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What Is Genius?

Philosophy and Literature 25 (2001): 181-96.

Denis Dutton


www.denisdutton.com


There’s a school of thought which holds that there’s nothing much of interest that can be said about genius. The root idea is older than Kant, but it was well summarized by him: genius is a natural endowment, deep, strange, and mysterious, at least with respect to putative explanations. Schubert can get up in the morning and before lunch knock off five songs that captivate us hundreds of years later. There’s no way for us to account for this, and we ought not to expect, Kant claims, that genius can explain itself either: Schubert doesn’t have a clue how he does it.

Yet trying to figure out how creative geniuses do it remains a permanent source of fascination, most of it fairly naïve. When the ingénue reporter is sent out by the City Editor to interview the famous, crusty old novelist, the first question is normally, “Where do you get your ideas?” Of course, if the novelist knew that, he’d not be likely to blab it in the press. Kant’s point is that he cannot really know; no one can. Monroe Beardsley relays a story about Picasso, who claimed to suffer from “an indigestion of greenness” from walking in the woods on a summer’s day: “I must empty this sensation into a picture,” Picasso said. “Green dominates it. The painter paints as if in urgent need to discharge himself of his sensations and his visions.” Beardsley observes that green indigestion could have been even more plausibly used to “explain” a red painting (“I needed an antidote to all that green”), or a pen-and-ink drawing (“I needed to get away from color”), or anything else. There is in this a general point about why we are so often disappointed by interviews with artists. The artist can do; the artist can’t explain how.

Dean Simonton

It does not follow, however, that nothing of interest can be learned, at least at a descriptive level, about genius. Dean Keith Simonton has spent most of a career looking at the subject as a psychologist, and his Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity (Oxford University Press, $27.50) ties together much of his research and that of others in a way that extends thinking on genius far beyond armchair meditations or mere platitudes. At the heart of Simonton’s project are two very different ideas: first, he argues that evolution and processes of natural selection provide illuminating models to explain the existence and operation of creative genius in the sciences and the arts. Second, he propounds a rather more dubious thesis, that the process of natural selection itself is an adequate model for understanding genius at work, that the history of human ideas demonstrates a kind of secondary evolution. To these hypotheses, Simonton adds a further Darwinian overlay: he returns repeatedly to the personality and biography of Charles Darwin himself as the paradigm of a life of creative genius. While this has the advantage of anchoring the discussion, giving it a kind of ostinato ground, it diverts Simonton from the manifestations of genius, especially artistic genius, which do not resemble Darwin’s personal example.

Creative genius is defined by Simonton as the capacity to originate scientific discoveries, artistic works, technical inventions, or engage in political leadership, in a manner that achieves what is conventionally termed eminence. The eminent person creates, discovers, or invents something that passes the test of time and, like the similar test devised by Hume to mark out artistic greatness, appeals to cultures beyond that of the original act of creation. It is not hard for the philosophically trained reader to devise counter-examples to Simonton’s general theses, but the value of his book does not require a rigorous definition at the outset. Whatever genius is, and however we might dispute it, there is no doubting that Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Newton, and Einstein count as creative geniuses in Simonton’s sense. High raw IQ is frequently associated with genius, but it is generally a necessary rather than sufficient condition: he points out that the Guinness Book of Records’s highest intelligence placement belongs to the popular columnist Marilyn vos Savant, a woman who has not distinguished herself in any field, despite her awesome 228 IQ. By using public recognition over an indeterminate period of historic time as his criterion, Simonton cheerfully accepts that unrecognized genius becomes an oxymoron and that we count as creative geniuses persons who, like Darwin, might not have scored especially high on a conventional IQ test.

