Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/September 1886/Genius and Precocity II


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Men of Science.—Instances of astounding precocity do not fail us when we leave the more romantic walks of art and letters for the austere region of science. Mathematical genius and original power in physical research have alike been frequently heralded by exceptional boyish endowment.

Among the greatest discoverers we have instances of juvenile distinction. Galileo showed remarkable aptitude from earliest childhood. His favorite pastime was the construction of toy machines. A passion for music did not seduce him from his supreme devotion to mathematics, and by nineteen he was making important discoveries. Tycho Brahe illustrates the same early bent in a slightly different way. His devotion to astronomy had to contend, not with his own, but with others' inclinations. Sent to read law at sixteen, he managed, after the day's studies, to pursue his astronomical observations, passing whole nights in his favorite occupation. Newton, like Galileo, occupied his playhours at school with constructing model machines (water-clock, windmill, etc.). By the age of twenty-three or twenty-four he had conceived roughly his chief epoch-making discoveries. Another English investigator, Thomas Young, was a striking example of precocity. He read with fluency at two. He showed extraordinary avidity of mind in very different directions, now busy mastering the difficulties of Oriental languages, now set on constructing a microscope for himself. His mind, unburdened with its weight of learning, was nimbly tracking out new truths in optics by the age of twenty-nine.

Recent English biography supplies us with two of the most signal illustrations of the precocity of the mathematical mind, viz., Clerk Maxwell and Sir William Rowan Hamilton.

Among naturalists, too, examples of well-marked if less astonishing precocity are to be met with. Linnæus as a boy showed so decided a bent to botany that, through the advocacy of a physician who had remarked the early trait, he was saved from the shoemaker's shop, for which his father had destined him, and secured for science. At the age of twenty-three we find him lecturing on botany, and superintending a botanical garden, and at twenty-eight he begins to publish his new ideas of classification. Cuvier's history is similar. A poor lad, he displayed an irresistible impulse to scientific observation, and by twenty-nine published a work in which the central ideas of his system are set forth. Humboldt, again, showed his special scientific bent as a child. From his love of collecting and labeling plants, shells, and insects, he was known as "the little apothecary." At twenty he published a work giving the results of a scientific journey up the Rhine. In medicine, Haller is a notable instance of precocity.

Since Science has academical and other appointments to bestow on her distinguished votaries, we may estimate the precocity of scientific men by noting the early age at which such posts have been won. Laplace was mathematical teacher at a school when a mere lad; Lagrange was professor at eighteen; St. Hilaire at twenty-one; Kepler, Euler, Linnæus, and Davy at twenty-three; Cuvier at twenty-six; Copernicus at twenty-seven; and Tycho Brahe at twenty-eight. Others have obtained academic honors at an early age; among these, Lavoisier, Lyell, and Clifford.

Following our general plan, we have to ask what proportion of eminent savants have shown signs of precocity. I find, after going through a list of thirty-six, that twenty-seven, or three fourths, have given distinct evidence of a bent to science before twenty. Of the remaining nine, five appear to have first taken to science after this age, while in the case of four the question is left doubtful.

Looking now at the age of productivity, we obtain the following results: out of a list of thirty-one, seven certainly wrote memoirs or other works under twenty; fifteen gave out their first known production between twenty and twenty-five; three began to write between twenty-five and thirty; leaving six who, so far as I can judge, entered on the productive stage after thirty.

If, again, we ask at what age fame, or the achievement which entitles to fame, is reached, we obtain the following figures: Out of a group of thirty-seven, fourteen reached this point before twenty-five, twelve between twenty-five and thirty; eight between thirty and forty; while three did not rise to the height of renown till after forty.

In science, as in the more serious department of letters, fame is sometimes reached suddenly by the production of a great work, the fruit of many years of study. Harvey's publication of his great discovery at the age of fifty is a case in point. It is to be remembered, however, that Harvey had expounded his theory in lectures some twelve years before this date. And the same kind of remark applies to Darwin and others who first gave to the world epoch-making truths at a somewhat advanced age; we commonly find that the actual discovery dates from a much earlier period, the promulgation of it being deferred till it was ready to be presented in a definite and verified form. The case of Franklin making his first, and this a capital, scientific discovery toward the age of fifty is, so far as I can gather?, exceedingly rare, if not, strictly speaking, unique.

