Is isolation or networking the pathway to genius?

An exclusive chapter from 'The Genius Checklist: Nine Paradoxical Tips on How You Can Become a Creative Genius', by Dean Keith Simonton. Tip 9: Withdraw Alone to an Isolated Retreat / Social Network with Kindred Spirits!

The science of genius has largely been the pursuit of psychologists – scientists deeply fascinated with the individual human being. And of all human beings, creative geniuses count among the most fascinating groups they study. For the vast majority of us, the maximum we can hope for in the way of temporal immortality is a gravestone with an epitaph that remains legible to our kids and grandkids as long as they may live and care. In contrast, the geniuses who manage to create images, music, stories, ideas, proofs, theories, or inventions continue to leave an imprint for ages to come. Even when a creator’s specific ideas become utterly obsolete over time, his or her impact will most often persist as an irrevocable residual. In that sense, they still survive the test of time.

Are Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs now getting progressively replaced by much more efficient forms of electrical lighting, such as light-emitting diodes? No problem. Who first figured out how to distribute inexpensive and usable electricity to entire neighborhoods and even cities, and thereby light up the world? Without that enormous and enduring achievement, where would LED or any other electrical device or appliance be anyway? Have those old-fashioned Edison cylinders become progressively replaced by 78-rpm disks and then long-playing records, only to see themselves pushed aside by 8-track tapes, cassettes, CDs, and downloaded mp3s? So what? Who first conceived the preposterous idea of providing an inventory of popular music available for purchase for whosoever had the cash – even if that music lover lived in the middle of nowhere? After a recording session on December 2, 1889, anyone in the world could listen to Johannes Brahms himself introducing and playing an excerpt from his very own Hungarian Dance no. 1. See the point? The contemporary details might have changed, but the initial revolutionary concept continues to shape our lives. The very notion that we might press an on-button, and then listen to our favorite music anywhere in the world, is easily traced back to Thomas Edison. Do you have to recharge your smart phone or tablet first? He dealt with that problem as well with his extensive research on secondary storage batteries: you can even buy an “Edison” battery today!

Still, not everybody believes that psychologists have any business studying creative genius. Once upon a time, I was a first-year graduate student in the social psychology program at Harvard’s Department of Social Relations, which included sociology and cultural anthropology along with cognitive, personality, and social psychology. When I told one professor in the sociology wing of the program that I was interested in studying creative genius, he advised me that I had made a bad mistake: it was not a legitimate psychological subject, he said, because it was not a genuine psychological phenomenon! Any science of genius had to adopt a purely sociocultural perspective. Creativity was not a process that went on inside an individual’s head, but rather it was the output of a social and cultural system. I was informed that the validity of this sociocultural perspective was demonstrated by the frequent occurrence of multiple discoveries and inventions. Multiples, as I call them for short, occur when two or more creators conceive the same idea independently of one another.

Indeed, some of the achievements attributed to Edison are more properly considered multiples. For example, the exact same year that Edison patented his successful incandescent lamp in the United States, Joseph Wilson Swan, an English physicist and chemist, patented his own incandescent lamp in Great Britain. Because their respective inventions were sufficiently close in conception, Edison and Swan were obliged to join forces to create the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company, which eventually became known as Ediswan – and ultimately General Electric. Hence, a sociologist can easily argue that the incandescent lamp was not the unique creation of any singular genius. Instead, the concept was already “in the air” as part of the zeitgeist or “spirit of the times.” If Edison or Swan had not been born, the technology would have emerged anyway, albeit with different surnames attached. The very fact that they both patented their lamps in 1879, making their inventions not just independent but simultaneous, offers particularly telling evidence for the operation of sociocultural determinism. In that year, that specific invention seems to have become inevitable, no matter who was around to get the nominal credit.

Many other examples of  multiple  discoveries  or  inventions can be given: the calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; the new planet Neptune by John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier; the law of gases by Robert Boyle and Edme Mariotte; oxygen by Joseph Priestley and Carl Wilhelm Scheele; the periodic law of the elements by Alexandre-Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois, John Newlands, Julius Lothar Meyer, and Dmitri Mendeleev; the theory of evolution by natural selection by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace; the plague bacillus by Alexandre Yersin and Kitasato Shibasaburō; and the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray. The last multiple invention was as simultaneous as you can get, for the lawyers representing Bell and Gray showed up at the US Patent Office on the same day! Perhaps by some quirk, like which application made it to the top of the inbox, Bell’s got processed first – hence the Bell telephone instead of the Gray.

So why did I persist in getting my degree in social psychology rather than in sociology? As I sensed then – and show later – multiples are not what they seem to be. They certainly cannot be used as empirical evidence for the impact of sociocultural determinism. The individual creative genius remains critical, and such individuals continue to have a psychology worth studying – as already proven under previous tips. At the same time, my PhD was received in socialpsychology, which implies that I also am inclined to view creativity in a larger context. But before I get to get to that side of the phenomenon, let me first discuss the argument for viewing the creative genius as a social isolate.

The Lone Genius Rides Again!

The image of the “lone genius” is right up there in popularity with the “mad genius.” Here the expression can be used in two distinct senses. On the one hand, this pair of words might refer to the personalityof geniuses, which might make them less sociable or extroverted. On the other hand, the expression could refer to the creative productivityof supreme geniuses, which requires that they adopt a more isolated life style. Naturally, these two aspects are intimately connected insofar as the personality inclination should make the productivity possible in the first place. That connection will become more obvious below.


Personality: Loners, Introverts, and Workaholics

The English poet William Wordsworth once famously described Isaac Newton as “a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.” Nor is Newton alone in his aloneness. The inventory of eminent creators is crammed full of many other introverts if not outright loners: Frederic Chopin, Charles Darwin, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Lady Gaga, Bill Gates, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Piet Mondrian, Beatrix Potter, Ayn Rand, J. K. Rowling, J. D. Salinger, Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Steven Spielberg, Nikola Tesla, Jay-Z (Shawn Corey Carter), and Mark Zuckerberg – just to give a random list of  luminaries obtained through  haphazard internet searches.

The problem is that such lists do not help us much, besides providing potential sources of anecdotes and quotations (such as the one above involving Wordsworth and Newton). If introversion represents the opposite end of a roughly normal distribution with extroversion at the other end, then even in the general population we should expect a significant proportion of introverts. What we really need is empirical evidence that creative genius shifts the distribution toward the introverted end. Under Tip 2 we saw that highly eminent artists were more likely to score high on traits that would not support good social mixing, such as being antisocial, cold, unempathetic, impersonal, egocentric, and tough-minded. Whether by personal choice or by the rejection of others, such individuals would not likely have others gravitate to them!

