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.