Do genes make a genius?

Genius and the Mind
June 25, 1999

Michael Rutter weighs up current theories of the origins of genius.

It is impossible not to be intrigued by the question of what qualities make someone a genius as distinct from just a highly gifted individual. What was special about Mozart that differentiated him from, say, his contemporary Salieri? What enabled Darwin, despite his very limited formal training, to see the significance of the variations in animal characteristics he observed in the Galapagos islands (and other parts of the world) and, thereby, to come up with a mechanism for the process of evolution?

This book seeks answers to questions such as these. In his introductory chapter, the psychologist Andrew Steptoe describes the book as an attempt to apply modern knowledge of the social, emotional and biological factors that influence behaviour to the topic of exceptional creativity. He argues that the purpose is to illustrate the ways in which contemporary psychological research can deepen our understanding of the mental processes of exceptionally creative individuals generally recognised as geniuses. To this end, different writers provide accounts of geniuses in fields as diverse as philosophy (eg Mill), biology (eg Darwin), music (eg Mozart), mathematics (eg Ramanujan), literature (eg Byron) and science (eg Faraday). It is clear that genius means much more than high intelligence; it is not at all synonymous with highly specialised talents as exemplified in idiot savant skills; and it is far from confined to infant prodigies. So what is it? Michael Howe argues that there is no necessary connection between prodigy and genius but states that, as neither can be defined, only qualitative studies are possible (ie those that seek subjective meaning rather than quantitative measurement). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, by contrast, claims that creativity exists only in its public recognition; accordingly, creativity and public persuasion cannot be separated.

In his foreword Roy Porter notes from the perspective of a social historian that geniuses have appeared in all shapes and sizes, and at all times and places, so that no single pattern or even groups of patterns stand out. There have been child prodigies, but also creative people who were intellectually undistinguished when young (some were even regarded as rather stupid). Some have burnt themselves out fast whereas others sustained their originality over immensely long careers (Picasso is an outstanding example). That sounds like a counsel of despair when searching for unifying themes, although Porter doesn't put it in that way.

The book seeks answers through four different routes. First, there are studies of highly skilled performance (but extending well beyond genius). Thus, Andreas Lehman and K. Anders Ericsson present a convincing case that many aspects of musical performance have improved dramatically over the past several centuries. They attribute the gains to improvements in instrumental design, innovations and advances in performance technique, increased time spent in practice, greater specialisation and optimisation of training. Similar claims, backed up by good evidence, have been made in relation to the comparable spectacular improvements over time in athletic performance. Attention might also have been drawn to the much greater pool of talent provided by the huge increase in the number of people having access to music or sport. The value of practice and training cannot be doubted but performance and creativity are not identical.

Much the same applies to David Lykken's review of genetic influences. The evidence is compelling that these play a major role in individual differences in intelligence and it would be very surprising if that didn't also apply to extremely high cognitive talent and to exceptional intellectual creativity. Nevertheless, direct supporting evidence is largely lacking. Lykken rightly notes that all the people regarded as scientific geniuses stand out, not just in their obviously very high general intelligence, but also in their unusual mental energy, intense curiosity, zeal for discovery and unusual interest in seeking meaning. He quotes the anecdote about a distinguished visitor to Srinivasa Ramanujan, the mathematician, who remarked that he had ridden in taxicab number 1729 and hoped that such a dull number would not be a bad omen. Ramanujan replied: "No, it's a very interesting number; it's the smallest number expressible as a sum of two cubes in two different ways!" Numbers were Ramanujan's whole life and he thought endlessly about them. Lykken notes the extraordinary pursuit of solutions shown by geniuses. Newton is reported as saying: "I keep the subject constantly before me and wait until the first dawnings open little by little into the full light." Keynes is quoted as noting that Newton's peculiar gift "was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen it through. I fancy his preeminence is due to his ... intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which any man has ever been gifted". It is noteworthy that, like most authors in this book, Lykken makes extensive use of individual examples of genius.

The second approach comprises a main focus on individuals viewed as geniuses. They are interesting in both their similarities with respect to the apparent importance of very strong intrinsic motivation and their heterogeneity with respect to upbringing and family background. Many came from quite exceptional families with all that that meant in terms of both favourable genes and unusual learning experiences, but some did not. Faraday was the son of a blacksmith who left school at 13; his family was highly supportive but he was largely self-taught. Ramanujan was born into a highly religious poor Indian family who recognised his exceptional mathematical mind and sought to foster it. His amazing mathematical feats in adolescence were followed by exam failures because he refused to pay attention to anything other than his mathematical interests. Robert Albert, in discussing both Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy (the extremely gifted but more academically conventional English mathematician) draws on a broader literature that has compared the traits of the unusually creative and the less creative but very talented. On the whole, the IQs of the former are estimated to be higher but perhaps they are most distinctive in their self-motivation, their nonconformity and their resolution in following their own paths.

Gordon Claridge seeks to apply modern methods of psychiatric diagnosis to ten writers (including John Ruskin and Virginia Woolf) and concludes that there are several meeting points between psychosis (in its various forms) and creativity. He claims the findings do not suggest a single explanatory model. That seems clear enough, but neither do they shed much light on the meanings of the possible connections. The same applies to Kay Jamison's interesting essay on Lord Byron and his tumultuous passions. Perhaps, too, it may be significant that the psychiatric focus is on creative artists. Would the same apply to scientists? Certainly they include some highly unusual people but it is less easy to make a strong case that mental illness fostered scientific creativity.

The third approach is provided by quantitative analyses of larger numbers, seeking to discern what they have in common. In that connection, Steptoe considers Vasari's analyses of the characteristics (as assessed from biographies) of 123 outstanding painters, sculptors and architects in the 16th century. Social courtesies, hard work and sophistication seemed characteristic, with eccentricities and mental instability much less evident. Steptoe queries whether different adaptive qualities apply in different eras.

The final approach - quantitative analyses of the output of creative individuals, so-called histiometrics - is exemplified in the chapter by Dean Simonton and colleague examining Shakespeare's scholarship. Their findings bring out some striking aspects of his writing but cannot be said to illuminate either the nature or origins of Shakespeare's creativity.

Where does that leave our understanding of genius? Not much further forward, I think. Although it is evident that most infant prodigies do not develop into geniuses, the connection the other way round seems much stronger. Although not necessarily conventionally successful in childhood, most show clear evidence of strikingly unusual talents when young. Very few individuals with highly specialised "savant" skills are unusually creative but many geniuses clearly had highly developed talents that were important to them. High intelligence seems a sine qua non but very few people - even with an outstandingly high IQ - come anywhere near genius level in their accomplishments. The personalities of geniuses seem pretty varied but almost all show a quite exceptional degree of dedication, persistence, curiosity, self-motivation, and hard work.

Nature or nurture? Almost certainly an interplay between the two. It seems most unlikely that people can be schooled or trained to become geniuses. Geniuses stand out from others in their mix of unusual qualities and it may be presumed that nature played a significant role in their origin. On the other hand, their own behaviour usually led them to have quite unusual experiences and frequently the support of their families exerted a key influence. The book succeeds in showing that a range of research approaches may be informative about genius and creativity, but I share Roy Porter's scepticism about the contributions of quantitative science so far. Maybe the future will bring greater rewards. Maybe. In the meanwhile, this book provides an interesting, thought-provoking read.

Sir Michael Rutter is professor of developmental psychopathology, University of London.

Genius and the Mind: Studies of Creativity and Temperament

Editor - Andrew Steptoe
ISBN - 0 19 852373 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £29.50
Pages - 4

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