Schizothymic and Desurgent Folks R. B. Cattell, an eminent psychologist who devised a major personality questionnaire prior to the advent of the Big Five factors I’ve discussed under previous tips, provides more direct evidence. In particular, distinguished scientists –physicists, biologists, and psychologists – were found to score unusually high on schizothymia and desurgency. Sorry about dropping those terms into the mix: Cattell was notorious for coming up with neologisms to describe his newly devised personality factors. In plain English, the great scientists were inclined to be “withdrawn, skeptical, internally preoccupied, precise, and critical” (aka schizothymic), and to exhibit “introspectiveness, restraint, brooding, and solemnity of manner” (aka desurgent). Besides testing contemporary scientists, Cattell also estimated personality scores for deceased scientists for whom sufficient biographical information was available and came up with the same results.

One of Cattell’s posthumously assessed subjects was Henry Cavendish, the English scientist best known for discovering hydrogen and for his ingenious experiments involving the accurate measurement of gravitational force. Cavendish later had the physics laboratory at Cambridge University named after him (a lab where 29 researchers have so far earned Nobel Prizes). How introverted was he? Cavendish rarely spoke to any male except with the fewest number of mumbled words, and never would speak with a woman at all, using written notes to communicate his orders to female servants. To avoid any human contact, he had a separate entrance to his house constructed for his exclusive use, and if any servant crossed his path, that poor soul would be fired right then and there! To escape unwanted social interactions on formal occasions, he would sometimes run away “squeaking like a bat.” No doubt Cavendish represents the extreme endpoint on the introversion-extroversion scale, but he illustrates how far creative geniuses can sometimes go to avoid even the most minimal socializing. The life of the party they’re not!


Cattell’s basic results have been replicated using different methods and samples. The introverted disposition even shows up in recreational activities. For instance, Ravenna Helson’s eminent female mathematicians were much more likely to engage in non-social leisure activities like listening to classical music records, reading the classics and other literature, and going for hikes. A similar pattern was seen in the 64 eminent scientists studied by Anne Roe. Rather than socializing, they vastly preferred “fishing, sailing, walking or some other individualistic activity.” Furthermore, this loner inclination had its roots in childhood, when it was typical for the future scientist “to feel lonely and ‘different’ and to be shy and aloof from his classmates.” This remark echoes what was said under Tip 7 concerning social adjustment problems too often faced by child prodigies. But that all 64 attained adulthood eminence, these problems didn’t prevent the youths from realizing their potential.

Strong, Silent Types I hasten to add that the introversion of creative geniuses does not necessarily mandate that they must be shy or timid. Although they very well can be, as Cavendish shows, introverts can display social dominance, too. Because they are highly independent and autonomous, they are often more likely to be socially assertive than to conform to group pressures. Hence, when they enter into collaborative relationships, the collaborators will often have to assume more subordinate roles. As Einstein himself confessed, “I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork, for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.” This social dominance can sometimes lead an introvert to be mistaken for an extrovert, but only for the latter is any dominance tightly connected with broader sociability. Extroverts really like being with others, whereas introverts prefer being alone whenever possible. Or rather, as in Newton’s case, introverts like being alone with their thoughts rather than having their minds bombarded by the thoughts of others.

Einstein’s reference to a “definite goal” is key. For introverts, the goal almost always is to solve some problem, to achieve a preset task, to get the specific job done. Collaboration just serves as an unavoidable means to that end – like when Einstein was obliged to take on collaborators to do the math that was way beyond his expertise. For extroverts, the goal is more often taken to encompass group cohesion. An explicit task is not necessarily excluded, but its attainment cannot undermine the esprit de corps. Yet the latter consequence becomes definitely more likely when a group member, and especially the leader, adopts an “antisocial, cold, unempathetic, impersonal, egocentric, and tough-minded” interaction style.

Recognizing this  distinction  in  social  orientation  leads  us to the core contrast: creative geniuses are considerably more prone to be workaholics – in the sense that they seem “addicted” to their work. They have set high aspirations for themselves, and believe it’s urgent to achieve them. Accordingly, Roe observed a standout feature of her 64 eminent scientists, namely, a “driving absorption in their work.” Recall from Tip 1 what Catharine Cox similarly said about the superlative persistence seen in her historic geniuses. Why the struggle to work, work, work? Let’s find out.

Productivity: Studios, Studies, and Laboratories

Back in Tip 1, given the choice to define IQ in terms of either tested intelligence or achieved eminence, I suggested that the latter enjoys superior long-term validity. A creative genius, in particular, attains  eminence  through  enduring  achievements in some culturally valued  domain  of  creativity,  whether  in the arts or sciences. Those creative achievements then rather directly determine contemporary and posthumous reputation. In fact, the single most powerful predictor of eminence is the total number of such achievements, or, since Tip 5, what we have simply been calling “hits.” On average, a one-hit wonder achieves less eminence than a two-hit creator, and the latter less eminence than a creative genius who generated has three distinct landmarks – the first, best, and last hit. Then there are the even greater geniuses who succeed in contributing multiple hits between the first and last hit. These are the folks with names like Thomas Edison, Galileo Galilei, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Niemeyer, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Sibelius, and Martha Graham – or you pick your own personal favorites. It just has to be a creator for whom you can identify more than a triad of creative achievements.

To be sure, the picture is complicated by the fact that creative domains differ in what can be considered a reasonable upper limit in the number of hits. Those who create in more modest forms can generate more hits than those who create in more ambitious forms – like songwriters versus opera composers or lyric poets versus novelists. It would definitely be most unfair to say a novelist is less eminent than a poet simply because the former created fewer novels than the latter created poems. Consequently, at the very minimum the eminence assessment must be rescaled according to the domain’s baseline expectation. For example, each creator’s total hit count might simply be divided by the maximum number of hits by creators in the same domain. Yet even after making that adjustment, the variation in the number of hits in any given domain is huge. Furthermore, the variation exhibits a very peculiar distribution.


The Lotka Law of Creative Productivity
Unlike IQ scores, which roughly conform to the normal distribution described by the bell-shaped curve, the distribution of hits is so skewed that the one-hit wonders enormously outnumber the multiple-hit all-time creators. To fully appreciate the magnitude of this disparity, just examine figure 9.1.

