Beethoven, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Tesla and Turing

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For SOCIOLOGISTS WITHOUT BORDERS, the individual is nothing more than a loan from society, and individuality is one of the fictions that help keep societies orderly. Other fictions of our daily lives such as money, The State, the calendar, the decimal metric system, Facebook or Instagram, have raised Mankind to a degree of sophistication, far above that of other animals such as bees, termites and ants even though such insects have a much longer evolutionary history of sociability and group behavior than we do. One of these fictions — language — is partly to blame for many people making the mistake of seeing themselves as unique individuals. This error is fostered by our parents’ habit of giving us arbitrary names, such as Ludwig, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Nicholas or Alan, for life.

Sociologists generally agree with Carl Jung and Jordan B. Peterson, that a person is nothing more than a mask that feigns individuality and is thus merely a convention situated between the individual and society. One can thus say that a person is what man appears to be, although we must admit surprising exceptions to the rule. As a subject, Sociology has been incapable of understanding and explaining the appearance of social phenomena stemming from intense individuality, grouped under the term CREATIVITY — a concept that is hard to square with the theory of social loan. Likewise, Biology, Neuroscience, and Evolutionary Psychology have also proved unable to find a genetic determinant capable of predicting who will be creative and who will not.

In the past, Science’s inability to explain creativity spawned the myth of GENIUSES, people with great innate talent. This belief was supported by flimsy stories of child prodigies, perfect pitch among musicians, or people with photographic memories. These stories did not explain anything and only served to place the issue of creativity in the realm of the irrational. Studies by William Chase and Herbert Simon chess child prodigies, and those of Anders Ericsson on Mozart show that behind the supposed genius lay nothing more than intensive training from childhood. 

For the neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg, creativity is a dual phenomenon that is not solely individual because it needs society to acclaim and consume it. Creative individuals “stand on the shoulders of giants”, who are their forerunners, and who needed a conducive social ecosystem in order to flourish. Genghis Khan, in the thirteenth century ruled the largest land empire ever known. He probably showed the greatest decision-making ability of anyone in history. Yet one can hardly imagine that Beethoven, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Tesla or Turing, would have achieved what they did under the patronage of Genghis Khan, since The Mongol Empire had no intellectual giants to inspire them and on whose feats they could build and surpass. As it was, instead of having to start from scratch they could draw on the legacies of Christian Gottlob Neefe, Haydn, Andrea del Verrocchio, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, Graz University of Technology, Albert Einstein and Godfrey Harold Hardy.

Studies on creative individuals by Anders Ericsson, Malcolm Gladwell, and Charles Murray suggest that the achievements of talented people are preceded by specialization and intense effort in a given field over at least ten years. Everything indicates that creativity goes hand in hand with the ability to work hard and stay focused for long periods of time, sacrificing the immediate pleasures of life for what sociologists call deferred achievement. Specialization and virtuosity have their origin in our hunter-gatherer brains, as our DNA thinks that we are still on the savannah, where we have spent 90% of our evolution so far. The hunter-gatherer bands had to contend with ruthless competition, both inside and outside the group, for food, water, sexual partners, and for scarce resources in general. It was this evolutionary scenario that spurred specialization. This was because becoming a specialist made one vitally important to the group and so was a kind of life insurance against one’s ruthless fellow men.

Thus, although virtuosity in the sciences and the arts is a manifestation of the specialization of our hunter-gatherer brains, CREATIVITY — which is unevenly spread and that requires superhuman effort — remains an enigma. Why did Beethoven, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Tesla, and Turing, with their stone-age brains, like ours, willingly give up large parts of their lives to exhausting tasks that leave most people cold? As a species, we are highly social animals who spend most of our lives in the physical presence of others. So how is it that there are individuals such as Nikola Tesla, who spent his little free time tending to pigeons? Our genes program us to marry, settle down, and have children so why is it that some people break the mold?

