Friday, 20 July 2007

Francis Crick - the last genius?


The last genius? – reflections on the death of Francis Crick

Bruce G. Charlton

Medical Hypotheses 2004; 63: 923-924

With the recent death of Francis Crick (1916–2004), it feels like the era of scientific genius is finally ended. And it is not just scientific genius which seems to have disappeared, but genius in all the traditional areas where we might expect to find it: philosophy, fine art, classical music, poetry, plays and novels.

Crick not only co-discovered the structure of DNA but played a fundamental role in shaping the discipline of molecular biology, which is currently the dominant world science [1]. For a creative individual to transform a major social system – this, I take it, is genius. There seem to be no other living example in science or the traditional arts. Perhaps there are still-living geniuses in more recently-developed fields such as the cinema, pop music, comic strips, animation or TV advertising?

Some times and places are conducive to genius, others apparently not; and the reason is probably related the stage of cultural evolution [2]. When society is too simple then the work of a genius is soon forgotten even when their impact is permanent; like those anonymous inventors who created the wheel, the arch or the windmill. And when social systems become ‘mature’ they are too large to be re-shaped by mere individuals. The skilled craftsman is replaced by the ‘skilled’ machine, the typist is replaced by the word-processor, genius is replaced by armies of specialist technicians. What is happening is that systems evolve to transfer complexity from skilled persons to formal procedures.

Genius is therefore a typical product of transitional stages in culture, when social systems are small enough to be shaped by exceptional creative individuals, but complex enough to acknowledge and remember them. From the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century was an age of genius in science, but what happened to genius in the arts and humanities?

Firstly, genius became harder to understand. Social systems that are highly professionalized develop complex internal languages that are impossible for untrained outsiders to comprehend [2]. The work of prestigious modern philosophers like Quine and Kripke is so technical as to be interesting only to other philosophers. In classical music, each generation of composers was harder for non-musicians to appreciate. Eventually, Stravinsky and Schoenberg became unintelligible to the general public. The same thing happened in the serious novel, with – for instance – James Joyce becoming more complex and less accessible throughout his career.

Instead of complexly-skilled people (including a few geniuses) operating in moderately simple organizations, we now find moderately-skilled people coordinated in highly complex institutions [2]. Fine art works such as painting and sculptures became simpler; and artistic meaning was progressively transferred to an elaborate apparatus of commentary, curating, criticism and connoisseurship. An exhibition of contemporary art makes sense only when viewed in conjunction with the catalogue, and the ‘artist’ functions merely as a media-friendly personality.

This evolution is understandable – perhaps inevitable. Any social system that depends on the chance occurrence of rare and remarkable talent is vulnerable to extinction if genius is not forthcoming. Science has developed ways of functioning that presuppose more modestly-able personnel which can reliably be generated by standardized training programs. Furthermore, genius is rendered invisible by our tools of analysis. Scientists are usually employed to fulfil pre-specified functions in large organizations, and their performance will be measured according to their execution of this narrow role. The niches for individuals are smaller, and any potential genius will find themself evaluated only within the categories of small specialisms. This has been the fate of exceptional clinical scientists such as Antonio Damasio, who work across many disciplines.

Does the lack of genius matter to medicine and bio-science, especially when medical science can make progress by the coordinated accumulation of many small, incremental steps generated by large teams of qualified professionals? Sometimes, yes. When a subject gets ‘stuck’, when standard approaches have failed, when trial and error have drawn a blank - then the way forward is for brilliant individuals to discover ways out of the mess. For example, treatment is seriously inadequate for the common solid cancers which are the main cause of death in developed societies (e.g., lung, gut, breast, ovarian and prostate). A lot of people and resources have been thrown at the problem for a long time, yet current approaches appear to be reaching a plateau of diminishing therapeutic returns on exponentially greater investments [3]. We need the kind of Big Thinking that genius brings, yet medical research has become locked-into a model of Big Science organized on an industrial scale.

And the problem is not just making the discovery, but persuading other people that you have indeed made a discovery. Where now is the niche in which the fruits of genius can be evaluated and ultimately recognized? Francis Crick’s life in science offers many hints and clues to the kind of culture which is fertile for genius [4]. To encourage and support such developments would be a worthwhile project for science policy or patronage.


[1] H.F. Judson, The eighth day of creation: makers of the revolution in biology, Jonathan Cape, London (1979).

[2] B. Charlton and P. Andras, The modernization imperative, Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK (2003).

[3] D.F. Horrobin, Are large clinical trials in rapidly lethal diseases usually unethical?, Lancet 361 (2003), pp. 695–697. SummaryPlus | Full Text + Links | PDF (59 K) | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus

[4] F. Crick, What mad pursuit: a personal view of scientific discovery, Penguin, London (1990).