A friend and I were having an interesting talk recently, which at the time I thought probably had a simple answer, but after which I couldn’t find one. My friend was asking about geniuses, and how he wondered if indeed geniuses tend to cluster at specific times in history, and what causes it. My initial answer was that it probably was related to:
– great shifts in thinking, which themselves beg the very question we’re asking
– a statistical anomaly: a chance bunch of really smart people living in the right place at the right time
– war, famines, new land, changes in power, etc.
I might have suggested more, but I can’t remember. We tried looking it up on google or whatever, but couldn’t seem to articulate the question properly. I had read a history of great ideas before, by Peter Watson, so I started looking him up to see if I could find anything. I found a talk he gave, which I can’t watch past a minute and 50 seconds for some reason, plus a transcript of an interview (found here). Somehow, from there, I finally found what the field is called that tries to answer just this question: historiometry. I’ll share with you what I’ve learned, but please note, this whole field has its own problems and critiques, and I’m just regurgitating what I read, without doing a thorough check on the ‘facts’. So, you know, don’t attack me if I repeat something that is dead wrong:

– Take the whole idea of single geniuses for instance. Are there Great Individuals? Or do some people stick out during a time of Great Ideas / Zeitgeist? Here’s a quote from Watson (PW): “Take relativity and we think of Einstein or the unconscious and the name Freud comes up. When you think of the period, a lot of people were having similar ideas. In the late 19th century in German-speaking countries, everybody was using the word “unconsciousness”. The same with Mendel and his discovery of the gene in the 1830ties and 1840ties, there were several other people around that time having similar ideas, giving it different names.”
So, it could be that geniuses aren’t as far forward in their thinking from the rest of the people of the time as we tend to think.

– There is a relationship between closeness to elite universities and human accomplishment (but not between non-elite universities and accomplishment). Furthermore, innovation is self–reinforcing: Where there has been innovation, likely more will occur. – from Charles Murray (CM), (these are from summaries of his book Human Accomplishment)
That alone could help explain clustering of geniuses…

– Streams of accomplishment are fostered by political regimes that give de facto freedom of action to their potential artists and scholars. This means freedom of expression and innovation. It does not necessarily mean democracy although totalitarianism suppressed innovation. – CM

– War and civil unrest did not affect innovation. – CM
I found this particularly interesting…

– Religious liberty increased innovation. Jews had “sparse representation in European arts and sciences through the beginning of the 19C”, but within a century Jews were disproportionately represented (except in astronomy). This coincided with the emancipation of Jews who earlier had been denied legal rights and access to universities and public office. – CM

– “That the cultural development of Western Europe evolved out of Christianity is indisputable — but if “Christianity” alone was the  catalyst, then Egyptian Copts would be the bedrock of Civilization. But this is clearly not the case … no, the influence of the likes of Martin Luther was the true catalyst, with unpredictable and staggering results: he dared to challenge established (and corrupt) authority, thus opening the door to the Period of Enlightenment. One could argue that without Martin Luther, Western Europe might still be in the Dark Ages, though that would miss the point.” – I forget where I found this…

– progress accelerated in Protestant European countries but slowed in European Catholic countries – PW

– Middle East once at the forefront of human progress soon slowed to a halt once a theocracy was installed in power – PW

– rise of reading in certain cultures as being key to their accelerated progress in all areas of life – PW

I don’t really know what to make of all of it. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find a single good reference. Although Peter Watson is good, he’s not really looking for what causes genius or great ideas to happen. He simply traces when they came about. And people have their problems with Charles Murray (which I may have as well, but I don’t actually know much about the guy, so I can’t say. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he wrote The Bell Curve). So anyways, I really don’t know the answer still. If someone knows a good book to read on this subject, I’d be really interested in reading it.


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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