Thursday, June 23, 2011

Genetically-Engineered Flies Prove That a Human Eye Protein Has Magnetoreceptive Characteristics

The journal Nature Communications published an article this week that supports the hypothesis of human magnetoreception. Steven Reppert and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School did a study in which they genetically engineered fruit flies (Drosophila) to produce a human eye protein called cryptochrome. This protein is known to be important in circadian clock regulation along with light-dependent magnetoreception. Normal Drosophilia flies have magnetoreceptive ability that can be behaviorally tested in a lab. Flies that are genetically engineered not to produce cryptochrome lose their magnetoreceptive ability. In this experiment, flies that were genetically engineered to produce the human (not fly) version of cryptochrome had magnetoreceptive ability similar to normal flies.

It’s important not to get too excited about this experiment. The study did not show that humans have magnetoreceptive ability. It only showed that human cryptochrome can give magnetoreceptive ability to Drosophilia. The fact that humans have this magnetoreceptive protein doesn’t imply that any people actually use it for navigational purposes. It could be a vestigial protein, an evolutionary leftover that has no function, like the tailbone or appendix.

The authors of this study suggest that  “[a]dditional research on magnetosensitivity in humans at the behavioural level. . .would be informative.” I agree, and point to my paper as something I hope to guide future research.

Here are some links to nontechnical articles that talk about this experiment:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Can Creative Genius Be Scientifically Studied? A Review of “Origins of Genius” by Dean Keith Simonton

It’s common to think of the genius of men like Shakespeare, Darwin, and Einstein as something impossible to understand or study, kind of like a miracle. But psychologists consider all facets of human behavior to be fair game for research, no matter how strange or unusual. The geniuses who wrote Hamlet, who painted the Sistine Chapel, and who discovered the theory of relativity are extreme examples of personality traits like creativity, intelligence, and literary/artistic/scientific ability that all people posses to some extent. Dean Keith Simonton is a psychologist who specializes in studying creativity and genius. In his book Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity, Simonton applies Darwin’s theory of evolution to the study of creative achievement.

Simonton begins by defining “genius”. A genius isn’t someone with a high IQ, although most people we consider geniuses were very intelligent. A genius is someone who accomplishes something that sets him apart from everyone else, i.e. someone who has achieved eminence. Beethoven is a musical genius because of his symphonies, piano concertos, and other works that continue to be performed almost two centuries after his death. If Beethoven hadn’t composed any music, he wouldn’t be considered a genius, no matter how much intelligence or ability he possessed. “The phrase unrecognized genius becomes an oxymoron” (p. 5).

A “creative genius” is someone who invents or discovers an original, adaptive idea or product. Originality is required because mere imitation isn’t creative. Adaptiveness is required because if the new mousetrap doesn’t work, it isn’t any better than what we have now. If the new theory doesn’t fit the facts, or has internal contradictions, it won’t help advance science. If no one wants to listen to the new symphony, then no matter how original it is, it won’t be considered a great musical composition.

Given these definitions, Simonton goes on to present the research, theories, and biographical information that have advanced our understanding of creative genius. He begins by examining the thought processes of geniuses. To understand how Darwinism can be applied to this thought process, Simonton mentions Donald Campbell’s theory. This theory states that creative thinking involves 3 conditions:
  1. There exists some process that generates ideational variations, similar to genetic recombinations and mutations.
  2. These variations are subjected to a selection mechanism, similar to natural selection, but more cognitive or cultural in nature.
  3. There is some retention procedure that preserves and reproduces creative ideas, similar to genetic retention.
In simpler language, creative people come up with their ideas blindly (i.e. without knowing beforehand whether or not they will be successful or adaptive). They select the most promising ideas, and publish or otherwise share them with other people. The audience they share with further selects the creators’ ideas, rejecting some of them and accepting others. The ones that win out in the end, and become the acknowledged masterpieces, are a small fraction of the total number of ideas and products generated by the creators.

The more ideas, the greater chance that one or more of them will become a masterpiece. The most successful geniuses are also the most prolific. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Newton and others created (or discovered) many things that are now forgotten. The few things for which they are remembered are only a fraction of their total output.

How do creative people think? Like other people, they use imagery, intuition, and insight, along with analytical thinking. The main difference between creative and ordinary people is that creative people utilize remote association and divergent thinking. Remote association is making connections between separate ideas. A historical example of remote association is Einstein’s connecting relative space and time with the constancy of the speed of light. Before Einstein, scientists had considered these separate subjects.

Divergent thinking is the ability to come up with original ideas, solutions, and responses to questions. It is distinguished from convergent thinking, which is the coming up with the expected solution or response, e.g. the correct answer on a standardized test. Some fields require more divergent thinking than others. For example, artists, composers, and creative writers usually think more divergently than scientists.

Creative people also have different personalities than most other people. They have broad interests, they’re open to novel and ambiguous stimuli, they have trouble focusing on any one thing, they are flexible cognitively and behaviorally, they are more likely to be introverted, and are nonconformists. While not all creative geniuses fit this personality profile exactly, most exhibit at least some of these traits.

