Is Genius Inherited?

Strong motivation and inheritance both play a critical role.

Posted Jul 15, 2017

 "Geniuses are born not made," is a time-honored and broadly held conviction, applied both by popular and sophisticated believers.  All so-called geniuses are included: persons of high accomplishment in the arts and sciences; those in a wide variety of social, political and commercial fields as well as persons who seem destined for high achievement; others already manifesting skill and accomplishment but who are quiet and diligent and as yet unrecognized. As most clearly and dictionary defined, however, genius is the manifestation of extremely high level capacity and intellectual accomplishment. With respect to creativity, therefore, use of the literal term "genius" is slightly confounding in that all products of genius, for example, the consistently outstanding performance of a standard surgical procedure or constant and good problem solving are not necessarily creative. Contrariwise, all creative products such as a new and valuable computing program, are not necessarily the work of genius. Nevertheless, genius and creativity may frequently meaningfully overlap, especially in science. There is wide consensus also that creativity and genius consisting of high skill and capacity, although not necessarily of extraordinary intellect, may overlap in literary, musical and artistic fields.

The scientific evidence for the conviction that geniuses are born, not made, or that creativity is inherited, is very meager, currently in fact it is virtually non-existent. In addition to the famous but unreliable study of father to son transmission of genius by Francis Galton, other studies done since then based on occupational inheritance and temporal and national distribution have yielded very variable and essentially negative results.   One important positive reason for the persistence of the idea, I believe, is to give geniuses their due. The relationship between genetic transmission and environmental influences, although today increasingly understood and clarified, remains in specific cases somewhat of a mystery. The designation "genius" is an honorific based partly on that mystery. A belief that someone of very high accomplishment, or even potentially high accomplishment, is "born that way" designates an inviolate capacity. No-one else is responsible for the accomplishments--except indirectly the parents' genetic makeup--and no person or influence (except poor health or injury) can change or reduce the capacity. The person is highly endowed, completely special, and worthy of high accolades. On the other hand, a negative reason for holding the absolute genetic conviction is that all persons who know they are not such geniuses can feel reassured. The mysterious piece of luck simply did not occur to them and, moreover, they need not strive to such attainment. Geniuses, they may conclude, don't necessarily deserve a lot of personal credit for exceptional capacities and outcomes; those were thrust upon them by birth.

Although there is no direct evidence for the genetic basis of genius or creativity, one factor deserves distinct consideration, particularly with respect to science—intelligence has indirectly been shown to have strong genetic transmission. This factor, in one form or another, has been important for creative accomplishment in all of the branches of science. Although it is only one of the cognitive factors involved and therefore not causally sufficient in itself, the high degree of complexity and the breadth and quantity of scientific knowledge particularly has required a well above average level of intelligence (not empirically determined) for creative accomplishment.   The scientific intelligence requirement provides one explanation for the well established observation that creative achievement in mathematics tends to fall off after the age of forty. High intelligence is particularly vital in mathematics and human intelligence (still measured by standard I.Q.tests) characteristically rises to a peak in the years between twenty and thirty and then begins to recede. All of this does not perforce apply to so-called "idio-savants," persons with special capacities in fields such as mathematics or music but with deficiencies in other cognitive areas such as logic and means-end reasoning. Their genetic and developmental patterns are not clearly understood. 

Coordinated with genetic factors of intelligence and other undefined types of capacities, developmental factors involving nurture and upbringing very likely play an important role. I have carried out a study that suggests that one of the most important characteristics of both highly creative persons and geniuses, intense motivation to discover and create, develops from particular kinds of family backgrounds. These backgrounds consist of the presence of at least one influential family member, usually the parent of the same gender, whose occupation was the performance or applied (including technological) equivalent of the offspring's field of scientific accomplishment. For example, mathematician/physicist Einstein’s father who was an electrical engineer, biochemist Linus Pauling's father was a pharmacist; atomic physicist Seaborg's father was a machinist.      

Beyond these examples, I have assessed the pattern of performance/applied equivalent occupations present among the parents of 435 Nobel laureates in the sciences (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine) from the first Nobel Award year to a recent one. The number of parents of both genders who were in the same occupation as their Nobel laureate offspring, i.e. investigators, professors, and pure scientists, including parents who had been previous scientific Nobel laureates, was only 11 out of the entire 435 (2%). In contrast, 53 percent of same-gendered parents of the entire Nobel laureate group were in one or more of 18 types of performance equivalent occupations such as agriculture, electrical, engineering, pharmacy, horticulture.

To rule out experimental biases based on achievement and eminence, I compared these results with those of two independently studied groups: 548 internationally eminent men and women such as Henry Kissinger, J. Edgar Hoover, Emma Goldman, and 560 high IQ non-prize winning persons living during the same period as the Nobel laureates in the United States. For the internationally eminent persons the proportion of parents in the same occupation as their offspring was 20% in significant contrast with the 2% of parents of Nobel laureate scientists. This indicated, therefore, that there was no evidence of direct inheritance in the Nobel laureate group based on occupation. For the second group, very high IQ men and women followed throughout their lives by Terman et al, only 17% were in the performance/applied equivalent occupations, another significant contrast with the science Nobel laureates.

Another finding was that a statistically significant number of same gendered parents of science Nobel laureates in applied or performance equivalent occupations, a large number had unfulfilled wishes to have a scientific career. This suggests a specific developmental background inducing strong motivation in Nobel laureate offspring. Children are frequently strongly influenced by parental inclinations and unfulfilled wishes. The high incidence in this parental population suggests positive identification with the parents and the living out of their wishes and dreams. Also, there was likely a more overall vocation related positive identification with same-gendered parents in performance/ applied equivalent fields. Together with such identifications, an individuating competition with the same-gendered parent must often have occurred. The developing scientist both identified with those parents in a general way and competed to go further and outdo them. Both the loving component of interest and sharing of those parents’ applied scientific type of work and the aggressive wish to supersede in a related field with far greater social recognition were likely to be present. The three motivating factors together, vocation related identification, living out the parent's unfulfilled wishes, and competition, would serve as powerful incentives to achieve, and may well account in good measure for the motivation for scientific achievement at the highest level possible.

Both general and particular scientific skills, it can be assumed, were transmitted from parents in the related performance/applied equivalent occupations. All of these types of occupations involve interests and activities related in some way to scientific work. Given a likelihood of transmission of component skills, it is possible that gene expression, recessive and dominant, may also have occurred. Such expression requires interaction with other genes as well as environmental influences, however, for the development of creative potential. It is likely that factors such as direct training, support of interests, and modeling by performance/applied equivalent occupation parents all combined with whatever genetic factors might be involved.


Rothenberg, Albert  FLIGHT FROM WONDER: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity. Oxford University Press, 2015

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