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Is Genius Born or Can It Be Learned?

5 minute read
John Cloud

Is it possible to cultivate genius? Could we somehow structure our educational and social life to produce more Einsteins and Mozarts — or, more urgently these days, another Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes?

How to produce genius is a very old question, one that has occupied philosophers since antiquity. In the modern era, Immanuel Kant and Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton wrote extensively about how genius occurs. Last year, pop-sociologist Malcolm Gladwell addressed the subject in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.

The latest, and possibly most comprehensive, entry into this genre is Dean Keith Simonton’s new book Genius 101: Creators, Leaders, and Prodigies (Springer Publishing Co., 227 pages). Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the intellectually eminent, whom he has studied since his Harvard grad-school days in the 1970s. (See pictures of Albert Einstein.)

For most of its history, the debate over what leads to genius has been dominated by a bitter, binary argument: is it nature or is it nurture — is genius genetically inherited, or are geniuses the products of stimulating and supportive homes? Simonton takes the reasonable position that geniuses are the result of both good genes and good surroundings. His middle-of-the-road stance sets him apart from more ideological proponents like Galton (the founder of eugenics) as well as revisionists like Gladwell who argue that dedication and practice, as opposed to raw intelligence, are the most crucial determinants of success.

Too often, writers don’t nail down exactly what they mean by genius. Simonton tries, with this thorough, slightly ponderous, definition: Geniuses are those who “have the intelligence, enthusiasm, and endurance to acquire the needed expertise in a broadly valued domain of achievement” and who then make contributions to that field that are considered by peers to be both “original and highly exemplary.” (Read TIME’s 2007 cover story, “Are We Failing Our Geniuses?”)

Fine, now how do you determine whether artistic or scientific creations are original and exemplary? One method Simonton and others use is to add up the number of times an individual’s publications are cited in professional literature — or, say, the number of times a composer’s work is performed and recorded. Other investigators count encyclopedia references instead. Such methods may not be terribly sophisticated, but the answer they yield is at least a hard quantity.

Still, there’s an echo-chamber quality to this technique: genius is what we all say it is. Is there a more objective method? There are IQ tests, of course, but not all IQ tests are the same, which leads to picking a minimum IQ and calling it genius-level. Also, estimates of the IQs of dead geniuses tend to be fun, but they are based on biographical information that can be highly uneven. (Read TIME’s 1999 cover story about the “I.Q. Gene.”)

So Simonton falls back on his “intelligence, enthusiasm, and endurance” formulation. But what about accidental discoveries? Simonton mentions the case of biologist Alexander Fleming, who, in 1928, “noticed quite by chance that a culture of Staphylococcus had been contaminated by a blue-green mold. Around the mold was a halo.” Bingo: penicillin. But what if you had been in Fleming’s lab that day and noticed the halo first? Would you be the genius?

Recently, the endurance and hard work part of the achievement equation has gotten a lot of attention, and the role of raw talent and intelligence has faded a bit. The main reason for this shift in emphasis is the work of Anders Ericsson, a friendly rival of Simonton’s who teaches psychology at Florida State University. Gladwell featured Ericsson’s work prominently in Outliers. (See the top 10 non-fiction books of 2008.)

Ericsson has become famous for the 10-year rule: the notion that it takes at least 10 years (or 10,000 hours) of dedicated practice for people to master most complex endeavors. Ericsson didn’t invent the 10-year rule (it was suggested as early as 1899), but he has conducted many studies confirming it. Gladwell is a believer. “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good,” he writes. “It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

Simonton rather dismissively calls this the “drudge theory.” He thinks the real story is more complicated: deliberate practice, he says, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating genius. For one thing, you need to be smart enough for practice to teach you something. In a 2002 study, Simonton showed that the average IQ of 64 eminent scientists was around 150, fully 50 points higher than the average IQ for the general population. And most of the variation in IQs (about 80%, according to Simonton) is explained by genetics. (See pictures of Bobby Fischer, chess prodigy.)

Personality traits also matter. Simonton writes that geniuses tend to be “open to experience, introverted, hostile, driven, and ambitious.” These traits too are inherited — but only partly. They’re also shaped by environment.

So what does this mean for people who want to encourage genius? Gladwell concludes his book by saying the 10,000-hour rule shows that kids just need a chance to show how hard they can work; we need “a society that provides opportunities for all,” he says. Well, sure. But he dismisses the idea that kids need higher IQs to achieve success, and that’s just wishful thinking. As I argued here, we need to do more to recognize and not alienate high-IQ kids. Too often, principals hold them back with age-mates rather than letting them skip grades.

Still, genius can be very hard to discern, and not just among the young. Simonton tells the story of a woman who was able to get fewer than a dozen of her poems published during her brief life. Her hard work availed her little — but the raw power of her imagery and metaphor lives on. Her name? Emily Dickinson.

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