His account of the products of creative genius is more problematic. He stipulates that works of genius must be original, at least within their cultural and historic context. But Simonton says also that “an original idea or product must be adaptive in some sense.” This is plain enough applied to an original and true scientific theory, such as Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which has deep explanatory power, or the germ theory of disease, which allows for advances in medicine. It could also be said to be true of inventions, such as moveable type or the electric light. But how are works of art adaptive in any similar sense? He explains that adaptiveness in the arts “often entails the capacity to maintain interest through novel expression as well as through powerful emotional appeal.” Audiences therefore decide who the geniuses are, choosing their works over others. Fair enough: but it’s a dodgy business to compare the value of a scientific theory or technical invention, which depends on somehow corresponding to the structure of the world whether we approve of it or not, with the value of a work of art, where value-ascriptions must take into account long-term audience approval. Scientific advances are adaptive to human well-being, and therefore propagation, because — let us say it without embarrassment — they are true. A Hollywood blockbuster appealing to vast numbers of people, or the Brandenburg Concertos, which are liked by smaller numbers but over a much longer period of time, are both in the end rated by short- or long-term popularity criteria; they are adapted to audience interests and desires, but are not necessarily “adaptive” in any other sense. If Simonton wants to argue that works of art that pass the test of time are somehow true, he might do so, but he does not address the issue, leaving jumbled the rather different adaptive characteristics of works of art and discoveries of science. In actuality, truth is an issue that Simonton seems to want to evade, though it will continuing to rear its head in any such analysis as this: if broad professional recognition over a long time is, as Simonton wants to make out, the criterion of genius for science, and truth is not brought into it, then Ptolemy must surely stand with Einstein and Darwin. Ptolemy’s reputation endured for over a thousand years, while Einstein and Darwin have been around for not much more than a century.

In asking how the brain creates, Simonton quotes Karl Popper’s notion that our thought processes show the essential elements of natural selection: “our knowledge consists at every moment of those hypotheses which have shown their (comparative) fitness by survival so far in their struggle for existence; a competitive struggle which eliminates those hypotheses which are unfit.” This idea is best summarized for Simonton in the work of psychologist Donald T. Campbell. The creative mind generates vast variations of “ideational” content and continuously applies a consistent selection mechanism to these variants. Finally, just as in natural selection the best genes are retained through inheritance, so “the mental evolution that produces creative ideas requires a memory system, plus an ability to communicate the store ideas to others” — via writing for the printed page, composing for the symphony orchestra, etc. The controversial twist that Simonton insists on placing on this account is that the variational procedure, as with natural selection, becomes essentially blind: “Neither prior experiences nor current environmental circumstances will provide sufficient clues about how to restrict the range of [creative] choices, nor does there exist any rationale for assigning useful priorities to the various alternatives.” The activity of creative genius is therefore “reduced to a basically trial-and-error procedure, whether through cognitive rumination or behavioral experimentation.” What history decides are authentic acts and products of genius will only be known after the fact — which is the Kantian way of describing genius.

Simonton provides some striking quotations to support this view, such as John Dryden on beginning to write a play “when it was only a confused mass of thoughts, tumbling over one another in the dark” or Poincaré describing the initial stages of his discovery of Fuchsian functions: “Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making stable combinations.” This shows that the creative mind is capable of generating large numbers of variations, according to Simonton, and that these variations are not under cognitive control. He also recounts some substantial statistical work showing that with genius as with mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future returns: a year of rich production by an artist or composer may be followed by an artistic drought, and there’s no way to tell what’s coming next. Still, if this is something like luck, it’s the fate of creative geniuses that they tend to have an awful lot of it.

The best aspects of Simonton’s discussion in these chapters are his descriptive accounts of the characteristics of genius. As remarked, creative genius is often associated with what would be regarded as high IQ. It is not high intelligence, however, that makes for creative genius, but the structure of intelligence. Highly creative people are able spontaneously to make large numbers of remote associations between separate ideas. The mind of the creative individual, an “intuitive genius,” is a better thesaurus, more interconnected, so to speak: it can run out longer lists of analogues, metaphors, and metonyms than can an analytical genius, understood as someone who does spectacular calculations only within a circumscribed domain. The latter sort of mind might popularly (perhaps wrongly) be associated with a very sharp accountant: someone who can analyze a spreadsheet but cannot see the connections in a stanza of Yeats.

