Big brains and big reputations aside, da Vinci, Bach, and Aristotle have little in common. Despite our digging into their minds and works, the origins of their aptitude have been elusive. Were the births of these intellectual rarities as arbitrary as they seem?
In his new book The Geography of Genius, travel writer Eric Weiner proposes we take a different approach to discovering geniuses — focusing less on the individuals and more on the places that raised them. Da Vinci, after all, grew up a stone’s throw away from Michelangelo in Florence; Aristotle was just one of a handful of great minds in Ancient Athens. People are not, he argues, born geniuses, but instead molded by their environments. Weiner explored the history of the world’s most famous intellectual hotbeds — cities like Hangzhou, Calcutta, and Vienna — to prove it. Understanding what it takes to make a genius, he says, could help us cultivate some of our very own.
Weiner talked to Inverse about the importance of the bubonic plague, the death of the Renaissance man and woman, and why we should look to Berlin and Estonia for history’s next great minds.
We often think geniuses are discovered, not cultivated. Your focus on geography suggests otherwise. Are we missing something?
We’re shaped by our location much more than we think. Where we are affects who we are. I’ve written before about how that affects our happiness or spiritual fulfillment, and it struck me that creative genius was overlooked. We think that geniuses just sprout randomly and have nothing to do with the place and environment. That struck me as wrong. It seemed like a topic rife for exploration.
You point out that all of the physical and temporal “locations” where geniuses are found have one big thing in common: a looming sense of chaos or tension. Why is that so necessary?
Creativity is a reaction to a challenge. When we respond to a challenge in new, useful, and surprising ways, the result is often creativity — sometimes, in rare cases, creative genius. If there is a paradise, if you can picture such a place, it would probably be the least creative place in the world because there would be nothing to push against and nothing to create.
What’s your favorite example of genius sprouting from chaotic or challenging places?
The two best examples from my book were from Ancient Athens — it was just not a very easy place to live. The land was barren; they didn’t grow a lot of food; they were surrounded by enemies — they lived, even by the standards of the day, not very well. Another example would be Florence in the 16th century, after the city was hit by the bubonic plague and wiped out. Not even two generations later, the Renaissance happens — I think partly because the pot had been stirred, and the social structure had been shaken up. Catastrophe seems to always precede these golden ages.
On a personal level, all geniuses tend to have a messy side, to some extent: Einstein’s hair, Beethoven’s apartment, the list goes on. There have been studies done that find when you put people in a crazy setting, a messy setting, they will produce more creative ideas than people who are sitting in a spotless office.
There seems to be a level of emotional messiness that plays a role in cultivating genius. Does the same idea apply?
It does. To be clear, not everyone who experiences this emotional turmoil becomes a genius. In fact, it seems like if you experience that trauma at a young age, there are two paths that become open to you: depression or creative genius. A disproportionate amount of geniuses throughout history lost a parent at a young age. But why some people become geniuses and others flip into despair, I don’t think anyone knows. That’s one of life’s great mysteries.
You’ve found that places with large numbers of immigrants appear to produce a disproportionately large number of geniuses. What makes these newcomers so important?
A large number of creative geniuses were immigrants. Einstein, Marie Curie, and Sigmund Freud, to name just three. The typical explanation was they were hungrier so they worked hard — harder than others — but that doesn’t explain the whole story. Really what I think what’s going on, [is that they have what] one psychologist calls an oblique perspective to the city that they moved to. They see things differently, [so] they do things differently.
What also happens is that there’s a creativity contagion. The people around a genius are more likely to be creative. An example is if you’ve always eaten with a knife and fork and you don’t believe there is any other way to eat except with a knife and fork. Then, here comes an immigrant from China who’s using chopsticks, and here comes one from South India who’s using his hands. You may not start using chopsticks on a regular basis or eating your food with your hands, but you’ve been opened up to the possibility of possibility that there might be another way of eating your food. And then if there might be another way of eating your food, there might be another way of thinking about math or writing words.
Does specializing — you seemed to rail against getting a Ph.D. — remove that “possibility of possibility?”
I don’t necessarily rail against Ph.D.s, but I do point out that you’re specifically less likely to become a genius if you have a Ph.D. than if you don’t. I do rail against specialization, though. I do think that it is one of the great impediments to creative genius and explains why we have fewer geniuses today than centuries past. Genius is about connecting dots and making useful and surprising connections that others don’t. If you’re really sequestered to your own field or specialty, then you’re not going to make those connections.
That’s a real problem. The reason we don’t have a Renaissance man or woman today is because you’re not really allowed to cross boundaries. If you’re a biologist, you’re not allowed to give an opinion about economics or vice versa. I realize some degree of specialized knowledge is necessary, but specialists don’t talk to each other.
Michelangelo wouldn’t have been recognized as a genius today, would he?
He wouldn’t have an opportunity to pursue so many different fields. He’d be told to choose. “You want to do art or aeronautical engineering? Make up your mind.”
Are geniuses usually not recognized in their own time?
I don’t think there’s such a thing as unrecognized genius — that just doesn’t exist. You may be doing work that is later considered genius. A lot are recognized in their time, but some — two examples I give are Bach and Van Gogh — were not recognized until decades after they died. That is when they became a genius, when they were recognized. You can’t separate the creative act from the recognition. You actually need both to rise to the level of genius.
So have there been some who have slipped through the cracks.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is to say they never became geniuses. It takes the recognition of genius to be a genius, so they never became geniuses. Maybe they have something that’s worthwhile that is worthy of the label “genius,” but until we apply it, we don’t know. If you were to write a novel you’re convinced is the best ever, but no one will publish it, I don’t know if you can say you slipped through the cracks. If 100 years from now, someone discovers your manuscript and thinks it’s great, then at that point you’ll be a genius.
Given everything you experienced during your travels, do you have a prediction for what city might be the next hotspot for geniuses?
I don’t. I don’t see a lot of bright lights, partly because of the problem of specialization. Berlin is obviously a creative city right now: it’s both in the art scene and to some extent in the high tech scene, and it’s good when you have disparate fields like that because they tend to play off from one another. So in the short term, I’m optimistic about Berlin.
In the slightly longer term, maybe some place like Tallinn, Estonia, which is where Skype was invented and where there’s a free flow of information. It has a strong culture, and it’s a small country with something to prove.
So much of recognizing genius, it seems, depends on what societies want.
We get the geniuses that we want and that we deserve. We get the geniuses that we’re capable of recognizing. So, if we — as a society — don’t have a deep appreciation of classical music, I don’t think we’re going to find a Beethoven or Mozart, no matter how talented they are. Instead of focusing so much on thinking creatively and being creative, we should focus at least as much on cultivating an environment that recognizes creativity. You can’t forget that part of the equation.