Philosophers.—If philosophy precedes science in the historical development of the race, we need not wonder at meeting with instances of youthful speculative genius. Coleridge is not the only case of a lad of fifteen having his head seething with metaphysical puzzles. But Coleridge, it may be said, never developed into an original thinker; and what we require is proof of the early manifestation of genuine philosophic originality.

Passing by the romantic story of Abélard dazzling Paris and Europe with his dialectics at the age of twenty, and coming to the modern period, we note that the most conspicuous instances of philosophical precocity are supplied by the history of British philosophy. Berkeley, as his commonplace-book shows, hit on his new principle of idealism at college when only eighteen, an instance of metaphysical audacity to which there is no parallel. His "New Theory of Vision," perhaps the most epoch-making work in the history of psychology, appeared when the author was twenty-four. His immediate successor, Hume, displayed speculative ability when very young, and was regarded by his mother as an "uncommon wake-minded" lad. His "Treatise of Human Nature," probably the work of modern times which has proved most stimulating to further inquiry, was thought out between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-six. And, oddly enough, Hume's most distinguished follower, J. S. Mill, has supplied the best recent example of philosophic precocity.

Among foreign metaphysicians, the two who come nearest to the above are Leibnitz and Schelling. Leibnitz was, like Mill, a prodigy of youthful learning, and began from the age of seventeen to write on a variety of subjects. His bent to philosophical reflection betrayed itself at the age of fifteen, when, at the University of Leipsic, he was entertaining the idea of rejecting the scholastic doctrine of "substantial forms." His first philosophical publication was the "Bachelor's Dissertation," which falls in the eighteenth year. But, after this, Leibnitz abandoned philosophy in favor of politics; so that he did not attain the rank of a great philosophical teacher till the age of forty-four. Schelling, if a less remarkable example of omnivorous learning than Leibnitz, is a more signal instance of precocious metaphysical constructiveness. He graduated at the early age of sixteen, taking "Myths" as the theme of his dissertation. He had written three philosophical works before the completion of his twentieth year.

Following the same plan as before, I have tried to determine the proportion of the precocious to the non-precocious among thinkers. Taking thirty-seven eminent representatives, I find that twenty-five, or about two thirds, appear to have shown a marked philosophical inquisitiveness before the age of twenty.

If now we go on to ask at what age philosophic production begins, we arrive at the following results: Among thirty-six, two wrote on philosophical subjects before the age of twenty; eighteen between twenty and thirty; eight between thirty and forty; and eight after forty.

Finally, with respect to the age at which greatness reveals itself in a remarkable achievement, we gather the following data: Out of thirty-five, three distinguished themselves before twenty-five; four between this date and thirty; fourteen between thirty and forty; six between forty and fifty; and eight after fifty.

Of those who achieved philosophic distinction after fifty we have no less illustrious names than Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Leibnitz. It may be added that Kant very nearly falls into this category, his first independent treatise appearing at the age of forty-six. The lateness of achievement in many cases is connected with the circumstance that other subjects, as mathematics, have been taken up before philosophy.

In presenting these statistics of genius, I am not unmindful of the defects of the evidence. Thus, for example, there are the gaps in the record of the childhood of great men which all the industry of recent biographical research has not been able to fill up.[1] Even where we do know something of the early life, we can not be sure that we have a full and accurate account of the intellectual and moral idiosyncrasy. For, on the one side, there is the inability of parents, etc., to recognize the marks of natural distinction. But few gifted children have been privileged to have their sayings and doings observed and treasured like Clerk-Maxwell or Rowan Hamilton. On the other side, something in the way of overstatement must probably be set down to the exaggerative influence of family affection, and also, perhaps, to the action of the mythopœic impulse in endowing those who have attained greatness with a worthy origin in the shape of a distinguished childhood.

Since these two sources of error tend in opposite directions—to an underestimate and to an overestimate of the indications of precocity—we may perhaps assume that they roughly counterbalance one another. And, so far as there is any appreciable residual error, it would seem to be in the direction of understatement of the case.

We may now inquire into the meaning of our figures, and the conclusions to be drawn from them.

