The Geography of Genius

How genius travels, and where it settles

 

Genius follows its own law of gravity. It migrates in ever greater numbers to where it thrives. Hence places like Silicon Valley – and attempts to replicate it elsewhere, like London's Silicon Roundabout. The phenomenon is older than the microchip, of course, as proven by these maps.


Focusing on four creative disciplines, they chart the geography of genius in Europe and, over three consecutive periods (1400-1600, 1600-1800 and 1800-1950), the drastic changes to that geography. For genius, like money, is a highly mobile form of capital, as demonstrated by each of these maps, describing the origin of significant figures in art, literature, music and science.

 

In the 15th and 16th century, three distinct areas emerged as the centres of creative genius. The art world was dominated by northern Italy (in blue) and especially by its cities (black dots), with secondary centres in the Low Countries and around Madrid. The world of literature was more polycentric, concentrated around major cities like Paris, again Madrid, and some of the northern Italian cities, but the major concentration is around London.

The place to be for music in this period was the southern half of the Low Countries (later to become Belgium). Northern Italy is again the centre of gravity for science in the 15th and 16th century – with two more 'Silicon Valleys' in Germany, one near the tripoint with France and Switzerland, the other in the east, around cities like Leipzig and Dresden.

 

In the second period, the four 'valleys' have moved and/or changed shape. The art world seems to have retreated from northern Italy, save for some of the big cities – Venice among them. In the Netherlands, an axis of density now extends from the southern cities of Brussels and Antwerp all the way up north to Amsterdam. England continues to dominate the literary world, its 'valley' now extending from London deep into the Midlands. But France – and especially Paris and the Ile de France around it – are moving up into the (literary) world. Other literary concentrations: central Germany, and Geneva, at the western extremity of Switzerland.

The Low Countries have fallen off the musical bandwagon, and the centre of gravity has moved to an area of central Europe in and around Bohemia (currently a.k.a. the Czech Republic). The small area around Venice has extended to encompass much of northern Italy, with two hotspots in the south of the peninsula. In science, Britain has firmly taken the lead, and Italy has completely lost it. Other great scientists dot Germany and France, with particular concentrations in Paris, the same central German area also doing well in literature (and music), and Geneva and some neighbouring cities.

 

 

In the last period, 'art' has intensified in the Low Countries and northern France, and made the leap across the Channel to London and the south east of England, presenting a contiguous zone dense with artists. Paris and London are the capitals of literature, but a large band of literary figures stretches in one fell swoop across the Low Countries into northern Germany. For the rest, literature seems to be best practised in capital cities – St Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna and Prague also light up.

Music is dominated by three very regional zones in three continental cultures: Paris and the north in France, the central/southern area in the German culture zone (in which we'll include, for historical reasons, Bohemia), and a similarly contiguous area in northern Italy. But much more than other disciplines, this is the age of science: three black bands across Britain, and large dots surrounding Paris, Berlin and Vienna indicate high concentrations of famous scientists; but the whole of northern Europe is dappled with birth places of famous scientists...

 

Many thanks to J.B. Post for sending in these images, found here on Dark Roasted Blend. They were taken from Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 by Charles Murray and are reproduced here with kind permission from the author).

Strange Maps #678

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.