These are not, Simonton insists, completely different kinds of genius, but are ideals at ends of a continuum. Nevertheless, artistic creators are “more prone to be intuitive, whereas scientific creators will tend to reside closer to the analytical end of the spectrum.” That revolutionary scientists will be more intuitive than (Kuhnian) normal scientists, seems acceptable enough, but what about also claiming, as Simonton does, that “romantic artists” will be “more intuitive than classical artists”? Here, Simonton comes up against one of the many disanalogies between science and art that crop up in his discussion and which are not adequately dealt with. Is it right to say that the classical Mozart is a “less intuitive” composer than the romantic Schumann? I think not. Science, unlike art, does not go through classic and romantic episodes — only, on some readings of its history, revolutionary and consolidation phases. There are classical and romantic artistic geniuses, but in the manner that Simonton explains the issue, it looks like the only true creative geniuses of science are the revolutionaries.

For Simonton, creative genius doesn’t just generate unusual connections, and associations, it somehow sees what is fruitful or appropriate in a domain: it is selective. There are six interrelated but distinguishable characteristics he identifies for persons who have this ability:

(1) Creative geniuses “harbor an impressive array of intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic interests.” This breadth and variety of interests gives them the content on which to draw analogies, make comparisons. It is their material. (I’d suppose that access to this material would be a differentially significant condition for outstanding creative work in different fields: teenage geniuses would be more likely to occur in music or mathematics than in philosophy or fiction.)

(2) Such individuals are “open to novel, complex, and ambiguous stimuli in their surroundings.” Openness takes their trains of thought to unexpected corners of experience.

(3) Creative geniuses are “capable of defocused attention.” I think of stories about Glenn Gould studying a score, carrying on a phone conversation, and listening to the news all at once — sounds implausible till you think back to how amazingly he could distinguish voices in a fugue. Typically, while creators are working on one problem, or are engaged in an apparently irrelevant activity, they will be carrying around with them another problem in need of a solution. Defocused attention makes creative connections more likely.

(4) Consistent with the above is a flexibility in work habits. It’s characteristic of the highly creative person to have a range of projects going simultaneously, a “network of enterprises.” Darwin was always working on several subjects simultaneously, dipping into “thirty or forty large portfolios” which he kept on labeled shelves, adding memoranda or reviewing them. This flexibility makes it possible to change course quickly and take advantage of lucky breaks and new ideas as they serendipitously present themselves.

(5) “Highly creative people are introverted.” Simonton means by this that, however affable they may be in social settings, they are given to “long hours of solitary contemplation . . . smoking a pipe in an armchair, taking a walk in the woods, engaging absentmindedly in some routine activity.” Social contact, for creative geniuses, is “subordinate to the internal ruminations of their eternally preoccupied minds.” This for Simonton explains why group problem-solving, so-called brainstorming, usually yields such dismal results compared to individual creative work.

(6) Finally, such individuals are usually “independent, autonomous, unconventional, and perhaps even iconoclastic.” They are willing to give unusual, or even preposterous, ideas a fair hearing.

To this list must be added a few more likely conditions. The foremost is productivity. Few geniuses come up with one staggering idea and then retire from the scene. In both sciences and arts, it’s characteristic of genius that it is immensely, even obsessively, productive. Quantity may not equal quality, Simonton says, nevertheless Nobel laureates publish twice as much on average as scientists good enough to make it into American Men and Women of Science. For nineteenth-century scientists, the mere length of their total bibliographies is a good predictor of how famous they will be today. Cases such as Gregor Mandel, the pioneer geneticist who published only a tiny body of work, are exceptional. This tends to extend into the arts, where the most outstanding geniuses — Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Dickens, Turner and Picasso, and the likes of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, and Wagner — astonish in their sheer capacity to produce work. We might imagine that for each of these figures there would be hundreds who wrote, painted, or composed as much but who are unknown or discounted today: a thousand Maria Corellis for every Dickens. If I read Simonton correctly, this is unlikely: vast output is not a sufficient condition for creative genius, but it is difficult to name a creative genius who was not highly productive.