Here the number of creative geniuses is a function of the number of hits each created. The curve stops at one hit because anything less would disqualify the creator as a genius. However, the termination at 10 hits was for convenience only. The hits could total a greater or lesser number according to the domain, but 10 hits serves well as an estimate. Now notice the oddity: although fully 100 creators can be credited with only a single hit, and thus they become one-hit wonders, only onecreator pulled off the maximum of 10 hits, and thereby occupies the domain’s creative peak alone. Just as dramatic is the curve connecting these two extremes. The decline from the left to the right is not gradual but rather precipitous. To give the actual numbers, after 100 creators produce 1 hit each, 25 produce 2 hits each, 11 yield 3, and then 6 → 4, 4 → 5, 3 → 6, 2 → 7 and 2 → 8, and, finally, 1 → 9 and 1 → 10. Those are the exact numbers that generated the graph. The number of creators adds up to 155, meaning that those with 3 hits or more represent only 19% of the entire sample of creators.

The formula that produced those numbers was derived from the Lotka law. Like all laws in the behavioral sciences, it’s only an approximation, but it’s still a reasonable first approximation.

 

 

  

To get a better idea of how it might work in practice, we can use a concrete illustration drawn from the composers who have contributed lasting works to the operatic repertoire. For this purpose, I’ll use statistics drawn from an official guide to the works performed at the New York Metropolitan, one of the premiere opera houses in the world. According to this guide, just 150 works constitute the “great operas” in the repertoire. These 150 operas were the work of 72 composers, who each produced an average of little more than 2 operas each. Yet the actual output is far from egalitarian. More than two-thirds of those composers, or 49, contributed just one opera each, making them the one-hit opera wonders. These 49 include Luigi Cherubini, Léo Delibes, Friedrich von Flotow, Alberto Ginastera, Mikhail Glinka, Scott Joplin, Franz Lehár, Thea Musgrave, and many less known composers. On the other side of the distribution, solely two composers created 10 or more operas, namely, 10 by Richard Wagner and 15 by Giuseppe Verdi. Between these endpoints remain the 21 composers who produced the final 76 operas, which amounts to an average of less than four works each. In fact, the majority of these middling composers created just two or three operas. The very small minority who created between four and nine operas demarcates the beginning of the right-side tail of the distribution. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with his seven great operas, falls in this secondary group. All in all, becoming an acclaimed creative genius in the opera house looks rather difficult. The two most successful, Verdi and Wagner, represent only about 3% of the whole, yet they created 17% of the standard repertoire!

The same holds for any creative domain worth its salt. Producing enough hits to put oneself at the very tip of the righthand tail is by no means easy. As we learned under Tip 6, success often depends on having one failure or more. Even in the case of Mozart, his seven operatic hits represent only about a third of his total attempts. Cherubini’s hit rate in opera was only about 3%, about a tenth as small as Mozart’s. Moreover, a tremendous amount of effort lies behind every product no matter whether success or failure. Also, as I noted under Tip 6, the only route to a perfect product is an imperfect process—most often styled trial and error. Sometimes the imperfect process will yield one or more imperfect products before an acceptably perfect product emerges. Fortunately for the creator, the earlier versions are most often forgotten, inducing the misleading impression that the final result emerged like Minerva’s mythological birth from the head of Zeus.


All 
That Work So Oft for Naught! To illustrate, consider the opera Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven. Even though this represents the composer’s sole contribution to the operatic repertoire, it cannot count as his sole attempt. Beethoven’s efforts began when he was given the libretto to an entirely different opera. Although he composed some music for that abortive effort, he dropped the idea entirely when he got the libretto for an early version of Fidelio. The composer was sufficiently resourceful to salvage two pieces from the earlier attempt to rework into an aria and a duet for the new attempt. The first version of the opera was performed about a year later, but was not successful. A new librettist helped shorten the opera from three acts to two, with corresponding revisions in the music, but the result was still highly flawed. Yet a third librettist worked on it, and Beethoven continued to do the same, until the final version premiered – the one that remains a regular on the opera stage more than two centuries later. All told, composition took more than a decade, and the opera even went through a name change after starting as Leonore(the heroine’s real name) rather than Fidelo (the alias Leonore adopts when disguised as a male to save her husband from execution). As surviving testimony to Beethoven’s trialand-error efforts, the composer left behind three versions of the overture to Leonoreand one final version for Fidelio in which he had started all over again from scratch. Ironically, the best of the three Leonoreovertures (no. 3) had to be left on the cutting room floor because it was too good, seriously upstaging the opening scene that follows, as well as encapsulating the entire drama like one gigantic spoiler. Yet not all was lost, because that overture has now entered the standard orchestral repertoire as a stand-alone piece loved even by those concertgoers who hate opera. Such are the vagaries of creative genius!

The upshot is this: behind the scenes, creators are putting in an awesome amount of solitary effort just to produce a single hit on which they’ll try to hang their future reputation. This means hours upon hours in the studio, study, or laboratory with perhaps nothing whatsoever to show for it. This hidden work most often presupposes a willingness to spend many hours alone, with a pen, pencil, brush, or keyboard ready at the fingertips, to record some new idea, or revise some old inspiration. Is anyone else besides an introvert fit for this kind of grueling work? What Roe said of her 64 eminent scientists can easily be paraphrased to apply to opera composers, songwriters, poets, novelists, or another domain in which creative genius operates: “Each works hard and devotedly at his laboratory, often seven days a week. He says his work is his life, and has few recreations. … [These scientists] have worked long hours for many years, frequently with no vacations to speak of, because they would rather be doing their work than anything else.” At least the quotation suggests that there’s still a potential payoff. Creative geniuses enjoy their work. Better yet, every once and awhile, an idea emerges and evolves into something that the creators can be really proud of, something that will enable them to leave a permanent mark on the domain—and perhaps even something worthy of engraving on their tombstones.

But Golden Ages of Creative Genius!