A glance at our different lists will show that throughout precocity preponderates. This will be made more apparent by the following figures: Taking the seven lists together, I find that of the cases examined 231 out of 287, or about four fifths, displayed talent before the age of twenty. The instances of those who gave no sign of their high destiny in their youth must accordingly be regarded as exceptions to the general rule.

I may add that these exceptions, or, to be more accurate, these apparent exceptions, include only one or two names of the first magnitude. I doubt, indeed, whether one could find in the lists of musicians, artists, and poets, a single clear instance of a man of supreme genius having failed to give these early indications.

In the second place, our inquiries teach us that in the large majority of cases the productive period of genius begins early. Thus, in a total of 263 cases, 105—i. e., just two fifths—are known to have produced works before twenty; or 211—or more than fourth fifths—before thirty. At the same time these figures plainly show that there is less uniformity in this particular than in the other.

In the third place, we gather from our investigations that a large majority of great men gain their first considerable success in early manhood. Thus, out of 258 cases, 101, or nearly two fifths, reach this point before twenty-five; and 155—in all about three fifths—before thirty. But the proportion of exceptions becomes decidedly larger here. Thus we have thirty-one instances, or nearly one eighth of the whole, only attaining distinction after forty. And among these are names of very high, if not the highest, eminence.

It follows that there is only a general and not a perfect consilience with respect to the different marks of precocity here selected. The men who disclose the germ of a great intellect in boyhood are, as a rule, early in production, and in the attainment of an assured place among the great. At the same time, there are noteworthy deviations from this rule. Thus, Bach, Haydn, and Wagner in music, Perugino and Gainsborough in painting, Dante and Dryden in poetry, Cervantes and Scott in fiction, Gibbon and Niebuhr in scholarship, Copernicus and Darwin in science, and, finally, Descartes and Leibnitz in philosophy, are all instances of early promise followed by comparatively late performance.

The explanation of these facts seems to me to be the following: Genius, as the etymology of the word suggests, is essentially a native quality. A truly great man is born such. This means that he is created with a strong and overmastering impulse to a definite form of origination. And hence he commonly gives a clear indication of this bent in the first years of life. On the other hand, actual production presupposes other conditions as well. It implies, for example, a certain amount of physical vigor, a possession which many a son of genius has had to do without in the early years of life. Not only so, production on any considerable scale requires opportunity and leisure. And here the external circumstances become a matter of importance, as serving to further or to delay the process of achievement. For though it may be true that in the end real genius proves itself irresistible in its instinctive striving toward creation, every reader of great men's biography knows that parental disapprobation, aided by the necessity of living, from which even the most gifted of mortals is not exempt, has in a large number of instances greatly retarded the process of production and the attainment of distinction.

I do not, however, consider that these causes account for all the exceptions. After allowing for the effect of delicate health and external obstructions there remain a certain number of instances of late achievement which are only explicable as illustrations of a slow process of development. In a number of cases, the postponement of the fruitful effort has been due to the individual's own volition and not to external compulsion. Thus Dante, Milton, Cervantes, and others voluntarily passed their early manhood in active life, rather than in the life of imaginative creation, showing that the impulse to poetic creation was not at this period supreme and overpowering. In other cases, again, there is reason to suppose that the creative faculty unfolded itself slowly. What Macaulay says of Bacon is apparently true of more than one imaginative writer: the judgment developed in advance of the fancy. Defoe seems to be an example of such a late development of imaginative power, and George Eliot is a clear and very remarkable instance of this faculty first revealing itself at a comparatively late period. If to these considerations we add that men of genius vary considerably in their rate of production, that to many the process of creation is a slow, tentative progress, rather than a sudden achievement, we have, I imagine, a fairly complete explanation of the facts.

