Looking at the evidence from history it is clear that intensely creative episodes have occurred in different countries all round the globe. What’s also clear is that once an episode is over — after two or three generations at the most — it never returns to that country again.
A fascinating feature of ideas that become immediately successful is that, although they can only occur in the mind of one person, he or she needs the support of a friendly group of supporters or investors in order that they see the light of day and are able to be radiated further into science and public consciousness.
Quite often a new idea arises in the mind of someone whom we will call a genius, with friends around whom we will call near-geniuses. As a result of the intensity of discusssion around an original idea, it often happens that the near-geniuses develop ideas of their own in their particular spheres and acquire reputations of genius rank. The original innovator is more of a ‘super-genius’. Such individuals, such as Richard Feynman in the last cnetury, may cause several new groups to arise in the course of their lifetime and thus bring even more ideas into existence.
But why should creative episodes be such ephemeral events? Why should they seem to occur only once in the lifetime of a civilization or ethnicity? We have a clue when we realize that almost all creative people come from middle-class or upper-class families. They all have plenty of leisure time in order to incubate the mental ‘itch’ which later becomes the fully developed idea. The families in which they were raised need to have already been well imbued with a relaxed way of life, liberal ideas and open-mindedness.
It is this sort of culture that seems necessary. In any regime since 8,000BC, such relaxed periods have been very infrequent for most of the populations of the world. And until recently — up until about 1800 in England — their middle-classes and upper classes together would amount to nowhere near 1% at any one time.
However, when all is said and done about the creative hotspots of Europe, such as those surrounding Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon, etc in their early days, it doesn’t explain how these began to join together as a much more integrated movement in northern Europe among dozens of experimenters in several explicitly scientific new institutions, such as the Royal Socicty (1660). The two ‘super-geniuses’ at work at that time were Leibnitz in Germany and Newton in England.
Furthermore, although hotspots may not have lasted more than a generation or so within any particular university or research institution, the whole movement, rather remarkably, has now retained momentum for about 12 generations. But — and this is the fascinating “but” — most of the serious scientific work is done in a relatively small path of countries along a coastal strip of northern Europe — Germany, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France and England — and not anywhere else in Europe. So there’s something to be said, again, for the importance of a liberal culture.