The Problem of Excess Genius

Shakespeare painting

Reading time: ~2 min.

A few years ago, David Banks, a statistician at Duke University, composed a short paper called “The Problem of Excess Genius”. It deals with the fact that human prodigies aren’t scattered homogeneously over time and space. Rather, they have a tendency to arrive in clusters. In his paper, Banks presents the case of Athens between 440 B.C and 380 B.C. He takes note that the old city over that period of time was home to a surprising number of talented folks, including Plato, Socrates, Pericles, Thucydides, Herodotus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes and Xenophon. These masterminds all lived in the same place and time. Or look at Florence somewhere between ~1450-1490. In those few decades, in a city of under 50k individuals, ascended a stunning number of everlasting craftsmen, including Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Ghiberti, Botticelli and Donatello. What causes such outbursts? Banks immediately dismissed the standard historical explanations, for example, the importance of peace and prosperity, noticing that Athens was occupied with a horrible war with Sparta, and that Florence had lost a large portion of its populace to the Black Plague. He additionally dismissed “the paradigm thing” theory, according to which geniuses flourish in the wake of a major intellectual revolution. The problem with this explanation, Banks said, is that it fails to account for all the paradigm shifts that did not inspire a burst of brilliance.

An example of a person that is often seen as a gifted man, whose genius has no other explanation than being born that way is William Shakespeare. But Banks analyzed his history in deep: When Shakespeare arrived at London, in the ~1580s, it was one of cities with highest population density at the time, and it was amidst a theatrical blast. There were a lot of playhouses, a large number of which arranged an alternate play six days a week. On an ordinary night, roughly 2% of Londoners would go to see a theater play. In Elizabethan England, there was a burst of literature, more than 7000 titles were published. At that time, literacy rates increased 50 fold, from 1% of the populace being literate in 1510, to 50% by the time Shakespeare had moved to London. This democratization of information meant that Shakespeare gained entrance to an immense number of new stories and old literature. In addition to this, there was a surge of young authors which the playhouses needed to guarantee full house. So the epoch was very competitive. This implied that individuals were constantly being presented to new thoughts, ideas, styles, and social influences. All of these factors combined significantly affected and greatly helped Shakespeare as he took advantage of those conditions.

This is the reason context matters. While Shakespeare is regularly viewed as an incomprehensible talent – a man whose work exists outside of history – he ends up having been significantly subject to the age and location in which he lived.

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