If now we compare the results in the different groups we reach other interesting conclusions. Speaking roughly, one may say that the numbers showing distinct promise before twenty in the several classes are represented by the following fractions:

Musicians 12/12
Artists 8/9
Scholars 5/6
equal Poets 3/4
Novelists 3/4
Men of science 3/4
Philosophers 2/3

In order, however, to get a just idea of the relative proportions of the several classes, we must further compare them in respect of the date of the commencement of the productive period and also of the age at which distinction is attained. If we take work before thirty as representing early production, we find the proportions in the different groups to be approximately as follows:

Musicians 1/1
Artists 41/42
Poets 11/12
Scientists 4/5
Scholars 5/7
Philosophers 5/9
Novelists 9/16

Finally, with respect to the age of distinction, we learn that the following proportions attain this point before forty:

[2]equal Musicians 1/1
Artists 1/1
equal Poets 11/12
Scientists 11/12
Scholars 9/10
Novelists 4/5
Philosophers 3/5

It will be seen at once, on comparing these tables, that on the whole the order of the classes in point of precocity corresponds pretty closely with the order in which we have examined them. Musicians and artists stand at the head of the list throughout, and philosophers come last in two out of three of the scales. On the other hand, the relative position of the intermediate groups—poets, scholars, novelists, and scientists—varies considerably in the different scales.

Without attempting an exhaustive explanation of these figures, a remark or two may be hazarded as to the more potent influences at work:

First of all, then, we note that the order in respect of precocity answers roughly to the degree of abstractness of the faculty employed. At the one extreme musicians and artists represent sensuous faculty, or the least abstract mode of mental activity, while philosophers at the other extreme illustrate the highest degree of abstraction. Between these come the men of imagination, the poets and novelists. And this is the very order we should antecedently expect from a consideration of the general laws of intellectual development; for sense, imagination, and abstract thought are the three well-marked stages of intellectual progress. Or, to express the same fact in physiological terms, one may say that the nerve-centers specially engaged in the production of sense impressions, mental images, and abstract ideas, develop and are perfected in this order.

Taking up the classes seriatim, one may say that the clear primacy of musical genius is probably connected with the fact that the faculty for music has, as its main ingredient, a very special and restricted sense-endowment, viz., a fine sensibility to tones and their musical relations, which, again, seems to be correlated with a special functional endowment of the organ of hearing. One may add to this that musical inventiveness presupposes no experience or knowledge of things, but merely an accumulation of tone-material.

Painting, like music, seems to depend on a special sense-endowment, viz., an eye for form and color, and also a finely organized hand, which endowments might be expected to be well marked from the first. On the other hand, it involves much more in the way of external observation and a knowledge of objects. Hence, perhaps, its inferiority to music in the matter of precocity.

Passing to men of letters, we find that, on the whole, poets are the most precocious class. Here, too, we note the presence of a clearly marked sensuous ingredient, viz., a fine ear for rhythm and the musical qualities of verbal sounds. The poetic endowment includes, moreover, as a principal act, or a lively, sensuous imagination, a faculty that is in a manner based on a certain degree of perfection of the senses, and so may be expected to become prominent at an early period of life. If to this we add that lyrical poetry is to a very large extent the expression of erotic and kindred feelings which are known to be developed in great strength during the transition from childhood to youth, we are able, I imagine, to understand much of the daring precocity of poets. It is to be remarked that, though there are several instances of boys writing comedies, dramatic composition begins as a rule considerably later than lyrical, and this accords with the fact that dramatic conception presupposes much more objective knowledge of men and things.

The next class to claim attention is the scholars. At first one may well be surprised to find these so high up in our first table, for the critical faculty, judgment, is known to be late in its development. But the anomaly is only an apparent one. The scholar, the historian, and the critic are alike dependent on an exceptional power of acquisition and of memory, and this is well known to be a precocious endowment. Moreover, it is an endowment which is fairly certain to be duly noted, seeing that it is precisely the aptitude which is at the basis of school-renown. This is borne out by the fact that the class of scholars, etc., though high up in respect of early manifestation of ability, are not so distinguished in the matter of early production or of early attainment of excellence.

The next group in our combined scale of precocity is scientists. Their high place is, I believe, largely owing to the mathematicians. The mathematical faculty is well known to be a precocious one. The fact that it is often found in the company of musical capacity suggests that there is a common mental ingredient. In each we note the play of inventive imagination on a circumscribed mass of material easily acquired, viz., tone-images in the one case, and symbol-images in the other. On the other hand, the representatives of the natural sciences which involve prolonged processes of observation, etc., are much less forward.