As we learned under Tip 3, Thomas Edison had a great love for Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” one of the best-known poems in the English language. As a young man, Edison memorized, and would frequently recite, the oftquoted stanza:


The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

You don’t have to be a poetry aficionado to recognize the last line, or to recognize many other memorable inventions that have entered everyday language though the poem. Examples include “far from the madding crowd,” “celestial fire,” “the unlettered muse,” “some mute inglorious Milton,” and “kindred spirit,” the last showing up in the title of this, the ninth tip! The poem’s long-standing aesthetic impact is proven by the fact that it has been translated hundreds of times into more than three-dozen languages. Yet like Beethoven’s Fidelio, Gray did not write the Elegy in one go, in some flash of infallible inspiration. Instead, he struggled through two or more versions over a period of about eight years. The poem was definitely completed in solitude – the introverted poet had by then retreated to a small village to engage in intense literary studies – and it specifically narrates a solitary meditation on mortality. At the superficial level, the poem’s composition seems like an archetype of lone geniuses in action, contemplating their own death.

At a deeper level, though, this impression is completely wrong. Gray and his Elegy are so profoundly embedded in a larger context that a whole chapter could be written on the social psychology of the poem. To start with, the initial inspiration for it was the tragic loss of a beloved friend, and then its completion was likely ignited by the untimely death of a dear family member, who was buried in the churchyard featured in the poem (and where the poet himself was later interred). When he finally got something together that he was willing to share (apparently the penultimate version), he sent it off to a younger friend, Horace Walpole, who was later to become an important literary figure in his own right. Walpole actually voiced a much more positive view of the poem than the poet originally expressed; thinking it would make a big splash, Walpole quickly circulated the creation among his literary friends. After Gray added the concluding epitaph, Robert Dodsley, an older contemporary who was a notable poet, playwright, and bookseller, formally published the Elegy in 1751. Beyond such professional contacts, this poem is enmeshed in contemporary literary developments, like the advent of the graveyard school, as represented by Robert Blair’s “The Grave,” published in the mid-1740s, right about the time Gray began to write the Elegy. In addition, the basic structure of Gray’s poem – the “heroic quatrains” in iambic pentameter and abab rhyme scheme – had already been well established in earlier English poetry. The ideas contained in the poem may even betray some philosophical influences, such as the thinking of John Locke, the English empiricist active in the previous century. And who can miss Gray’s shout-out to his great predecessor, the English poet John Milton? When facts such as these are combined with the influences that the Elegy exerted on subsequent poetry, particularly among the later Romantics, it would be easy to reconstruct the poem’s date of composition from that contextual information alone. However introverted Gray might have been, the actual poem is encircled by a social network of causes and effects, poetic and otherwise.

So the time has come to yield the floor to the flip side of the ninth paradoxical tip. I’ll start with a broad view of those moments in history when we might speak of the creative genius of whole civilizations. Then I’ll narrow the focus a bit by scrutinizing the operation of creative domains. The two topics are irretrievably connected because the latter largely provides the engine behind the former. 

Genius of Civilizations: Creative Times and Places

I mentioned earlier how I first learned about multiples from a sociologist, but a cultural anthropologist in the Social Relations Department might just as well have informed me. In fact, it was an eminent American cultural anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber, who, back in 1917, first drew attention to independent and simultaneous discovery and invention. He specifically used the phenomenon to argue for the superiority of the sociocultural milieu relative the lone genius. The latter, in his mind, were just epiphenomena with no real causal relevance. Among Kroeber’s examples is the independent discovery of what are now known as Mendel’s laws of genetics, first discovered by Gregor Mendel in his classic experiments on inheritance in peas. This discovery happened in 1865, but did not have a big impact at the time. And then suddenly, three scientists – the Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, the German botanist Carl Correns, and the Austrian agronomist Erich von Tschermak – rediscovered the same laws in 1900. Because their discoveries occurred only a few weeks apart, they can be considered simultaneous as well as independent. Kroeber then argues that this event establishes a sociocultural determinism. In his own words, Mendelian heredity “was discovered in 1900 because it could have been discovered only then, and because it infallibly must have been discovered then.” Kroeber was using multiples in an explicit attack on Francis Galton’s individualistic theory of genius. Nor was this the only anti-Galton argument he used. Much later, in 1944, Kroeber published Configurations of Culture Growth, which reports a series of empirical studies on the comings and goings of creative genius in world civilizations. In civilization after civilization he demonstrates that such genius is not randomly distributed across time and place but rather clusters rather dramatically into Golden Ages and perhaps subsequent Silver Ages, separated by periods that can only be called Dark Ages, when creative genius all but disappears from the scene—or rather starts appearing somewhere else on the globe. When Western civilization entered its own Dark Ages not long after “barbarians” overran the Roman Empire, new Golden Ages of creative genius were emerging first in China under the Tang dynasty and then in Islam under the Abbasid caliphate. The geographic centers of creative activity shift just as the intensity of creative activity fluctuates within a given center. Typically, each creative center will rise from obscurity, climb relatively quickly to a high point, and thereafter decline somewhat more gradually into mediocrity, at times surviving long enough to witness its hegemony replaced by some other center.


T
wo Historical Episodes I offer two illustrations here, one verbal and the other visual. Starting with the former, Greek philosophy first rose in Ionia, with Thales at Miletus, and spread to other Greek cities in the Mediterranean, as when Pythagoras of Samos moved to Croton in Italy. But after about 150 years, Greek thought converged on Athens as its center in the Golden Age. The climax started with Socrates, continued with his student Plato, and then recruited Plato’s own student Aristotle, who emigrated from northern Greece. This Athenian triad defines the acme of ancient European philosophy – albeit the ideas of Socrates are only known through Plato’s famed Dialogues. The impact of the latter works can hardly be overstated. As the modern English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once noted, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Most of the notable thinkers who were active toward the end of Greek philosophy, such as Plotinus in Egypt and Damascius back in Athens, were in fact Neoplatonists. Yet we must not overlook Aristotle’s treatises on physics, biology, psychology, ethics, politics, poetics, rhetoric, logic, and metaphysics. These treatises exerted a profound influence on both Islamic and Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages. Indeed, in the Summa Theologica, which essentially defined Roman Catholic ideology, Thomas Aquinas cites Aristotle throughout, simply referring to him by the epithet “the Philosopher.” No proper name necessary! Almost a full thousand years after Plato’s Academy in Athens was closed down, the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael painted the masterpiece TheSchool of Athens in the Vatican. Dominating the very center of the fresco are the impressive figures of Plato and Aristotle. In contrast, poor Socrates paid dearly for his failure to publish his thoughts, for he’s shown lurking off to the left side!

Rather than offer a verbal description of a genius cluster, how about a visual representation? Figure 9.2 uses Kroeber’s very own data to graph the number of scientific geniuses in the history of Islamic civilization from 700 to 1300 CE.

