Genius of Britain: The Scientists Who Changed the World, by Robert Uhlig, Collins RRP£20, 352 pages
The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century, by Peter Watson, Simon & Schuster RRP£30, 992 pages
The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and Intelligence is Wrong, by David Shenk, Icon RRP£14.99, 320 pages
Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs by Andrew Robinson, Oxford University Press
At the age of 14, in 1846, James Clark Maxwell published his first scientific paper in a learned journal, having already seen his poetry printed in the Edinburgh Courant. In 1864, he went on to write the classic A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, which gave a unified account of electricity, magnetism and light in just four equations. Einstein later remarked that he stood on the shoulders of not Newton but Maxwell.
Almost everyone would agree that Maxwell was a genius. But what exactly does this mean? In the popular imagination, geniuses are a breed apart. They are capable of insights or artistic creations that no amount of training and effort could produce in mere ordinary folk. You can squander your genius or fail to fulfil it but, ultimately, you either have it at birth or you don’t.
Four new books about genius all interrogate this powerful myth. At the very least, they show that the soil in which genius grows matters at least as much as the seed, which is why particular cultures produce particular types of genius at particular times in history. This is the implicit message of Peter Watson’s The German Genius and Robert Uhlig’s Genius of Britain, which look at collective as well as individual brilliance. In Sudden Genius? Andrew Robinson goes further in undermining the myths of genius, suggesting that virtually none of the common-sense ideas we have about it stack up. And in The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk claims the idea that genius is dispensed at birth is still based on discredited genetics.
The German Genius and Genius of Britain are similar in more than just their titles. Both authors are journalists and both books contain numerous accounts of the lives and thoughts of exceptional men and women, all scientists in Uhlig’s case, but also writers, artists, thinkers and leaders in Watson’s. In their differences, however, they conform to the contrasting stereotypes of the two cultures concerned.
Uhlig’s account of British scientific genius since the Middle Ages is straightforward, chronological and makes little attempt to provide any kind of overarching theory. There are plenty of facts about genius here but little analysis as to what they mean. The book, a companion to the recent Channel 4 series of the same name, is a breezy, enjoyable, yet richly informative primer on the history of British scientific thought, from household names such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin to unsung heroes Robert Hooke and Paul Dirac.
Watson’s book, in contrast, immediately strikes one as embodying the Teutonic virtue of bildung, which he translates as “the inner development of the individual, a process of fulfilment through education and knowledge”. With 849 pages of main text, 2,193 endnotes, 37 pages of index and 50 epigraphs, this is a serious self-improving book. Encyclopaedic and at times dry, it is nonetheless a compelling, epic tale of how a nation that was one of the least developed in western Europe in the mid-18th century became one of the most rich, powerful and cultured, right up until the calamity of National Socialism.
Watson is interested in explaining Germanness through its geniuses. Bildung is just one of a number of German concepts he explores to do this. The contrast he makes between kultur and zivilisation is of particular interest. Kultur is religious, philosophical and artistic and is considered to be more important than zivilisation, which encompasses political structures, technology and other practical and material bases of civilisation. That is why the title refers to a kultur that at times extends beyond the borders of the German state.
The German elevation of kultur is connected with the value placed on innerlich-keit, a kind of inward-looking reflection which turns away from practical concern with the social and the political. The combination of kultur and innerlichkeit also explains how Germany came to invent the PhD, along with other now universal features of the modern university.
Watson concludes that it is the combination of bildung, an educated middle class, the research culture of the PhD and “the longing for a redemptive community” that created the conditions for the age of the German genius, but also for its collapse into fascism. In summary, it may sound simplistic but there is nothing facile about this thorough and thoughtful book, top of the reading list for anyone who wants to understand Germany, particularly for those to whom Watson dedicates his tome: readers who “find it difficult to get beyond Hitler”.
Watson and Uhlig both go some way to explaining, or at least illustrating, the extent to which culture shapes and nurtures the geniuses. It is not by chance that some societies produce more excellence than others. There is always a special combination of resources and values that makes the cream rise to the top. But neither Watson nor Uhlig address why it is that some individuals become geniuses while others do not. David Shenk’s short answer in The Genius in All of Us is this: it’s not just in the genes. In the right environment, we can all become exceptional, if not quite the geniuses the title misleadingly promises.
