread, a genius is a man or woman who produces masterpieces or discoveries that greatly impress other people.
The difference between being immensely capable or creative and being regarded as a genius is not totally unlike the difference between being exceptionally brave and winning a medal for bravery. To win a medal, you undoubtedly do need to be brave, but you have to be a little fortunate as well.
The bravery must have positive consequences, and it must be observed by someone who is in a position to report it. Similarly, in order for someone to be regarded as a genius, that person not only has to be exceptionally able but also must achieve something that is appreciated by others, and whether or not that happens will be partly outside the person's control.
As we shall see, success often goes not to the individual who is most intelligent or capable in absolute terms, but to the man or woman who happens to possess just those skills or qualities that are needed in order to solve a particular problem at a particular moment in history.
So the accolade of genius is bestowed on a person for creating something that others admire, rather than for being outstandingly clever. By and large, creative individuals are more likely to be regarded as geniuses if their achievements are not too recent: It also helps if the person's different accomplishments are linked rather than being too diffuse.
As well as translating the Arabian Nights into English, he led expeditions of discovery, translated other poetry and folklore, mastered around thirty languages, wrote poetry of his own, contributed to archaeology, ethnol- Introduction 13 ogy, anthropology, and the study of swordsmanship, and also made discoveries in botany, zoology and geology.
Yet, largely because his achievements were so scattered, few have thought Burton to have been a genius, for all his brilliance. The fact that the word 'genius' is used more as an accolade than as a description helps make it the useful term it is, but creates some difficulties as well.
One limitation is that introducing the term does not actually help to account for a person's attainments. We should not be fooled into thinking that anything is being clarified by a statement such as 'She produced a great novel because she was a genius'. All that is really being said here is that the individual who wrote her great novel was a person acknowledged to be capable of doing just that. Another problem is that there is no objective procedure or hard-andfast criterion for categorising people as geniuses or non-geniuses.
A limited number of individuals are very widely regarded as having been geniuses: As soon as we move on from a surprisingly small number of creative people, most of whom have been dead for a long time, agreement on who deserves to appear in a definitive list of geniuses becomes impossible, even though there are certainly hundreds and possibly thousands of individuals for whom a serious claim can be made.
Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton tried to introduce a degree of objectivity by referring to one in a million individuals as 'illustrious' and one in four thousand as 'eminent', but in the absence of clear rules for deciding how to select particular men and women, even that approach to categorising outstanding people could never have worked. To complicate things, reputations wax and wane. In common with other circumstances in which accolades are bestowed, the matter of whether or not a particular creative man or woman acquires the reputation of being a genius depends on factors outside that individual's control.
Chance can play a role. Had Albert Einstein or Michael Faraday lived thirty years earlier or thirty years later than they did, the particular skills and qualities they possessed might have had less impact. Conversely, there are other scientists whose importance might well have 14 Genius Explained been greater had they lived at a slightly different time, or in a different place. Fashion too can play a role, and just as people's reputations can wax and wane, so can views about whether a certain person merits being called a genius.
Someone whose work is little valued in one century may be regarded as a genius by citizens of a later era. For us, Bach was a genius, and perhaps Botticelli too, although earlier generations either ignored them or judged them far less favourably than we do now.
Yet another complication is revealed by the necessity to decide whether, if someone 'accidentally' creates a masterpiece, that person should be called a genius. Questions like this surface in connection with occasional individuals such as Gregor Mendel He made a monumental contribution to the science of genetics, but perhaps without ever quite recognising the significance of what he was doing. I sidestep the issue by being willing to consider any individual whose claims to the status of a genius have received a substantial measure of support.
Restricting our attention to just those very few people who are universally regarded as having been geniuses would create severe practical problems, if only because of the rarity of individuals for whom we have substantial information about their early lives.
It would be fascinating to trace the childhoods of, say, Archimedes, or William Shakespeare, or Isaac Newton, but the necessary factual evidence has been lost. Even with a relatively recent genius like Schubert, available knowledge about critical life events can be remarkably sparse. What are geniuses like? What kinds of people are they? They are hugely diverse, but a few characteristics are shared by virtually all of them.
The first is an intense curiosity and dedication to one's work. A second and perhaps more surprising trait possessed by most geniuses is the capacity to acquire a variety of different human qualities. Geniuses are usually sure about what they want to do, single minded, committed, and they have a firm sense of direction. They often work with a ferocity and intensity, even when impeded by doubts and frustrations. They also share a capacity for sustained diligence.