Although Islam began with Muhammad in the early seventh century, scientific activity did not start until the eighth. Even so, the first half of the eighth century produced no scientist of note, but in the latter half intellectual creativity, including scientific activity, got a big kick-start with the founding of the illustrious House of Wisdom in Bagdad by the Abbasid caliphs Harun al-Rashid and, especially, his son al-Ma’mun. The state-funded enterprise  began  with  the  translation  of  masterworks  from other civilizations into Arabic. But from that impetus, emphasis quickly shifted to original work in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy (chemistry), medicine, biology, and geography, including cartography. The resulting Golden Age in science flourishes between 800 and 1050, during which every half-century produces a dozen or more great scientists, and the final century of that interval, from 950 to 1050, boasts at least two-dozen greats in each 50-year period.


A very partial list of even the most outstanding of these geniuses would name the mathematician al-Khwarizmi (the source for the eponym “algorithm”), the astronomer al-Farghani (after whom is named the lunar crater Alfraganus), the polymath Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West, where his Canon of Medicine served as a standard medical text for centuries), the astronomer al-Battani (whose work was often used by Copernicus), the mathematician and physicist Ibn al-Haytham (aka Alhazen, the founder of optics), the astronomer Ibn Yunis (who also has a lunar crater named after him), and the polymath and polyglot al-Biruni (who mastered mathematics, astronomy, physics, geography, mineralogy, pharmacology, mineralogy, history, and Indology, learning Sanskrit for the purpose). After 1050, the decline is unusually precipitous in total count. That said, quantity of names is not perfectly indicative of the quality of those named: the last half of the 11th century features Omar Khayyám, one of the great polymaths of history – as if the Islamic Golden Age of science wished to end not with a whimper but with a final bang!
 

Origins of Cultural Configurations Given the ubiquity of configurations similar to the one depicted in figure 9.2, the obvious next question is where they come from. Like Kroeber argued, Galton’s genetic determinism must be dismissed from the get-go. Even the most draconian eugenics program could not possibly have increased the gene pool sufficiently fast to explain the Golden Ages of Greek philosophy or Islamic science. The configurations just come and go way too fast. Hence, it’s necessary to turn from nature to nurture for an explanation. The nurture account involves two types of environmental influences, external and internal.

External influences concern broad political, religious, economic, social, and cultural circumstances that impinge on the civilization, and which can deflect creativity up or down from baseline expectation. Actually, I already suggested this type of influence under Tip 3 when I mentioned Alphonse de Candolle’s objection to the genetic determinism that Galton put forward in Hereditary Genius. Candolle had collected data showing that the uneven distribution of scientific genius among European nations could largely be attributed to contrasts in contextual variables that either supported or repressed scientific activity. Empirical research certainly endorses the impact of external conditions. For instance, in my Harvard doctoral dissertation I demonstrated that creative florescence in a civilization was a positive function of fragmentation into numerous independent states. The Golden Age of Greek philosophy certainly took place when Greek civilization displayed such fragmentation. Although warfare does not exert any broad impact, catastrophic instances definitely can. In the case of the Golden Age of Islamic science, it is significant that the House of Wisdom was utterly destroyed when invading Mongolian armies conquered and sacked Baghdad in 1258. After all, the lowest post-peak portion of the configuration shown in figure 9.2 appears in the latter half of the 13th century.

What about internal influences? Here we’re talking about processes more intrinsic to the emergence of creative genius. Under Tip 3 I discussed how domain-specific mentors play a very important role in the development of creative genius. This was illustrated for Nobel laureates in figure 3.1. This developmental effect can be broadened to encompass all domain-specific role models who are potentially available in the prior generation. Just growing up in a milieu provided with an ample supply of active creative geniuses should facilitate creative development. The younger  generation exposed  to  these exemplars  would then prove more likely to become creative geniuses themselves.


Empirical studies of Western, Islamic, Chinese, and Japanese civilizations show that the number of creative geniuses in one generation tends to be a positive function of the number of creative geniuses in the previous generation. The creativity of each generation is thus building upon the creativity of its predecessors. More details about how this internal mechanism works follow below.

Genius in Domains, Fields, and Networks

The creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi may be a psychologist, but he still advanced the position that creativity is not a purely psychological phenomenon. Instead of creativity taking place within an individual’s head, it is something that comes out of the interaction between the individual and a specific domain and field – the three components of his systems model. The domain is defined by a specific set of ideas, concepts, definitions, theorems, images, themes, materials, genres, styles, methods, techniques, goals, criteria, and so forth. Obviously, the ideational sets would differ greatly between artistic and scientific domains. Whereas on the one hand, Picasso’s paintings could include nudes (however distorted beyond recognition), Einstein’s scientific papers never did; on the other hand, Einstein’s papers almost always contained recognizable mathematical functions, such as differential equations, but Picasso’s paintings never did. Even so, closely related domains will share some of their ideational content. The mathematical sciences rely heavily on the calculus, for example. If you don’t see the standard symbols for integration, differentiation, or some other operation,  then  it may not represent a mathematical science. To be sure, Einstein’s brief paper in which he derived what eventually became known as E = mc2  contains no calculus whatsoever, but the derivation was based on a much larger paper published earlier that year, which did use calculus quite extensively.


In contrast, the field consists of all those creators who are active in the same domain. These individuals include both predecessors (such as mentors) and contemporaries (such as colleagues and rivals). What they all share is the expertise and capacity to make creative contributions to the domain and to evaluate the contributions made by others. Picasso belonged to the field of early 20th-century painters and sculptors, among them Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Henri Laurens, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, and Diego Rivera; Einstein belonged to the field of early 20thcentury theoretical physicists, including Max Born, Niels Bohr, Peter Debye, Arthur Eddington, Paul Ehrenfest, Max Planck, and Arnold Sommerfeld. In the sciences, fellow creators in the field are heavily involved in peer evaluation, so that those members determine acceptance of submitted manuscripts and grant proposals, as well as decide who receives major awards, such as Nobel Prizes. In the arts, however, evaluations often come from persons who are incapable of making creative contributions themselves but nonetheless can judge good work when they see it. These are the patrons, art dealers, editors, impresarios, connoisseurs, critics, and consumers of novels, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, film, and so on. These recipients of artistic expression indeed may have opinions that differ from the creators themselves. In the domain of cinema, for instance, it is rare for a blockbuster to win critical acclaim.

