Opening Words from Sun. March 14 by Brian Vandenberg: Creative Genius

Leonardo. Michelangelo. Newton. Mozart. Einstein. They have altered the shape of Western civilization; some of whom, while dead for over 500 years, we know by their first names. Their contributions are so extraordinary, that when we hear the term, “creative genius,” our first association is likely to one of them. Indeed, one of the synonyms for genius listed in the thesaurus us is “Einstein.”

The term, “creative genius,” is freighted with intimations of the divine. Creation is a sacred act. All religions have creation stories about our origins to explain the miracle of existence to answer the most haunting existential question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Something appears, inexplicitly, beyond our imagination, and we are left only to wonder. So, too, do we wonder about the unfathomable acts of creation by people like Leonardo and Einstein. And we do confer a quasi-deity status to them.

This deification, however, misleads. Although, indeed, remarkable, these individuals could not have conjured their creations without the benefit of being in a very special place and time, afforded opportunities, and being embedded in a deep and extensive socio-cultural network that not only gives rise to the occasion for their creative acts, but also provides the means for their execution. Newton is reported to have discovered the law of gravity after observing an apple fall from a tree. Miraculous, indeed. But if Newton was an Eskimo, I can confidently say: no Newtonian discovery. Same for Mozart and the rest of the pantheon of creative geniuses. Not simply because the Artic lacks apple trees or pianos, and certainly not because Eskimos lack the capacity for such genius. Consider Newton’s law of gravity: F = G (m 1 m 2 )/r 2 . What the hell does this jumble mean? You need many years of very intense, specialized schooling to grasp its meaning. Or, imagine a score of Mozart’s music. Again, impenetrable, except with years of specialized study.

Each of these geniuses profited from the good fortune of opportunity and circumstances. Newton was educated—a extremely rare and privileged opportunity—and was a professor at Cambridge University in the 17 th century, when England was the driving force of the scientific revolution, and Cambridge was the white-hot center of English science. A similar pattern of good fortune and opportunity is found for the rest of the quintet of geniuses. We venerate these individuals but fail to venerate the remarkable cultural networks, contexts and opportunities that provided the soil for their individual genius to arise and flourish.

These notable individuals are not singular, apart from the rest of us, but are the apex of the creativity that is our human birthright. Our survival as a species depends on our inborn capacity to create and share ingenious discoveries that are drawn from and, in return, profit the larger community. Genetic mutation enables biological adaption, but the process is very slow; many generations long. The creation of new, adaptive innovations, in contrast, can occur in leaps and gain widespread use within a generation.

Take the simple screw. Who invented the screw? We don’t know. When was it invented? Again, not sure, maybe ancient Greece, maybe ancient Egypt. What is true for screws holds for sewing needles, bread, chocolate, and most of the rest of what compose our modern lives—-all products of nameless creative geniuses. We are part of this ongoing history, making our contributions, some far reaching, most more local. We each contribute to the network in our own, often humble way. It takes a village for a Newton to thrive. For a screw to be invented. And to make a village.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.