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From Isaac Newton to the Genius Bar

Why it’s time to retire the concept of genius.

Geniuses are a dying breed.And yet, they seem to be all around us. We live at a time when commentators speak without irony of “ordinary…By Darrin M. McMahon

Geniuses are a dying breed.

And yet, they seem to be all around us. We live at a time when commentators speak without irony of “ordinary genius” and claim to find it everywhere. From the “genius bar” at the local Apple Store to bestselling books that trumpet “the genius in all of us,” geniuses seem to abound. But if we consider the idea of “genius” as it has evolved across history, it starts to look like we don’t really need geniuses as we once did. It may be that we don’t need them at all. The increasing banality of genius in the contemporary world has begun to dissolve it as a useful category.

The modern genius emerged in 18th-century Europe as the focal point of a secular devotion of the sort previously reserved for saints. Like the prophets of old, these geniuses were conceived as higher beings endowed with natural gifts—intelligence, creativity, and insight took the place of grace. They, too, were granted a privileged place in the order of creation. As one astounded contemporary asked of Isaac Newton, among the first exemplars of the modern genius, “Does he eat, drink, and sleep like other men?” His virtues, commented another, “proved him a Saint [whose] discoveries might well pass for miracles.” Newton had revealed the laws of the universe—had he not?—he had seen into the mind of God.

Just like their saintly predecessors, the bodies of “geniuses” were treated as holy relics. Upon his death in 1727, Newton was buried in Westminster Abbey, resting place of the saints, and though his skull and bones were left intact (contemporaries marveled instead at his tomb, his death mask, and the many items he had owned and touched), the remains of other geniuses were picked over and venerated as the relics of the special dead. Three of Galileo’s fingers were detached when his body was exhumed in 1737; Voltaire’s heart and brain were absconded with at his death in 1778. Admirers fashioned rings from the repatriated bones of René Descartes during the French Revolution, and the skull of the great German poet Schiller was housed in a special shrine in the library of the Duke of Weimar in the early 19th century.

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Much of the early genius science was predicated not only on the belief in the natural superiority of the few, but on the natural inferiority of the many.

In the decades that followed, bits and pieces of genius were trafficked and traded across Europe: the skulls of Haydn and Goya, the heart of Percy Bysshe Shelley, shards of Beethoven’s skull, locks of Napoleon’s hair. Even a bit of flesh purporting to be the latter’s penis traded hands for good money. As the Austrian critic Edgar Zilsel observed in his 1918 study, fittingly entitled Die Geniereligion (the Genius Religion), “We worship the relics of our great men, their autographs and locks of hair, their quill pens and tobacco cases, like the Catholic Church worships the bones, implements, and robes of the saints.” To behold a relic of genius was to search for the lingering trace of a force that had once animated the flesh and still beckoned beyond the profane. To those unable, or unwilling, to satisfy their yearning for the transcendent by other means, the cult of genius as it took shape in Europe provided an outlet for displaced religious longing.

Trophy Lives: Throughout history, body parts of geniuses—shards of Beethoven’s skull, locks of Napoleon’s hair, slices of Einstein’s brain—have been treated as holy relics.Wikipedia

Yet even as worshippers were gazing in sublime wonder at the memento mori of genius, scientists were beginning to seek the roots of genius in human physiology. Physiognomists and phrenologists sought to discern the singularity of superior minds in the folds of the face and the bumps of the skull. Physicians and psychologists looked for what they called genius’s “stigmata,” the outward signs of that rare inner force they confirmed by indicators such as neurosis, eccentricity, and mental disease, their work motivated by the scientific empiricism and rationality of the dawning age of Enlightenment. Moved by a desire to establish the natural and biological basis of human difference, this work began responding to the emergence of a contrasting claim—that all human beings are created equal. 

The political and philosophical belief in human equality which rose to the fore in the same century that witnessed the birth of the modern genius, and in the context of the American and French Revolutions, raised a troubling question that many Enlightened scientists and statesmen tried to answer: If men and women were no longer to be ruled according to the hierarchies of blood and birth that had long divided the many from the few, how then should modern societies be arranged? Who was most fit to lead? Thomas Jefferson was far from alone when he hoped that a “natural aristocracy” based on “worth and genius” might emerge to replace the “artificial aristocracy” of wealth and birth. In the 19th century, “geniologists”—scientists who studied genius—played a critical role in the search to single out a new kind of natural-born elite. Pioneers in the application of modern statistical methods such as Francis Galton attempted to measure the distribution along the bell curve of what he called, in his 1869 magnum opus of that name, Hereditary Genius. By Galton’s calculations, geniuses—those “grand human animals, of natures preeminently noble, born to be kings of men”—appeared statistically on the order of one in 10 million.

Einstein was in many respects the last of an already endangered species.

Galton was not only a leading student of genius, but the father of eugenics, a connection that underscores the extent to which much of the early genius science was predicated not only on the belief in the natural superiority of the few, but on the natural inferiority of the many. To insist on the genius’s special election was to “protest” vehemently, as Galton put it, against “pretensions of natural equality.” By highlighting the natural (and hereditary) endowments of grand human animals (animals who were invariably white European males of supposedly superior stock), thinkers such as Galton aimed to combat what they saw as potentially leveling influences of modern mass society by legitimating the rule of natural elites. Geniuses were needed in this reckoning to guarantee, as Galton’s acolyte, the American psychologist Lewis Terman, put it in his 1925 book, Genetic Studies of Genius, “a nation’s resources of intellectual talent.” Terman continued, “The origins of genius, [and] the natural laws of its development, are scientific problems of almost unequaled importance for human welfare.”

