Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development by Leta Stetter Hollingworth

Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet Origin and Development by Leta Stetter Hollingworth


It would be an ambitious project to find and discuss all the definitions of genius that have ever been offered in writing. To do this is beyond our present purpose, which is, rather, to illustrate the various concepts that have been formulated and to take guidance from them in the consideration of children of great ability. It will perhaps be many years before it will be apparent whether the children studied herein are geniuses or not. Perhaps this can never be determined, as the word “genius” may eventually be found to have no meaning that can be agreed upon. All we know about the status of the subjects of the present study is that they test above 180 IQ (S-B) and are thus more than +10 PE removed from mediocrity in general intelligence. [1] It may be possible to arrive at some comparison between their characteristics and performances on the one hand, and the concepts of genius that have been offered on the other.


The concept of the genius is very ancient. Ovid (12), [2] referring to Caesar and his preparations to complete the conquest of the world, notes the manner in which a genius acts in advance of his years:

Though he himself is but a boy, he wages a war unsuited to his boyish years. Oh, ye of little faith, vex not your souls about the age of the gods! Genius divine outpaces time, and brooks not the tedium of tardy growth. Hercules was still no more than a child when he crushed the serpent in his baby hands. Even in the cradle, he proved himself a worthy son of Jove.

The Greeks called that person’s “daemon” which directed and inspired his creative work. Dictionaries refer to the Roman concept of genius as “a spirit presiding over the destiny of a person or a place; a familiar spirit or a tutelary.” The genie was one of the powerful nature demons of Arabian and Mohammedan lore, believed to interfere in human affairs and to be sometimes subject to magic control.

Thinkers in any and every field, no matter how remote from that of psychology, have confidently discussed the nature of genius. Philosophers, poets, litterateurs, physicians, physiologists, psychiatrists, anthropometrists, lexicographars, encyclopedists— all have offered definitions, each according to his light. It has been deemed a subject on which anyone might legitimately express an opinion. The result is, as might be expected, an interesting miscellany of contradictions.


By derivation the word “genius” means to beget or to bring forth, coming from generegignere. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary—from which Galton took his point of departure in choosing the word “genius” for the title of his work on ability—defines a genius as “A man endowed with superior faculties.”

Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary offers the following definition: “Very extraordinary gifts or native powers, especially as displayed in original creation, discovery, expression, or achievement.”

Webster’s New International Dictionary defines “genius” as “Extraordinary mental superiority; esp. unusual power of invention or origination of any kind; as, a man of genius.”

The Dictionary of Psychology defines “genius” in part in terms of IQ, but at the same time denies the word any special meaning as a recognized scientific term: “Genius—a very superior mental ability, especially a superior power of invention or origination of any kind, or of execution of some special form, such as music, painting, or mathematics. . . . It has no special technical meaning, but has occasionally been defined as equivalent to an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 140 or above.”

Generally speaking, then, dictionaries define genius as a superior or superlative degree of intellectual capacity, and avoid claiming it for any concept of an added, different, or abnormal element in human faculty.


As a manifestation of abnormal psychology. A number of thinkers in fields allied to psychology have laid emphasis upon a supposed connection between genius and nervous instability or insanity. This idea is embodied in the statement by Pascal: “L’extrême esprit est voisin de l’extrême folie.” Lamartine refers to “la maladie mentale qu’on appelle génie.” Lombroso (10) is perhaps the most widely quoted among those who have held or who hold this point of view.

As constituting a different species. The idea has been expressed by thinkers other than professed psychologists—and at times by psychologists themselves—that men of genius are a separate species, partaking of qualities not shared in any degree by persons at large. This concept is at one with that which would regard the idiot and the imbecile as distinct in kind, not in degree only, from the mass of mankind. Genius would thus be not merely more of the same but a different sort altogether. Thus Hirsch (7) specifically declares:

The genius differs in kind from the species, man. Genius can be defined only in terms of its own unique mental and temperamental processes, traits, qualities, and products. Genius is another psychobiological species, differing as much from man, in his mental and temperamental processes, as man differs from the ape.

As a hypertrophied and highly specialized aptitude for specific performance. The thought has been advanced that intellectual genius is a matter of specialization; that the mind of a genius will not, typically, work on all data with superior results, but that it is adapted only or primarily to certain kinds of intellectual performance. In other words, the genius is thought to lack general ability. A recent statement by Carrel (2) seems to express in part at least this theory:

There is also a class of men who, although disharmonious as the criminal and the insane, are indispensable to modern society. They are the men of genius. They are characterized by a monstrous growth of some of their psychological activities. A great artist, a great scientist, a great philosopher, is rarely a great man. He is generally a man of common type, with one side over-developed.

