This story appears in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Who is a genius? This question has fascinated humankind for centuries—and it bedeviled us in putting together the cover story of this month’s issue.
Let’s stipulate: Einstein was a genius. His face (his hair!) is virtually the international symbol for genius, so revered is he as an intellectual titan. But for our story we wanted to go beyond one man and explore the nature of genius itself. Why is it that some people are so much more intelligent or creative than the rest of us? And who are they?
That’s where the trouble begins. When editors here first gathered portraits to create a gallery of geniuses past (because it’s hard to tell who among the living truly is a genius), the uniformity was obvious—and unsettling. In the sciences and arts, statecraft and literature, philosophy and industry, those hailed as geniuses were most often white men, of European origin.
Perhaps this is not a surprise. It’s said that history is written by the victors, and those victors—the ruling class, the dominant culture—set the standards for admission to the exclusive genius club. When contributions were made by geniuses outside the club—women, or people of a different color or creed—they were unacknowledged, rejected, even misappropriated and claimed by others.
The stereotypes endure. A study recently published by Science found that as young as age six, girls are less likely than boys to say that members of their gender are “really, really smart.” Even worse, the study found that girls act on that belief: Around age six they start to avoid activities said to be for children who are “really, really smart.”
Can our planet afford to have any great thinkers become discouraged or intimidated and give up? It doesn’t take a genius to know the answer: absolutely not.
Here’s the good news. In a wired world with constant global communication, we’re all positioned to see flashes of genius wherever they appear. And the more we look, the more we will see that social factors like gender, race, and class neither ensure genius nor preclude it.
In other words, as Claudia Kalb writes in our cover story, future genius may reside wherever there are individuals with “intelligence, creativity, perseverance, and simple good fortune … capable of changing the world.”