Why We Shouldn't Look Too Hard for a "Creative Writing Gene"

According to The Independent, a recent Yale-Moscow State University study has found "a modest but statistically significant familiality and heritability element to creative writing." The conclusion was based on an evaluation of writing exercises assigned to 511 children and one or both of their parents. Some may protest that such evaluations are inherently subjective, but I have no problems with the study's methodology; it's the way the results have been interpreted—at least in the press—that seems to me to miss the point entirely.

Creative use of language is a cognitive skill, necessarily rooted in the physical structures of the brain. Given the extent to which our brains are hardwired for language, and the centrality of storytelling and linguistic play in human culture over nearly our entire history as a species, one would naturally expect this skill to be influenced by genetic factors. The interesting question, though, is why it isn't more heritable.

The study set out to determine, in The Independent's words, "whether there was a scientific reason why well-known writers have produced other writers":

There are four generations of Waugh novelists—Arthur, sons Alec and Evelyn, Evelyn's son Auberon, and Auberon's daughter Daisy; Kingsley Amis and his son Martin; H. G. Wells and Rebecca West, and their son Anthony West.

"There are also the three venerable Brontë sisters, Henry and William James [the novelist and writer on psychology were brothers], the Cheevers [father, daughter and son], and the Ephrons [both parents were successful screenwriters, and four daughters who are also writers]," say the researchers. "More currently, there are two bestselling mother-son pairs of mystery writers: Caroline and Charles Todd and Iris and Roy Johansen."

But take a close look at this list: how many of these families contain more than one truly celebrated writer? Put another way, how many people still read Auberon Waugh? In fact, discounting the still-living children of famous parents (reputations never really settle until after the author's death), only a handful of families in the past several centuries can boast multiple major literary figures. There are the Brontës and the Jameses, as mentioned. There are Alexandre Dumas père and fils. There are Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (though the former was better known as a polemicist), D. G. and Christina Rossetti (though the former was better known as a painter), and the extended Lowell clan, which included poets James Russell, Amy, and Robert (though the stars of the first two have faded considerably).

And that's about it: if I'm neglecting examples, I'm not neglecting many. (Literary marriages are irrelevant here, and the Brothers Grimm shouldn't count; they were more editors than writers, and Wilhelm did all the creative work.)

I'm also arguing from anecdote, of course, but this same kind of anecdotal evidence prompted the study in the first place. One could object that the researchers investigated family ties between writers, not "great" or "brilliant" writers. But surely the criterion of exceptional talent is inherent in the study's premise, too. Creative writing ability per se isn't especially rare; we're not talking about the product of an exotic genetic mutation. The American "MFA boom" of the past 40 years (from 79 programs in 1975 to 854 in 2010), the roughly 320,000 new fiction, poetry, and drama titles published in the U.S. in the last five years—figures like these suggest that there are at least as many writers in a population as there are institutions to support writers and outlets to publish them. Indeed, there are many more.

My own experience as a writing teacher has persuaded me that, given a solid general education and work ethic, nearly any student can pick up the basics of the creative writer's craft: employing vivid descriptive language, avoiding cliches, structuring a plot or poetic argument, and so on. Most students can do much more—can learn to deploy these tools in the service of thoughtful and entertaining stories, poems, and essays. Moreover, an increasing body of research affirms what anecdotal experience has always suggested, that our brains are hardwired to create narratives and to think metaphorically. That suggests a near-universal creative potential waiting to be tapped, even if not everyone tapped will become Shakespeare.

In order for the study to yield nontrivial results, then, it had to prove the familiality of outstanding writing ability. That it did not do, though it coyly hinted otherwise in its conclusion: "Despite the lack of systematic research on the aetiology of writing in general and creative writing in particular, it is rather difficult not to acknowledge the familiality of creativity in writing, given the families of writers who have entertained and educated us over the years. These findings constitute the tip of an interesting iceberg..."

I wonder whether the researchers sufficiently accounted for the fact that a talented writer in the family can be a powerful environmental influence. For anyone with a successful parent or sibling there is a strong temptation to go into the family business. The advantages of doing so can be both pragmatic (early training, nepotism) and psychological (positive reinforcement outside as well as inside the family circle). Even where positive reinforcement and practical help are lacking, familial competitiveness can be an equally powerful motivator.

It's possible that less drastic, but similar effects were present among the subjects of the study. I'd guess that parents who have an active interest in the arts are more likely to praise—and constructively criticize—their children's scribblings, regardless of initial quality. Such influence may create a feedback loop of motivation and success that begins well before age eight (the age of the youngest study participants).

Whether genetic, environmental, or both, I'd argue that the effect is not worth writing home about. The number of famous writer families is dwarfed by the number of famous families in, say, sports: the DiMaggio brothers, the Williams sisters, the Alous, the Manningses, the Griffeys, Calvin and Grant Hill...and that's just in the past century. Or how about acting? The Marx Brothers, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, Ingrid Bergman and Isabella Rossellini, Jon Voight and Angelina Jolie, the Murrays, the Bridgeses, the Culkins....Whatever gene makes you the next Pulitzer winner is getting badly upstaged by the one that makes you the next Hollywood star.

None of this is meant to dismiss the study, only to suggest that its implications have been overblown. "Want to be a writer? Have a literary parent," The Independent advises. Actually the dominant family trend in the history of literary genius has been one of regression to the mean. We might just as well advise writers to have a merchant parent (Shakespeare, Pope, Kafka), a lawyer parent (Swift, Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens), a doctor parent (Flaubert, Auden, Grace Paley), or simply a rich parent (Tolstoy, James Merrill, Frederick Seidel). Inherited genes can take you only so far, but inherited wealth will do a lot of talking as you do your writing.

[Image via Shutterstock. Independent article via Page-Turner.]

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

Harvard scientists suggest 'Oumuamua is an alien device

It's an asteroid, it's a comet, it's actually a spacecraft?

(ESO/M. Kornmesser)
Surprising Science
  • 'Oumuamua is an oddly shaped, puzzling celestial object because it doesn't act like anything naturally occurring.
  • The issue? The unexpected way it accelerated near the Sun. Is this our first sign of extraterrestrials?
  • It's pronounced: oh MOO-uh MOO-uh.
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Study: The effects of online trolling on authors, publications

A study started out trying to see the effect of sexist attacks on women authors, but it found something deeper.

Surprising Science
  • It's well known that abusive comments online happen to women more than men
  • Such comments caused a "significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future"
  • Some news organizations already heavily moderate or even ban comments entirely; this should underscore that effort
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