“Secrets of the Great Families”

Astral Codex Ten has a fascinating look at families which have produced large numbers of individuals with impressive accomplishments, “Secrets of the Great Families”. For example, consider the Huxleys.

Aldous Huxley was an author most famous for Brave New World , though his other stuff is also great and underappreciated. His brother Julian Huxley founded UNESCO and the World Wildlife Fund and coined the terms “ethnic group”, “cline”, and “transhumanism”. Their half-brother Andrew Huxley won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering how nerves work. Their grandfather was Thomas Huxley, one of the first and greatest advocates of evolution, and President of the Royal Society.

Or, how about the Darwins and kin?

Charles Darwin discovered the theory of evolution. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin also groped towards some kind of proto-evolutionary theory, made contributions in botany and pathology, and founded the influential Lunar Society of scientists. His other grandfather Josiah Wedgwood was a pottery tycoon who “pioneered direct mail, money back guarantees, self-service, free delivery, buy one get one free, and illustrated catalogues” and became “one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs of the 18th century”. Charles’ cousin Francis Galton invented the modern fields of psychometrics, meteorology, eugenics, and statistics (including standard deviation, correlation, and regression). Charles’ son Sir George Darwin, an astronomer, became president of the Royal Astronomical Society and another Royal Society fellow. Charles’ other son Leonard Darwin, became a major in the army, a Member of Parliament, President of the Royal Geography Society, and a mentor and patron to Ronald Fisher, another pioneer of modern statistics. Charles’ grandson Charles Galton Darwin invented the Darwin-Fowler method in statistics, the Darwin Curve in diffraction physics, Darwin drift in fluid dynamics, and was the director of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (and vaguely involved in the Manhattan Project).

Then there’s the Bohrs of Denmark.

Niels Bohr developed the modern understanding of the atom, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. His father, Christian Bohr, discovered the Bohr effect in hematology. His brother, Harald Bohr, was both a great mathematician in his own right, and one of Denmark’s top football players; he led the team to a silver medal in the Olympics, and “when he defended his doctoral thesis the audience was reported as having more football fans than mathematicians”. Niels’ son Aage Bohr won another Nobel Prize in Physics, his other son Ernest Bohr was another Olympic athlete, and his grandson Tomas Bohr was another physics professor.

These are not isolated examples: the article also cites the Poincaré, Curie, Dyson, Tagore, and even Newsom families. I would add the Herschel family, which produced generations of eminent musicians and astronomers.

Why is this? Is it just coincidence and random variation, or is there some causal effect operating here? If so, is it genetics, privilege, nurture, or the expectations of progeny to live up to the reputation of their parents and ancestors. These possibilities are examined in detail, along with Eliezer Yudkowsky’s concept of the “hero license”, that “most people don’t accomplish great things, because they don’t try to accomplish great things, because they don’t think of themselves as the kind of person who could accomplish great things”. Perhaps having eminent ancestors confers this license upon their descendants.

This is a fascinating read and well worth your time.


Surprising that the author did not mention the Bernoulli family – probably one of the first names that comes to mind when thinking about families of great achievers.

As to the cause – nature? nurture? associative mating among the outstanding? All possible. On the other hand, it would presumably be possible to put together a list of the ordinary (or even under-performing) children of the successful. The Crowned Heads of Europe would provide a rich seam of examples.

An alternative thought – perhaps this is analogous to that favorite statistical example of the likelihood of two people at a meeting sharing the same birth date. (More probable than most of us guess). Could it be that, given the large number of human beings who have made major contributions over the centuries, it is simply more probable than we would guess that some of them would be blood relatives? It would be an interesting challenge to estimate that probability.


The Bernoulli clan really is remarkable. I’d heard of four of them, which is fewer than one third of the notable members. I also didn’t know they intermarried with the Curies.

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