The shifting position of novelists in our three scales is, perhaps, the most curious outcome of our investigation. Like the poet, the novelist employs as his chief mental implement the faculty of sensuous imagination. Hence the relatively high position in our first table. At the same time the novel presupposes much more in the way of knowledge of the world and reflection on its ways than the poem. Its most distinctive aptitude, perhaps, is a minute knowledge of character; a circumstance which brings it into close relation to one of the most abstract of the sciences, viz., psychology.

Respecting philosophers little need be said. That a considerable fraction should begin to write after thirty, and almost as large a proportion attain fame after forty, is just what one might antecedently expect. Indeed, nowhere perhaps is early achievement so truly marvelous as in the severe domain of abstract speculation. It is not a mere coincidence, I take it, that the two most brilliant examples of this precocity, Berkeley and Schelling, are metaphysicians whose writings are so deeply tinged with the glow of a poetic imagination.

In this attempt to explain our results we have confined our attention to the intellectual ingredient in genius. But we might also take into account the emotional and volitional factor—that is to say, the specific impulse which prompts and sustains the creative activity. And by so doing we might still further illustrate the general agreement between our facts and the laws of mental development. Thus, for example, the artistic impulse, which according to our tables shows itself to be most precocious, appears also to be the one first manifesting itself in a decided form in the historv of the average individual, and of the race. The child and the race alike develop a crude art before they take seriously to inquiry. How far this consilience extends with reference to the relative position of the several classes in our scheme I will not now venture to say.

Genius is precocious, then, in the sense of manifesting itself early. But what of its subsequent history? Does it soon attain the summit of its development, or go on improving as long as, or even longer than, ordinary intelligence? This, as was pointed out at the beginning of this essay, is, in a measure, a different inquiry, and one too long to follow out here. There are special difficulties, too, in pursuing this line of research. Although it is, in a general way, an easy matter to say when a man of genius produces his first distinctly original work, it is exceedingly difficult to determine how long he goes on improving. Critics are far from agreed, for example, as to the relative value of the earlier and later work of Goethe, Beethoven, Turner, etc. It may, however, be safely asserted that early manifestation of genius is not incompatible with a prolonged and even late development. Haydn, Beethoven, Michael Angelo, Titian, Milton, Goethe, Voltaire, Gibbon, Lessing, Newton, Leibnitz, Berkeley, Mill, and other great names, are examples of such a lengthy process of development. Indeed, there is much to support Mr. Galton's view that eminent men surpass ordinary men not only in superiority from the first, but also in a more prolonged development.[3]

Such a conclusion, it may be observed, would seem to accord with what we know of the general laws of mental evolution. For, if we compare the different races of man, or the different species of animals, we find that, in general, the higher the cerebral organization attained, the longer the process of development. Men of great original power, having the most highly organized type of brain, may be expected to illustrate the most prolonged movement of mental growth.

From this point of view we are able, I think, to see the difference between the course of development of a truly great intellect, and that of a precocious but stunted intelligence. That there are many clever children that never "come to anything," or, at least, do not fulfill their early promise, is a fact which nobody, probably, will deny. Some of these would perhaps have distinguished themselves if they had had better opportunities, or, at least, more ambition and energy of character. But, allowing for this, one finds a good remainder of youths who appear to have had a rapid but early arrested mental development. Such an early display of quickness, followed by a lengthy period of ordinary mediocrity, or even dullness, looks like a too great forwardness of ordinary human ability. In other words, the clever child is in this case not an exceptional being, but a quite average one, whose cerebral development has somehow outrun the common attainment of his years. He is like a tree that bears fruit too soon. On the other hand, the man of superb ability is precocious just because, having a finer brain to start with, he is raised above the average mental stature of his years. He rather resembles a tree which shoots at once above the surrounding trees, though it may mature and bring forth fruit later than they.—Nineteenth Century.


  1. I have found the determination of dates in the case of the Italian painters particularly difficult for this reason. Old Vasari, in his "Lives," is very chary of figures, and, when he does venture on a date, he is very far from trustworthy.
  2. If we make twenty-five the limit, we find that artists just surpass musicians.
  3. See "Hereditary Genius," p. 44. Mr. Galton has kindly sent me a fuller statement of his view on this point.