The Mystery of Genius

Call it Jurassic Park for geniuses. Rather than extracting DNA from amber in order to reproduce dinosaurs, these researchers are attempting to extract DNA from paintings, notebooks, or the artist’s physical remains in order to reproduce the genius of Leonardo da Vinci.

It’s called the Leonardo Project. From humble beginnings in Tuscany, Leonardo rose to exceptional heights of achievement and insight across multiple disciplines at once. His prodigious artistic and intellectual creativity are legendary; notebook after notebook overflows with sketches and studies, designs and inventions decades or centuries ahead of their time. So if you want to unravel the secrets of genius, Leonardo is a promising place to start. The project hopes to have a fully sequenced genome by 2019, the 500th anniversary of his death.

As the National Geographic series on “Genius” makes clear, however, it is only one of many ways in which scientists and scholars study genius.

The questions they ask are fundamental. The capacity of the human mind to imagine, to create, to synthesize information in new ways, to perceive new solutions where none had been seen before, is fundamental to the human story. Why is it that some human minds remain forever embedded in their customary, inherited ways of understanding the world when others rise above the rest to write War and Peace, develop the theory of relativity, cure diseases, and develop technologies that transform the world? Why do some minds proceed along a normal developmental path, while others are like Terence Tao, who scored a 760 SAT score in mathematics when he was 7 years old?

What exactly is genius, anyway? To what extent is it genetically encoded, and to what extent is it cultivated through families, education, and social stimuli? Are there ways in which we can – and should – encourage the development of genius?

Defining Genius

Defining what genius means is surprisingly difficult. Take Albert Einstein. Perform a Google image search on the word “genius,” and images of big Al abound (often with his tongue out, Michael-Jordan style). After his death in 1955, a pathologist sliced open his brain and mounted it—piece by piece—onto glass slides. Today the slides are on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. There’s nothing self-evidently extraordinary about them. Clearly genius is not something you can kick, something easily defined or perceived. We might say, with apologies to Forrest Gump, that genius is as genius does. Genius arises from neural interactions, takes different forms, expresses itself through remarkable achievements or abilities or traits in a thousand and one different ways. But when does simply “smart” become “genius?”

In a famous study, Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman began tracking 1,500 gifted California high school students in the 1920s. Their IQs were over 140, a level he called “near genius or genius.” The students, nicknamed “Termites,” were found over the years to make extraordinary contributions to society. Collectively, they were granted 350 patents and wrote 400 short stories, as well as thousands of books and academic reports.

Yet what about the students who just missed the “genius” cutoff? Among these were Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, who were both awarded Nobel Prizes for physics. They were geniuses in most senses of the word, but not in Terman’s quantification.

There must be more to genius than simple performance on tests. What about opportunity and the right environment? Half of the women involved in the Terman study became homemakers. This raises the question of how many women geniuses never had the opportunity to prove themselves. A case in point is Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna. An extraordinarily gifted harpsichordist, she was expected to (and did) marry and relinquish music at age 18.

An Australian boy named Terence Tao had a brilliant mind and extraordinary mathematical abilities. His parents did everything they could to foster his learning environment by providing stimulating books, toys, and games. He had access to education that was sufficiently challenging and became a university student by age 13. At 21, he was a professor at UCLA. Ten years later, in 2006, he won the prestigious Fields Medal. Tao says that his abilities derive from a combination of luck, intuition, and hard work.

The psychologist Angela Duckworth, herself the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” believes that most people don’t realize how much hard work goes into great achievements. “When you really look at somebody who accomplishes something great,” she says, “it is not effortless.” Most works of art are never put on display, but thrown into the trash; most musical compositions are never recorded, but lost to history. “Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and the first commercially viable light bulb, but these were just two of the thousand-plus U.S. patents he was awarded.”

It may be that genius is tied to other capabilities we typically regard as non-cognitive. To return to the Leonardo Project, some researchers believe Leonardo’s visual range was far beyond the norm, allowing him to perceive color more finely than ordinary human beings. Since the human X chromosome includes the genes for red and green vision, studying Leonardo’s DNA may help us to understand whether his genetics did in fact give him an extraordinary visual boost. Many musical geniuses are noted for their “perfect pitch.” Is it possible that superlative powers of perception nurture the mind more powerfully? What if some minds grow a little, like trees planted by a creek, while other minds grow a lot, like trees planted by a river?

Or what if genius is more made than born, more the product of relentless effort than innate ability? Or the happy coincidence of both? When extraordinary capacity meets extraordinary drive, and blossoms at a moment of extraordinary opportunity to accomplish something so brilliant the world will never forget it?


See the article at National Geographic and follow along with the series. Original digital painting of Albert Einstein courtesy of Jeff Trojek.

Editor in Chief, ORBITER magazine