A writer at Nautilus explains why, in this democratic and egalitarian age, we should get rid of the idea of genius (having more-or-less already gotten rid of the reality).
First, some history.
The modern genius emerged in 18th-century Europe as the focal point of a secular devotion of the sort previously reserved for saints. Like the prophets of old, these geniuses were conceived as higher beings endowed with natural gifts—intelligence, creativity, and insight took the place of grace. They, too, were granted a privileged place in the order of creation. As one astounded contemporary asked of Isaac Newton, among the first exemplars of the modern genius, “Does he eat, drink, and sleep like other men?” His virtues, commented another, “proved him a Saint [whose] discoveries might well pass for miracles.” Newton had revealed the laws of the universe—had he not?—he had seen into the mind of God..
Then some PC moral posturing.
Yet even as worshippers were gazing in sublime wonder at the memento mori of genius, scientists were beginning to seek the roots of genius in human physiology…Moved by a desire to establish the natural and biological basis of human difference, this work began responding to the emergence of a contrasting claim—that all human beings are created equal.
Galton was not only a leading student of genius, but the father of eugenics, a connection that underscores the extent to which much of the early genius science was predicated not only on the belief in the natural superiority of the few, but on the natural inferiority of the many. To insist on the genius’s special election was to “protest” vehemently, as Galton put it, against “pretensions of natural equality.” By highlighting the natural (and hereditary) endowments of grand human animals (animals who were invariably white European males of supposedly superior stock), thinkers such as Galton aimed to combat what they saw as potentially leveling influences of modern mass society by legitimating the rule of natural elites.
(I’ll spare you the invocation of Hitler. Of course it’s there.)
This excessive and often perverse worship of political leaders as supermen or saints helped create conditions for the demise of the modern genius. In the aftermath of World War II, the worship of “Great Men” was rendered suspect, while associations with eugenics cast aspersion on much of the science of genius. Scientists themselves largely abandoned the term, reserving it for the notable exception of Einstein…
For it was more than just revulsion at the excesses of the genius cult and the science that propped it up that threatened the genius with extinction. Gradually, society shifted to bear out a prophecy made by that great 19th-century analyst of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville: Geniuses would become more rare as enlightenment became more common.
Now, a profession of the democratic faith.
Modern democratic societies have, to some degree, seen Tocqueville’s prophecy come to pass. We now rightly detect genius in different colors, genders, and cultures, and we appreciate its manifestations beyond the realms of science, statecraft, and the high arts to which genius was classically confined. So too do we appreciate the creative potential of networks and the collective nature of creativity, invoked as the “genius of groups” or the “wisdom of crowds.”…We insist, more than ever, that creativity and talent—even genius—exist in a multiplicity of forms. Some scientists now speak of “emotional intelligence,” and “multiple intelligences.”… Even the pioneer of the general intelligence factor (g) and arch-hereditarian Charles Spearman was prepared to admit, “every normal man, woman, and child is… a genius at something.”…
Which is not to say that we should mourn the passing of the genius as first conceived in the 18th century. That creature has outlived its cultural usefulness, and perhaps it is time to say the same of the more recent varieties. By kicking the habit of genius, we might better be able to cultivate what is just as important and in the long run more essential to human civilization: the potential in all of us.
Throw away the progressivist signaling, and one is left with a couple of valid points.
- In our attempt to inflate the self-esteem of the mediocre masses, we have debased the word “genius” to the point of meaninglessness.
- Contemporary societies are extremely bad at producing or cultivating geniuses, so that while the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, despite a much, much smaller literate population, had lots of obvious ones–not in the “we’re all geniuses at something” way, but in the sense that Boltzmann, Maxwell, and Einstein were geniuses–it would be hard to name any contemporary thinker of this caliber, so we no longer need a word for what we can no longer have.
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