Darrin M. McMahon, author of Divine Fury: A History of Genius, traces the origins of the modern “genius” from the Enlightenment through the contemporary “wisdom of crowds”:
This is the paradox of genius in our time: On the one hand, the world we inhabit is an inhospitable place for that creature first conceived in the 18th century as a human of sacred exception; on the other hand, we have created a new variety of the species, which threatens to overrun us all.
The risk inherent in this situation is of obscuring genuine differences in aptitude, capacity, and ability, while at the same time becoming apologists for the real inequalities of opportunity and resources that might foster those differences. Recent data on the widening education achievement gap between rich and poor paints a troubling picture of a nation all too ready to squander its human potential. Despite our desire to “leave no child behind,” we do so every day, which prompts the terrible question: How many children living among us have the potential for genius that we’ll never know? As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once observed, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
Which is not to say that we should mourn the passing of the genius as first conceived in the 18th century. That creature has outlived its cultural usefulness, and perhaps it is time to say the same of the more recent varieties. By kicking the habit of genius, we might better be able to cultivate what is just as important and in the long run more essential to human civilization: the potential in all of us.
More Dish on McMahon’s new book here.