The productivity question is also an occasion for Simonton to introduce an equation apparently discovered by the historian of science, Derek de Solla Price. Imagine a group of ten workers who are doing a rote job, say, stuffing envelopes. In such a case, we’d expect that each individual worker would do 10% of the work, that five would do 50%, and so forth. But imagine the job is creative: ten publishing physicists in a physics department, or ten composers in a music department. Price’s Law states that in these creative cases, 50% of the total worthwhile (i.e., publishable) output will be produced by a minority of producers equal to the square root of the total number of people involved. In a ten-person physics department, the teaching loads and administrative chores might be equalized, but given natural variations in productiveness, about three (roughly the square root of ten) people would normally be producing half of the publications, at least publications of a quality sufficient to appear in a scientific journal (in the arts the quality criterion will presumably be the test of time). A striking implication of Price’s Law is that the larger the total number of producers in a field, the smaller the 50%-producers group becomes as a percentage of the whole. If it is a group of a hundred poets or chemists, half of the worthwhile creative work will be produced by ten (10% of the whole); if there are 10,000 in the pool then half the work will be produced by a group of mere 100 (1% of the whole). This is presumably because the larger the group the greater the likelihood of it possessing a few highly productive talents, and it explains, why, for example, the nineteenth-century music we listen to is dominated by a tiny minority of familiar composers; try as we might to resuscitate lesser lights (Cherubini, Clara Schumann, John Field), there remains an overwhelming dominance of listener preference in a relatively small handful of composers.

The other characteristic of genius most worth noting is its obvious connection with various forms and degrees of insanity. Simonton gives long lists of scientific and artistic geniuses who suffer from schizophrenic and other cognitive disorders, who were depressive or bipolar, or who exhibited severe neuroses. The names, from Tycho Brahe to Newton to Van Gogh and Rachmaninoff, are familiar and so are the stories. The differential rates of mental disturbance contain unsurprising news that scientists are generally a whole lot more stable than artists. In one historical study, he reports, 28% of notable scientists exhibited mental disturbance, whereas the rate was 60% for composers, 73% for painters, 77% for novelists, and 87% for poets, which places completely sane poets in a distinct minority. A degree of insanity, however, is not much help unless it is mild or borderline; if the psychopathology results in early suicide or complete incapacitation, history does not record the individual as a creative genius. The balance appears to be: the creative genius is mad enough to be inventive or imaginative beyond the ordinary, to think outside conventions, but not so crazy that it interferes with productivity or self-control.

The last point seems crucial. Whatever the psychopathology of genius, if it is creatively productive, it will be because, as Simonton puts it, eminent creators possess “personal fortitude and self-discipline” which allow them to “exploit the strange ideas that fill their heads” without being overtaken by them. Anyone who has worked in a philosophy or physics department of a large university will be familiar with the crackpots who periodically show up at the office door clutching enormous manuscripts. Such obsessives, often suffering from paranoia and delusions of personal grandeur in addition to their scientific or philosophical delusions, are in many aspects of a kind with authentic geniuses: they quite possibly possess high IQs and a capacity to produce a high quantity of output (hence the size of the manuscript). The difference is that such men — and they are almost invariably men — are swallowed up in obsessions that they cannot assess or control. Simonton quotes the psychologist Albert Rothenberg comparing “authentic” with schizophrenic poets: “Unlike true poets, schizophrenic poets refuse to revise their initial drafts, revealing an inability to adopt a more objective perspective on their work. They are all inspiration without verification, variation without selection.”