Isaac Newton said that he discovered the law of universal gravitation by thinking about it continuously; Charles Darwin attributed much of his success to a capacity to 14 Wilson Introduction 15 reflect for years on an unexplained problem; Einstein asserted that curiosity, determination, and hard work were vital ingredients of his effectiveness, and the great English painter J. Turner, asked to reveal the secret of his success, gave the straight reply 'the only secret I have got is dammed hard work'.
He displayed an impressive doggedness at persisting in the face of difficulties. Struggling to comprehend the mathematics in Descartes's Geometry, Newton just kept on trying.
Perseverance is at least as crucial as intelligence. An interesting and perhaps surprising research finding is that, compared with assessments of young children's intelligence, indications of their capacity to delay gratification and avoid acting too impulsively are better predictors of future competence. Clearly, a young person's temperament is hugely important. This raises an interesting possibility.
If, as seems likely, inherited differences between individuals contribute to the fact that individuals differ in their eventual achievements, the most crucial inherent differences may be ones of temperament rather than of intellect as such. It is especially advantageous to be able to keep trying.
As the eighteenth-century British artist Joshua Reynolds remarked about facility at drawing, it, 'like that of playing upon a musical instrument, cannot be acquired but by an infinite number of acts. It may sometimes appear that remarkable intellectual or artistic capacities, combined with fierce determination, form the sole all-important ingredients of creative accomplishments, and there is no denying that geniuses tend to be single-minded individuals.
They typically exhibit a sharp awareness of the direction in which they intend to move and a degree of indifference to other things. They can appear to be narrowly obsessed by one particular goal, as they fiercely concentrate on their work for long periods of time. We can readily picture Mozart totally absorbed in his work, or Isaac 16 18 Hamilton , p. Hamilton , p. And yet on closer examination it is clear that geniuses can rarely afford to be too narrow.
Even when the actual achievements for which someone is acclaimed are fairly specific, a broader range of qualities is likely to have been necessary in order to create the circumstances that enabled the person to move ahead. Take Charles Darwin, for instance. He is seen in the popular imagination as a reclusive scientist, preoccupied with his poor health, rarely straying from the house he lived in for almost forty years, and protecting his privacy by building a high wall and lowering yards of the adjoining lane.
Yet Darwin would never have enjoyed the success he earned were it not for the fact that in addition to the intellectual capabilities, fierce determination, and single-mindedness that he possessed in common with other geniuses, he also had some impressive diplomatic skills, as well as courage and a marked ability to get on with others.
People who knew Charles Darwin liked and respected him. He needed all these personal qualities for dealing with a series of characters whose cooperation he depended on, including a sometimes difficult male parent, and, later, the prickly and short-tempered Captain Robert Fitzroy, with whom Darwin worked hard at maintaining a harmonious working relationship on board the tiny HMS Beagle during its five-year voyage.
Then there were the various scientists who served Darwin as mentors in his early days and collaborators and disciples later on. Darwin also assembled a network of individuals who were helpful to him because they knew about breeding and the domestication of species. He cooperated with many collectors, vetinarians, horticulturists, and numerous animal and plant breeders, amongst whom were pigeon and poultry fanciers, rabbit raisers, beekeepers, rose growers, livestock men, nurserymen, silk-growers, farmers, horse-trainers, botanists and practical gardeners.
A glance at On the Origin of Species demonstrates that Darwin counted on the aid of these practical experts for much of the immense body of evidence that was needed to buttress the theory of evolution and make it invulnerable to the sharp attacks that he knew would be directed at it.
At various points in his life Darwin was able to seize chances that would have been missed by someone lacking his impressively broad capabilities. In childhood, his older brother by four years Erasmus found Charles mature enough to engage as a helper in scientific experiments, with the result that by the age of thirteen Charles Darwin had gained a useful grounding in practical chemistry and biology.
The opportunity that came Introduction 17 his way when he was twenty-two to take part in HMS Beagle's voyage happened only because Darwin had been noticed as a young man whose judgement as well as knowledge outstripped his years. He was 'the very man they are in search of', the Regius Professor of Botany at Cambridge University told him. That Darwin could grasp that opportunity was only possible because when his father proved awkwardly opposed Charles had the wit to take the only course of action that could have induced the parent to drop his veto.
