About 51 minutes into this EconTalk podcast with Jonah Lehrer about creativity, the discussion turns to how we get these ages of excess geniuses, or periods where there seems to be a high number of geniuses. Lehrer says:
Well, the last part of the book, I focus on so-called Ages of Excess Genius, these periods throughout history, like ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England, where you don’t just get one genius–you get this sudden cluster or clot of geniuses. You get Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Ben Johnson, Francis Bacon. The list goes on and on. Basically all these geniuses living in the same zipcode at the same time. It is quite eerie, and befuddling.
One explanation he offers:
T. S. Elliot had this great line, when he was trying to explain it in England; his version of the story was there wasn’t somehow this sudden flourishing of talent or genius in the 1580s in London; they simply found ways to waste less genius, to waste less human capital. So, that was his explanation. I think that when you look at these Ages of Excess Genius, that does seem to be one thing they all have in common. Which is, in general, they found ways to waste less human talent. Often by improving the educational system.
Personally, I think it has more to do with what we consider genius and how their ideas get transmitted. I know many people who have demonstrated genius , but will never be known for it.
They never sought to be known for it. They didn’t write down their findings or ideas, it never occurred to them that they were all that smart. To them, it seemed like common sense.
I believe what we recognize as genius is conveniently in a form that is easy to recognize as genius. But, I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg.