Is it possible to cultivate genius? Could we somehow structure our educational and social life to produce more Einsteins and Mozarts — or, more urgently these days, another Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes?
How to produce genius is a very old question, one that has occupied philosophers since antiquity. In the modern era, Immanuel Kant and Darwin's cousin Francis Galton wrote extensively about how genius occurs. Last year, pop-sociologist Malcolm Gladwell addressed the subject in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.
The latest, and possibly most comprehensive, entry into this genre is Dean Keith Simonton's new book Genius 101: Creators, Leaders, and Prodigies (Springer Publishing Co., 227 pages). Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, is one of the world's leading authorities on the intellectually eminent, whom he has studied since his Harvard grad-school days in the 1970s.
For most of its history, the debate over what leads to genius has been dominated by a bitter, binary argument: is it nature or is it nurture — is genius genetically inherited, or are geniuses the products of stimulating and supportive homes? Simonton takes the reasonable position that geniuses are the result of both good genes and good surroundings. His middle-of-the-road stance sets him apart from more ideological proponents like Galton (the founder of eugenics) as well as revisionists like Gladwell who argue that dedication and practice, as opposed to raw intelligence, are the most crucial determinants of success.
Too often, writers don't nail down exactly what they mean by genius. Simonton tries, with this thorough, slightly ponderous, definition: Geniuses are those who have the intelligence, enthusiasm, and endurance to acquire the needed expertise in a broadly valued domain of achievement" and who then make contributions to that field that are considered by peers to be both original and highly exemplary."
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