Later, it was because of Darwin's well-deserved high reputation that when the theory of evolution finally appeared in it was sympathetically examined by his fellow scientists rather than encountering the instant rejection that had greeted other evolutionary ideas and quickly seen to be as sound as it was revolutionary.
Darwin was by no means unusual or unique in having to call upon a variety of human qualities. Even Albert Einstein, although often seen as an isolated thinker, leaned heavily upon his communication skills and his capacity for friendship, and Thomas Edison would have achieved very little were it not for his impressive organisational powers. In trying to understand how certain men and women became geniuses, how can we most effectively combine psychological research and biographical expertise?
My views about the desirable characteristics of an approach which achieves that will become clearer in later chapters, but two features need mentioning here.
First, an effective approach needs to be largely descriptive and not overburdened with theoretical dogmas. That does not mean denying the importance of explanatory theories, but since it is rarely possible to explain how something happened without knowing precisely what it was that took place, it is essential to begin by tracing in some detail the lives of particular men and women.
Researchers can get into difficulties by failing to appreciate the necessity to start with good descriptions. The tendency to construct detailed theoretical speculations from flimsy supporting evidence was a weakness of the psychodynamic theories underpinning psychobiographical explorations of people's lives.
It is a mistake to regard the act of describing what happens as being no more than a preliminary, 'pre-scientific' stage of an investigation. Careful descriptions actually achieve much more than that. Once a really good descriptive account exists, the job of explaining observed facts may be more than half done, as good theorists like Darwin have always known. Of course, it is often helpful to have hunches and intuitions about why things happen, but at times it is just as necessary to keep a rein on one's theoretical views, because they can all too easily act as blinkers rather than aids.
Holding on to one point of view can blind us to others. If someone has become convinced that the only conceivable reason why Mozart became 18 Genius Explained a great composer is that he was born with a special gift for music, the chances are that the person will fail to discern alternative explanations.
In common with a young woman who, asked for directions to a neighbouring town, told me 'You cannot get from here to [nearby] Helensburgh: It is helpful to think of a person's life as being like a kind of journey, one that follows a particular route which is unique to that individual. Biographical accounts make it possible to trace the temporal patterns of events and consequences that take place as a person develops, and plot the very different routes by which young people move through the time that structures their lives.
Once we gain a detailed knowledge of the events of a person's childhood, it is likely that we will begin to discern how and why the child gradually turned into the adult he or she eventually became.
In tracing such a route and trying to identify the various experiences and events that collectively make a child into an adult, an essential facet of the person's development involves the expansion of their capabilities. Everyone's expertise has to be acquired, and so do their likes and dislikes, their interests and their preferences.
That is just as true of geniuses as it is of people whose accomplishments are unexceptional. Like the skills and abilities of ordinary men and women, the more remarkable capacities of a genius are gained more or less gradually. Especially rare or impressive capacities build upon a foundation of more commonplace ones. When the path can be charted towards the extraordinary attainments of, say, a grandmaster at chess, or a concert pianist, it is usually found that the person's itinerary through the earlier stages of expertise is broadly similar to that of other people.
The exceptional individual goes further, and may move ahead faster, but always there is a route to be traced. There are no gaps or inexplicable leaps. If there appears to be a gap, the chances are that when we look closer we will discover that what is being identified is a hiatus in our own knowledge, not a discontinuity in the person's progress.
The analogy between a person's early life and a journey or a voyage can be misleading if pressed too far. The voyage metaphor may appear to suggest that people forge ahead along a single track, with the implication that the first step towards exposing the causes of genius is just a matter of identifying a person's special capability and seeing how it was nurtured. In reality, it is more accurate to envisage the trajectory of someone's life as involving a number of linked but partly independent strands, all of which contribute to the person's progress.
Tracing the events of someone's formative years involves getting close Introduction 19 to the individual concerned. The need to do that makes it important for our approach to have a second aspect. That involves placing emphasis on trying to lay bare the actual experiences of the men and women whose early lives are examined.
Having continuous records that cover substantial parts of people's lives helps to make this possible. Such records illustrate the uniqueness of each life, making it easier to see why different people do not react in the same way to identical events or similar opportunities.
What really matters is not simply what happens to a person - as an observer might record it- but how the particular individual actually experiences life's happenings. It is important to avoid confusing experiences with environments. People are directly affected by their experiences, but only indirectly influenced by their environments. Surprise is sometimes expressed at the fact that two children brought up in the same family environment can turn out very differently, but there is nothing very remarkable about that, since the children may have experienced events in constrasting ways.
