1. Clustering of Genius

  2. Creativity & Culture.

  3. A few years ago, David Banks, a statistician at Duke University, wrote a short paper called "The Problem of Excess Genius". The problem itself is simple: human geniuses aren't scattered randomly across time and space. Instead, they tend to arrive in tight local clusters. (As Banks put it, genius "clot in homogeneously".) In his paper, Banks gives the example of Athens between 440 B.C and 380 B.C. He notes that the ancient city over that time period was home to an astonishing number of geniuses, including Plato, Socretes, Pericles, Thucydides, Herodotus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes and Xenophon. These thinkers essentially invented Western Civilization, and yet they all lived in the same place at the same time. Or look at Florence between 1450 and 1490. In those few decades, a city of less than fifty thousand people gave rise to a staggering number of immortal artists, including Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Ghiberti, Botticelli and Donatello. What causes such outpourings of creativity? Banks quickly dismissed the usual historical explanations, such as the importance of peace and prosperity, noting that Athens was engaged in a vicious war with Sparta, and that Florence had recently lost half its population to the Black Plague. He also rejected "the paradigm thing" hypothesis, which argues that genius flourishes in the wake of a major intellectual revolution. The problem with this explanation, Banks said, is that it fails to account for all the paradigm shifts that did not inspire a burst of brilliance. The academic paper concludes on a somber note. "The problem with excess genius is one of the most important questions I can imagine, but very little progress has been made," Banks wrote. The phenomenon remains a mystery. And yet it's not a total mystery. While we may never know how Athens gave rise to Plato or why Florence became such a center of artistic talent, we can begin to make sense of the clustering of geniuses. The excess is not an accident. When William Shakespeare arrived in London, sometime in the mid-1580s, the city was in the midst of a theatrical boom. There were more than a dozen new playhouses, many of which staged a different play six days a week. On a typical night, approximately 2 percent of Londoners went to see a performance, with more than a third attending at least one play per month. This meant that the theatre industry was both extremely competitive - there were at least a dozen different companies - and hungry for new talent. And so, although Shakespeare had a little theatrical experience, he left behind a wife and two children and moved to London. Shakespeare's new hometown was one of the densest settlements in human history. Approximately two hundred thousand people were packed into a few square miles on the banks of the Thames. While this unprecedented density came with drawbacks - riots and plague were a constant threat - it also had its economic advantages: wages in the metropolis were about 50% higher than elsewhere in the country. (It turns out that the super linear equations of West and Bettencourt applied even in the sixteenth century.) As a result, London continued to attract throngs of young people like Shakespeare. It's estimated that by 1590, more than half of the city's population was under the age of twenty. The playhouses were at the centre of this human maelstrom; they were the densest places in the densest city. Most of these new theatres were built on the outskirts of the city, next to the brothels, prisons, and lunatic asylums. Land was cheaper here, but the playhouses also benefitted from being just beyond the city line, which meant they were able to operate largely without regulation. To understand how genius can flourish, we must comprehend the environment in which it is nurtured. In Elizabethan England, there was a burst of literature, over 7000 titles were published. Therefore literacy rates increased ten fold, from 1% of the population being literate in 1510, to 50% literary rate in the time Shakespeare had moved to London. This democratization of knowledge meant that Shakespeare gained access to a vast number of new stories and old historic texts. As well as this, there was an influx of young writers which the playhouses needed to ensure a packed audience. This competitive time meant that people were being exposed to new ideas, concepts, styles, and cultural influences. All of which culminated in the hand of Shakespeare as he drew inspiration from his contemporaries and surpasses the. This is why culture matters. While Shakespeare is often regarded as an inexplicable talent - a man whose work exists outside of history - he turns out to have been profoundly dependent on the age in which he lived. It was the welter of Elizabethan England that inspired him to become a playwright and then allowed him to transform himself from a poor imitation of Marlowe to the greatest writer of all time. Shakespeare is a reminder, in other words, that culture largely determines creative output.

  1. linking to genius