Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity

Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity

Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity

Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity


How can we account for the sudden appearance of such dazzling artists and scientists as Mozart, Shakespeare, Darwin, or Einstein? How can we define such genius? What conditions or personality traits seem to produce exceptionally creative people? Is the association between genius and madness really just a myth? These and many other questions are brilliantly illuminated in The Origins of Genius. Dean Simonton convincingly argues that creativity can best be understood as a Darwinian process of variation and selection. The artist or scientist generates a wealth of ideas, and then subjects these ideas to aesthetic or scientific judgment, selecting only those that have the best chance to survive and reproduce. Indeed, the true test of genius is the ability to bequeath an impressive and influential body of work to future generations. Simonton draws on the latest research into creativity and explores such topics as the personality type of the genius, whether genius is genetic or produced by environment and education, the links between genius and mental illness (Darwin himself was emotionally and mentally unwell), the high incidence of childhood trauma, especially loss of a parent, amongst Nobel Prize winners, the importance of unconscious incubation in creative problem-solving, and much more. Simonton substantiates his theory by examining and quoting from the work of such eminent figures as Henri Poincare, W. H. Auden, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Niels Bohr, and many others. For anyone intrigued by the spectacular feats of the human mind, The Origins of Genius offers a revolutionary new way of understanding the very nature of creativity.


For nearly a quarter of a century, I have been conducting scientific inquiries into the nature and origins of creative genius. The subjects of these investigations have included thousands of eminent figures from most of the world's civilizations and key domains of creative activity: scientists and artists, philosophers and composers, poets and psychologists. During the course of my research, I have come to admire many outstanding exemplars of creativity. From European civilization, for instance, come such personal idols as Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Leonardo da Vinci. Nonetheless, because I am a behavioral scientist, my private list of heroes tends to be heavily weighted toward those who have made signal contributions to scientific knowledge. At the top of the roster are such notables as Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Faraday, Pasteur, and Einstein. But my all-time favorite is Charles Darwin. There are probably three main reasons for this choice.

First, Darwin had an unusually attractive and approachable personality, at least as revealed in his autobiography and correspondence. He had a rare combination of frankness, modesty, and persuasive self-confidence. Seriously dedicated to the hard work of science, Darwin also could enjoy the everyday world of family and community. He was arguably the most human of all scientific luminaries. He is certainly more accessible than Newton.

Second, all of his landmark contributions are accessible to educated lay readers -- including me. One does not need special training, mathematical or otherwise, to read the Origin of Species, for example. Indeed, I can think of no scientific masterpiece that can boast such universal appeal. Newton Principia, in contrast, is very tough going, even for physicists (who are now unschooled in its archaic mathematics). At the same time, Darwin did not compromise his scientific integrity or effectiveness in producing such a popular work. It is rich in logic and fact -- features that render the work all the more thought provoking and convincing.

Third, and probably most important, no scientist, living or deceased, has more influenced my own thinking than has Charles Darwin. I may admire Einstein or Newton or Galileo, but their epoch-making ideas belong to someone else's discipline. In comparison, Darwin's powerful contributions have left their indelible imprints throughout the biological and behavioral sciences, psychology not excluded. Great psychologists as diverse as William James, Sigmund Freud, and B. F. Skinner have all acknowledged Darwin's penetrating influence. In fact, among the first behavioral scientists to feel the impact of Darwin's ideas was Francis Galton, whose 1869 Hereditary Genius . . .

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