What is “genius”?

There are few things in the universe more beautiful and remarkable than the act of creation. We see it in nebulae as they collapse into new stars. We see it in the birth of a new child, watching it grow from the size of a pea to a live, breathing human with fingers and toes and the capacity to feel and experience.

But there is a special brand of creation that is perhaps the most beautiful and remarkable of all.

We see it in the creation of a new technology like the wheel or the semiconductor. We see it when the spark of a new song or poem pops in our minds and slowly comes to life on the page. We see it in the birth of human concepts and ideals like “liberty,” “justice,” and “democracy.” Something now exists which never existed before, which perhaps had never before even been imagined. And now it is real. If anything might be called magic, this is it.

This type of creation, of breathing something entirely new into existence, of humanity’s nature continuously emerging and transcending itself, is what I call “genius.”

It is not compiling and regurgitating more information and knowledge than others, like a walking encyclopedia or Mensa member, as some would have it. It is not making a new piece of toast, something which has been done countless times before us.

Coming from the Latin genui meaning to “to bring into being,” genius is when we consciously and intentionally birth something entirely new into being. It is having the vision and courage to step into a realm that no one else has ever traveled, opening up an entirely new path in the arc of the universe.

We humans are geniuses. In fact, our genius is perhaps the most stark differentiator between us and all other life on Earth. We are the most ingenious species ever to have existed on Earth thus far. This is not meant as an arrogant statement of self-importance. This is not meant to say humans are perfect or better or more valuable than other forms of life. This is also not to say we aren’t facing immensely humbling and potentially catastrophic, self-imposed challenges. We certainly are. Humanity’s penchant for creation and genius has enabled us to create monsters all around us – factories spewing poison, economies engulfing traditional cultures, corrupt governments tyrannizing their constituents, philosophies that justify genocide and greed. It is neither good nor bad. It is both a blessing and a curse.

To say that humans have a unique proclivity for genius is not a statement of arrogance or naivete. It is merely a statement of fact. The other forms of life on Earth – from the algal blooms in the ocean to swarms of bees creating a hive to the lone wolf searching the forest for food – display immense beauty. They show an ability to be in harmony with the world around them that is deeply noble and admirable. They are perhaps more capable and well-adjusted than humans in many, if not most, respects. Humans have much to learn from them.

But they simply do not display genius in this sense. They do not create music, art, culture, technology, civilization, philosophy, agriculture, and on and on and on. They can’t create. They can’t breathe something new into being. They can’t witness and inform their own evolution.

Our own history as a species – from the first fires of prehistoric humans to the first domesticated crops to the development of city-states and then nations to the creation of the United Nations – is a story of this genius, our unearthing of more and more realities about ourselves and our constructions of more and more ways of being and doing. The journey humanity has found itself on is unlike anything that has ever occurred here on Earth. The discoveries and inventions of our species are extraordinary, miraculous, awe-inspiring.

And our history points definitively toward more discoveries and inventions to come. If anything, our capacity for genius is only increasing. Not only is our technological prowess growing exponentially, but we find ourselves at the precipice of a quantum leap in the evolution of our consciousness. Concepts like “justice”, “equity”, “mindfulness”, and “sustainability” are now more potent and widely held than ever – a sign of our capacity and inclination to continuously evolve our own perspectives and worldviews.

There is a new chapter of humanity unfolding right before our eyes. And humans alive today are the authors.

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Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA with his partner Sara, child Owen, and cat Winnie.

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