The latter complications aside, the field plays the principal part in deciding the additions and subtractions to a domain – for creative domains cannot remain static over time and still remain creative. Once the field of chemists reached a consensus that phlogiston theory no longer worked, the very concept of phlogiston disappeared forever from the domain. (You can still find out what it is by googling it!) Once the field of biology realized that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (to use Theodosius Dobzhansky’s noteworthy proclamation), then evolutionary theory became a mandatory component of the domain for all biologists. Antoine Lavoisier changed the domain of chemistry, just as Charles Darwin altered the domain of biology—but only after their revolutionary ideas had passed muster within their respective fields.

Analogous transformations occur in artistic domains as well. Colin Martindale, who I discussed briefly under Tip 4, devoted most of his career to showing how literary domains change over time. (His initial focus was French and English poetry.) Although poets at a particular time and place usually work under the constraints of a given aesthetic style, they are constantly driven toward increased originality within that style. As each poet surpasses the originality of their predecessors, the bar is raised for subsequent poets. Because this growth cannot go on forever, the style completely breaks down after a few generations, requiring replacement by a new style, like a shift from baroque to neoclassical or from neoclassical to Romantic. When this shift takes place, the very contents of the domain of poetry transform, such as the favored vocabulary, preferred themes, acceptable structures, and permissible metaphors. In the early Romantic period, the English poet William Wordsworth wrote “The Leach-Gatherer.” Yes, it centers on a poor old man who was obliged to make ends meet by collecting blood-sucking worms for medical use by walking barelegged into marshes! That very choice of a dark metaphor for the poet’s life would have been completely off limits for a pristine neoclassicist like Alexander Pope for whom all images came in polished marble!


Creative 
Cycles By now it should be clear that the individual, domain, and field interact to generate a cyclic process. The individual creator extracts from the domain the fundamental resources for generating potentially creative products. The field then evaluates these submitted products to determine which are worthy of explicit inclusion within the domain. At that point the potential creative products become actual creative products, via the field’s consensus. The domain thus changed with additions and subtractions, a new batch of individuals pulls out a modified set of ideas, which then provide the foundation for more products. Moreover, it must be evident that a primary means by which a given generation acquires the domain-specific knowledge and skills is through the major creators active in the prior generation – those who can serve as domain-specific teachers, mentors, and role models. Consequently, Csikszentmihalyi’s three-part cycle offers the underlying basis for Kroeber’s configurations of culture growth.

Now, as the cultural configuration ascends toward the peak, the number of contemporaries – peers active in the same domain – necessarily increases. That’s what happens in a Golden Age. Such peaks do not represent a single phenomenal creative genius existing without  contemporaries.  In  fact,  despite occasional exceptions like Omar Khayyám mentioned above, quality is positively correlated with quantity: the more total creators in a given period, the greater the greatest creators in that same period tend to be, on average. What this implies is that the greatest creative geniuses of history have the biggest opportunity to form relationships with multiple creators active in the same field. But do they actually do so? Or do they take the route of the lone genius, and lock themselves away in a remote retreat, never to be known to the world?


Creative 
Networks The correct answer to the above questions is that the top-notch creators apparently take full advantage of the social opportunities available at the acme of the configuration. The resultant networking with “kindred spirits” is seen in both artistic and scientific geniuses. In the former case, one study examined 772 painters and sculptors in the Western artistic tradition from the Renaissance to the 20th century. The more eminent the artist, the greater the number of direct interconnections with other eminent artists. Besides mentors in the prior generation, these relationships could entail rivals, collaborators, associates, friends, and co-pupils, as well as apprentices in the following generation – so that the network links at least three generations.

Parallel results were found  for  2,026  eminent  scientists. Newton may seem like a typical lone genius, yet he participated in controversies, rivalries, and competitions with 5 notable contemporaries, established friendships with 7 greats, and accumulated 26  professional  contacts with various  eminent correspondents, colleagues, or other associates. Nor were these relationships trivial or  peripheral. Newton’s friendship with Edmund Halley was instrumental in the eventual emergence of the Principia, much like Gray’s friendship with Walpole facilitated the publication of the Elegy. And Newton’s priority dispute with Leibniz over who first invented the calculus became an international cause célèbre that shaped the course of the history of mathematics. However introverted Newton’s inherent  personality, professional relations of one kind or another could often override that disposition when his scientific impact was at stake. In the end, the members of your field represent your core constituency, whether you’re an artist or scientist. The poet W. H. Auden made this point a tad crudely:


The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow-poets. The actual audience he gets consists of myopic schoolteachers, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias, and his fellow-poets. This means that, in fact, he writes for his fellow-poets.

Even after Einstein became an enormously popular icon of his era, recognizable to millions of non-scientists all over the world, he still endeavored to impress his fellow theoretical physicists, not the average person on the street. His unified field theory did not fail because it was pop physics, but because it was bad physics.

Creative Decline Yet one crucial issue remains, as I suggest in the following questions: Why is the rise of the cultural configuration followed by the fall? Why can’t the output of creative genius rise to ever-greater heights? Or, at the minimum, why shouldn’t a civilization’s creative florescence level off once the “carrying capacity” is reached, like the logistic curve describing population growth? Kroeber himself explained decline in terms of the “exhaustion” of the given cultural pattern. Each civilization begins with a set of possibilities that are used up in the process of becoming fully actualized by its creative geniuses. After the peak of the configuration, which represents the “classic” culmination of these possibilities, the remaining generations are left with increasingly more scraps or dregs, until further efforts become more pedantic or conforming or imitative than truly innovative. If creative geniuses can run out of ideas after their own career peaks, like Jean Sibelius and J. D. Salinger definitely did (as I discussed under Tip 8), why can’t the civilizations of which they are a part do the same? Sounds pretty depressing, like the prognosis of the “end of science” briefly mentioned in the prologue. If this is a valid inference, then the only remaining curiosity is when we should expect the forthcoming Dark Ages to arrive! Do we need to make plans?

Happily, revivals can take place. I noted above how Martindale’s empirical work indicates that poetic creativity in a given literary tradition might reboot by adopting a  novel  artistic style once the old one has already been run into the ground. Modern English poets stopped writing like Shakespeare long ago, yet there’s plenty of great modern poetry to go around. At the level of the whole civilization, this cultural resuscitation often requires the intense infusion of ideas from alien civilizations. This infusion can result from extensive travels abroad by natives or substantial immigration from foreign cultures (recall the discussion under Tip 3 about the high creativity of immigrants). Such a cultural remix can renew a civilization’s creative activity – as occurred in East Asia when Buddhism arrived from far-away India. The same booster shot can even launch an entirely new civilization from ground zero.