My Philosophy and Literature Coeditor, Pat Henry, tells me about his friend, the late Raymond Carver. The gem-like masterpiece we know as the story Cathedral is the last of thirty-three drafts of the work. Carver said that he only knew he was done with a story when he got to the point that he went over it, adding commas, and looked at it yet again and started removing the commas added in the previous go ’round. Tales of Mozart tossing off uncorrected symphonies or Coleridge creating Kubla Khan in a single stroke are unusual in the operation of authentic creative genius; more typical would be Beethoven repeatedly going up blind alleys in composing the development of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. The creative genius may be impatient with his wife or colleagues, and have no time whatsoever for his landlord, but in his work he can be endlessly patient and self-critical. For those is close proximity, genius often appears obsessive, driven, compulsively fussy.

I’ve several times used the masculine pronoun here, and it’s not cavalier sexism. Simonton discusses gender differences in creative genius. These again take him back to Darwin, who himself noticed that in a wide range of animal species, including homo sapiens, males exhibit a greater variation, for good and for ill, than females. Given an individual animal that displays some markedly unusual characteristic relative to other members of its species — it is very unusually stupid, or aggressive, or curious, or strong, or imaginative, or psychotic, or vicious — the chances are it will be male. We can speculate on the selective causes for this (Simonton regards it as unknown), but it is as true with human beings as it is with elk or hummingbirds. In our ordinary daily experience of people, this fact shows itself in statistical differences between men and women some of which might be social and cultural, but some of which have a biological basis.

If you chart the distribution of intelligence or general life competence by plotting abilities against population, you get a standard Gaussian distribution, a bell curve, with most people toward the center and decreasing extremes on either side. However, the enhanced-variation principle for males works here as well. When you plot separately for men and women, you find that the female curve is higher at the center, and trails off, approaching zero faster toward the edges, making the women’s curve a tall, thin bell, relative to the male curve. The male curve is flatter in its general shape; it makes up for its relative lack of height by trailing off farther on either side, indicating the higher number of men than women at the extreme edges of the bell. This difference in distribution means that in the center of the curve, where most of us (both sexes) reside, women are found with a slightly greater frequency than men. Down at the low fringes of the bell curve, men are found in greater numbers than women: these include the sociopaths who populate prisons, institutionalized psychotics, where men very significantly out-number women, and what might have been called in another age “riff-raff”: persons who float at the edges of society, institutionalized or not, depending on their overt behavior toward others and the degree of their incapacity to care for themselves.

But just as this variability characteristic insures that there are more crazy, subnormal males than females off at the low end of the curve, it also makes for more above-normal males, crazed or sane, at the high end. (Straddling both categories are the idiot savants, who predictably are much more often male: people who are unable to tie their shoes but who can instantly tell you the score of every World Series game ever played.) At the high end will be found the nut-cases who show up at my office door clutching their manuscripts, as well as highly intelligent obsessive and compulsive people of every eccentric description. I have talked with feminists who fret about the absence of women at the highest strata of historically important achievement in the sciences and the arts. Certainly they are partially right that historical sexism has to be a factor in this, and Simonton himself respectfully summarizes the arguments that explain the absence of women at the higher edges in terms of gender stereotyping and the impediments created by domestic life. But even if in future years social conditions are changed to encourage greater equality of achievement between the sexes, actual gender parity is about as likely to occur in the intellectual ionosphere of creative genius as it is in the realm of severe psychotics or idiot-savants. This is a matter of male variation — which increases more than female variation as you move out from the mean in either direction — and Gaussian distributions. So while the difference in IQ between men and women is trivial in the center of the curve, differences increase as you move up the scale, so that at IQ 175 there will be around 47 men for every woman (mirroring the many more low-IQ men at the other side of the curve). That these weird ones at the high end of the curve include more men than women is a worry we ought to place into perspective. Did those who worry ever share an apartment with a male example of one of these people? If so, was the personal and mental condition of said genius something they’d wish on the sisterhood? The disparity between the male/female distribution curves shows that on average women function through life with greater competence and stability than men. This too is intelligence.

