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Posted By Patrick

A couple of Francis Galton factoids: the phrase “nature and nurture,” that catchy cliché opposing the influences of heredity and environment, was coined by Galton, who uses it in the title of his 1874 book English Men of Science: their nature and nurture. And of course he also neologized “eugenics” in 1883 to refer to his program to improve the stock of the human race (well, the anglo-saxon part of it, at any rate) in Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development.

Not all of Galton’s neologisms stuck. For instance, “stirp,” designating the total of “germs” or “gemmules” carried in a fertilized egg (the term is from stirpes, the latin word for “root”).  The gemmules and germs were Galton’s versions of the carriers of heredity, which we now recognize to be chromosomes and DNA. So the stirp would be roughly like the genome. And the gene pool would be the, ahhh, germ pool?? Too bad we missed that one…


And Galton's friends & family called him Frank, so I'm being factual, not frivolous, with my title for this post. In addition to being alliterative, of course.

Posted By Patrick

In his Hereditary Genius, Galton alights on judges as men sufficiently elevated (& well-documented enough, too) to demonstrate his idea that genius runs in families. “A judgeship is a guarantee of its possessor being gifted with exceptional ability,” he writes. “It might be different in other countries, but we all know that in England, the Bench is never spoken of without reverence for the intellectual powers of its occupiers. A seat on the Bench is a great prize, to be won by the best men.” Surely everyone would agree. Wouldn’t they?

Well, no. George Bernard Shaw, for instance, is pretty dubious about this assessment. In "How to Become a Man of Genius," he writes that “In England a judge is as likely as not to be some vulgar promoted advocate who makes coarse jokes over breach-of-promise cases; passes vindictive sentences with sanctimonious unction; and amuses himself off the bench like an ostler. But he is always spoken and written of as a veritable Daniel come to judgement.”

A split decision: we have a hung jury!

Posted By Patrick

Those late Victorians seemed quite engaged with the idea of “the genius,” and intrigued by people who seemed to warrant the label – thanks partly to what Francis Galton had to say in his Hereditary Genius. So here’s one opposing response to the notion of genius, à la Galton, and especially about whether reputation is a fair means of determining it. It’s by George Bernard Shaw, writing in late 1894. And it’s called  “How to Become a Man of Genius.”
“The secret at the bottom of the whole business is simply this: there is no such thing as a man of genius. I am a man of genius myself, and ought to know. What there is, is a conspiracy to pretend that there are such persons, and a selection of suitable individuals to assume the imaginary character. The whole difficulty is to get selected.”

Shaw then says that “genius” is one of those projected desires, something we want for ourselves (like honesty, braveness, and, of course, intelligence generally). That’s why we read novels or go to the theatre (OK, go to the movies, and play online games): to identify with a character more steeped in the virtues we admire but lack. Because, depending on when we are taking the inventory, we may possess them only briefly or lack them completely. As he writes,

“Our experience does, then, provide us with material for a concept of a superhuman person. You have only to imagine someone always as good as you were in the loftiest ten seconds of your life, always as a brave as you felt when you read The Three Musketeers, always as wise at a moment’s notice as the books into which philosophers have garnered the corrected errors of their lifetime, always as selfless as you have felt in your hour of utmost satiety, always as beautiful and noble as your wife or husband appeared to you at the climax of the infatuation which led you to the matrimonial experiment which you may or may not have regretted ever since, and there you have your poet, your hero, your Cleopatra or whatever else you may require in the superhuman line, by a simple rearrangement of your own experience…”

So genius is what people want to perceive. Then it is up to the man of genius himself to perform the role. Says Shaw,

“It is now plain how to proceed in order to become a man of genius. You must strike the public imagination in such a fashion that they will select you as the incarnation of their ideal of a man of genius. To do this no doubt demands some extraordinary qualities, and sufficient professional industry; but it is by no means necessary to be what the public will pretend that you are.”

So there we go. According to Shaw, we see genius because it is something we want to believe in. And I can’t help but believe that Shaw's own genius make-up is enhanced considerably by wearing a big bushy beard and a Jaeger suit.


Finally, on the matter of his genius, as represented by media/arts phenom G.B.S., Shaw tells this anecdote:

"Very recently the production of a play of mine [Arms and the Man] in New York led to the appearance in the New York papers of a host of critical and biographical studies of a remarkable person called Bernard Shaw. I am supposed to be that person; but I am not.  There is no such person; there never was any such person; there never will or can be any such person. You may take my word for this, because I invented him, floated him, advertised him, impersonated him, and am now sitting here in my dingy second floor lodging in a decaying London Square, breakfasting off twopenn’orth porridge and giving this additional touch to his makeup with my typewriter."