Shenk’s argument rests on one simple shift in our understanding over recent decades. The old idea was that our genes programmed who we are. From hair colour to IQ, everything was supposedly determined by genes and genes alone. That theory has since been overturned. We know now that we are a result of how our genes interact with our environment, from inside the womb to outside in the world. In Shenk’s formulation, it is not simply down to genes plus environment but genes multiplied by environment. If that’s true, then genius is not distributed at birth.
This may all be true, but Shenk grossly overstates his case, a failing evident in the book’s hyperbolic subtitle “Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and Intelligence is Wrong”. He writes as though almost every lay person still believes the old view about genes determining all, when my guess is that most intelligent readers have an idea that it’s much more complicated than that.
Shenk responds to the egalitarian zeitgeist, which laps up inspirational, can-do messages about acting as though there were no limits to what we can achieve. But even if science does show that more people are born with the potential for genius than we realise, it is a fantasy to suggest it is within the grasp of the majority of us.
When we tell our children they can be anything they want to be, it is as cruel a lie as it is to tell them they are stuck being no more than they already are.
Shenk’s exaggerations are a shame, because his book does contain some genuinely interesting explanations of the science of heredity, such as an account of why even eye colour is not always entirely determined by genes. Too often his insistence that genetics isn’t everything glosses over its undeniable importance. That simplification makes this already slight book even lighter.
Andrew Robinson’s Sudden Genius? could not contrast more. Robinson, a former literary editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement, presents a measured assessment of what genius is and how it emerges.
His account takes a somewhat unusual form. The middle section reads almost like a book within a book, containing 10 self-contained portraits of an eclectic choice of specific geniuses, including Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie, Virginia Woolf and Henri Cartier-Bresson. These are sandwiched between a first part on the ingredients of creativity, and a final section on patterns of genius.
He concludes that although there is some evidence that talent and ability are in part passed down by parents to their children, genius is not: “A genius has yet to beget another genius.” Nor is there such a thing as a “creative personality”. The canon of great geniuses includes introverts and extroverts, the melancholic and the cheerful, the anarchic and the disciplined. Genius does exist but there is no algorithm for predicting in whom it will arise.
All four authors converge, however, on two trends common to genius. The first, most apparent in Uhlig and Watson’s books, is that the minds of geniuses almost always first form themselves outside the confines of formal, standard education. The best education money can buy may be good for most but for true, original creativity, it is more of a hindrance than a help. Einstein was not the under-achiever of legend at school but his autodidactic pursuits were more important for his intellectual development and he only came into his own in private study.
The second condition of genius is that it does not emerge without tremendous effort. Robinson describes this in terms of the “ten-year rule”, an idea which Malcolm Gladwell popularised in Outliers: The Story of Success. To achieve something truly outstanding requires about 10 years of regular and extensive work and practice.
Robinson finds this pattern fits pretty much every genius you care to look at. Marie Curie began to study physics and chemistry in 1886 and achieved her breakthrough discovery of polonium and radium in 1898. Einstein started devoting all his energies to maths and physics in 1895 and published his special relativity theory in 1905. Christopher Wren only started making architecture his focal interest in 1663, creating his model for St Paul’s in 1673-1674.
For Robinson, the main interest of this pattern is not that it is some kind of quasi rule of nature but that it undermines the myth of sudden genius: flashes of insight appearing out of nowhere. Even when there are genuine eureka moments, they are inevitably preceded by years of hard thought, practice or experimentation. Even child geniuses, such as Mozart, do not emerge fully formed from the womb, but notch up more practice hours in their early years than most people do in a lifetime.
In many ways, Watson and Uhlig have written paeans to genius while Robinson and Shenk have cut it down to size. Robinson is surely right that geniuses are not separated from the rest of us by some mysterious spark but by a combination of exceptional talent, hard work and being in the right time at the right place. That does not mean, however, that there is a genius in all of us. Genius may indeed be only one per cent inspiration. But what a rare and remarkable percentile that is.
Julian Baggini is editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine