Genius. The word beguiles, but do I really know what it means? It comes to us from the Latin genius, but it meant something very different in Roman times. Back then, a genius was a presiding deity that followed you everywhere, much like a helicopter parent only with supernatural powers. (The word genie stems from the same root.) Every person had a genius. Every place, too. Cities, towns, and marketplaces, all possessed their own presiding spirit, a genius loci, that continuously animated them. The current dictionary definition—“extraordinary intellectual power esp. as manifested in creative activity”—is a product of the eighteenth-century Romantics, those brooding poets who suffered, suffered for their art and, we’d now say, for their creativity, a word that is even more recent; it didn’t come along until 1870 and wasn’t in widespread use until the 1950s.

Some use genius to describe a very smart person—someone with a high IQ— but that is overly narrow, and misleading. Plenty of people with extremely high IQs have accomplished little, and conversely, plenty of people of “average” intelligence have done great things. No, I am speaking of genius in the creative sense—as the highest form of creativity.

My favorite definition of creative genius comes from researcher and artificial- intelligence expert Margaret Boden. The creative genius, she says, is someone with “the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable.” Those also are the criteria the US Patent Office uses when deciding whether an invention deserves a patent.

Francis Galton was one of the first meteorologists. He coined the phrase nature versus nurture. He had an IQ of nearly 200.

Galton’s motto was “Count whenever you can!” To him, anything worth doing was worth doing numerically, and he once confessed that he couldn’t fully grasp a problem unless he was first able to “disembarrass it of words.”

The world did not pay much attention to Galton’s beauty map, but it did take notice of his landmark book, Hereditary Genius. Published in 1869, it delved deep into the family pedigrees of eminent creators, leaders, and athletes. Galton believed that these people owed their success to genetics, or what he called “natural abilities.” For Galton, genetics explained everything. It explained why one family might contain several eminent members and another none. It explained why societies with many immigrants and refugees were often successful, since these newcomers “introduced a valuable strain of blood.” It explained why some nations succeeded more than others (elucidated in a chapter with the unfortunate title “The Comparative Worth of Races”). It explained the decline of once-great civilizations—the ancient Greeks, for instance, had begun to intermarry with “lesser” peoples, thus diluting their bloodline. In the end, it explained why every one of his geniuses was a white man, like him, living on a small, gloomy island off the coast of continental Eu- rope. As for women, Galton only mentions them once, in a chapter called “Literary Men.”

Galton’s book was well received, and no wonder. It articulated, in scientific language, what people had suspected for a long time: geniuses are born, not made.

His notion of hereditary genius, though, was dead wrong. Genius is not passed down like blue eyes or baldness. There is no genius gene; one genius has yet to beget another. Civilizations do not rise and fall because of shifting gene pools. Yes, when it comes to creative genius, genes are part of the mix, but a relatively small part, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, psychologists estimate.

The geniuses-are-born myth has been supplanted by another myth: geniuses are made. On the face of it, this seems true. It takes hard work, at least ten thousand hours of practice, over ten years, to begin to approach mastery, let alone genius, as one well-known study found. Modern psychology has, in other words, unearthed empirical evidence for Edison’s old saw about success being 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration.

This component, sweat, adds another piece to the picture, an important piece. The picture, though, remains incomplete. Something is missing. But what?




The Geography of Genius
Eric Weiner



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