Summary

Can the Right Geographic Conditions Help Create Geniuses?

Jan 26, 2021 | 🚀 Fathership

Why did the Renaissance happen in Florence? Why did the small Scottish city of Edinburgh produce so many world-transforming inventions in the 19th century? What caused Calcutta, in India, to produce a cluster of geniuses then slide into poverty and dereliction? (How a hot-tempered goldsmith created Florence’s iconic Duomo.)

In The Geography Of Genius, best-selling author Eric Weiner sets off on a journey around the world to answer those questions. He examines seven places where a golden age occurred—including Hangzhou, China; Vienna, Austria; and Athens, Greece—and discovers that genius thrives in chaos. (Read about restoring the Caryatids statues on the Acropolis in Athens.)

Talking from his home in Washington, D.C, Weiner explains why cities make geniuses; how Silicon Valley shares a talent with ancient Athens for appropriating other people’s ideas; and why the best thing parents can do to foster a genius is to drop dead.

Does geography really produce genius? If so, how?

Does it produce genius? Does the soil produce a tomato plant? There’s a seed, water, and sunlight involved in the process but without the soil there wouldn’t be a tomato. Likewise, without the soil there wouldn’t be a genius. Look at ancient Athens. Why is it that you had this incredible “genius cluster,” as it is called, which included Sophocles, Plato and Socrates? If you were a gambling man back in 500 or 600 B.C., you would not have put your money on Athens. There were hundreds of Greek city-states, many wealthier or stronger militarily, like Sparta. The land around Athens was not particularly fertile. But they had a special way of looking at the world that come from the fact that they were seafarers. They also stole a lot. [Laughs] We think of the ancient Athenians as inventing democracy, art, and philosophy. But they actually borrowed or “stole” from other places. Plato famously said, “What the Athenians borrow from others they perfect.”

I also write about lesser-known genius clusters, like Hangzhou, in China, in the 12th and 13th centuries: a golden age that produced great scientific discoveries, like the principle behind the compass. So, when I say geography I mean place with a capital “P”: cultural geography.

Today, you say, “We suffer from a serious case of genius inflation.” Explain.

We bandy the word about promiscuously. We have “football geniuses,” “marketing geniuses,” and all kinds of other geniuses. The word has gone through several morphings through the ages, but it’s supposed to be about someone who transcends their field. “Genius” should never require a modifier in front of it. If you have to describe someone as “that marketing genius,” then they’re not a genius. We don’t describe Mozart as a musical genius or Einstein as a scientific genius; we just say they’re a genius. They’ve transcended their particular field. Now, we’re raising thousands of little Mozarts and Einsteins. We’re told that everyone has a genius inside of them, though for some people, it’s deeper inside than others. [Laughs] I think we diminish true genius by using it to describe football players and marketing executives. Not to take anything away from football players and marketing executives! [Laughs]

You write, “Certain places, at certain times, produce a bumper crop of brilliant minds.” Talk about “genius clusters.”

I could have written about 20 places in my book. I could have included Elizabethan London and 1920s Paris but I focused on seven. Almost all of them were cities. To adapt that old African proverb—“it takes a village to raise a child”—it seems to take a city to raise a genius. They are also places in time. Both come together to produce a bumper crop of brilliant minds. It almost always happens after some major cataclysm or disruption or cultural earthquake, whether it’s the plague, like in Renaissance Florence, or losing your political independence, like Scotland before the Enlightenment. They also don’t last long: a couple decades, maybe a century. Then they are extinguished, like a candle blown out.

What does the latest scientific research tell us about genius?

A lot of it shows that place does matter and that genetics matters less than we think, somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent, depending on which studies you look at. It also shows that hard work matters. Have you heard of the 10,000 hours rule? The idea is that you have to practice something for 10,000 hours over 10 years in order to achieve mastery. Circumstances also matter a lot. The psychologist Dean Simonton, at the University of California, Davis, has looked at Japan between 500-1900 A.D and compared the amount of what he calls “extra-cultural influx,” like travel abroad and immigration. Japan is traditionally a very closed country to outsiders, but it’s occasionally opened up. The more it did so, the more it achieved creative eminence in fields like art and science.