The key distinction here is between events as seen from the outside and as perceived from the unique vantage point of the person concerned. We may know a great deal about someone's physical environment, but that knowledge will not necessarily provide much insight into that person's actual experiences, and it is the latter rather than the former that have a direct influence on an individual's life.
Although we can never duplicate someone else's experiences or reconstruct their unique point of view, it is worth striving to get as close as we can to doing that. Individual children and adults are often affected by the happenings that make up their lives in ways that no outsider could begin to perceive without knowing about the person's unique life and character, temperament and personality. But when some of that knowledge is available, the actual significance of events in someone's life becomes clearer.
It is possible to see, for example, why apparently destructive events can have benign consequences. Thus for the seven-year-old H. Wells the ostensibly disastrous accident of breaking a limb had a happy outcome, because it encouraged him to spend more time reading, with immensely positive personal consequences. We can now also understand why, as Charles Dickens reported, he too benefited from illness in childhood, by being stimulated to read books.
In the following chapters I shall trace the early lives of a number of geniuses, attempting to discover how and why each individual became capable of their remarkable accomplishments. Deciding which men and women to concentrate upon could have been difficult, but two constraints guided my choices and made selection easier. First, relatively detailed 20 Genius Explained accounts of the person's formative years had to be available.
Second, there were obvious advantages to be gained from making sure that at least some of the chosen individuals had enough in common with one another for comparisons to be made and parallels drawn, as is possible when people have belonged to the same era and have shared a common culture.
With these considerations in mind, and having decided that my main subjects would include Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill - choices influenced by the fact that the documentation of their childhoods is unusually full and informative - I saw some advantages in concentrating mainly on individuals whose contributions were made in roughly the middle half of the nineteenth century.
That was a fruitful time for geniuses. Benjamin Disraeli wrote well-received novels as well as being a statesman. There were some great engineers, among them Brunei, the two Stephensons, and Joseph Locke. Abraham Lincoln shared with Darwin his actual day of birth in The ageing Wordsworth lingered on until Benjamin Franklin's long life had recently ended and the equally lengthy one of Thomas Edison had begun.
Mark Twain was starting his career. In Russia, Gogol and Dostoyevski were active, and as Pushkin approached his premature end Tolstoy's life was beginning. In the following two chapters, I direct the bulk of my attention to a great scientist, Charles Darwin, and a great railway engineer, George Stephenson, an inventive genius who made an enormous contribution to developments that revolutionised transportation and passenger travel, despite starting life with a childhood of grinding poverty, in which he never had a single day of schooling.
Chapter 4 examines the remarkable early life of another great scientist, Michael Faraday. Chapter 5 looks at a number of families in which a parent has made a more or less deliberate attempt to 'manufacture' a genius.
This chapter includes a discussion of the education of John Stuart Mill, whose reputation as a child prodigy preceded his mature accomplishments. In Chapter 6, which examines a number of child prodigies, I take an excursion from the mid-nineteenth century in order to provide an account of Albert Einstein's childhood. That diversion is justified by his enormous importance, together with the fact that his early life is a mine of useful information concerning the formative experiences that contribute to scientific creativity.
Chapter 7 deals largely with the acquisition of expertise in writers, including the Brontes, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. That chapter, which stresses the importance of childhood writing activities and explores some ways in which early experiences have been drawn upon by imaginative novelists, concentrates on the similarities rather than the differences between exceptional and less remarkable authors in the manner in which their expertise was acquired and extended.
Chapter 8 provides a more direct examination of the creative activities that are involved in the actual making of discoveries and inventions, and the production of masterpieces. It introduces a variety of discoverers and inventors, ranging from the Wright brothers, who achieved the first powered flight, to the twentieth-century discoverers of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson.
Chapter 9 examines some ideas and theories that have been put forward in order to account for geniuses and their accomplishments. This final chapter examines genetic as well as environmental influences on human capabilities. It takes a critical look at commonsense views about human abilities and their causes, showing that even those ideas that are almost universally accepted and seen as 'obviously' or self-evidently true 22 Genius Explained can be entirely wrong.
I establish, for instance, that there is no firm scientific justification for the widely accepted belief that high abilities are made possible by certain individuals possessing innate gifts or talents.
