In part 1 of this series, we discussed the history of the nature versus nurture debate. On one hand, the nature camp firmly believes that genius is primarily born and inherited through genetics. On the other hand, the nurture camp asserts that genius is created through deliberate practice and hard work.

As concluded, neither camp has provided conclusive evidence to win the debate. This leaves us with two possibilities: genius is both born and made, or genius is neither born nor made.

If genius is neither born nor made however, what is the missing ingredient behind the origin of genius? Let’s begin by exploring the most creative places throughout history.

plato aristotle genius

Painting of history’s top two greatest philosophers, Plato (left) and Aristotle (Right), who both emerged during the Golden Age of Ancient Athens. Painting by Raphael (1509), The School of Athens. 

Genius Clusters

Whilst Galton’s ideas on genius rapidly spread across the world, an anthropologist named Alfred Kroeber began to preach strongly against them. Unlike Galton’s opponents in the “genius is made through hard work” camp, Kroeber argued that individual geniuses were the byproduct of culture i.e. the beliefs, norms and customs, of a group of individuals.

In his book Configurations of Culture Growth, Kroebe uses Galton’s data of history’s geniuses, but instead of plotting them in alphabetical order by surname as Galton did, Kroebe plotted geniuses in chronological order by birth year. [1]

The result was mind-blowing: Kroebe discovered that geniuses appeared in groupings (genius clusters) at similar time and places throughout history, instead of random individual appearances. 

One classic example of a genius cluster is the tiny city of Ancient Athens (450 BC), which produced prominent figures like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates and Sophocles, and yet only lasted at his peak for twenty-four years!

Nearly 2,000 years later a new genius cluster emerged in another tiny peninsular city called Florence, Italy. During the Renaissance period, Florence produced a sizable portion of history’s greatest artists, architects and scientists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, Botticelli, Rosselli, and many more.

If genius is simply a byproduct of genes and hard work, why don’t we see similar genius clusters in Athens and Florence today? Did their genius genetics weaken, or did they become lazy overtime? And why do we see genius clusters emerge in new places at different points in history?

Kroebe theorized that genius clusters emerge or disappear depending on how much a culture flourishes (or how many “cultural configurations” it has). The more the culture of a place flourishes, the more likely geniuses will emerge.

In the book The Geography of Genius, researcher Eric Weiner embarks on a journey to verify Kroebe’s theory by studying history’s most creative places where genius clusters emerged. These include: Ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, old Hangzhou, Edwardian Edinburgh, Bengali Renaissance Calcutta, 18th and 19th Century Vienna, and modern Silicon Valley.

Weiner dispels the myth that the beauty, wealth or comfort of a place drives its creativity. In the case of Ancient Athens, it had no unique advantage over the other ancient greek city-states, like Corinth which was wealthier or Syracuse which was larger. Moreover, Ancient Athens was a dirty and narrowly built city with houses built of wood and sun-dried clay. It was far from paradise. Plus, Ancient Athenians weren’t exactly the most industrious people as they often indulged in wine, sex and parties, and spent long hours involved in idle talk.

So why did creativity flourish in Ancient Athens, more so than anywhere else in human history?

The Social Network of Genius

In the 1970s, Dean Simonton, a world leading expert on genius and creativity, conducted an extensive statistical analysis of over 5,000 creative geniuses across history to uncover the relationship between geniuses across different generations. [2] 

According to popular opinion at the time, geniuses popped up out of nowhere. But the results of Simonton’s study proved otherwise.

Simonton discovered that the number of geniuses in any given generation is positively correlated to the number of geniuses in the previous generation. That is, the more geniuses in the previous generation, the more would be expected in the next generation. It’s no coincidence for example, that the big three philosophy greats emerge after one another: Socrates taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle.

This generational transfer of genius takes place within social networks. An empirical analysis of the interpersonal relationships of 2,026 scientists and 772 artists revealed that the more accomplished the individual was, the larger their social network. [3]

Newton creative genius

Newton’s social network (diagram by Oliver Uberti)

As an example, Sir Isaac Newton’s social network included 24 prominent scientists, including rivals like Hooke and Leibniz, associates like Flamstead and close friends like Locke. Not to mention scientists from previous generations like Bacon and Galileo who Newton idolized and scientists in the next generation like Einstein who admired Newton’s work.

It is no surprise then, that Newton himself suggested that had he been born before the Golden Age of the scientific revolution, he would not have become one of the most influential scientists of all time: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” [4]

As it turns out, geniuses don’t randomly appear out of nowhere. They feed off ideas from genius clusters in previous generations to achieve their potential.

And so the question remains, why do these genius clusters emerge in the first place? The case study of Ancient Athens could provide answers.