As a combination of traits. Galton (6) thought of genius as that which qualifies a person for eminence, and he believed that achieved eminence must be founded on a combination of no less than three essentials. He wrote:

By natural ability I mean those qualities of intellect and disposition which urge and qualify a man to perform acts that lead to reputation. I do not mean capacity without zeal, nor zeal without capacity, nor even a combination of both of them, without an adequate power of doing a great deal of very laborious work. But I mean a nature which, when left to itself, will, urged by an inherent stimulus, climb the path that leads to eminence, and has strength to reach the summit . . . one which, if hindered or thwarted, will fret and strive until the hindrance is overcome, and it is again free to follow its labour-loving instinct. It is almost a contradiction in terms to doubt that such men will generally become eminent.

Again, Galton says:

We have seen that a union of three separate qualities—intellect, zeal, and power of work—are necessary to raise men from the ranks.

Lehman (9) has recently expressed this same idea, as a result of a statistical study of the most productive years of intellectual workers:

Indeed, it is doubtful that genius is solely the fruit of any single trait. It is the belief of the writer that the fruits of genius are, on the contrary, a function of numerous integers, including both the personal traits of the individual worker, environmental conditions that are not too hostile, and the fortunate combination of both personal traits and external conditions.

As quantitative. Galton (6) was the first to place the study of genius on the basis of quantitative statement, so that comparisons might be made and vertifications be effected. Galton formulated the theory that genius (great natural ability) is nothing more nor less than a very extreme degree in the distribution of a combination of traits—”intellect, zeal, and power of working”— which is shared by all in various “grades” or degrees. Reasoning thus, Galton applied for the first time in human thought the mathematical concepts of probablity to the definition of genius.

Quetelet (13), drawing objects from congeries of known composition, had elaborated the form which the probabilities take of drawing a given combination. This form, with the law of deviation from the average governing it, is now, of course, a commonplace in psychological laboratories, so that it is hard to realize that when Galton made the mental leap from this curve to the abilities of men, no one had ever thought of human minds as “fitting” the curve drawn by Quetelet. Such a “fit” had already been thought of in connection with measurements of physique, and had been demonstrated for measurements of the shrimp (16) and for physical traits of persons. But that “natural ability” should be susceptible to the probability curve and “the curious theoretical law of deviation from an average” as length is among shrimps, or as circumference of the chest is among Scottish soldiers (as shown by Quetelet), was not conceived. With the modern methods of mental measurement it is easy enough to perceive the truth of this. But Galton was working in the dark, entirely without instruments of precision; and his table of frequency “for the classification of men according to their natural gifts” must be regarded as one of the most prescient statements in the history of social science.

Working with the tables devised by Quetelet, Galton proposed the tabular “classification of men according to their natural gifts” shown [below].


Below Above Proportionate; In Each Million In Total Male Population of the United Kingdom, Say Average Average viz., One in of the Same Age 15 Millions, of the Undermentioned Ages 20-30 30-40 40-50 50-60 60-70 70-80 a A 4 256,791 651,000 495,000 391,000 268,000 171,000 77,000 b B 6 161,279 409,000 312,000 246,000 168,000 107,000 48,000 c C 16 63,563 161,000 123,000 97,000 66,000 42,000 19,000 d D 64 15,696 39,800 30,300 23,900 16,400 10,400 4,700 e E 413 2,423 6,100 4,700 3,700 2,520 1,600 729 f F 4,300 233 590 450 355 243 155 70 g G 79,000 14 35 27 21 15 9 4 x

All grades All grades below g above G 1,000,000 1 3 2 2 2 0 0

Interpreting this theoretical tabulation, Galton (6) wrote:

It will be seen that more than half of each million is contained in the two mediocre classes a and A; the four mediocre classes ab, A, B, contain more than four fifths, and the six mediocre classes more than nineteen twentieths of the entire population. Thus, the rarity of commanding ability and the vast abundance of mediocrity is no accident, but follows of necessity from the very nature of these things.

On decscending the scale, we find by the time we have reached f that we are already among the idiots and imbeciles. We have seen that there are 400 idiots and imbeciles to any million of persons living in this country; but that 30 per cent of their number appear to be light cases, to whom the name of idiot is inappropriate. There will remain 280 true idiots and imbeciles to every million of our population. This ratio coincides very closely with the requirements of class f. No doubt a certain proportion of them are idiots owing to some fortuitous cause . . . but the proportion of accidental idiots cannot be very large.