You write “all genius makes the world a bit simpler.” How did 19th-century Edinburgh prove that idea?

The Scots were and are very practical people, who also have a theoretical bent. Adam Smith did the research for his famous book, The Wealth of Nations, in the port in Glasgow, talking to longshoremen and merchants. You had this mixing of different strata of society rather than the kind of socioeconomic segregation we often have today.

Their practical genius came to a head with medicine. It was the perfect field for the Scots because there’s a theoretical side to medicine. You need to know the theory behind how the body works, fluid dynamics and chemistry. But it’s very practical, too. For a while, the medical school at the University of Edinburgh was the best in the world. Many Americans studied there, as well as people like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Not a single place that you describe is in the Southern Hemisphere. Is tropical weather inimical to genius?

A philosopher, I can’t recall which, had a theory that humidity dulls the mind. If you’ve ever been in New York in August, people’s brains slow down! But you’re right. I don’t describe any places in the Southern Hemisphere and there are very few women featured in my book. That has to do with where creative energy has been focused. I don’t think there’s anything about the trade winds or magnetic poles of the Southern Hemisphere that prevents it from producing genius. That is why I made a concerted effort to go to places like China and India, to show that this is not just a western or northern hemisphere phenomenon.

Many people will be surprised, as I was, by your inclusion of Calcutta, today one of India’s most benighted cities, on your list of genius hot spots. Tell us about the Bengal Renaissance.

This was during the late 19th- to early 20th-century, when you had a collision of British and Bengali culture. The Renaissance man was Rabindranath Tagore, an essayist, dramatist and activist, but best known as a poet and the first non-Westerner to win the Nobel Prize for literature. You also had scientists like the physiologist and physicist Chandra Bose. More books were published in Calcutta at that time than any city in the world, except London. It is surprising because today we think of Calcutta, now called Kolkata, as the epitome of Third World deprivation and poverty. But for a while it was a place of genius. The lesson of Calcutta is the importance of chaos and the collision of cultures. Chaos can spark your imagination; get you thinking in new directions.

Most of us have a picture of geniuses toiling away in isolation. But we are wrong, aren’t we? Tell us about the coffee houses in Vienna and how they encouraged genius.

All the characters in my book were social, some more than others, but there were no true loners among them. The coffee houses of Vienna is the prime example of what’s known as a “third place,” home being the first place and work being the second place. The third is a place where you feel comfortable. People from all different walks of life go there and conversation is unstructured and flowing. You saw this in the Vienna of 1900. The coffee houses were like idea factories. Freud had his favorite coffee house; Gustav Klimt, the painter, had his. Entire movements were launched from the coffeehouse. In Scotland, they had all these clubs where they did an awful lot of drinking. Some people joke that the Scottish Enlightenment should really be called the “Scotch Enlightenment.” [Laughs]

You call Silicon Valley “the ultimate manifestation of the American flavor of genius.” How so?

Everybody wants to get rich but they want to get rich saving the world. [Laughs] That’s part of it. It also involved a lot of tinkering. I trace the beginnings of Silicon Valley back to the radio industry of 1912-1913. One of the most delicious accidents of history was that the sinking of the Titanic helped spark Silicon Valley. Congress passed the law saying all ships must have ship-to-shore radios. There was already a fledgling radio business in what became Silicon Valley and things started to boom.

It was also American in that it was amateur. You had a lot of amateur tinkerers right up to the era of the PC and the homebrew computer scene. There was a rags-to-riches and anti-establishment element to it. People went out there—and still do to some extent—to escape something and start over. Yet they were not so far outside the mainstream that they couldn’t affect the mainstream. This is a common theme about genius. Geniuses are “insider outsiders.” They have an outsider’s perspective, maybe they’re an immigrant or a refugee, or they’re living in California. [Laughs] But they’re far enough inside that they can affect the mainstream.

