Darwin: Was He a Genius?

Three quarter length portrait of seated boy smiling and looking at the viewer. He has straight mid-brown hair, and wears dark clothes with a large frilly white collar. In his lap he holds a pot of flowering plantsPainting of seven-year-old Charles Darwin in 1816.

My friend Lawrence Rifkin published a nice piece in the Huffington Post the other day  “Was Darwin Really A Genius.” I read the piece with great interest, as Darwin in one of my intellectual heroes, and I love to read anything about him. As I said before, I was intellectually asleep before I really encountered Darwin, and there is no way to have a comprehensive view of human life without understanding the concept of evolution. Here is Larry’s conclusion:

Darwin possessed no single talent of creative genius that cannot be found commonly in others. Therefore many people could compete with Darwin on specific, isolated abilities. But the collection of his talents and character put together in one individual is extraordinary – the combined sum of all that made Darwin Darwin. That, along with the level of his accomplishments, qualifies him as an exceptional genius, on par with geniuses with off-the-charts specific talents. And if you, very intelligent reader, were on the Beagle, I do not believe you would have achieved Darwin’s level of ideas and evidence. For these reasons, I would argue that Charles Darwin was a rare genius.

I think this is about right. Of course there has been a lot written about the idea of genius lately. Some say that geniuses are made not born, and that devoting enough time to a pursuit from a young age essentially defines what we call genius. Others argue that genius is more nature than nurture, mostly a case of inborn ability. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. What we call genius is a combination of native talent, the right environment, the drive to succeed, and more. So if you or had hit golf balls or played piano or studied from the age of two, we would be better golfers, pianists, or physicists. But we probably wouldn’t be Tiger woods, Mozart, or Newton because we don’t possess their natural athletic or musical or mathematical abilities. So geniuses are those with the natural talent and who had the right environment, disposition, etc.

If forced to guess though, I’d say that tenacity and other personal traits are probably more important than native ability. So I agree that reasonably intelligent people who put forth the effort can achieve great things. Which is what Larry said at the end of his piece. Perhaps then I might find the meaning of life with enough effort.
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2 thoughts on “Darwin: Was He a Genius?

  1. I think this answer was quite sane, though I would put a little more balance on the side of innate ability. But here is something that supports the importance of environment. From Bach to Brahms, Germanic nations provided a chain of musical geniuses who have never been surpassed. (If you want to add on the Austrian modernists like Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, go ahead). Now there are more Germanic people than ever before. There is no good reason to think their genes have radically changed. Yet there are no musical geniuses to match those from that 200-year spurt. Basically, the state of classical music itself no longer supports the emergence of such genius. There is such a thing as “cultural environment” which applies to other places besides classical music (e.g., Italian art for the Renaissance centuries). Genius is partly an outcome of this central environmental factor as well. Clearly, innate talent by itself is not enough.

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