Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/September 1901/A Study of British Genius VIII

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WE have now examined all those characteristics of the most eminent British persons of intellectual ability which the 'Dictionary of National Biography' enables us to investigate in a fairly generalized manner. We have found that, excluding the living, at least 902 persons (859 men and 43 women) of such preeminent ability have appeared in the British Islands between the fourth and the end of the nineteenth centuries, the century richest in genius being, so far as we can trace, the eighteenth. We have found that, in regard to distribution among the various elements of nationality, England seems to have her fair proportion of eminent persons, Scotland an excess, Ireland and Wales a deficiency, though Ireland and Wales profit considerably among those cases in which there has been intermixture; the only important foreign strain is derived from France. We have found that, as regards social class, the upper and upper middle classes have been peculiarly rich in genius, that the country and small towns have chiefly yielded notable men, and that of all professions the clergy have produced by far the greatest number of distinguished children. Our inquiry, further, confirms the views of Galton and others that intellectual ability is to some extent hereditary, though it may well be that different kinds of ability are not all equally apt to be transmissible. We have found that persons of genius, like the members of other mentally abnormal groups, tend to belong to unusually large families, are much oftener youngest children, and still more eldest children, than in any intermediate position, and that, much more frequently than in the case of the ordinary population, they are the offspring of elderly parents. These eminent persons, we have seen, have in a notable number of instances showed remarkably feeble health during infancy and childhood (being in many cases the only surviving children of large families) but have tended to become more robust as they grew older, and they have been notably precocious. Though not generally subjected to very strenuous intellectual training, they have usually enjoyed excellent opportunities for intellectual development; the majority were at some university; a very large proportion possessed extended opportunities for studying life in foreign lands during youth or early manhood. There is a marked tendency to a celibate life, and marriage when it occurs tends to take place rather late; there is an excess of sterile marriages, though the fertility of the fertile marriages, while below that of the parents of the eminent persons, does not appear to be small when compared with the general population. We have seen that the longevity of our intellectual persons is great; we have also seen that they show a special liability to suffer from nervous affections like angina pectoris and asthma, while gout is peculiarly frequent; insanity is also unusually frequent. Minor mental anomalies, like stammering, are remarkably prevalent. There is also a tendency to melancholy. These are the chief conclusions we have reached concerning British persons of intellectual ability.

It may be reasonable to ask how far these are the characteristics of British persons of genius, and to what degree an investigation of persons of eminent intellectual aptitude belonging to other countries would bring out different results. It is not possible to answer this question quite decisively. The fact, however, that at many points our investigation simply gives precision to characteristics which have been noted as marking genius in various countries seems to indicate that in all probability the characters that constitute genius are fundamentally alike in all countries, though it may well be that minor modifications are associated with national differences. The point is one that can only be decisively settled when similar investigations are carried out concerning similar groups of persons of superior intellectual ability belonging to various countries.

A further question may be asked. How far has confusion been introduced by lumping together persons whose intellectual aptitudes have been shown in very different fields? May not the average biological characteristics of the man of science be the reverse of those of the actor, and those of the divine at the other extreme from those of the lawyer? I believe that Galton is inclined to assume that the investigation of groups of men with different intellectual aptitudes would yield different results. As, however, we have seen, the investigation of eminent British persons, when carried out without reference to the particular fields in which their activity has been exercised, yields results which, when comparable with those of Galton, do not usually show any striking discrepancies. Nor, so far as I have at present looked into the matter, does it appear that on the whole, when we consider separately the various groups of British eminent persons we are here concerned with, such groups show any widely varying biological characters. Certain variations there certainly are; we have seen that the geographical distribution of the various departments of intellectual activity to some extent varies, and also that in pigmentation there are in some cases marked variations. On the whole, however, it would appear that, whatever the field in which it displays itself, the elements that constitute the temperament of genius show a tendency to resemble each other.

I shall probably be asked to define precisely what the 'temperament' is that underlies genius. That, however, is a question which the material before us only enables us to approach very cautiously. There are two distinct tendencies among writers on genius. On the one hand are those who seem to assume that genius is a strictly normal variation. This is the standpoint of Galton.[1] On the other hand are those, chiefly alienists, who assume that genius is fundamentally a pathological condition and closely allied to insanity. This is the position of Lombroso, who compares genius to a pearl,—so regarding it as a pathological condition, the result of morbid irritation, which by chance has produced a beautiful result,—and who seeks to find the germs of genius among the literary and artistic productions of the inmates of lunatic asylums.

