Sunday, June 02, 2002

A stimulating discussion by Denis Dutton of Dean Keith Simonton's book Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity in the Johns Hopkins University journal Philosophy and Literature. Dutton is at present the editor of the Arts and Letters Daily, a favourite of mine.

[Quoted or paraphrased from the article:]

« In asking how the brain creates, Simonton quotes Karl Popper's notion that our thought processes show the essential elements of natural selection: "our knowledge consists at every moment of those hypotheses which have shown their (comparative) fitness by survival so far in their struggle for existence; a competitive struggle which eliminates those hypotheses which are unfit."

« In one historical study, he reports, 28% of notable scientists exhibited mental disturbance, whereas the rate was 60% for composers, 73% for painters, 77% for novelists, and 87% for poets, which places completely sane poets in a distinct minority. A degree of insanity, however, is not much help unless it is mild or borderline; if the psychopathology results in early suicide or complete incapacitation, history does not record the individual as a creative genius. The balance appears to be: the creative genius is mad enough to be inventive or imaginative beyond the ordinary, to think outside conventions, but not so crazy that it interferes with productivity or self-control.

« Simonton quotes the psychologist Albert Rothenberg comparing "authentic" with schizophrenic poets: "Unlike true poets, schizophrenic poets refuse to revise their initial drafts, revealing an inability to adopt a more objective perspective on their work. They are all inspiration without verification, variation without selection."

« Simonton discusses gender differences in creative genius. He refers to Darwin, who noted that given an individual animal that displays some markedly unusual characteristic relative to other members of its species--it is very unusually stupid, or aggressive, or curious, or strong, or imaginative, or psychotic, or vicious--the chances are it will be male.

« Simonton also gives much attention to Frank Sulloway's thesis that first-born children tend to be conservative in outlook, whereas later-born children are more prone to be radical and unconventional in their views.

« A provocative remark attributed to Werner Heisenberg: if Einstein had died as a child, someone else would have discovered General Relativity; if Beethoven had died as a child, the Opus 111 Sonata would never have been written.