Creative people are also more likely to have psychiatric problems than the average person. There are many examples of depressed, bipolar, alcoholic, suicidal, and psychotic creative geniuses. Famous names with severe disorders include Vincent Van Gogh, Robert Schumann, Ernest Hemingway, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Charles Darwin. It’s important to understand, however, that most creative geniuses don’t exhibit high levels of psychopathology, or they would never have been able to create anything. Their symptoms tend to be midway between normal and abnormal.

Not surprisingly, geniuses usually grow up in enriched family environments. Their parents tend to have higher-than-average levels of formal education, with at least one parent working at an intellectual profession. Their parents value learning and supply their children with an ample supply of books, magazines, games. Visits to museums, exhibits, galleries, libraries and other places that stimulate intellectual development are common.

What’s unusual about geniuses’ childhood experiences is that they frequently face adversity. Geniuses often have physical or sensory disabilities, or chronic childhood illnesses. Sometimes their parents become bankrupt or impoverished. Many geniuses have experienced the death of one or both parents at an early age. These adverse experiences may set the young future genius on a developmental path different from most of his peers.

While geniuses are all highly intelligent, many of them lack advanced degrees or do poorly in school. Artistic creators generally have less schooling than scientific creators. Formal schooling suppresses creativity in favor of memorization and conformity. So it makes sense that many geniuses would dislike school. Since education and training is required for acquiring the necessary expertise in one’s profession, creators who drop out of school always are autodidacts. Many geniuses have one or more mentors who help compensate for the lack of formal education.

Like all complex human behaviors, creative achievement is a product of both nature and nurture. On the nurture side, as I mentioned above, creative people tend to grow up in enriched home environments, and also experience more traumatic childhood experiences than usual. But many people grow up in enriched environments and have adverse childhood experiences. Only a tiny fraction become geniuses. So there must be a unique genetic predisposition that interacts with these experiences to produce a genius. The technical term for this is “emergenesis”, or a combination of multiple genetic components, each of which must be inherited for the trait to appear. An emergenic trait is shared but identical twins, but doesn’t run in families. Evidence that creative genius is emergenic comes from family studies of geniuses. Many of the greatest geniuses in history, including Newton, Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Michelangelo, have no relatives of distinction.

Unlike intelligence, which is normally distributed in the population (i.e. having a bell-shaped curve), creative achievement is highly skewed. There are two mathematical laws describing this skewed distribution. The Price law states that if k represents the number of active creators in a field, then √k of these creators contribute about half of the products in the field. For example, assuming that there are 100 total architects, then 10 out of 100 architects are responsible for half of all building designs. The Lotka law states that the number of creators who contribute n products is inversely proportional to n squared. For example, the number of creators who contribute 10 products is c/100, where c is a constant. The number of creators who contribute 20 products (twice the number) is c/400, only 1/4 of who contribute 10 products. If you go up to 50 products (five times the original number), then the number is c/2500, or 1/25 of who contribute 10 products.

These laws hold whether one is considering all works created, or just works that have stood the test of time. For example, all of the works that make up the standard repertoire of classical music (i.e. works that are still performed today) were composed by about 250 composers. The square root of this number is about 16, which is the number of composers accounting for half of all the pieces performed today. Mozart alone composed 6.1% of the standard repertoire, which is slightly greater than the sum total of the bottom 150 composers!

The level of creative achievement varies across a creator’s career. At the beginning of his career, his output gradually increases. At some point he reaches a peak, after which his output declines. This trajectory is based on career age rather than chronological age. Late bloomers will have a later peak. Some disciplines, such as mathematics and poetry, have a much earlier peak than other disciplines, such as geology and philosophy.

One of the most interesting and difficult-to-explain aspects of creative genius is that achievement isn’t constant over place and time. Genius tends to cluster in some places at certain times. When these places experience a burst of creative achievement, they are said to have experienced a “golden age”. Eventually, and for reasons not fully understood, these golden ages decline to silver ages, and finally to dark ages. Examples of golden ages of achievement include Ancient Greece, the European Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, and similar (but less golden) ages in China, Japan, and other places.

It’s easy to understand how the presence of genius in one’s time can help spur additional genius. This can occur by means of immediate predecessors and contemporaries. “[T]he number of eminent creators in one generation is a positive function of the number in the preceding generation who are active in the same or affiliated domains” (p. 206). These eminent predecessors serve both as role models and mentors. Charles Darwin had Alexander Monro and Adam Sedgwick as his teachers, and was influenced by Hutton, Lamarck, Sprengel, Malthus, Lyell, and others. Beethoven studied under Haydn, and was influenced by Mozart.