Hence we arrive at the undeniable but unexpected conclusion that eminently gifted men are raised as much above mediocrity as idiots are depressed below it; a fact that is calculated to enlarge considerably our ideas of the enormous difference of intellectual gifts between man and man.


In addition to the formulation of the rather definite concepts of genius which have been discussed, there are to be found in the literature of this topic a large number of general observations ascribing certain characteristics to persons of genius. There are also many remarks as to the conditions of living, of education, of genetics, and so forth, which are alleged to foster or to hinder the development of genius. Many of these observations and remarks emanate from others than professed psychologists, some of the most interesting coming from litterateurs and philosophers.

One of the most penetrating discussions of genius by a litterateur is that of Shaw (15) in his Preface to Saint Joan. Shaw regards Saint Joan as a young genius, and in introducing his readers to this point of view he says:

Let us be clear about the meaning of the terms. A genius is a person who, seeing farther and probing deeper than other people, has a different set of ethical values from theirs, and has energy enough to give effect to this extra vision and its valuations in whatever manner best suits his or her specific talents.

Here is brought out the tendency to heterodoxy which characterizes genius and is the source of much of its difficulty. Shaw dwells upon these difficulties in saying:

But it is not so easy for mental giants who neither hate nor intend to injure their fellows to realize that nevertheless their fellows hate mental giants and would like to destroy them, not only enviously because the juxtaposition of a superior wounds their vanity, but quite honestly because it frightens them. Fear will drive men to any extreme; and the fear inspired by a superior being is a mystery which cannot be reasoned away. Being immeasurable it is unbearable when there is no presumption or guarantee of its benevolence and moral responsibility; in other words, when it has official status.

This is the same trend of thought which Mill (11) follows in his Essay on Liberty, noting the originality that characterizes genius and the troubles that result from it, and insisting upon freedom for genius in the interests of the general welfare.

It would not be denied by anybody that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. . . . It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike; there are but few persons in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. . . . Persons of genius, it is true, are and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people . . . less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character. If from timidity they consent to be forced into one of these moulds, and to let that part of themselves which cannot expand under the pressure remain unexpanded, society will be little better for their genius. If they are of strong character, and break their fetters, they become a mark for the society which has not succeeded in reducing them to common-place, to point with solemn warning as “wild,” “erratic,” and the like; much as if one should complain of the Niagara River for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal.

Mill says further:

I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost everyone, in reality, is totally indifferent to it.

Mill, indeed, had much to say about the conditions under which the exceptional individual contributes to social change and progress, which bears immediately upon the education of highly exceptional children.

Bearing further upon the persecution to which genius is often subject as a penalty for nonconformity, Havelock Ellis (5) after studying a large number of British men of genius says:

It is practically impossible to estimate the amount of persecution to which this group of preëminent persons has been subjected, for it has shown itself in innumerable forms, and varies between a mere passive refusal to have anything to do with them or their work and the active infliction of physical torture and death. There is, however, at least one form of persecution, very definite in character, which it is easy to estimate, since the national biographers have probably in few cases passed over it. I refer to imprisonment. I find that at least 160, or over 16 per cent, of our 975 eminent men were imprisoned, once or oftener, for periods of varying length, while many others only escaped imprisonment by voluntary exile.

This is a conclusion reached by one investigating the condition of genius among what are probably the most liberal people in the world—the British, a nation of protestants.

Another condition of genius frequently alleged is that of personal isolation. Shaw makes Saint Joan say, “I was always alone.” Schopenhauer (14) says: “It is often the case that a great mind prefers soliloquy to the dialogue he may have in the world.” Hirsch (7) dwells at some length upon isolation:

The genius is constantly forced to solitude, for he early learns from experience that his kind can expect no reciprocation of their generous feelings. . . . Solitude can best be defined as the state in which friends are lacking or absent, rather than as the opposite of sociability. . . . Solitude is but a refuge of genius, not its goal. Time after time one detects, from the lives or writings of genius, that solitude is not its destiny but only a retreat; not the normal fruition of its being, but an empty harbor sheltering it from the tortures, griefs, and calumnies of the world. . . . It is a grievous error to credit the genius with an innate inclination to shun men. But in his youth he learns by experience that solitude is preferable to suffocation, stupefaction, or surrender.

Alger (1) sees isolation as a necessary corollary of the insistence upon perfection and accuracy which characterizes genius:

A passion for perfection will make its subject solitary as nothing else can. At every step he leaves a group behind. And when, at last, he reaches the goal, alas, where are his early comrades?

These references to the early experience of the genius in meeting the uncordial response of the world as constituted, with its resultant tendency to isolation, connect themselves with an account found in the Apocryphal New Testament, in a portion called the Hebrew Gospels.

