Where Do Geniuses Come From? The MacArthur Foundation Attempts to Find Out

Ever wonder where geniuses come from, geographically speaking? It turns out it’s a little tricky to answer. With the next batch of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” grant announcements only two weeks away (September 17, everyone!), the Foundation realized that an awful lot of their Fellows can be kind of hard to track down when they’re awarded the fellowships. Why is that? It’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg question — do highly creative people move more often than others, or does moving make people more creative? — but there’s no better time to try to figure out the answer than the present. So they got to work, and the results are fascinating — even if they may not ultimately answer the question.

In a recent post published on the MacArthur Foundation website and in TIME Magazine, data crunchers at the foundation took a look at the geography of past MacArthur Fellows: Specifically, they compared where the Fellows were from with where they were located at the time they were awarded the fellowship. Then they compiled the data into three maps: One representing birth states, another representing states of residency upon winning the fellowship, and one that shows the mobility of the Fellows with regards to each state between birth and award.

Let’s start by taking a look at the first one. This map shows how many MacArthur Fellows were born in each state:

The majority seem to come from the East Coast, with a whopping 160 hailing from New York; California is the outlier over on the West Coast, though, spawning 59 Fellows.

Now here’s the distribution of Fellow location at the time they were granted the award:

New York is still in the lead — indeed, its numbers have swelled to 188 — but California is close behind at 172. Massachusetts also seems to have gotten a boost, more than doubling the number from 49 to 107.

It’s when you look at the map that details the change between the two previous ones, though, that the picture is at its clearest:

Generally, the Fellows have far more frequently left wherever they were born in favor of the creative centers located on the East Coast or in California than they have stayed put. California has the biggest boost of all, jumping up by 113.

So: Why the moves? Here’s where we venture into conjecture, so alas, we may not have a solid answer to the question that sparked this whole journey. Conrad writes that one driving force behind why so many Fellows have moved around so much has to do with where the arts tend to be clustered. In terms of economic opportunity, there’s a high concentration of people who will employ artists in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Of course, the cost of living still might be ridiculous — but if creative people want to be nearer their industries, it’s a necessary evil.

Furthermore, even with all this data, there are still a lot of other factors to take into account. As Conrad states, for example, almost 25 percent of MacArthur Fellows were not born in the United States. They were residents at the time of their award, as per the fellowship’s rules — but nearly a quarter of the Fellows come from outside the U.S. As such, the maps don’t document these changes quite as clearly. Additionally, it’s worth noting that “home” is a trick concept. Conrad cites author Karen Russell as an example: Russell was born in Florida, lives in New York, and was teaching in New Jersey when she won the fellowship in 2013. She’s kind of been all over the place — but given that Florida is where a lot of her stories take place (Swamplandia!, anyone?), that state is probably what we might call her “spiritual home,” even if she doesn’t technically live there anymore.

So: Do geniuses move a lot, or does moving inspire genius? I’m inclined to think that it’s the first, rather than the second — but again, chicken, egg… you know how it goes. In the meantime, though, these maps should inspire a little home state pride, no matter where you’re from. Or, y’know, a lot of home state pride. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, is just pleased as punch about the fact that New York has such high numbers in all three maps. Genius comes from all over — so let’s celebrate it, shall we?

Images: Fotolia; MacArthur Foundation; Gif Soup