The frequently unhappy psychopathology of creative geniuses is accompanied by another unfortunate feature of their lives: they often experience severe adversity in childhood. According to Simonton, there is good statistical evidence that “the development of genius may sometimes be enhanced by traumatic or adverse experiences in childhood and adolescence.” Many had chronic disabilities or illnesses in childhood, and a markedly disproportionate number lost a parent in childhood. One study of 699 eminent figures showed that 45% had lost a parent before age 21; another study indicated that one-third of creative geniuses had lost their father early in life. A quarter of eminent mathematicians had lost a parent before age ten. Another study of British Prime Ministers found that 63% had lost a parent, a number much higher than a comparable control group of English peers. Simonton gives three possible explanations for this, none of them compelling (achievement becomes an emotional compensation, a form of bereavement; adverse events produce a robust and persistent personality; a non-conventional career path is set by the loss of a parent). However the stats are to be explained, from the standpoint of some potential creative geniuses, Dylan Thomas was right to remark that the only thing worse than an unhappy childhood was “having a too-happy childhood.” (Sad to think of today’s moms and dads out there pumping extra oxygen and prenatal Mozart into the womb, or teaching calculus to their preschoolers. What the historical record shows is that parents who wish their tots to achieve greatness should beat them regularly, destroy their self-esteem, and cruelly deprive them of ordinary comforts, such as ice cream, toys, or their mothers’ affections. It would be especially helpful for one of the parents, probably dad, to die before the onset of adolescence; suicide is fine for the purpose.)

As for school, university, and grades: scholastic performance does not correlate well with genius, nor does the attainment of high levels of education. In fact, a four-year Ph.D correlates with a lowered probability of creative eminence than somewhat less education. What does count as a distinct advantage in the United States is being a first or second generation immigrant, or being Jewish. Nearly 20% of Nobel Prize winners have some kind of Jewish background, vastly exceeding the proportion of Jews in world population. Simonton suggests that a sense of marginality, along with the bilingualism typical of many European Jews and Jewish immigrants to the U.S., encourages Jewish creativity. This is in line with the fact that a disproportionate number of creative minds have been members of minority churches in their homelands, have been ethnically marginalized immigrants, and have come from the margins, or in the case of scientists, from outside the profession in which they made their mark. Simonton also gives much attention to Frank Sulloway’s thesis that first-born children tend to be conservative in outlook, whereas later-born children are more prone to be radical and unconventional in their views (so, for instance, were Darwin and Wallace, and their supporters Ernst Haeckel and T. H. Huxley, later-borns, while their conservative opponents, including Louis Agassiz and John Herschel, were first-borns).

Particularly when discussing such statistics, Simonton tends to rely on data drawn from the history of science. He is in general much weaker in discussing the history of artistic genius and sometimes writes as though oblivious to systematic differences between genius in science and in art. There’s a remark I’ve heard attributed to Werner Heisenberg, though it’s hard to believe it doesn’t have an earlier provenance: if Einstein had died as a child, someone else would have discovered General Relativity; if Beethoven had died as a child, the Opus 111 Sonata would never have been written. This is not a difference of degree; it shows that the products of science and of art have very different natures. A scientist need only make a single stunning discovery to receive the laurel wreath of eminence. The greatest artists have a quality of mind that allows them to produce works of genius over and over, rather than work up to one or two great discoveries. Simonton, it seems to me, doesn’t quite get it. “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was created just once,” he says. “Yet, by the same token, only Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, and probably was the only scientist who could have done so. Not even Wallace claimed that he could have carried the banner of evolutionary theory nearly as well.” This is surprisingly confused: Darwin’s fame rests not on the writing of a book filled with facts and expressed in a style that is as much uniquely his as the Fifth Symphony is Beethoven’s. Darwin is famous because he developed (with Wallace) the theory of evolution by natural selection. Other people, including obviously Wallace, could have done that alone, if not by the 1850s, then later; in fact, it is absolutely inevitable that the theory of evolution would eventually have been developed. If Darwin had written everything he wrote about plants and animals without discovering evolution by natural (and sexual) selection, he’d be today barely remembered as an industrious descriptive naturalist, but nothing more. Darwin’s thoroughness, his rich command of empirical detail, and his imposing style certainly aided in the acceptance of evolution; probably his family connections and social class had something to do with it as well. But he was not the only scientist who could have discovered it; the disanalogy with Beethoven’s creativity is glaring.

