What makes an Einstein happen? How is it that some kids grow up to be Nobel laureates while others, seemingly their equals, go on to undistinguished careers? Dean Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, has striven to understand this phenomenon for years and has compiled his insights and research in Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity. His evolutionary perspective sheds new light on an old topic, suggesting that the genius is able to generate a diverse range of ideas, recombine them, and choose the "fittest" with which to proceed. These faculties might have a wide range of origins, including both genetic and environmental, and Simonton tries to pinpoint them and their similarities with the etiology of mental illness. His writing style is humble and personable, yet as penetrating when discussing experimental results as it is humane when presenting examples of genius and madness at work. While defining such terms as intelligence and creativity are (and should be) daunting even to a thoughtful psychologist like Simonton, his use of the terms is precise enough to avoid mushy thinking yet wiggly enough to satisfy most critics. His deeply engaging writing coupled with the undeniable, almost urgent fascination that his subject holds makes Origins of Genius a rousing success by any standard. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
In Simonton's bold formulation, creative geniusAthe ability to produce highly original ideas with staying powerAis based on a fundamentally Darwinian process that enhances the adaptive fitness of the individual and the human species. In a fascinating treatise leavened with candid descriptions by Einstein, Nietzsche, Mozart, Darwin, Poe, Linus Pauling and many others of their own creative processes, Simonton, a professor of psychology at UC-Davis, argues that creativity can be understood as a process akin to natural selection that leads to the survival of those ideas that prove their hardiness. If that sounds more like a quaint analogy than a real scientific theory, consider that, as Simonton explains, computer programs called "genetic algorithms" that are modeled on Darwinian principles and feature randomly generated strings of ones and zeroes that reproduce "sexually" (that is, each string exchanges a portion of its strand with a mate) are already solving real-world problems such as how to plan fiberoptic telecommunications networks, make forecasts in currency trading and improve oil exploration operations. Similar "variation-selection" programs have generated original art, solved equations and composed jazz melodies. Besides providing his own mathematical model of creative productivity, which will interest specialists, Simonton explores how cultural evolution and environmental influences stimulate the emergence of genius, as well as the links between mental illness and creativity. His dense and at times astonishing analysis of the creative process is likely to generate controversy but also has the potential to influence how we think about the human mind. (July)
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