Eminent scientists and artists are more likely to occur during eras in which they can form relationships with contemporaries in their fields. These contemporaries don’t have to be at the same level that the geniuses are. “No matter what the domain of achievement, genius of the highest quality tends to be contemporaneous with genius of a lesser rank, and even with the more obscure also-rans and nonentities” (p. 208). Geniuses need audiences, professional contacts, and social networks to help motivate them to create. The idea of the lone-wolf genius, like Howard Roark in the novel The Fountainhead, doesn’t correspond to historical fact. While there were likely potential geniuses during the European Dark Ages, the barren cultural milieu prevented them from achieving anything.

Geniuses tend to live during eras of high intellectual receptiveness, ethnic diversity, and political openness. Some level of basic political freedom and economic prosperity is required for creative flourishing. It must be noted, however, that most creative achievement occurred under regimes which by today’s standards would be considered autocratic and unfree. Remember that Socrates, who lived during the Athenian creative golden age, was executed for his beliefs. Galileo, who lived during the European scientific revolution, was persecuted by the Catholic Church.

The division of labor is an important sociological factor that contributed to the emergence of creative genius. If every person in a society is engaged in physical labor such as hunting, gathering, homemaking, or farming, no one will have any time to create. With increased population comes specialization and division of labor, including jobs for creative people such as painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, and engineers. The European scientific revolution gave birth to another profession that gave men opportunity for creative achievement. Population size is a necessary, but not sufficient factor for the emergence of creative genius, as there were many large societies (e.g. Europe during the dark ages) that had very little creative achievement, and smaller societies (e.g. classical Athens) that had a great deal of achievement.

Origins of Genius is strong in its understanding and analysis of individual genius. Simonton does an excellent job explaining creative thought processes, in presenting what personality characteristics distinguish geniuses from everyone else, in explaining how developmentally and genetically they are different, and in describing the mathematical laws that show the skewed output of creative achievement.

The book’s main weaknesses have to do with group phenomena, including clustering of genius, and gender differences in genius. While Simonton can explain why having creative achievers in one’s own and preceding generations can help spur geniuses to accomplishment, he can’t explain what starts and ends this process. Since genius occurs in golden ages that come and go, something must occur to start the process of creative achievement, and something must end it. Simonton has little to offer to explain this.

Another problem is that Simonton completely ignores the cultural and creative dark ages we are currently living in. As I explain in an earlier blog post, dullness has become triumphant in our times. In the arts, modernism has completely destroyed all the great European traditions, and we have a reign of mediocrity. This isn’t just my personal opinion. I can prove this by asking who are the great contemporary artists, writers, and composers. Various people will provide different responses, but none of the names mentioned will have the recognition that the great artists of the past have. As Simonton mentions in his book, an unrecognized genius is an oxymoron. A genius who is unrecognized in his own time will most likely remain unrecognized in future generations.

In the sciences, there is some low-level creative group achievement, but no individual geniuses on the level of Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. As proof, I’ll offer the same name recognition test that I did for artists. While every year a handful of scientists win Nobel Prizes, they are always people no one (outside their fields) has heard of. These people, while accomplished, are not geniuses.

One of the problems with both the arts and sciences is that both have become so highly professionalized and esoteric that people can gain distinction in a field, but be unknown outside the field. This is partly due to the disintegration and balkanization of our culture, which has various causes, including modernism (in the arts) and technology (e.g. the Internet). But it is partly due to declining accomplishment. If someone accomplished something at the level of Einstein, Michelangelo, or Beethoven, most educated people would have heard of him. This is as true today as it would have been true centuries ago.

One historical fact that Simonton tries unsuccessfully to explain on environmental grounds is the almost complete lack of female creative geniuses. “In Western civilization, for example, women make up only around 3% of the most illustrious figures of history. And many of these females [e.g. monarchs] entered the records in part by birthright or marriage. (p. 215)” Almost all geniuses in history have been male. Some fields, such as mathematics, physics, and music composition, are completely dominated by men. The one field where women have a minor presence is literature.

Simonton rejects biological explanations such as lower IQ, less variable IQ, and biologically-based personality differences. He provides more conventional environmental explanations such as child-rearing practices, the costs of marriage and family to female achievement, sex discrimination, and philosophical/cultural hostility to female employment and achievement. He claims that female achievement in literature is due solely to the fact that creative writing requires little start-up cost or overhead. But he ignores that publication (including book marketing) does require overhead. Many women had access to musical instruments in their home. Why didn’t they use these instruments to compose music, as men did? Why is the female lack of creative achievement universal across societies, including cultures that had little interaction with each other (e.g. Eastern and Western societies before the modern era). Why, in contemporary America and Europe, when all these environmental hindrances to female creative achievement have been removed, do we still see so little female achievement?

In conclusion, Origins of Genius is an excellent summary of scientific knowledge about creative genius at the beginning of the new millennium. It provides a wealth of detailed facts and analyses that illuminate our understanding of this strange and wondrous phenomenon. Its main weakness is a lack of understanding of what environmental factors bring about creative golden ages and dark ages. This weakness makes it unhelpful in trying to engender new works of genius, i.e. helping bring about a new golden age of creativity.