The Myth of Genius

Is unusual creativity present at birth?

Posted Sep 02, 2011

There is no doubt that some individuals, such as Steve Jobs, make enormous contributions to their fields that dwarf the efforts of peers in terms of practical consequences, intellectual advancement, creative achievement, and so forth. Such achievement is partly due to environmental factors. Otherwise, which individuals rise to the top is due either to genius talent or unusual dedication.

Why are Jobs and his ilk so remarkable? Many people are fond of claiming that they are geniuses, that their superior ability was present at birth, and that such latent superiority blossomed when given a favorable environment. The role of genetics is limited, however, accounting for only about a quarter of differences in scores on creativity tests, with family environment being more important (1).

The favorable environment proviso is well supported by the fact that when creative accomplishments are analyzed as a function of place and time, they are clustered in space and time.  Whether it was Aristotle's Athens, Michelangelo's Florence, Shakespeare's London, Picasso's Paris, or Jobs's Silicon Valley, great achievers have always been concentrated in time and space as Charles Murray has documented in exhaustive detail (2). Such concentration provides compelling evidence that creativity flourishes in some environments but not in others and highly talented persons are drawn to such centers like moths to a flame.

Why the genius concept does not stand up
People of great accomplishment tend to be highly intelligent. Yet, the view that creative geniuses accomplish more on account of their inherent ability does not stand up. When intellectually gifted children were followed up in middle age, their creative achievements were astonishingly small according to a celebrated study by Lewis Terman (3). High intelligence may be necessary for creative accomplishment but it is clearly not sufficient.

Also arguing against the genius concept, achievement in most creative fields calls for a lot of work and effort. Mastery requires many years of single-minded pursuit. Music and performance arts are something of an exception where child stars emerge much more quickly thanks, presumably, to specialized talents with which they may indeed be born given that musical ability runs in families.

For most other endeavors, achievement is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Nevertheless, we like to attribute great leaps of achievement to individuals of superior talent or insight. Take Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution by natural selection that influences all contemporary research in biology, the social sciences, and various other fields.

It is true that without the insight of evolution by natural selection biology would be very different today. On the other hand, this insight would have existed without Darwin. Indeed it was independently developed by Alfred Russell Wallace, albeit some 20 years later.

Yet, few people think of Wallace as a transformative creative genius, if they think about him at all. The main reason seems to be that Darwin worked much harder than Wallace to apply the theory in his empirical research winning the genius accolade through sheer perspiration.

Why the genius concept is so popular
So why are people so willing to ascribe great achievement to inherent genius? It may be less psychologically threatening than the alternative. As we account for our own humble accomplishments compared with genius-level achievements, there are two compelling possibilities.  Either Jobs, or Einstein, or Galileo, or Napoleon, or Mozart, or Tolstoy, made better use of their time and opportunity than we have. Or else each had inborn genius in their chosen field that propelled them to greatness.  Attributing their accomplishments to genius rather than effort lets us off the hook in the effort department.

Genius may be a comforting fiction. For it helps explain why most of us do not achieve at the highest level in our chosen field: we are not geniuses. The trouble is that there is little compelling evidence in psychology for any such latent superiority. The concept of the genius may be comforting to the rest of us. Yet, it remains a fiction.

1. Waller, N. G., Bouchard, T. J. Jr., Lykken, D. T., Tellegen, A., and Blacker, M. (1993). Creativity, heritability, familiality: Which word does not belong? Psychological Inquiry, 4, 235-237.
2. Murray, C. (2003). Human accomplishment: The pursuit of excellence in the arts and sciences. New York: Harper Collins.
3. Terman, L. M., and Oden, M. H. (1959). The gifted group at mid-life, thirty-five years follow-up of the superior child. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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