"There is no genius without some touch of madness" — Aristotle
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I. Genius . . . One Step from Insanity
A friend once told me to be careful because genius is only one step from insanity. Without blinking I said, “Ahem, but you still haven’t told me if it was the step before or the step after?”
History’s two most celebrated scientists are named Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. And because both contributed groundbreaking theories, each scientist has rightfully been crowned a “genius.”
Of course, given that great minds think alike for the same reason passengers boarded the same train . . . of thought inevitably end up at the same destination, we should hardly be surprised that both geniuses ended up breaking one of the world’s oldest taboos:
The two most famous scientists in history both married their own blood relatives!
Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed!
As to why both geniuses thought it wise to marry a first cousin, despite the inherent risks of such inbreeding, perhaps the occasion calls for paraphrasing Wilde: Life imitates Science far more than Science imitates Life.
II. How Darwin’s Life Imitated His Science
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Darwin was married to not only his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, but also to his science. No wonder he couldn’t help but cross-fertilize his life with his science. As for science, Darwin wrote three botanical books in which he clearly showed cross-fertilization was far more beneficial than self-fertilization.
One day, as Charles stared deeply into his science, something dawned on him:
Darwin’s own family served as a real-life example of his own theory about plants — inbreeding is harmful to the offspring.
“He fretted that the ill health of his children might be due to the nature of the marriage, and he came to that because of his work on plants,” said Tim Berra, professor emeritus of evolution at Ohio State. “He realized that with breeding of any kind, it’s better to cross-breed than to put close relatives together.”
When Darwin’s beloved daughter, Annie, died of tuberculosis at age ten— the second of his children to die prematurely — the greatest genius ever produced by biology realized he’d indeed lost track of whether that line which separated genius from insanity was the step before or the step after.
Of Darwin’s ten children with his first cousin, chew on this—three died before the age of ten. As for the surviving children, three of the six didn’t leave behind any offspring. This is marked as a “suspicious” sign according to researchers.
The death of Annie, known as “Darwin’s favorite child,” seized him with a grief so deep that he couldn’t bring himself to attend her burial, according to biographers.
“Thus conscience,” warned Shakespeare, “doth make cowards of us all.”
Sure, Darwin didn’t outright know about human genes, for Mendelian genetics was still a ways off; yet, it must be remembered, this was no regular scientist. Darwin was a genius! Hence he intuitively linked his insight into plants with his own family.
In short, history’s greatest biologist knew — deep-down — that his science had merely foreshadowed his life.
III. Einstein Toes the Line Between Genius and Insanity
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"A question that sometimes drives me hazy," Einstein confessed: "Am I or are the others crazy?"
Whatever may be the case, when Bice — a longtime friend — asked Einstein for the secret to genius, she expected a long and sour answer, but he kept it short and sweet:
“Only a monomaniac gets anything done.”
A monomaniac doesn’t merely like to work; a monomaniac lives to work! The monomaniac guards the time allotted to birth “brain-children” as does the bald eagle guard her firstborn eggs.
So utterly consumed was the monomaniac Einstein with his brain-child — Relativity — that eventually his first wife [Mileva] realized he was married to physics, not to her.
“He is tirelessly working on his problems; one can say that he lives only for them,” Mileva cried to her friend Helen Savić. “I must confess, with a bit of shame, that we [his children] are unimportant to him and take second place.”
“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth,” said Bertrand Russell, “but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere.” Indeed, because Einstein spent most of his waking hours in that cold world of abstract equations, he couldn’t help but relate to his first wife in that same cold, calculated fashion.
In July 1914, Albert Einstein wrote to his first wife, the mother of his two sons, the following cold letter, in which he attempted to lay down the following incredible conditions, or else he threatened to file for divorce:
‘’A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are kept in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room. B. You will renounce all personal relations with me, except when these are required to keep up social appearances.’’ And: ‘’You will expect no affection from me . . . You must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you to.’’
Clearly, Mileva resisted such ridiculous demands. Elsa, however, welcomed the eccentric physicist with open arms.
Just as Darwin married his first cousin, Einstein followed suit. History repeats itself indeed! Only, in this instance, Einstein didn’t so much seek a loving companion in a wife as did he a maternal figure. After all, the only bride whom Albert ever knew was named “Physics.”
In the biography Einstein, Isaacson notes the strange nature of Einstein’s relationship with his wife/cousin.
Einstein was delighted to be looked after by her, Isaacson notes. “She told him when to eat and where to go. She packed his suitcases and doled out his pocket money. In public, she was protective of the man she called ‘the Professor.’ ”
As for why Einstein found himself attracted to a motherly figure, perhaps Schopenhauer — Einstein’s favorite philosopher — answered best when noting:
“Every child is in a way a genius; and every genius is in a way a child.”
To put it simply, Einstein’s married Elsa because she “allowed him to spend hours in a rather dreamy state, focusing more on the cosmos than on the world around him.” In turn, Elsa took delight in waiting hand and foot on the man whose last name has become a nickname for “genius.”
“The Lord has put into him so much that’s beautiful, and I find him wonderful, even though life at his side is enervating and difficult,” Elsa once said.
IV. In Closing
Pic via QWerk/Wikimedia Commons
It's long been said that “great minds think alike,” yet such standing by no means indicates all such thoughts entertained by these great minds qualify as “great.”
Perhaps this paradox may best be expressed as follows:
Each man dreams of that lovely embrace from the mermaid with a beautiful face, free of her dragon’s monstrous tail. But life, you see, doesn’t work that way!
It appears — the greater the asset, the greater the liability. This is known as the universal Law of Compensation.
In other words, the grass may appear greener due to someone being called a “genius,” but — until you’ve crossed that fence and actually experienced life on that lawn — it would be wise to pause for reflection.
“Of all our studies,” said Malcolm X, “history is best qualified to reward our research.”
History apparently says: to be touched with “genius” is to be also touched with “madness.” Sure, Sir Isaac Newton discovered everything from the law of gravity to calculus, but he was primarily a recluse who disliked people, to say nothing of having died a virgin.
Sure, history’s greatest inventor is Nikola Tesla — a genius who single-handedly gave the world everything from the radio to alternating current. Yet Tesla was not only antisocial but was also obsessed with the number three! From clothing to housing, everything had to be divisible by three.
Armed with the above insight, it becomes apparent why history’s two most celebrated geniuses both married their first cousins. After all, genius is only one step from insanity, though no one can quite say whether that step is before or after.
Here lies the answer as to why history's two greatest scientists both married their own first cousins.