Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the word “genius.”
I’ve always thought a genius was a person who’s both extremely smart and spectacularly innovative. Pablo Picasso. Roman Polanski. Erwin Schrödinger. A genius is a person who single-handedly transforms our ideas of art, story, or science.
And then I started researching creativity and that inspiring image got very, very tarnished.
The first person to formally study “genius” was an English dude named Francis Galton back at the turn of the 20th century. The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity says he and other early statisticians wanted to understand human giftedness. “Creativity” was a rare word back then. So Galton and others called it “genius.”
Galton thought genius ran in families. He had some experience with this, since his half-cousin was Charles Darwin. Many other people consider Galton a genius too—he made incredibly important contributions to diverse fields like forensics, statistics, meteorology and psychology.
Note: Galton was ALSO the father of eugenics.
He coined the word itself, and was, back in the day, the most prominent champion of the “scientific” idea that some people are more equal than others.
Galton studied genius to prove that white, wealthy, able-bodied men were worth more than women, poor people, disabled people, or people of color. And by “worth more” he literally speculated how many British pounds poor babies were worth compared to rich ones.
Galton’s legacy makes me want to vomit. It reminds me of the long history of how “genius” has been used to celebrate and protect abusive men—including Picasso, whose treatment of his wives and mistresses led many to suicide; Polanski, who has successfully escaped imprisonment for his sexual abuse against a thirteen-year-old girl since 1977; and the quantum physicist Schrödinger, who, though mostly famous for his cat thought experiment, also detailed regular pedophilia in his journals, then quite literally said his “genius” justified the abuse.
Our culture’s relationship with brilliant, powerful men is incredibly toxic. Yes, these men, Galton included, have made important contributions to our society. What pisses me off is I sense many people resent having the pretty paintings, forensic history or charming thought experiments complicated with pesky abuse narratives. Case in point: many of the books I read that celebrated Galton’s genius did not mention his invention of eugenics.
We want the cat without the pedophilia.
Our society insists geniuses should inspire us to achieve, not make us question the cost of success.
At this point you’re probably wondering: what the heck does “genius” have to do with the current theme of “generations,” Heather?
Both come from the Proto-Indo-European root, “gene-” which means “give birth, beget.” Words like “genius,” “genealogy,” and “genital” are all begotten (ha!) from the same source. Even weirder, “gene-” also gave root to Saxon words like “kin,” “kind,” “child” and—get this—“Kriss Kringle,” which is derived from the German words for “Christ-child.”
In very-ancient Rome, a “genius” was the spirit of a male head of household—the power of the family to continue itself in reproduction (there was also an equivalent female spirit, called a “juno”). Importantly, the genius/juno was not the embodiment of a particular person, but a protective spirit that was “in the keeping of the heads of the family for the time being and passed at death to their successor.”
In other words, “genius” was a collective power that helped families survive for the long haul.
It was only later, with the influence of Greek individualism, that a genius spirit came to be identified with a particular person. And not until the Renaissance did a genius stop being a spirit and became a brilliant, innovative human.
To the ancient Romans, genius wasn’t about ideas, or innovation, or even beauty, but family. A genius created generations.
Look, I’m not generally a fan of Roman ideas about family or manhood (if you haven’t read any of the late Rachel Held Evans’ work about Roman household codes, go do so now), but what stills me about the ancient understanding of genius is how it centers kinship instead of productivity, individualism or success.
Genius was about raising up kids together. Not just for one generation, but about the entire process of carrying on a family over time.
We think creativity is about standing alone with our fancy ideas and changing the world singlehandedly right now. But that’s not the only possible understanding of the concept. There are other definitions, ones that honor the ordinary labor we do to care for and nurture our kin.
I’ll be honest: I wanted to hate Roman Polanski when I looked him up. I did not want to find out he was a Holocaust survivor. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does give them context. I have no inkling why Galton, Picasso or Schrödinger were such jerks, but honestly, the way we socialize men isn’t exactly healthy.
Truth is, jerks are people, too, people who did not learn how to show kinship and kindness to others. I’m allowed to be angry at them and question their legacy even as I ache for how chained to dysfunction they are.
There are generations upon generations of us, myself included, who have learned to treat success as more important than human beings. To treat power as an entitlement instead of a tool to be stewarded for the good of others. To overlook the miracle of family in all its forms.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if our collective creative work involved making genius into something life-giving for us all?