A key architect in creating and instrumentalizing the IQ exam, Terman scoffed, like Galton and the great majority of genius scientists, at the religious implications of the genius cult. He set out to combat the “influence of current beliefs, partaking of the nature of superstitions, regarding the essential nature of the Great Man, who has commonly been regarded by the masses as qualitatively set off from the rest of mankind, the product of supernatural causes.” And yet the irony is that by isolating the statistical outliers of genius on the extreme end of a bell curve, the work of scientists like Galton and Terman served to reaffirm those superstitions. Geniuses were set off qualitatively from the rest of humanity, prodigies of nature whose natural endowments allowed them to do wondrous things. Geniuses possessed powers that made them kings.

In the first half of the 20th century, the prospect of geniuses ruling in sovereignty over the masses enthralled regimes as varied as Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. When Vladimir Lenin, the “genius of the revolution,” died in 1924, Stalin invited elite brain scientists to Moscow to probe the “material substrate” of the genius’s genius. As Leon Trotsky had declaimed the year before, “Lenin was a genius,” and “a genius is born once in a century.” The chance was not to be missed. In Nazi Germany, scientists made studies of their own, while joining in a widespread cult of genius that helped propel Adolf Hitler to power. Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, spoke for many Germans when he hailed the Fuhrer as a “genius,” the “natural, creative instrument of divine fate.”

This excessive and often perverse worship of political leaders as supermen or saints helped create conditions for the demise of the modern genius. In the aftermath of World War II, the worship of “Great Men” was rendered suspect, while associations with eugenics cast aspersion on much of the science of genius. Scientists themselves largely abandoned the term, reserving it for the notable exception of Einstein. Hailed as “the genius of geniuses” and as a “saint,” Einstein was in many respects the last of an already endangered species.

For it was more than just revulsion at the excesses of the genius cult and the science that propped it up that threatened the genius with extinction. Gradually, society shifted to bear out a prophecy made by that great 19th-century analyst of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville: Geniuses would become more rare as enlightenment became more common. Tocqueville believed that with the steady extension of education, equality, and opportunity to ever wider sectors of the population, what had once been concentrated in the exceptional few would slowly be “divided equally among all.” To some degree Tocqueville felt this as a potential loss—he believed that modern democracies leveled and flattened, pulling down those who would strive to stand above the crowd. But rather than mourning the diminution of a certain sort of towering genius, he looked with anticipation toward the tremendous possibilities that might arise if a nation were to marshal more of its human potential. Tocqueville understood there could be immense strength in numbers—that many heads could be better than one.

We have created a new variety of the species, which threatens to overrun us all.

Modern democratic societies have, to some degree, seen Tocqueville’s prophecy come to pass. We now rightly detect genius in different colors, genders, and cultures, and we appreciate its manifestations beyond the realms of science, statecraft, and the high arts to which genius was classically confined. So too do we appreciate the creative potential of networks and the collective nature of creativity, invoked as the “genius of groups” or the “wisdom of crowds.” We celebrate the power of collaboration evidenced in Silicon Valley or “idea factories” such as Bell Labs, which at its height employed close to 1,200 Ph.D.s, producing one stunning innovation after the next (along with 13 Nobel Prizes). We insist, more than ever, that creativity and talent—even genius—exist in a multiplicity of forms. Some scientists now speak of “emotional intelligence,” and “multiple intelligences.”  Others, such as the psychologist Anders Erickson, have conducted studies that illustrate the critical role of “deliberate practice” and exposure in fostering expert achievement, denying that genius is in the genes. And still other scientists stress that even if certain aptitudes or abilities are largely innate, nature scatters its array of seeds widely. Even the pioneer of the general intelligence factor (g) and arch-hereditarian Charles Spearman was prepared to admit, “every normal man, woman, and child is… a genius at something.” 

Such healthy pluralism can have its absurdities, of course, suggesting a world not unlike Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all children are above average,” replete with “Baby Einsteins and Baby Mozarts.” A thriving self-help literature purrs comfortingly about the hidden “genius within” and instructs readers How to Be a Genius and How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, providing Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. Apparently, there is genius in everyone now, at all times, and in all things. The title of a recently published sex-guide for women sums up the situation: Penis Genius.

This is the paradox of genius in our time: On the one hand, the world we inhabit is an inhospitable place for that creature first conceived in the 18th century as a human of sacred exception; on the other hand, we have created a new variety of the species, which threatens to overrun us all. The risk inherent in this situation is of obscuring genuine differences in aptitude, capacity, and ability, while at the same time becoming apologists for the real inequalities of opportunity and resources that might foster those differences. Recent data on the widening education achievement gap between rich and poor paints a troubling picture of a nation all too ready to squander its human potential.  Despite our desire to “leave no child behind,” we do so every day, which prompts the terrible question: How many children living among us have the potential for genius that we’ll never know?  As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once observed, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Which is not to say that we should mourn the passing of the genius as first conceived in the 18th century. That creature has outlived its cultural usefulness, and perhaps it is time to say the same of the more recent varieties. By kicking the habit of genius, we might better be able to cultivate what is just as important and in the long run more essential to human civilization: the potential in all of us.

Darrin M. McMahon is a professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of Divine Fury: A History of Genius and Happiness: A History.

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