Reverse engineering genius: historiometric studies of superlative talent
Dean Keith Simonton
Although genius has been defined in the dictionary as requiring an IQ above 140, this definition depends on an arbitrary methodological decision made by Lewis Terman for his longitudinal study of more than 1500 intellectually gifted children, a study that occupies four of the five volumes of Genetic Studies of Genius. Yet, only the second volume, by Catharine Cox, studied bona fide geniuses, by applying historiometric methods to 301 highly eminent creators and leaders. After defining historiometric research, I examine the difference between historical genius and intellectual giftedness with respect to heterogeneous intellects, personality differences, and early development and show that the actual relation between IQ and genius is small and heavily contingent on domain-specific assessment, the operation of traits like persistence and openness to experience, and the impact of diversifying experiences, including both developmental adversity and subclinical psychopathology. Hence, the dictionary definition of “genius” has minimal, if any, justification. If, using historiometric methods, one works backward from recognized geniuses, such as those studied by Cox, one might not obtain the kind of sample that Terman obtained for his longitudinal study. The two methods produce two distinct subgroups of the larger population.