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Book Review: The Geography of Genius (Eric Weiner)

“The Geography of Genius” is a bit of a puzzle. The author’s stated goal is “a search for the world’s most creative places.” A search is certainly what it is; as others have pointed out, much of the book is a travelogue, and a pretty interesting one. At the same time, the author aspires to find out WHY genius arises in specific places. But he’s coy about that being the goal, probably because the goal is too large. This makes the book somewhat frustrating as social analysis. Nonetheless, Weiner has a variety of interesting observations and insights.

By “genius,” Weiner means “creative genius,” defined as “the highest form of creativity.” In his definition, a genius is a person who comes has “the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable.” And, genius must be publicly acknowledged by society at large—Weiner quotes the 19th Century scientist Francis Galton, “A genius is a man to whom the world deliberately acknowledges itself largely indebted.” In this book, that includes not just scientific geniuses, though those predominate, but philosophers (Aristotle); musicians (Mozart, Beethoven, etc.); and “other” (Freud).

Weiner starts in Athens, focusing naturally on Classical Athens, and ends in Silicon Valley, focusing on today. In each place, he wanders around, meets local people, and inquires searchingly about the place. He floats musing theories on why the particular place nurtured genius at a particular time, using the framework of discussing individual geniuses, from Socrates on. He supplements his musings with summaries of relevant social science, which tend to a bit frustrating, because they are short, lacking footnotes, and held up in isolation without discussion of alternative viewpoints. But overall, it’s a fun journey.

A different, and accurate, subtitle for the book could have been “How I Noticed Only The West Produces Geniuses.” Weiner does have badly failed attempts to find genius in two non-Western places: China in the 11th Century, and Calcutta in the late 19th and early 20th (although, of course, the latter was the hybrid British-Indian culture of the Raj, where forward progress was almost all British-driven).

As far as China, Weiner focuses on Hangzhou, where he is able to find and profile only one genius, the 11th Century Shen Kuo. I never heard of him, but he does seem to meet the definition of genius. But in another section Weiner notes “one genius does not a golden age make,” and it’s not really clear that Shen Kuo has had any impact on Chinese, much less global, society. Weiner then has a shout-out to Jack Ma, also from Hangzhou, and then announces Hangzhou produced “a large litter of geniuses,” naming no others at all.

Of course, I’m not the first to point out that China, despite its millennia of civilization and advanced capabilities, failed ultimately to lead the modern world in anything and throughout history produced few men of genius. Weiner does repeatedly cite Joseph Needham, the great American historian and lover of China who exposed Chinese history to the West. But even Needham bemoaned that China developed no modern science of any kind. As can be seen from reading other books, like Toby Huff’s “The Rise of Early Modern Science,” Chinese bureaucracy, Confucian focus on the mythical exemplary past, emperor supremacy, and the mandarin system offered no incentives for either the centrality of rational thought and dialectic, universal legal principles, or experimental scientific inquiry on abstract principles, all things ultimately necessary for most geniuses to flourish.

Weiner actually indirectly answers the question he does not pose, why China lacks geniuses, by concluding that, in the Chinese (or “Eastern,” as he paints it with a broad brush, though he’s talking about China), “all discoveries are actually rediscoveries, all inventions reinventions. There is nothing new under the sun, but the old is plenty wonderful, and . . . just waiting to be uncovered.” This is just a shorter way to say that the Chinese system limited innovation, and therefore limited the creation of geniuses.