In Silicon Valley I see echoes of the Scottish Enlightenment because the geniuses of Silicon Valley were and are tinkerers. They have a practical bent. Like Florence, there is also a system of patronage, but instead of the Medicis you have venture capitalists and investors who are picking through all these ideas and deciding which ones to back. As in ancient Athens, they don’t invent much there. [Laughs] The MP-3 player, the cell phone, and venture capital were all invented outside Silicon Valley. What Silicon Valley actually does has very little to do with technology. It’s a system for processing ideas: recognizing good ones, discarding bad ones, and sending the good ones into a system that eventually reaches your back pocket.

Are parents important to the creation of geniuses?

They are important, in that the best thing they can do is to die at a young age. [Laughs] And I’m not kidding about that. A disproportionate number of geniuses lost a parent, usually a father, when they were quite young. There are many theories about this. Some people will fold because of hardship; others will thrive because they’re expected to grow up faster. Only children are more likely to grow up geniuses, too, because they also have to enter the world of adulthood sooner. More is expected of you if you are an only child or lost a parent. The French writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, once said half-jokingly that the best thing a father can do for his child is to die young. Gore Vidal believed the worst thing a household can have, if you want to produce a genius, is two doting parents. [Laughs]

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

Unrepentant teen with a long list of offences is why some parents shouldn't breed

Nov 25, 2021 | 🚀 Fathership

Ralph Wee Yi Kai, a 19-year-old Singaporean man, has pleaded guilty to eight charges on Nov. 25 during his plead guilty mention before District Judge May Mesenas.

The charges include consuming weed, causing unnecessary suffering to a frog, possessing imitation tobacco products, trespassing into the rhinoceros enclosure at the Singapore Zoo, and committing mischief by damaging property, reported CNA.

Another six charges will be considered during his sentencing.

Probation is "not realistic"

Wee pleaded guilty via video link from his place in remand, where he has been since Nov. 6.

The prosecution strongly objected to a probation suitability report, noting that Wee is "beyond the control of his parents, which renders probation unsuitable", according to CNA.

The prosecution asserted that probation "is not realistic" for Wee, based on his repeated offences and conduct in court.

They cited his "blatant disregard for rules", and urged for a reformative training suitability report instead.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Melissa Lee said Wee "has a tendency to abuse drugs and alcohol", which caused him to behave aggressively towards his parents.

He also "posed a risk" to them, which led him to be admitted to the Institute of Mental Health.

"Never expected it to come to this"

Wee's defence lawyer Shashi Nathan requested for the addition of a probation suitability report, according to CNA.

Shashi maintains that his family is able to supervise Wee, and added that his client "comes from a good family" who are "able to look after him".

He said that Wee was undergoing "a severe emotional crisis" when he committed his offences, and shared that the case has also affected Wee's family, especially after their home address was released to the press.

"While Ralph understands that what he did was wrong, he never expected it to come to this," said Shashi.

Difference between probation and reformative training

Wee was ordered to go though both assessments for a probation suitability report and a reformative training report, reported Yahoo News.

Offenders who undergo probation will not have a criminal record, while reformative training, which provides a more structured environment, results in a criminal record.

What Wee's lawyer said

Wee's lawyer said his client acted out after breaking up with his girlfriend, 18, who was the one who filmed the video of Wee backflipping in the zoo.

The defence lawyer, Shashi, said Wee spiralled into an emotional crisis as a result of his break-up.

Wee is homeschooled.

The court was told Wee saw a video of a man riding a giraffe and decided to make a video in the rhino enclosure, Yahoo News reported.

The ex-girlfriend had filmed the act and posted it on her private Snapchat account.