I also question some common views concerning the manner in which genetic variability exerts its effects on people. Mistaken beliefs about the origins of exceptional capabilities are pernicious, and can lead to faulty decisions being made, with damaging consequences to immense numbers of young people. Without them it would be harder for people to cling to the belief that geniuses are a special breed, akin to the magicians and dragons and fabulous giants that populated the mythologies of past generations.
So we prefer geniuses to be sharply different from ordinary people, and preferably a little eccentric. Einstein makes an ideal genius. It is frustratingly hard to understand his discoveries, let alone imagine a more conventional person emulating them.
Mozart too has a special mystique, fuelled by most people's inability to even imagine the possibility of creating anything that could move us in the way his music does.
Darwin is different. Nobody doubts his theory's monumental power or disputes its immense influence, but the principle of natural selection has the disturbing quality of being easy to understand.
At its core is a transparently simple idea: That elementary but elegant principle accounts for the evolution of all species. For some critics of Darwin the discovery of natural selection has too much of the air of an accidental encounter with something that has been waiting to be found.
It is the kind of idea that, once articulated, seems to be plain obvious as well as being right. Like the invention of the wheel, the theory of evolution is an advance that left people asking themselves why nobody had hit upon it earlier.
As soon as Thomas Huxley learned of Darwin's theory he wondered why he had been so stupid not to have thought of it himself. Detractors have found additional excuses for withholding admiration from Darwin. Some have suggested that since artificial selection of domestic animals had been an established fact of life for many generations before Darwin, only a small mental leap may have been needed in order to arrive at the principle of natural selection.
Other critics have seized upon the sheer implausibility as we see it today of creationism the Genesis story that the world was created in BC - as a rival 23 24 Genius Explained account of the origin of life, suggesting that even in Darwin's time no genuine scientist could have seriously entertained the possibility of creationist alternatives to evolution.
The ageing Wordsworth lingered on until Benjamin Franklin's long life had recently ended and the equally lengthy one of Thomas Edison had begun. Mark Twain was starting his career. In Russia, Gogol and Dostoyevski were active, and as Pushkin approached his premature end Tolstoy's life was beginning. In the following two chapters, I direct the bulk of my attention to a great scientist, Charles Darwin, and a great railway engineer, George Stephenson, an inventive genius who made an enormous contribution to developments that revolutionised transportation and passenger travel, despite starting life with a childhood of grinding poverty, in which he never had a single day of schooling.
Chapter 4 examines the remarkable early life of another great scientist, Michael Faraday. Chapter 5 looks at a number of families in which a parent has made a more or less deliberate attempt to 'manufacture' a genius. This chapter includes a discussion of the education of John Stuart Mill, whose reputation as a child prodigy preceded his mature accomplishments.
In Chapter 6, which examines a number of child prodigies, I take an excursion from the mid-nineteenth century in order to provide an account of Albert Einstein's childhood.
That diversion is justified by his enormous importance, together with the fact that his early life is a mine of useful information concerning the formative experiences that contribute to scientific creativity.
Chapter 7 deals largely with the acquisition of expertise in writers, including the Brontes, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. That chapter, which stresses the importance of childhood writing activities and explores some ways in which early experiences have been drawn upon by imaginative novelists, concentrates on the similarities rather than the differences between exceptional and less remarkable authors in the manner in which their expertise was acquired and extended.
Chapter 8 provides a more direct examination of the creative activities that are involved in the actual making of discoveries and inventions, and the production of masterpieces.
It introduces a variety of discoverers and inventors, ranging from the Wright brothers, who achieved the first powered flight, to the twentieth-century discoverers of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson.
Chapter 9 examines some ideas and theories that have been put forward in order to account for geniuses and their accomplishments. This final chapter examines genetic as well as environmental influences on human capabilities. It takes a critical look at commonsense views about human abilities and their causes, showing that even those ideas that are almost universally accepted and seen as 'obviously' or self-evidently true 22 Genius Explained can be entirely wrong. I establish, for instance, that there is no firm scientific justification for the widely accepted belief that high abilities are made possible by certain individuals possessing innate gifts or talents.
I also question some common views concerning the manner in which genetic variability exerts its effects on people.
Mistaken beliefs about the origins of exceptional capabilities are pernicious, and can lead to faulty decisions being made, with damaging consequences to immense numbers of young people. Without them it would be harder for people to cling to the belief that geniuses are a special breed, akin to the magicians and dragons and fabulous giants that populated the mythologies of past generations.