Simonton’s failure to appreciate the different character of artistic creativity has him making peculiar observations about artists. His insistence on thinking about the history of aesthetic creation in terms of the history of science inclines him to concentrate much attention on Colin Martindale, whose excellent book, The Clockwork Muse (enthusiastically reviewed in this column in 1994), shows how art style changes through time according to patterns dictated by mechanisms of human consciousness and perception. Martindale does indeed write about the history of art in ways that might resemble an account of the history of science, or even philosophy. But if you ask about what captures audiences so completely in the experience of individual works of art, so compellingly that we call them “works of genius,” it’s hardly ever the historic significance, which we normally consider in cool reflection. In science, it is the truth of a theory and the value of its applications which leave us awestruck; in art, our awe is for the individual experience of the work. Prolific genius-artists can produce staggeringly beautiful objects again and again. Beethoven produced nine symphonies, any single one of which would be remembered and played today, had he produced that one symphony alone.

Collingwood pointed out that artists cannot set out with objective certainty that they will create a good work of art. This is unlike the situation of the competent craftsman who can be certain that he or she can build a good table, given the right tools and materials. Simonton goes wrong trying to develop an argument similar to Collingwood’s: creative products in the arts and sciences cannot be treated “as repeated performances of some creative expertise.” All Simonton grants for artists is that they will acquire a capacity very early on that will allow them to make technically competent work and that this capacity will probably stay with them all their lives (unless, to use his example, they succumb like Robert Schumann to mental illness). But then what distinguishes Beethoven from Churubini, Chopin from Kalkbrenner, Shostakovich from Khrennikov? Even the careers of the supreme artistic creators, Simonton says, do not escape the principle of variation and selection: “even a genius cannot escape the Darwinian reality that a creative life consists of hits and misses.” But this begs the question of why there are people such as Mozart, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Raphael, and others who appear to execute so few misses. To explain that their aim is better is like saying that it’s raining hard because there’s so much water coming down out of the sky.

The fundamental problem with Simonton’s analysis, it seems to me, stems from his concentration on the history of science and his preoccupation with the life of Charles Darwin. It is perfectly plausible to describe scientific genius on the model of (1) a highly intelligent mind (2) capable of imaginative leaps and unusual metaphorical/ analogical thinking that (3) applies itself assiduously to a complex subject matter and (4) over years of trial and error and listening to criticism (5) comes up with a masterpiece of scientific insight. That is how he specifically thinks of the production of The Origin of Species, but he also claims the same process “underlies the production of other masterworks,” including works of art: “In examining the unedited notebooks and sketchbooks of others that led to the emergence of some acclaimed product, we can see the same chaos of trial and error. For example, Picasso’s Guernica — perhaps his greatest painting — clearly originated in this fashion.” Simonton says that “Picasso’s sketchbooks and notebooks are replete with false starts and wild experiments,” and that he lavished more time and effort on these sketches than he actually used for the painting itself. But this strikes me as implying a most eccentric view of artistic creation. In the first place, the sketches and cartoons for Guernica include many wonderful works of art: you can mount an entire exhibition on the sketches alone (I know this because I’ve seen one — thirty years ago and the memory stays with me). There is no analogy here with the false starts of scientific genius, which have only historic/biographical or merely psychological interest to a scholar.