It can scarcely be said that the course of our investigation, uncertain as it may sometimes appear, has led to either of these conclusions. On the one hand, we have found along various lines the marked prevalence of conditions which can scarcely be said to be consonant with a normal degree of health or the normal conditions of vitality; on the other hand, it cannot be said that we have seen any ground to infer that there is any general connection between genius and insanity, or that genius tends to proceed from families in which insanity is prevalent; for while it is certainly true that insanity occurs with remarkable frequency among men of genius, it is very rare to find that periods of intellectual ability are combined with periods of insanity, and it is, moreover, notable that (putting aside senile forms of insanity) the intellectual achievements of those eminent men in whom unquestionable insanity has occurred have rarely been of a very high order. We cannot, therefore, regard genius either as a purely healthy variation occurring within normal limits nor yet as a radically pathological condition, not even as an alternation—a sort of allotropic form—of insanity. We may rather regard it as a very highly sensitive and complexly developed adjustment of the nervous system along special lines, with concomitant tendency to defect along other lines. Its elaborate organization along special lines is built up on a basis even less highly organized than that of the ordinary average man. It is no paradox to say that the real affinity of genius—and I am now speaking of the highest manifestations of human intellect, of genius in so far as it can be distinguished from talent—is with congenital imbecility rather than with insanity. If indeed we consider the matter well we see that it must be so. The organization that is well adapted for adjustment to the ordinary activities of the life it is born into is not prompted to find new adjustments to suit itself. The organic inhibition of ordinary activities is, necessarily, a highly favorable condition for the development of extraordinary abilities, when these are present in a latent condition. Hence it is that so many men of the highest intellectual aptitudes have so often shown the tendency to muscular incoordination and clumsiness which marks idiots, and that even within the intellectual sphere, when straying outside their own province, they have frequently shown a lack of perception which placed them on scarcely so high a level as the man of average intelligence. It is not surprising that by means of the idiots savants, the wonderful calculators, the mattoids and 'men of one idea,' and the men whose intellectual originality is strictly confined to one field, we may bridge the gulf that divides idiocy from genius.

Since a basis of organic inaptitude—a condition which in a more marked and unmitigated form we call imbecility—may thus often be traced at the foundation of genius, we must regard it as a more fundamental fact in the constitution of genius than the undue prevalence of insanity, which is merely a state of mental dissolution, in nearly every case temporarily or permanently abolishing the aptitude for intellectual achievement. But it must not, therefore, be hastily concluded that the prevalence of insanity among men of genius is an accidental fact, meaningless or unaccountable. In reality it is a very significant fact. The intense cerebral energy of intellectual creation involves an expenditure of tissue which is not the dissolution of insanity, for waste and repair must here be balanced, but it reveals an instability which may sink into the mere dissolution of insanity, if the balance of waste and repair is lost and the high pressure tension falls out of gear. Insanity is rather a Nemesis of the peculiar intellectual energy of genius exerted at a prolonged high tension than an essential element in the foundation of genius. But a germinal nervous instability, such as to the ordinary mind simulates some form of insanity, is certainly present from the first in many cases of genius and is certainly of immense value in creating the visions or stimulating the productiveness of men of genius. We have seen how significant a gouty inheritance seems to be. A typical example of this in recent years was presented by William Morris, a man of very original genius, of great physical vigor and strength, of immense capacity for work, who was at the same time abnormally restless, very irritable, and liable to random explosions of nervous energy. Morris inherited from his mothers side a peculiarly strong and solid constitution; on his father's side he inherited a neurotic and gouty strain. It is evident that, given the robust constitution, the germinal instability furnished by such a morbid element as this—falling far short of insanity—acts as a precious fermentative element, an essential constituent in the man's genius. The mistake usually made is to exaggerate the insane character of such a fermentative element, and at the same time to ignore the element of sane and robust vigor which is equally essential to any high degree of genius. We may perhaps accept the ancient dictum of Aristotle as reported by Seneca: 'No great genius without some mixture of insanity.' But we have to remember that the 'insanity' is not more than a mixture, and it must be a finely tempered mixture.