Wee posted it on his public TikTok account and a police report was made by a zoo personnel within the same day.

Wee removed the video when he was told to do so by the police, but reposted it on Dec. 18, before being told to remove it again, claiming he thought the video had been made private when he reposted it.

Wee had also included a link in his Instagram account biography to directed to a page selling t-shirts with the words "rhino ralph".

But he denied creating the merchandise profile.

He later removed the link.

Wee will return to court on Dec. 20 for his sentencing.

Timeline of events with updated details

Oct. 9, 2020, 2:40am: Allegedly committed an act of vandalism by hitting an information panel at a bus stop in Sixth Avenue, off Bukit Timah Road, causing S$900 in damage.

Allegedly caused damage to two cars -- S$2,800 to a Mercedes-Benz and more than S$1,600 to a BMW -- in nearby Sixth Crescent.

A taxi driver passing by reported him to the police, as Wee was standing in the middle of the road with a beer bottle in hand.

Dec. 16, 2020: Wee was placed on compulsory supervision for 60 months from Dec. 16. He was required to present himself for urine tests on each Tuesday and Thursday, but failed to turn up on four occasions.

He was placed on e-tagging during this period of time, after having been charged for his earlier offences.

He had to stay at home from 10pm to 6am as part of his bail conditions.

Dec. 17, 2020, 2.40pm: Accused of trespassing into the rhinoceros enclosure and taking a video.

Dec. 18, 2020: Reposted zoo video, despite taking it down earlier after being told to do so by the police. Told to remove video again.

Dec. 24, 2020: Accused of abusing a frog, which subsequently died, by hitting a ball against it on a foosball table, causing "unnecessary pain and suffering".

The incident allegedly took place at a Sentosa Cove property.

July 2021: First hauled to court and charged with two counts of mischief, as well as one count each of vandalism and criminal trespass.

Bail was then set at S$15,000.

Aug. 6, 2021: Allegedly consumed cannabis while out on bail. Arrested at his residence and two urine samples obtained tested positive for weed. S$15,000 bail revoked.

Sep. 14, 2021: Allegedly possessed an e-vaporiser and six e-cigarette pods at a ward in the Institute of Mental Health.

Three police officers showed up at IMH, where Wee was warded, to arrest him for failing to attend court.

He was admitted to IMH due to his drug and alcohol abuse, as had acted aggressively towards his parents when they demanded the drugs from him.

He was warded in IMH due to the risk he posed to his parents.

Oct. 13, 2021: Charged with one count of drug consumption while still in remand.

Bail raised to S$20,000 and Wee was released.

While out on second bail, Wee committed a string of offences, including cutting his electronic tag, according to ST, as well as not reporting for his urine tests on a few occasions, CNA reported.

The prosecution has called for an urgent bail review hearing to have Wee's second bail revoked for the alleged fresh offences.

Oct. 26, 2021: Allegedly cut a S$100 GPS ankle tag at an address on Leedon Road at about 12:10am.

Prior to this act, Wee was upset at his father, who had asked Wee to sleep early since he had to report for his urine test in the morning.

After arguing with his father, Wee decided to leave the house, and used pliers to cut off his e-tag before cycling to his friend’s house.

Upon discovering that Wee was missing, his father called the police.

The e-tag, worth S$100, was damaged and could no longer be used.

It was found in Wee’s house.

Oct. 28, 2021: Allegedly possessed an e-cigarette pod at the Leedon Road address.

Nov. 5, 2021: Warrant of arrest issued, as Wee could not wake up to attend court.

Nov. 6, 2021: Wee arrested.

Nov. 12, 2021: Slapped with four additional charges.

Nov. 25, 2021: Pleaded guilty to consuming weed, causing unnecessary suffering to a frog, possessing imitation tobacco products, trespassing into a rhino enclosure, and committing mischief by damaging property belonging to others.

Ordered to go though assessments for a probation suitability report and a reformative training report.