Genius Is a Where, Not a Who

Upon close examination, Ancient Athens had something that the other places didn’t: A culture open to new radical ideas.

In Ancient Athens, there was freedom of speech and open debates where speaker’s could address thousands of people at a time and spread ideas no matter how crazy they were. Foreigners were also allowed to freely roam the city and engage with their community.

Ancient Athenians who refused to participate in public dialogue on various affairs were called idiotes (idiots). As Thucydides wrote, “The man who took no interest in affairs of the state was not a man who minded his own business, but a man who had no business being in Athens at all.” [5]

Ancient Athenians also viewed expertise with suspicion, and instead valued generalists with skill sets across different domains. For example, Athenian soldiers wrote poetry and poets also went to battle.

The ancient Athenians practiced the saying that “great artists steal,” before it even existed. They had no shame or guilt about stealing ideas from foreigners and making it their own. They borrowed literature from the Sumerians, mathematics from the Babylonians, medicine from Egyptians and the alphabet from the Phoenicians.Today, we owe much of what we have in modern civilization to ancient Athens, including democracy, athletics, philosophy, art, literature, science, movies, and more.

A modern example of the power of culture is Japan. At various points in its history, Japan opened and closed their gates to foreign ideas. For example, during the Asuka period, Japan opened their gates to foreign ideas from China, but during the Edo period they closed their doors to foreigners.

Analysis conducted by Simonton revealed that during the periods of Japan’s openness to foreign ideas and foreigners, a surge of geniuses emerged within the country alongside high levels of achievement in various fields such as medicine, literature and painting. But during periods of a closed-minded culture, creativity stagnated and geniuses within Japan disappeared. [6]

This analysis fits well with Kroebe’s theory that genius clusters disappear when a culture becomes more close-minded. This also explains why the golden age of Athens didn’t last long.

Aside from the war against Sparta, ancient Athens closed its borders to foreigners and foreign ideas, built much larger houses and wide streets that made the city less intimate, widened the income inequality gap, and suppressed generalists in favor of experts.

In the end, arrogance and vanity killed the flourishing culture that once made ancient Athens the most creative place in the world.

Genius Is Neither Born Nor Made. It’s Grown

“Creativity is more likely in places where new ideas require less effort to be perceived.”

—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Modern society has fallen in love with the romantic journey of discovering and nurturing the next creative genius, but this blinds us from the truth of the matter: the lone creative genius is a myth.

Each year, thousands of organizations around the world squander ungodly sums of money on training designed to develop their employees creative-thinking skills, yet a disproportionate amount of global innovation emerges from Silicon Valley, a region in Northern California, U.S. Why is that so? The missing ingredient as discussed throughout this two-part series is culture.

A culture open to new radical ideas is the breeding ground for creativity and genius, and vice versa. It is no surprise then, that the most innovative organizations in the world happen to emerge from Silicon Valley and the least innovative organizations emerge from the least open-minded places in the world.

Throughout history the importance of culture has been largely ignored because the nature versus nurture debate has diverted our full attention away from the environment and towards the individual. But if creative genius is solely down to the individual, genius clusters wouldn’t emerge and disappear throughout history.

Genius clusters prove Plato’s observation that, “what is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” In today’s modern age, we honor technology and science much more so than classical music, and so, if Mozart had been born today he may never have been recognized as a creative genius. Likewise, a modern technology genius would have been unrecognized by ancient Athenians.

The trails of history are littered with clues that solve the puzzle of the origin of creative genius, and that is this: creativity and genius emerge at the intersection of person and place. They are the byproduct of an individual’s reaction to the culture and constraints of their environment.

The individual is the seed and culture is the soil. No matter how perfect the seed is (through hard work and/or genetics), it will fail to grow to its potential without good soil. But if the soil is good, even an imperfect seed can grow to its full potential.

If we truly care about the future of humanity, our energy is far better off spent developing an open-minded culture within families, schools and organizations, than wasting time creating the perfect individual.

There is an old African proverb which says, “it takes a village to raise a child,” words of wisdom which translated to modern language reminds us that it takes a flourishing culture to raise a genius.

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Footnotes

1. Kroeber, A. L. (1944). Configurations of culture growth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

2. Simonton, D. K. (1974). The social psychology of creativity: An archival data analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.

3. Simonton, D. K. (1992c). The social context of career success and course for 2,026 scientists and inventors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 452–463.

4. Who said what when: A chronological dictionary of quotations. (1991). New York: Hippocrene Books.

5. David Held (2006) Models of Democracy. Stanford University Press.

6. Simonton, D. K. (1997b). Foreign influence and national achievement: The impact of open milieus on Japanese civilization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 86–94.

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