The Right Kind of ‘Genius’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On the occasion of Ta-Nehisi Coates's deserved selection for a MacArthur grant, I registered my happiness for him but also my objection to the term “genius,” as in the MacArthur “genius grant” awards. That is even allowing for exceptional talents like, in their different realms, Mozart, Usain Bolt, and Billy Madison (as shown below).

A reader in Canada writes in to remind us of the other, proper use of this contested term:

“Genius” can be used in another sense, a unique essence, as in this 1970 Berkeley lecture by Rene Dubos (who would also qualify for the more common application of the word that grates on you):

…The genius of the place is made up of the physical, biological, social and historical forces which together give its uniqueness to each locality or region. All great cities have a genius of their own which transcends geographical location, commercial importance, and size. And so is it for each region of the world. Man always adds something to nature, and thereby transforms it, but his interventions are successful only to the extent that he respects the genius of the place….

René Jules Dubos (1901–1982), the American microbiologist and conservationist who coined the phrase “think globally, act locally,” believed that people could enjoy, preserve, and enhance the value of an ecosystem if they thoroughly understood and respected the spirit or “genius” that made it what it is.

I certainly know of and respect the achievements of René Dubos, among which is applying “genius of place” in this precise and appropriate sense.