And Joseph, seeing that the child was vigorous in mind and body, again resolved that he should not remain ignorant of the letters, and took him away, and handed him over to another teacher. And the teacher said to Joseph: I shall teach him the Greek letters, and then Hebrew. He wrote out the alphabet and began to teaching him in an imperious tone, saying: Say Alpha. And he gave him his attention for a long time and he made no answer, but was silent. And he said to him: If thou art really a teacher, tell me the power of the Alpha and I will tell thee the power of the Beta. And the teacher was enraged at this, and struck him.


The ecology of genius has evoked speculation and comment.
Thus Churchill (3) says:

Mountain regions discourage the budding of genius because they are areas of isolation, confinement, remote from the great currents of men and ieas that move along river valleys. They are regions of much labor and little leisure, of poverty today and anxiety for the morrow, of toil-cramped hands and toil-dulled brains. In the fertile alluvial plains are wealth, leisure, contact with many minds, large urban centers where commodities and ideas are exchanged.

The origins of genius have also engaged the attention of speculative thinkers. For instance, Dixon (4) and also Hirsch (7) offer the hypothesis that racial mixture is an antecedent of genius. Kretschmer (8) would by inference subscribe to this theory, since he holds that genetically genius results from the union of unlike elements, to which he refers as “bastardization”:

The investigation of the family history of highly talented individuals demonstrates very clearly the effect of biological “bastardization,” and shows why it may lead to the production of genius. . . . It results in a complicated psychological structure, in which the components of two strongly opposing germs remain in polar tension throughout life. . . . This polar tension acts as an effective and dynamic factor and produces in the genius the labile equlibrium, the effective super-pressure, that continuous, restless impulsiveness, which carries him far beyond placid, traditional practice and the simple satisfaction of life. On the other hand, in regard to his intellectual abilities, the polar tension creates in the genius his wide mental horizon, the diverse and complicated wealth of his talent, the all-embracing personality.

Kretschmer also allies himself with those who hold the concept of genius as closely related to insanity, quoting selected cases in proof:

“Bastardization” produces internal contrasts and conflicts, affects tensions, highly strung and uncompensated passions, and a spiritual lability. It consequently creates a predisposition to genius . . . but also [[points]] to psycho-pathological complications. Thus the research on “bastardization” becomes closely interwoven with the old, familiar questions, leading us back to the problem: “Genius and Insanity.”


1. ALGER, WILLIAM. The Genius of Solitude, page 144.

2. CARREL, ALEXIS. Man the Unknown. See pages 140-141. Harper & Brothers, New York; 1935.

3. CHURCHILL, ELLEN SEMPLE. The Influence of Geographic Environment on the Basis of Ratzel’s System of Anthropogeography. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston; 1909.

4. DIXON, ROLAND B. The Racial History of Man. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York; 1923.

5. ELLIS, HAVELOCK. A Study of British Genius. Constable, London; 1927.

6. GALTON, FRANCIS. Hereditary Genius. The Macmillan Company, London; 1914.

7. HIRSCH, N. D. M. Genius and Creative Intelligence. Sci-Art Publisher, Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1931.

8. KRETSCHMER, E. The Psychology of Men of Genius. Translated by R. B. Cattell. Harcourt, Brace & Co., Inc., New York; 1931.

9. LEHMAN, HARVEY C. “The Creative Years in Science and Literature.” Scientific Monthly (August, 1936).

10. LOMBROSO, C. The Man of Genius. Scott, London; 1891.

11. MILL, JOHN STUART. Essay on Liberty. See page 76 ff. The Macmillan Company, New York; 1926 Ed.

12. OVIDIUS NASO, PUBLIUS. Ars Amatoria (The Love Books of Ovid). Translated by J. Lewis May. Privately printed for the Rarity Press, New York; 1930.

13. QUETELET, M. Letters on Probability. Translated by Downes. Layton & Co., London; 1849.

14. SCHOPENHAUER, ARTHUR. “Essay on Genius,” in The Art of Literature, Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer. Willey Book Company, New York.

15. SHAW, GEORGE BERNARD. Saint Joan. Dodd, Mead, & Co., Inc., New York; 1924, 1936.

16. WELDON, W. F. R. “Certain Correlated Variations in Crangdon Vulgaris,” Proceedings of The Royal Society, Vol. 51, page 2 (1892).

[1] See endnote [1] in Preface.

[2] Numbers in parentheses refer to correspondingly numbered references in the Bibliography at the end of each chapter.


Categories: English Literature

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