As far as Calcutta, Weiner names a few men as geniuses that few people outside India ever heard of and who had mostly local impact, who were the product of British culture as much as Indian (although some produced worthwhile science wholly in the Western tradition, such as Satyendra Nath Bose, of the Bose-Einstein condensate). Apparently, though, in modern Calcutta they are prone to the typical fantasies of cultures with an inferiority complex. Weiner quotes one of his interlocutors as saying, without discussion or evidence, “For one hundred and fifty years, nothing could challenge Calcutta, nothing, from Tokyo to Cairo.” Uh-huh. Maybe Calcutta could not be challenged in such leading indicators as heat and density of poor people, but beyond that, what Calcutta is mostly known for is Mother Teresa, who was Albanian, and, for the historically minded, the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Ultimately, Weiner is really only able to find genius in the sense he means it (a time and place producing multiple geniuses) in the West: Athens, Florence, Edinburgh, Vienna, Silicon Valley. While he doesn’t advert to it, and a complete theory of why is well beyond the scope of his book, the simple fact Weiner effectively demonstrates is that genius is extremely rare, and if it were not for the West, the modern world would be very much less modern.

To the extent Weiner advances his own theory of what creates genius, it appears to be some combination of Toynbee’s “challenge and response” (to which Weiner directly refers), combined with fluidity of the society in question and a good deal of unpredictability. Weiner also nods repeatedly, without really dipping in, to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—that a culture’s language forms how it views the world, and that can have a significant impact on what the culture accomplishes (among other things, he suggests that the Chinese written language discourages innovation and creativity).

And, most importantly for the comparative nature across cultures of genius production, Weiner notes “The number of geniuses who appear in any given field at any given time is a function not of the pool of talent available, but, rather, the attractiveness of the filed. The reason, for instance, we find far fewer brilliant composers of classical music today than in the nineteenth century is not because composers are less talented, or owing to some strange and sudden genetic deficiency, but because far fewer ambitious young people see classical music as the way to make their mark in the world. What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” Maybe this is part of why non-Western cultures create few or no geniuses. If you are poor (like Africa has always been), or have a culture that does not value “ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable,” such as Islamic societies post 900 A.D., or China at any point, you get few geniuses, or none.

Throughout the book Weiner has interesting insights, many of them puncturing clichés about success. Talking about failure, Weiner says “Usually, when the topic comes up, so, too, does the old bromide about how successful people ‘embrace failure.” Which is true. They do. Except it is also true that failures embrace failure. If anything, they embrace it more tightly. So, what is the difference between failure that leads to innovation and failure that leads to . . . more failure?” (He concludes it is remembering failure that is beneficial, not forgetting it and moving on as we are often told to do.) Similarly, he points out that it’s a total myth that entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are taking risks—the reality is if that they fail, or they lose their job, they can all easily find another great, high-paying job. They have “a huge net.” Weiner contrasts this with the risk takers of Florence, where if you failed, “you destroyed yourself, you destroyed your family for generations.” Another insight, quoting Hume, is “the same age which produces great philosophers and politicians, renowned generals and poets, usually abounds with skilled weavers and ship-carpenters.”

On the other hand, the book is also shot through with statements that are dubious or simply false. Referring to marginalized peoples being successful, Weiner says, without a reference, that “Unitarians, per capita, account for a hundred times more notable scientists than do Methodists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics.” But Unitarians aren’t marginalized. (Not to mention that they are the “religion” that, as they say, believes in one God—at most. It’s mostly just a way of being “spiritual but not religious.”) He repeatedly seems to miss notable items (he stays on Draco Street in Athens, but seems unaware that Draco was a man who could have been fit into his narrative). He get facts wrong (he says nobody thought Greek vases were art until the 1970s, which would have surprised Keats; he says the Greeks “never met a sexual act they didn’t like,” which is totally wrong on every level; he says Greek city-states “fought a few spectacularly bloody wars, but mostly they ignored one another,” which deserves no comment at all). He pulls out the old and false legend that the medieval Church forbade dissections—totally untrue, although true in the Muslim world, which is why medieval Christian anatomical conceptions were so much more detailed and correct than the extremely crude ones produced in Islam.

But perhaps these are small things, if you simply view the book as an enjoyable travelogue, necessarily somewhat superficial, through no real fault of the author. So that’s what I recommend you do.

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