So we prefer geniuses to be sharply different from ordinary people, and preferably a little eccentric. Einstein makes an ideal genius. It is frustratingly hard to understand his discoveries, let alone imagine a more conventional person emulating them. Mozart too has a special mystique, fuelled by most people's inability to even imagine the possibility of creating anything that could move us in the way his music does. Darwin is different.
Nobody doubts his theory's monumental power or disputes its immense influence, but the principle of natural selection has the disturbing quality of being easy to understand. At its core is a transparently simple idea: in a species whose members are not identical, those individuals that are the best adapted to their environments are the most likely to procreate and pass on their inherited characteristics.
That elementary but elegant principle accounts for the evolution of all species. For some critics of Darwin the discovery of natural selection has too much of the air of an accidental encounter with something that has been waiting to be found. It is the kind of idea that, once articulated, seems to be plain obvious as well as being right. Like the invention of the wheel, the theory of evolution is an advance that left people asking themselves why nobody had hit upon it earlier.
As soon as Thomas Huxley learned of Darwin's theory he wondered why he had been so stupid not to have thought of it himself. Detractors have found additional excuses for withholding admiration from Darwin.
Some have suggested that since artificial selection of domestic animals had been an established fact of life for many generations before Darwin, only a small mental leap may have been needed in order to arrive at the principle of natural selection. Other critics have seized upon the sheer implausibility as we see it today of creationism the Genesis story that the world was created in BC - as a rival 23 24 Genius Explained account of the origin of life, suggesting that even in Darwin's time no genuine scientist could have seriously entertained the possibility of creationist alternatives to evolution.
Also, denigrators of Darwin have had their doubts fanned by knowing that at least some of his insights were shared by Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, and also by Patrick Matthew, a Scottish botanist who included the major elements of a theory of evolution in a book he wrote on the subject of trees.
Yet, even if it were true that the theory of evolution did not involve such a vast creative leap as some other scientific discoveries, the sheer immensity of Charles Darwin's achievement would be enough to justify our hailing him as a great scientist. Of all the Big Ideas in science, natural selection is possibly the most momentous.
It compels us to see the world differently. It explains how complex life arrived. It renders expendable the ancient shibboleth that the only way to account for the existence of plants and animals is to believe that they were placed on our planet by 'Design from Above'. The principle of natural selection has established that it is entirely possible for the human species to have evolved without supervision by all-knowing deity.
Darwin demonstrated that complex species gradually emerge from primitive forms of life. There has been no necessity for an overseeing Great Designer to take charge of the creation of species. A number of complications made the feat of forging the theory of evolution a far more difficult accomplishment than Darwin's critics have appreciated. For a start, the creationist accounts that were believed in his time to provide adequate rival explanations were far from being as simpleminded as the bald statement that the world was created six thousand years ago makes them seem to be.
Nineteenth-century creationist theorising was highly ingenious, to the extent that until early in that century accounts rooted in creationism had still seemed capable of explaining much of the available scientific evidence. Only then did it become incontrovertible that processes of gradual change were responsible for the present state of the world.
A second obstacle faced by Darwin was that in his time there was harsh and active opposition to evolutionary ideas. From the perspective of many people in positions of authority in the middle years of the nineteenth century, the very thought that evolution might have taken place threatened the established order of things.
The concept of an established order was central to a social and mental framework in which the existing divisions of wealth and power were regarded as being a natural and inevitable state of affairs. See also Newsome r The young Charles Darwin 25 Each person had been allotted to their particular station in life.
Interfering with the established social system was unnatural and dangerous. Above all, evolution was contrary to the will of God.
That way of thinking created in the minds of those who subscribed to it a moral climate in which evolutionary views were condemned and those who actively promoted them were persecuted. Even speculating about evolution was considered dangerously subversive. For those in power, the established system of Church and State, privilege and poverty, existed because that was the way the Christian God had appointed things, and it was important for that view to stay unchallenged. The belief in a Godgiven natural order propped up the whole system.
Without it, nobody could have gone on maintaining the pretence that there were ethical reasons for the rich hanging on to their wealth and opposing changes that might benefit the poor, and insisting, as they repeatedly did, that the injustices of an oppressive status quo were necessary and unavoidable.
Powerful individuals saw belief in the natural order as the only effective bastion against dangerous social viruses such as democracy and anarchy, two equally terrifying evils that threatened to plunge Britain into the turmoil so recently seen in France, across the narrow English Channel. A few brave and determined thinkers had arrived at evolutionary theories and succeeded in having them published, despite the prevailing climate of oppression. But another barrier to the creation of an adequate explanation of evolution remained, and mastering this further obstacle would take far more than courage alone.