A stark example of the latter contingency is Bagdad’s House of Wisdom, which I introduced above. In the late eighth century, the classic civilizations of Europe, the Middle East, and Northern India were already well past their prime. Yet a huge store of extant books in Greek, Persian, Syriac, and Sanskrit bore record of prior creative glories. The Abbasid caliphs then recruited not just Muslims, but also Christians and Jews, to translate these works into Arabic in order to create what was soon to become the largest library in the world—and thus ignite the “configuration of culture growth” graphed in figure 9.2. So amazingly thorough was this effort that many masterworks of antiquity are only known through their Arabic translations! Can creativity in modern civilization continue to thrive by similarly adopting an active incorporation of the best that other world cultures have to offer? If so, which cultures? How many? And how deep?


Genius and Zeitgeist Coexist!

Under Tip 6 we saw that even the most perfect creative products must emerge from imperfect creative processes or procedures that rely on some version of trial and error. This observation can be integrated with Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model to yield a comprehensive theory of creative genius in a sociocultural context. The integration again starts with the domain containing the complete set of ideas. From this domain, each individual member of the field extracts a personal sample of domainspecific knowledge and techniques. I say “sample” because it is very rare if not impossible for most creators to fully master an entire domain. It would most often take a lifetime to do so, leaving no time left for creativity! Moreover, this restriction reflects the fact that during the acquisition of domain-specific expertise, individuals will be exposed to variable sources of information— different teachers, courses, textbooks, graduate programs, mentors, and so forth. In addition, because highly creative people display much more openness to experience, they will often add some idiosyncratic elements to their developing expertise. Recall how George Green taught himself a different calculus than he would have learned had he enrolled in calculus classes at any university in Britain. Furthermore, the acquired expertise may even include ideas well outside the domain proper. Remember the examples of Galileo and Gell-Mann cited under Tip 5. The net result is a highly personalized sample of the domain’s ideational contents with putatively extraneous elements thrown in for better or worse.


In any case, at a certain point, the individual switches from an emphasis on creative development to an emphasis on creative productivity. As we saw under Tip 7, this transition most commonly occurs when the creator reaches the mid-20s. Then the ideas making up the creator’s personal sample will become subjected to combinatorial processes or procedures. Why combinatorial? Because we have solid reasons to believe that all creative products represent combinatorial outcomes. To begin with, creative geniuses themselves have left introspective reports that stress their reliance on the capacity to freely generate ideational combinations. Thus, Einstein reported that “combinatorial play” constituted “the essential feature in productive thought.” The French mathematician Henri Poincaré provided a more vivid description of this combinatorial play when he mentioned a creative episode in which “ideas rose in clouds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.” The combinatorial nature of the products is also evident in the products themselves. For instance, the Canadian philosopher Paul Thagard has carefully analyzed 100 top discoveries and 100 top inventions, demonstrating that each and every one can be interpreted as a unique combination of various ideas. We also see the combinatorial status of creative products in the arts. For example, the computer programs that most successfully simulate artistic creativity all operate according to a combinatorial mechanism.

Critically, the ideational combinations are generated without knowing beforehand which will work and which not, and thereby arises the need to engage in trial and error, generation and test, or blind variation and selective retention – whatever is your favorite term. Because bad combinations must vastly outnumber the good ones, some selection must be introduced. Such selection operates at two main levels. First, the creators themselves offer an initial assessment of what they think might be worthy of presenting to the field. If the combination passes this personal assessment, then it enters into a potentially creative product. Second, the field itself evaluates the submitted product to determine if it contains any new ideas that deserve entrance into the domain – through publication, performance, exhibition, construction, or some other appropriate means. As I’ve already noted, the domain thus altered, subsequent creators acquiring expertise within the domain will necessarily work with modified personal samples, and the cycle continues.

At this juncture, it should have become manifest that the sociocultural context – the zeitgeist or “spirit of the times” – is located at two distinct places in this modified systems model. At the onset of the cycle, the domain largely defines what ideas will enter into the combinatorial hopper for those individuals who will create in that domain. I say “largely” rather than “entirely” because each individual extracts a different personal sample, a sample that may also bring in ideas outside the domain. At the end of the cycle, members of the field select whatever combinatorial products they believe, by collective consensus, deserve to be added to the domain. Between the onset and the end – intervening between the domain and the field – dwells the creative genius. After all, the combinatorial processes and procedures will usually operate within singular human minds. Even in collaborations and problem-solving groups, each collaborator or member will walk away with a set of ideas that will inevitably undergo further combinatorial play in moments of solitude, whether during a daytime hike in the woods or experiencing a nighttime reverie before the fireplace. A disposition toward introversion becomes very handy insofar as it permits these solitary moments to even take place. Extroverted individuals who prefer to remain completely immersed in social interactions from morning to night would have their own creativity accordingly truncated. Trial-and-error thinking consumes time, much alone time.

But it’s now time to return to the phenomenon that inspired my whole interest in the genius-versus-zeitgeist debate.

Multiples Deconstructed

The above three-system conception of creativity has some startling implications regarding multiple discovery and invention. I said at the beginning of this tip that multiples are not what they seem. To see why, consider four key issues regarding the appearance of multiples in science and technology: autonomy, similarity, inevitability, and simultaneity.

Autonomy versus Dependence

Many so-called multiples are not truly independent and so shouldn’t be counted at all. According to the model, a time gap exists between the individual’s conception of an idea and its eventual incorporation into the domain, and thus become certified public knowledge. A lot can happen within that interval, especially if the earlier creator delays publication for any reason. For example, two Englishmen, Chester Moore Hall and John Dollard, have been credited (three decades apart) for independently inventing the achromatic lens. The 1728 date attributed to Hall is somewhat misleading because he didn’t patent his invention at that time, but kept it a secret in order to create the first refracting telescope largely free of color distortion. (Newton had said that such a telescope was impossible; hence he invented a reflecting telescope.) Through a somewhat convoluted chain of events, Dollard found out about Hall’s concept, and because he had already been working on that very problem, he was in the perfect position to reconstruct Hall’s secret device. So in 1758 Dollard obtained the patent, not Hall. Even so, it would be stretching the definition of multiples beyond recognition to say that Dollard’s invention was autonomous relative to Hall’s. From Hall, Dollard learned it could be done.

