Book

Anton Blok

The Innovators

The blessings of adversity in science and art, 1500-2000

In The Innovators, cultural anthropologist Anton Blok throws new light on the lives and achievements of pioneers who revolu­tionized science and art over the past five centuries: adversity rather than talent alone drove them in their innovations.

Blok analyzes the collective biography of ninety innovators, such as Spinoza, Newton, Bach, Sade, Cézanne, Curie, Brâncuși, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Keynes and Goodall. Drawing on insights from anthropology, he finds that adversity involved social exclusion, which provided freedom to develop a passionate interest in some branch of science or art. Assistance came through fortuitous encounters with potential patrons, sponsors or mentors.

Social adversity took various forms, including illegitimacy, early parental loss, conflict with parents, bankruptcy, homo­sexuality, a chronic illness, a physical defect, a neurological condition, minority status, exile, imprisonment, poverty and peripheral origins. All had the same effect: alienation from the establishment. As outsiders, the innovators were able to question conventional beliefs and prac­tices. With little to lose, they could take risks and exploit windows of opportunity.

With adversity as a common denomina­tor, the book takes issue with Frank Sulloway’s widely acclaimed Born to Rebel, which singles out birth order and sibling rivalry as key variables. Sulloway argues that laterborns are more likely than firstborns to pioneer or support radical innovation in science, art, politics and religion. Blok shows that family dynamics is only one of the many factors that help explain radical innovation.

The Innovators holds the interest of the general reader with its brief sketches of the early hardships of some of the greatest minds in European and American history. Quite a few capitalized on their adversity, like Beethoven whose increasing deafness isolated him from his friends while creating more time for composing and experimenting. Darwin’s chronic illness provided him with an excuse for avoiding social gatherings and getting on with his work. Illness looms large as one of the chance circumstances that give rise to radical innovation. The same goes for the happenstance meeting of a helpful relative, friend, patron or teacher, which can totally change a life. Some important innovations were the result of serendipity; outsiders are by nature more likely to notice anomalies.

The Innovators shows that radical innovation in science and art cannot be planned and is rarely the work of teams. More often it results from experiments by individuals. The book recalls the aphorism derived from Kierkegaard: ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.’

  • Offers a new perspective on radicalinnovation in science and art on the basis of a substantial collective biography.
  • Corrects misunderstandings aboutradical innovators, including thebelief that their achievements are attributable to talent alone.

An innovating book about innovation!

Peter Burke

A book that leaves us in no doubt that the author has got hold of something truly remarkable and valuable.

NRC Handelsblad

Anton Blok

Anton Blok is emeritus professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He taught at the Radboud University of Nijmegen and was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, the University of California, Berkeley, and Yale University. His best-known books include The Mafia

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Details

De vernieuwers . De zegeningen van tegenslag in wetenschap en kunst 1500–2000 (2013). Non-fiction, 376 pages.
Words: 93,000
Copies sold: 2,100

With notes and references

Rights sold

English (Polity).


Themes: art

Publisher

Prometheus

Herengracht 540
NL - 1017 CG Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 20 624 19 34
Fax: +31 20 622 54 61

E-mail:
r.palache@pbo.nl
Website:
http://www.uitgeverijpromethe…

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