Simonton’s approach to distinguishing science and art brings to mind the famous idea Isaiah Berlin borrowed from Archilochus. The one big thing the hedgehog-scientist discovers is in the end what makes him a genius and gives him the Nobel prize; what led up to his discovery belongs to the so-called context of discovery and has no intrinsic interest. Artists are expected in the nature of things to be foxes: they produce many things, and pace Simonton’s Guernica story, an unlimited number of these products can have great value as masterworks. Leaving aside Simonton’s disputable suggestion that Guernica is Picasso’s greatest painting (granted it is his most famous painting), it would be nonsense to claim that his other work prior to it were trial runs for it — any more than Il Trovatore was an experiment toward Falstaff, that Crime and Punishment was a dry run for The Brothers Karamazov, and so forth. The astonishing thing about acts of artistic genius is that a tiny minority of the human race possesses the extraordinary ability to achieve them over and over and over again within a single creative life.

I began reading Origins of Genius sympathetic and willing to be convinced by an analysis that made plain from the outset that it would play on the shared features of scientific and artistic genius. I finished the book more convinced than ever that scientific genius and artistic genius are fundamentally different. It is true that great scientists and artists share high intelligence, free-and-easy openness about new ideas, unusual imaginative abilities, and tremendous capacities for hard work. But creative scientific thought produces something purely abstract; if it is elegant or beautiful, it is because nature itself is both elegant and beautiful. What leads up to the transparent truth, the false starts and discarded errors along the way, is ultimately irrelevant to the value of the scientific discovery.

With artists, the end product of creative work is categorically different. Artists are making complex wholes — poems, paintings, operas, plays, novels, sonatas, movies — that, roughly, must arrest and hold attention, and in the end must yield some kind of overall intense and unified experience. Simonton’s comparison of sketches for Guernica with false starts and wild experiments of scientists is wrong: the proper comparison for the mélange of scientific bull-sessions, worthless hunches, and bad experiments which might yet lead up to a true scientific theory would not be the sketches for a painting, it would be the paint left smeared on the artist’s palette or dripped on to the studio floor. The sketches, far from being irrelevant, are independent works in their own right, and it would be ludicrous even to judge them according to whether they contributed to the final Guernica. (Some of the sketches might even be better than the final product they were putatively aimed toward.) Simonton attempts to solidify his view on this with mention of Einstein, who worked for years on a unified field theory, which was to be his magnum opus, only to fail in the end. If Picasso had failed for some reason to paint Guernica, the sketches would still be independently valuable. But if Einstein’s notes toward the unified field theory finally do not contribute toward it — or toward some other future revelation of scientific truth, perhaps discovered by a successor who takes up where Einstein left off — then they are biographical detritus, no more intrinsically significant as science than his love letters or shopping lists.

Meditating on the many illuminating connections between scientific and artistic creativity Simonton makes in Origins of Genius, but also on the disanalogies he ignores, brings into relief an important quality of artistic creativity that is not often noticed. The creativity of the most profound contributors to the history of literature, music, and art is not generally puzzle-oriented in the way scientific creativity is. Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein all focused on specific questions, problems, paradoxes. Nothing like this can be seen with Shakespeare, Austen, or Stravinsky. The problems artists face are either exclusively ones they make for themselves — how to develop a theme, resolve a plot, end a stanza — or they are always the very same problem: how can I excite and hold the interest of my audience? Their creativity does not issue in a finite number of transparent truths, but shows itself in the continuous output of a whole creative life. This is why the personal character of a body of art is essential to it in a way that the character of scientific writing is not (who reads the Crick and Watson paper announcing the double helix in search of a moving personal style?). There is an ever-present personal style in, for example, the elegant clarity of Jane Austen’s characters and situations, the richness and depth of Brahms’s modulations, the heart-breaking inevitability of Chekhov’s story-lines. When I say that science is transparent, I mean both that it must be clear, imparting the same understanding to all, and also that we look through a scientific theory to see the nature of the world. Art is opaque: it is its own world. This is not a fashionable thought in the current intellectual climate, which prefers mushy pronouncements of the unity of science and art.

However right or wrong Dean Keith Simonton may be about creative genius in science and art, I’m grateful to him for having engaged me in so much fruitful thinking on issues fundamental to our understanding of human potential.

 University of Canterbury, New Zealand


 

 

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