Genius: Born or Bred or Inspired?

"The individual apart from society would be speechless and mindless.” ... How we think is influenced by the modes of thinking of the society to which we as individuals belong; not merely content and priorities, for instance, but also in terms of the processes and modus operandi. Fashions, manners and modes of thought are anthropological features as much as houses, pots and pans, e.g. sequential thought versus random thought, long term memory versus short term memory. All these in turn will be reflected in the neurobiology of the individual. A member of a nomadic society thinks in a different fashion from a member of a static agricultural society, e.g. Bronowski and the Bakhtiari — his neurobiology is also bound to be different. Mill believed that society has no independent character other than the sum of the individuals who compose it. Hegel, Bradley and Bosanquet differed: they believed that the collective entity acquired a character of its own: we see this for instance in the case of a university. An individual therefore as a member of society is something more than an individual biological or mental unit.

The main distinction between man and the rest of animal creation is the use of language. It is also one of the human acquisitions by virtue of his being a social animal as Noam Chomsky has observed. The moot point is whether a solitary human being will need language at all. Without language conceptual thought will not be possible. Language as developed by man as a member of society is not merely his channel of communication. It is much more importantly for the man of intellect; it is his vehicle of thought.

Civilization is more than the sum total of the contribution of individuals. John Stuart Mill said that merely because individuals get together in the mass it makes no difference to their character as an aggregate. This is obviously highly debatable. While on the one hand a mass of law-abiding individuals can become a mob, a mass of mediocre individuals can create a glittering age because there are creative men among them who ignite the volkgeist...

Volksgeist and ubermensch have become metaphysical terms with a sinister tinge—shades of Nietzshe and the Third Reich. The position has been put with direct simplicity—"I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals and I value a society that makes their existence possible" (Kenneth Clark, Civilisation). Ideas of individual excellence and an environment which accepts them are all encapsulated in this quotation. There is always a need for geniuses if civilization is to progress.

Bertrand Russell's rationalist view is that some stray chemical which he imbibed when he was an infant along with his baby food was responsible for his intellectual development. This may not in fact be as flippant as it sounds considering the complex electrochemistry of the brain but the fact is that genius comes very rarely and when it comes it is a phenomenon which evokes awe. A professor of literature in Cambridge in the early part of this century called the phenomenon of William Tyndale a "miracle" and the evidence is there for all to see. In the opening passage of the Book of Genesis where, in an act of surpassing genius, he found the words to match the grandeur of his theme—nothing less than the creation of the universe. But this is not merely the reaction of an effusive professor of literature to the phenomenon of genius. We find the same kind of awe about the scientists. Pope wrote, "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night / God said—let Newton be! and all was light." We find the same feeling is in Bronowski when he says. "It is almost impertinent to talk of the ascent of man in the presence of two men, Newton and Einstein, who stride like Gods." The great art critic Berenson on da Vinci or Sullivan on Beethoven say that genius comes out as a phenomenon beyond the laws of nature—a "miracle". An idea widely held is that genius comes from a divine source.

In his study of creativity, Howard Gardner writes about the neurobiological preparedness which the human being of creative talent shows especially sensationally in the case of the prodigy—the kind of neurobiological preparedness which the genius shows in his chosen domain is unique to him. It is one of sui generis: it cannot be simulated and the process cannot be replicated.

There are exclusive schools in America for specially gifted children. The schools for chess prodigies and children who showed outstanding talent for science in the old USSR are based on the ideas of Plato who believed that society had a haphazard method of producing its leaders. He, therefore, evolved his formula for breeding philosopher-kings, the features of which were systematic eugenic planning, equality of educational opportunity, five stages of education each lasting ten years, a process of filtering out of talent at every stage, at the end of which a small distillate of a handful of guardians were left who would be entrusted with the task of ruling. In principle the same formula should apply to the breeding of geniuses, except that genius in the initial stages does not usually advertise its presence. It was thought, for instance, that Wittgenstein would not pass the stringent entrance examinations for admission to a public school; he was therefore admitted to the Realschule in Linz where his school reports show that overall he was a poor student. Einstein was a dull student who showed little promise. Not all geniuses begin as prodigies and those who do not would fall by the wayside under the Platonic formula. Further a genius till he is accepted by the judges, evaluators and the public in his field is usually at odds with society. Many remain odd men out who are recognised only after they die. They would fail to qualify under the criterion of public acceptance. Even in principle, therefore, a genius cannot be bred. He is born and his neurobiological preparedness comes with him. Eugenics cannot explain it. Take the pedigree of da Vinci or Cervantes or Shakespeare or Newton or Einstein.

Last Frontier of the Mind - Challenges of the Digital Age, Mohandas Moses, Chapter 38

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