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.