Genius Explained

Michael J. A. Howe

Cambridge University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
Howe's thesis in Genius Explained is simple: genius is the product of environment, personality, and sheer hard work, not a mysterious property that can't be analysed.
"I am not convinced that there is anything about the lives and achievements of geniuses that is in principle any less amenable to explanation than the lives and achievements of other people. ... That geniuses are special is undeniable, but the view that they are special for reasons that are mysterious needs to be challenged."
Not afraid of facing difficult cases, Howe starts by considering Mozart's precocious composing (he took a similar amount of time to other composers before producing original masterpieces), early performance skills (not out of line with the amount of time he spent practising as a young child), and memory feats (remarkable, but not at all unprecedented in specialised domains). Howe also explains in his introduction how "genius" is defined by achievement, not by the possession of an inherent quality — many geniuses were, after all, only much later recognised as such, while "unsuccessful genius" is an oxymoron.

The bulk of Genius Explained is biographical, with Howe focusing on figures from nineteenth century Britain. In each case he concentrates on their childhoods, attempting to trace the development of the skills and determination that would underpin latter successes. There are separate chapters on Charles Darwin, George Stephenson, and Michael Faraday, and a chapter looks at some great writers: the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens.

Two chapters consider child prodigies. Some parents have set out to turn their children into geniuses: with John Stuart Mill and Norbert Wiener they were successful, but Billy Sidis is an example of a child prodigy who had a tragic and unhappy life without creative achievements. Other child prodigies include George Bidder, a calculating prodigy who used the opportunities that gave him to become a notable engineer, and Einstein — who, contrary to popular legend, not only did well at school but was in fact a prodigy. Howe presents a more general argument that being a child prodigy is neither necessary nor sufficient for later genius.

I found this material fascinating, both with those figures about whom I have read quite a bit, such as Darwin and the Brontës, and those about whom I knew next to nothing, such as George Stephenson and Billy Sidis. A few minor things did, however, make me grimace: Turing's Universal Machine is not an actual computing device, but a conceptual construction, while describing Middlemarch as "arguably the greatest novel in the English language" is hardly informative.

Interspersed with these biographical accounts are snippets of theory, which are also fascinating but often frustratingly slender. At one point, for example, Howe writes

"Psychological research into expertise has [confirmed] that individuals' capabilities are largely gained through lengthy exposure to the ordinary and routine background events, repeated day after day, that make up the bulk of a person's life, rather than by occasional foreground incidents that seize attention because of their dramatic or sensational nature."
without reference or further elaboration. And his deployment of theory often seems rather ad hoc. So he uses Csikszentmihalyi's finding that later success is connected to a family environment that is both supportive and stimulating, but while always plausible this sometimes seems too easy: the lack of stimulation in Faraday's family life must have been compensated for by his job as a book-binder, for example, while his Sandemanian religion must have provided a supportive environment.

Having looked at the origins of genius, Howe devotes a chapter to the creative process itself. He argues that it is rare for this to be sudden, that inventions, discoveries, and creations almost always rest on a large body of earlier work both by the person involved and by others, and that a good deal more of them are collaborative than is often acknowledged. And in a final chapter he considers the idea that people are "born to genius", presenting arguments against both "the talent account", that people have specific innate talents at birth, and the idea that people possess a fixed "general intelligence". If inherited qualities do have a role in making geniuses different from other people, they are most likely to be those of temperament — "doggedness, persistence, the capacity for fierce and sustained concentration, as well as intense curiosity" — rather than narrowly intellectual ones.

November 2001

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%T Genius Explained
%A Howe, Michael J. A.
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1999
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521008492
%P ix,221pp