This conclusion, suggested by our survey of British persons of preeminent intellectual aptitude, is thus by no means either novel or modern. It is that of most cautious and sagacious inquirers. The same position was, rather vaguely, adopted by Moreau (de Tours) in his Psychologie morbide dans ses rapports, etc., published in 1859, though, as his book was prolix and badly written, his proposition has often been misunderstood. He regarded genius as a 'neurosis,' but he looked upon such 'névrose' as simply "the synonym of exaltation (I do not say trouble or perturbation) of the intellectual faculties, . . . The word 'neurosis' would indicate a particular disposition of the faculties, a disposition still in part physiological, but overflowing these physiological limits"; and he presents a genealogical tree with genius, insanity, crime, etc., among its branches; the common root being 'the hereditary idiosyncratic nervous state.' J. Grasset, again, more recently (La superiorité intellectuelle et la névrose, 1900), while not regarding genius as a neurosis, considers that it is united to the neuroses by a common trunk, this trunk being a temperament and not a disease. The slight admixture of morbidity penetrating an otherwise healthy constitution, such as the present investigation suggests as of frequent occurrence in genius, results in an organization marked by what Moreau calls a 'neurosis' and Grasset a 'temperament.'

It has been necessary to state, as clearly as may be possible, the conclusions suggested by the present study as regards the pathological relationships of genius, because, although those conclusions are not essentially novel, the question is one that is apt to call out extravagant answers in one direction or another. The most fruitful part of our investigation seems, however, to lie not in the aid it may give towards the exact definition of genius—for which our knowledge is not sufficient—but in the promising fields it seems to open out for the analysis of genius along definite and precise lines. The time has gone by for the vague and general discussion of genius. We are likely to learn much more about its causation and nature by following out a number of detailed lines of inquiry on a carefully objective basis. Such an inquiry, as we have seen, is difficult on account of the defective nature of the material and the lack of adequate normal standards of comparison. Yet even with these limitations it has not been wholly unprofitable. It has enabled us to trace a number of conditions which, even if they cannot always be described as factors of the genius constitution, clearly appear among the influences highly favorable to its development. Such a condition seems to be the great reproductive activity of the parents, the child destined to attain intellectual eminence in many cases alone surviving. The fact of being either the youngest or the eldest child is a condition favorable for subsequent intellectual eminence; and I may add that I could refer to numerous recent instances of large families, in which the eldest and the youngest, but no other members, have attained intellectual distinction. We have further seen that there is a tendency for children who develop genius to be of feeble health, or otherwise disabled, during the period of physical development. It is easy to see the significance of this influence which by its unfavorable effects on the development of the limbs—an effect not exerted on the head which may thus remain relatively large—leaves an unusual surplus of energy to be used in other directions; at the same time the child, who is thus deprived of the ordinary occupations of childhood, is thrown back on to more solitary and more intellectual pursuits. The clumsiness and other muscular incoordinations which we have found to be prevalent—while there is good reason to believe that they are of congenital origin—cooperate to the same end. Again, it is easy to see how the shock of contact with a strange and novel environment, which we have proved to be so frequent, acts as a most powerful stimulant to the nascent intellectual aptitudes. It is possible to take a number of other common peculiarities in the course of the development of genius and to show how they either serve to inhibit the growth of genius along unfruitful lines or to further it along fruitful lines.

Such an investigation as the present is far from enabling us to state definitely all the determining factors of genius, or even all the conditions required for its development. It suggests that they are really very numerous and that genius is the happy result of a combination of many concomitant circumstances, though some of the prenatal group of circumstances must remain largely outside our ken. We are entitled to believe that the factors of genius include the nature of the various stocks meeting together in the individual and the manner of their combination, the avocations of the parents, the circumstances attending conception, pregnancy and birth, the early environment and all the manifold influences to which the child is subjected from infancy to youth. The precise weight and value of these manifold circumstances in the production of genius it must be left to later investigators to determine.

  1. In the preface to the second edition of 'Hereditary Genius' Galton has somewhat modified this view.