In the above episode, Dollard was perfectly honest. He didn’t even enforce his patent during his lifetime (albeit his son did so after dad died). But sometimes a less scrupulous individual will claim an autonomous discovery without proper acknowledgment of a direct influence. Discussions of the multiple discovery of oxygen by Priestly and Scheele sometimes added a third name, that of Lavoisier. Although Lavoisier deserves credit for recognizing oxygen as a separate element, and for coining the name as well, he failed to disclose that he already knew about the prior discoveries. Scheele had sent him a letter on that very point, and Priestly advised Lavoisier of his discovery when visiting him in his laboratory. Not good ethics!

Similarity versus Discrepancy

The “multiple” invention of the achromatic lens entailed almost exact duplicates – the combination of two lenses made of different shapes and materials that jointly canceled out the chromatic aberration produced by each. Yet most so-called multiples are very remote from representing genuine duplicates. If different creators operate on idiosyncratic personal samples drawn from the same domain, the odds are infinitely small that a blind combinatorial mechanism would generate absolutely identical combinations. For example, although both Newton and Leibniz can be credited with inventing the calculus, their two versions were radically different. Newton’s version was so cumbersome, restrictive, and unintuitive that it inhibited the progress of abstract mathematics in England for more than a century. The version used in calculus classes all over the world today is that of Leibnitz, not Newton.

Many so-called multiples are so divergent that nobody recognized them as similar at the time. It was only much later, with the retrospective blurring of the details, that the act of lumping together overruled the splitting of hairs, thus unifying disparate concepts under a single generic concept. For instance, although steam turbines can be consolidated into a single generic “multiple,” their separate designs are so contrasting that the very term multiple becomes meaningless.

Inevitability versus Coincidence

If we delete all putative multiples that were neither autonomously conceived nor truly identical, then a residual remains of genuine examples. A case in point is the Pelton water wheel, an invention that can also be credited to F. G. Hesse (even if the two conceptions had rather contrasting conceptual origins). Yet these bona fide multiples still differ regarding their grade, that is, the number of independent discoveries or inventions actually involved. Some multiples are grade 2 (“doublets”), others grade 3 (“triplets”), still others grade 4 (“quadruplets”), and so on. If multiples were generated by a deterministic process, as required by sociocultural determinism, then high-grade multiples should be far more common than low-grade multiples. Yet the absolute reverse holds. The frequency of a multiple grade declines very precipitously with the magnitude of the grade, rendering the doublets far more common than all of the other grades put together. Worse still, “singletons” that represent discoveries or inventions conceived only once outnumber all of the multiples of any grade whatsoever.

Tellingly, these empirically observed grade frequencies correspond very closely to what is known as the Poisson distribution. Why is that particular distribution important? It just so happens that the Poisson distribution is most descriptive of events that have such a low probability that any co-occurrence must be extremely rare. For instance, the Poisson distribution described the number of Prussian officers killed by a horse kick in a given year! Need I add that this empirical result throws any deterministic explanation, sociocultural or otherwise, immediately into the trashcan? Instead, the finding is far more supportive of the conclusion that the combinatorial mechanism is driven mostly by chance. This inference falls right into line with what we learned earlier about the place of randomness in creative productivity. Indeed, not only are hits a probabilistic consequence of the number of attempts, but a creator’s participation in a multiple is a probabilistic consequence of the number of hits. The more prolific, the higher the odds of duplicated effort.

Simultaneity versus Rediscovery

But sociocultural determinists might protest, “What about all of the simultaneous multiples?” Shouldn’t their appearance compel us to infer that at a specific moment in history, a particular discovery or invention becomes absolutely inevitable? Like Kroeber argued with respect to the supposed triplicate rediscovery of Mendel’s laws? There are two big problems with this argument.

First, too many supposed multiples are far from simultaneous. For example, although one empirical inquiry found that a fifth of all multiples occurred within a single year, more than one-third required a time delay of a decade or more before all independent claims were complete. The rediscovery of Mendel’s laws offers an obvious case given the 35-year delay between the monk’s original discovery and the later rediscoveries. If the zeitgeist renders a particular discovery or invention absolutely inevitable at a specific moment in history, then where does this temporal slippage come from? How could Mendel be “ahead of his time” if the times are responsible for the discovery in the first place? Nor can it be argued that the zeitgeist varies by nation, so that Mendel’s Austrian ortgeistwas somehow more advanced that of the Netherlands (de Vries) or Germany (Correns). The other supposed co-rediscoverer, Erich von Tschermak, was also Austrian, and Tschermak’s maternal grandfather had actually taught Mendel botany when Mendel was a student at the University of Vienna! That explanation just doesn’t resolve the discrepancy.

Second, the degree of simultaneity is most likely indicative of a totally different phenomenon. Rather than indicate the causal convergence of mysterious sociocultural forces at a specific instant in history, simultaneity may reflect the rapidity by which a new idea is published and disseminated. As our systems model has it, some lapse of time may be required before the individual submits the ideational combination to the field for evaluation, and some more additional time before the novelty enters the domain sufficiently to become well known. Hence, as this evaluation and communication process becomes more efficient, simultaneity should increase regardless of the initial likelihood of the particular idea. In point of fact, the mean time interval between duplicates has decreased from around 86 years in the 16th century to about 2 years in the 20th century. Better yet, because more effective dissemination of knowledge more quickly slams the door on further multiples, the expected grades of multiples should decrease, and that’s the case as well. With the advent of the internet, simultaneity has likely increased all the more and multiple grades correspondingly decreased. Nowadays, a big discovery or invention will be posted on some website almost instantaneously, at once terminating any opportunity for a multiple to occur.


Epitaph

Given the foregoing four points, multiples cannot possibly be taken as proof that creative genius represents a mere epiphenomenon. The sociocultural system is fundamentally incapable of supporting the hypothesized deterministic effects. Individual creativity still exists, notwithstanding the prominent role played by the domain and field. Contrary to what some sociologists and cultural anthropologists might have believed, sociocultural determinism is dead and buried! If Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, or Einstein had died in their cribs, the world of physics would look very different today! The same can be said about any other domain of achievement had the creative geniuses who eventually shaped it come to that same fate.

Just as significant, even with all of the networking going on, ample room still remains for an introvert to prosper. So, please feel free to sneak off to your studio, study, or laboratory! You don’t have to stay on Facebook all the time!

The Genius Checklist by Dean Keith Simonton will be published by the MIT Press on 25th September 

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