Only a thinker with quite extraordinary mental resources would be capable of overcoming it. The problem Darwin faced was that he was at the same time having to describe the evolutionary changes that had taken place and also provide an explanation for them. Rather than simply having to explain known facts, it was also necessary to simultaneously discover what was being achieved by evolution.
Darwin was placed in an exceedingly difficult position. He had to discover the causes of biological changes without having a proper account of the precise nature of the changes that needed to be explained. It is immensely hard to explain something when there is considerable uncertainty concerning what it is that requires explaining.
Nevertheless, Darwin succeeded in doing just that. The reason why Darwin was confronted with such a confusing state of affairs was simple. Almost nothing was known about genetics. Had accurate knowledge about the principles of inheritance been available to Darwin at the time when he was working, the task of teasing together an evolutionary theory explaining how species adapt and change would have been a relatively straightforward one.
But in his time the way in which organisms reproduced themselves seemed to be a complete mystery, and 26 Genius Explained that situation did not alter until the end of the century, well after Darwin's death, when Mendel's findings concerning the inheritance of genetic characteristics became known. At the time Charles Darwin was grappling with the theory of evolution, biologists knew practically nothing about the passing-on of characteristics between generations.
Today, it takes an effort to comprehend just how little was known then about elementary truths about inheritance that ten-year-olds now take for granted. Yet in Darwin's lifetime nobody even knew what was actually transmitted from one generation to another. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century it had not even been verified that people inherited anything from their mothers at all.
It was widely believed that inheritance took place exclusively via the semen of the male. Because of these barriers to evolutionary thinking, enormous intellectual effort was needed in order to arrive at the theory of evolution by natural selection. So despite the simplicity of the principle that accounts for evolutionary change, Darwin's achievement was far from being an easy accomplishment. There may be no such animal as a 'typical' genius, but most can be placed reasonably comfortably within one or other of a number of categories, on the basis of shared attributes.
Darwin cannot. Most geniuses were remarked upon as being precocious while still children. Darwin was not. Many geniuses have had to struggle in order to make a living. Darwin never had to. Look closely at the display, and you can see smudge marks left by museumgoers pressing their foreheads against the glass. A magnifying glass positioned over one of the slides reveals a piece of tissue about the size of a stamp, its graceful branches and curves resembling an aerial view of an estuary. Other displays in the museum show disease and disfigurement—the results of something gone wrong.
Lady Murasaki for her literary inventiveness. Michelangelo for his masterful touch. Marie Curie for her scientific acuity. With no tools at his disposal other than the force of his own thoughts, he predicted in his general theory of relativity that massive accelerating objects—like black holes orbiting each other—would create ripples in the fabric of space-time.
It took one hundred years, enormous computational power, and massively sophisticated technology to definitively prove him right, with the physical detection of such gravitational waves less than two years ago. Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the very laws of the universe. But our understanding of how a mind like his works remains stubbornly earthbound. What set his brainpower, his thought processes, apart from those of his merely brilliant peers?
What makes a genius? View Images A century after Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space-time— in his general theory of relativity, scientists like Kazuhiro Yamamoto on bicycle plan to use the first underground gravitational wave telescope, KAGRA, in Hida, Japan, to explore what he deduced but could not detect.
Philosophers have long been pondering the origins of genius. None of them discovered a single source of genius, and such a thing is unlikely to be found. Genius is too elusive, too subjective, too wedded to the verdict of history to be easily identified. And it requires the ultimate expression of too many traits to be simplified into the highest point on one human scale.
Instead we can try to understand it by unraveling the complex and tangled qualities—intelligence, creativity, perseverance, and simple good fortune, to name a few—that entwine to create a person capable of changing the world.
Intelligence has often been considered the default yardstick of genius—a measurable quality generating tremendous accomplishment. Lewis Terman, the Stanford University psychologist who helped pioneer the IQ test, believed a test that captured intelligence would also reveal genius. The group included members of the National Academy of Sciences, politicians, doctors, professors, and musicians. Forty years after the study began, the researchers documented the thousands of academic reports and books they published, as well as the number of patents granted and short stories written about But monumental intelligence on its own is no guarantee of monumental achievement, as Terman and his collaborators would discover.
Several dozen flunked out of college at first.