A person is nothing more than a convention between the individual and society, concerning what man seems to be. Freud placed great importance on unsatisfied desires, and evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker warns us; “ Often people have desires that subvert their immediate well-being, desires that they do not know how to articulate and that (together with society) they may try to eradicate without success.” Beethoven, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Tesla, and Turing are among the people Pinker refers to, and whom Erving Goffman lists as DISCREDITABLE, those individuals who find themselves under the threat that desires that subvert their immediate well-being may become public knowledge and lead to these individuals being DISCREDITED.

A horrible execution took place on April 7, 1498. The victim was the Moorish servant and close friend of a courtier named Cursetta. The Moor was in the habit of strolling the streets dressed in women’s clothes, going under the name of Barbara la Española (Barbara, The Spanish Lady). The Moor was taken to Campo dei Fiori and burned alive at the stake. According to the biographer Martin Gayford, this made a deep impression on Michelangelo. All the DISCREDITABLES (Michelangelo) define the set of their relationships with society during their lives through the treatment that their society meted out to them (Barbara la Española).

Why did Beethoven, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Tesla, and Turing, with their stone-age brains, like ours, willingly give up large parts of their lives to exhausting tasks that leave most people cold? It was because they all experienced a ‘Barbara, The Spanish Lady’ moment in one form or another in their lives and resorted — like our hunter-gatherer forebears — to specialization as a way of making themselves indispensable. In a hierarchical society such as the ones in which they lived, this was called status and made others treat them as individuals and kept them safe from harm. A high status, in general, stopped an individual being dragged off to Campo dei Fiori and being burned at the stake. Low status, by contrast, boosted the chances of coming to a grisly end.

The life trajectories followed by Beethoven, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Tesla and Turing, all based on obsessive work, led them to a VIRTUOUS CIRCLE in which the status achieved while they were still young exceeded their expectations and became the main driver of their creativity. As their biographers show, they all saw their mission as to save Mankind or as the heroic work of supermen. Were our “geniuses” aware of the origin of their superhuman willpower? Their biographers are unrevealing on this score but everything suggests that save in the case of Turing, none of them guessed that their greatness lay in their homosexuality, dyslexia, left-handedness, Asperger’s Syndrome, or being a bastard.

As Antonio Damasio tells us: “When bacteria detect ‘deserters’ in their group, which is say members who do not collaborate sufficiently in the group’s defense, they avoid them, even if they are genetically related and therefore form part of their family. In other words, they look down on traitors who don’t cooperate“. The fear of being excluded from the group has very deep evolutionary roots in Homo sapiens, and in all animals that hunt or graze together. What being pushed to the edge of the herd or pack means for a zebra or a (marginalization) is the equivalent to the loss of status for a human being. We have the brains of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose main challenge for survival was maintaining group cohesion and unity. That is why HATE of those exhibiting different behavior was so effective for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, helping them maintain fragile group cohesion and overcome defections.

Elkhonon Goldberg argues that creativity is a dual phenomenon that is not solely individual because it needs society to acclaim and consume it. Yet even the origin of the creative individual is a social phenomenon, since it is a social emotion, while HATE which marks individuals (who can choose to be creative or to take path that leads directly to marginalization). The hatred of those who are “different” manifests itself in children from three years of age onward (childish xenophobia) and develops in adolescence, helping to keep the group hierarchical and homogeneous (over time) in the face of the dissent, social fraud and change.

Science seeks truth, and Art seeks beauty, and the accumulation of both over the centuries makes today’s way of life incredibly complex. Yet we must be honest and acknowledge the merit of HATE, as we have already done in the case of GREED, both of which have done so much to build The Wealth of Nations.


Fernando Alvarez Barón

Acerca de Fernando Álvarez-Baron

Nacido en Salamanca, España el 11/09/1959. Sociólogo por la Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Estudioso de la microsociología y del impacto la neurociencia en la teoría de interaccionismo social. Actualmente realizando una tesis sobre minorías creativas en el mundo. Ex funcionario del Estado Español en Auditoria Publica. Ex director comercial de Bankia Fondos de Inversión. Articulista en prensa escrita española.

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