The Place of Creative Genius (part I)

As the Renaissance ended in Florence, Italy, the scientific revolution marched through Western Europe, marking the emergence of modern scientific thinking. Rapid developments transformed society’s views of nature. So what was it about this place and time that produced so many ‘creative geniuses’?

The Place of Creative Genius (part I)

As the Renaissance ended in Florence, Italy, the scientific revolution marched through Western Europe, marking the emergence of modern scientific thinking. Rapid developments in astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and math transformed society’s views of nature. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton are hallowed names that made significant conceptual advances in understanding the surrounding world in a remarkably brief period of human history. So what was it about this place and time that produced so many ‘creative geniuses’?

This is the question that Eric Weiner sets out to answer in his best-selling book “The Geography of Genius.” In Genius, Weiner takes the reader on a geographic and temporal journey visiting places like ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, Vienna of 1900, and Silicon Valley. Part travel journal, part history lesson, Weiner explores how certain environments are conducive to creativity. “What is it about a specific place/time that produced so many creative geniuses” is the nagging question.

A creative genius is someone who can come up with ideas that are “new, surprising, and valuable,” says Margaret Boden, a researcher in artificial intelligence and cognitive computer science. This is the same definition that the US Patent Trade Office (USPTO) uses when considering awarding a new patent; is it novel and useful? The central question can be reframed, “What is it about specific places and times in history that allowed people to come up with novel and useful ideas?” And “can we re-capture and re-create it today?”

Every bold idea, every world-changing observation or invention, began with a simple observation. Like the child who sees the thing for what it is, observation is unencumbered by assumptions and expectations. Charles Darwin said, “it is a fatal fault to reason whilst observing.” You need to see what is before you, the thing itself, and analyze later. While terms for his sentiment didn’t come until centuries later, his statement echos the two different modes of thinking today: the exploratory mind and the evaluative mind. In modern-day vernacular, Darwin would probably say, “it is a fatal fault to evaluate while exploring”.

The exploratory mind requires exploration. But rarely does exploration happen in the abstract. Renaissance art first started with a functional purpose. Most art was commissioned by the church, which was worrying about its public image. In a day and age when people were largely illiterate, depictions of the church’s images were an effective way to display a message. Like a historian, transporting yourself back in time allows you to understand what was going on: Renaissance art, what some say is the pinnacle of human achievement, started as cheap religious propaganda. Despite its founding intentions, exploring the limits and pushing the boundaries of art in the Renaissance elevated these religious advertisements to, well, art . How you go about something is just as important, if not more important, than what you are going after.

But despite more current-day opportunities for exploration, “creativity has remained relatively flat,” says J. Rogers Hollingsworth, an American historian, and sociologist. While we’ve seen an exponential rise in knowledge and scientific papers, we have not seen a coincident rise in creativity. One culprit, according to Hollingsworth, is specialization. We’ve carved our expertise into smaller and deeper pieces. This is undoubtedly true in the sciences and is complicated by the sheer volume of information in every field. If genius requires first mastering the body of knowledge in a given domain and then making your contribution, “well then good luck,” says Weiner. A physicist or biologist could spend a lifetime reviewing the work of others and still not make a dent.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “It’s useful to be ignorant of bad knowledge,” says psychologist Edwin Boring. Avoiding a scholastic straight jacket can unleash new ideas. Weiner describes that this was one of the benefits that Florence had over its rivaling city-states. “A transitional time, when everything is up for grabs, is when creativity thrives. It’s a jump ball”, Weiner wrote. All golden ages, as in Athens, Hangzhou, China, and other stops along Weiner’s journey, contained a free-for-all, “a chink in time when the old way has crumbled, and the new way is not yet cemented.” So forget about what you know.

This description might fit the time that many fields are in today: there is a new world order of technology, machine learning, AI, and web3, updating the way jobs are performed. The new order is a fleet of young superstars, trained in the old way, still with enough computational savvy, that they will be able to leverage new and emerging tools in data science and machine learning to make discoveries not previously possible. Indeed, data science — a combination of computer programming and statistics — explicitly encourages exploratory data analysis (EDA), a concept rooted in statistics but fundamental to creativity. Rolling around in data will allow new ideas to emerge — a new approach to idea generation.

But exploration is not without risk. Renaissance Florence had the Medicis, an art-loving family of wealthy bankers who invested heavily by commissioning artists. They invested broadly and importantly in Andrea del Verrocchio, who ran a workshop — a commune of sorts — for aspiring artists and creatives. An eclectic mixture of farm animals supplying dyes for painters, stonecutters molding marble, and young working with old; from this chaos, Leonardo DaVinci emerged and made an indelible mark on the Renaissance Modern worlds.

Patrons like the Medicis invested uniquely in risk, detached from the outcome. The Renaissance was full of talent that we’re not perfect for a job but indeed showed potential. Renaissance risk-taking meant that diamonds in the rough could be found and polished. Contrast this system to our current day of reduced risk-taking and all-but-guaranteed success. Whether in STEM or STEAM, investing in risk is most often avoided. And for modern-day Medicis, the person invested in must have a demonstrated ability to pull off risky projects. Gone are the days to identify a person with potential, invest in them, and let the situation play out.