Family Background and Genius II: Nobel Laureates in Science

By Rothenberg, Albert | Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Family Background and Genius II: Nobel Laureates in Science


Rothenberg, Albert, Canadian Journal of Psychiatry


Objective: In a previous study of literary creative achievement, we presented evidence refuting the still-influential statistical studies of Frances Galton on the inheritance of genius and also described a family background constellation of creativity. This study aims to assess empirically the hereditary transmission hypothesis with respect to creative achievement in the natural sciences.

Methods: Family background data were collected on 435 of all 488 Nobel laureates in chemistry, physics, and medicine and physiology, from 1901 through 2003. These were compared with a matching group of 548 eminent nonscientists for incidence of occupational inheritance (that is, same parent-offspring occupations) and with 560 high-IQ nonprizewinners for predominant type of occupation.

Results: The incidence of one or both parents having the same occupation was only 2% for science Nobel laureates but 20% for eminent nonscientists (P < 0.001). The predominant family background constellation (63%) for science Nobel laureates consisted of the same-sex parent either having a performance-equivalent occupation involving applied science, technology, or a natural-world focus and skills (P < 0.001, compared with the matching group) or having an unrelated occupation with unfulfilled scientific interests and wishes for creative expression.

Conclusions: Nobel laureates in the natural sciences do not manifest direct inheritance of creativity from their parents; instead, congruent-sex parents are predominantly in applied or performance-equivalent occupations, with unfulfilled creative and scientific wishes. Early developmental influences on motivation involving identification and competition with the congruent-sex parent are suggested.

(Can J Psychiatry 2005;50:918-925)

Information on funding and support and author affiliations appears at the end of the article.

Clinical Implications

* The finding that there is no evidence for direct inheritance of scientific creativity or genius, along with other types of creativity or genius, applies to healthy processes and therapeutic facilitation of creativity, psychiatric treatment of creative persons, and genetic counselling.

* Factors related directly to creativity, such as exceptionally intense motivation, should be differentiated from aberrant factors and psychopathology.

* In the childhood development of creative persons, intergenerational competition as well as adoption of parental implicit and explicit creative goals may be accepted and fostered.

Limitations

* The findings are based on resemblance criteria, that is, similarities between parent and offspring behaviour, of behavioural genetics rather than on a gene-transmission approach.

* The main finding is based on test and control group evaluations, but the supplementary finding is based on assessment with a comparison group.

* Data regarding the grandparents and other probands of the Nobel laureates, control subjects, or the comparison group are not assessed.

Key Words: creativity, genius, heredity, motivation, genetic counselling, occupational inheritance, Nobel laureates in science, creativity and mental illness, treatment of creative patients

The Nobel Foundation's recent Centennial Exhibition, "Cultures of Creativity," (see http://nobelprize.org/ nobel/nobelmuseum/exhibition/) focused on the importance of individual creativity in scientific progress. Although the corpus of scientific knowledge develops from a large population effort involving investigation and validation by the entire scientific enterprise, particular individuals provide special impetus through important theories and discoveries. These creative achievements by scientists from the fields of physics, chemistry, and medicine and physiology have, in the 20th and 21st centuries, been recognized by the Nobel Prize award. Although the term genius is nowadays often applied to a broad range of persons and capacities, there is strong professional consensus that recipients of the prize, especially in science, meet the strict criteria for the designation (1,2). …

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