Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The sub-genius one percent of creative intellectuals


I made the order-of-magnitude estimate that England used to have about 1: 10,000 potenital geniuses (and about a tenth of these fulfilled their potential).


This number is very approximate, but seems about right.

Let's assume so.


My next conjecture is that behind each of these one-in-ten-thousand potential geniuses were about a hundred creative sub-geniuses - who could make useful innovations in small ways.

So that, in a highly selective institution like one of the old grammar schools or universities, which took only the top few percent of males, there would be as much as 1: 100  potential creative sub-geniuses - and an even higher percentage among their teachers.


The characteristics of sub-geniuses are the same as full genius only less so: they are intelligent, but maybe only in the top ten percent rather than one percent; they have the creative type personality moderately high in Psychoticism (associative thinking, autonomy), but maybe sub-optimally - too conscientious or too lazy, too sociable or too psychopathically-selfish.


These creative sub-geniuses are only to some smallish extent the understanders and spreaders of full genius - because that role can be accomplished by un-creative people (and societies).

But they mostly make quantitative improvements in their specialized activities.

Whatever job they do, whether it is woodwork, medicine, engineering, science, visual art, musical performance, teaching - the creative sub-genius will be pressing towards different and better ways of doing it.


Of course, more often than not, different will turn out to be worse rather than better - nonetheless it is from this group that innovations come or not at all.

Most people will follow a routine as they first learned it, repeating it perhaps several times a day, but never trying to understand and improve it, nor to streamline it.

Only about one in a hundred people will notice (or try to discover) possible ways in which things can be improved. And of course, they may be prevented from trying out the improvement, or their results may be ignored.

But at a frequency of 1:100 - and higher in more skilled and selective areas - sub-geniuses had a considerable social impact. They were, in fact, the 'local' geniuses, the only genius-type people that most people ever encountered.


Nowadays (due to decline in intelligence) their frequency has declined by at least an order of magnitude, and furthermore they are actively selected-against - such that they are invisible, ignorable, powerless and diluted-out.

This is another significant factor in the decline of innovation and capability in The West.



  1. I'm not as persuaded as you are that the subgeniuses necessarily have lower average IQs than the geniuses: my guess is that the balance is different but that it's the creativity that's less rather than the IQ. This hypothesis, however, may be too crude - probably it depends on the field in question.

    Mind you, I suspect I've met a genius only once even though I've spent nearly all my adult life in good or topflight universities. I once arrived at a drinks party to be told "Come into the kitchen, I've got three Nobel prizewinners in there". Even at my grumpiest, I probably should admit that the chap with two Nobels was a genius.

    It may be that a fellow I use to know will win a Nobel prize shortly, and he would probably agree with me that he isn't a genius either. Perhaps my attitude balances the common American habit of casting the word "genius" around absurdly freely.

  2. @Dearieme - "I'm not as persuaded as you are that the subgeniuses necessarily have lower average IQs than the geniuses"

    That's not what I believe - I believe that subgeniuses lack the necessary *combination* of very high intelligence with creative personality.

    Sub-genii could be of very high IQ but not creative enough, or vice versa, or a suboptimal level of both.


    Of course genius does not equate with Nobel Prizes! Nothing like. There are several ways to win a Nobel, the prize is not trying to recognize genius in the first place - and after all, they are awarded by a committee.

    Non-genius Nobels include Madame Curie, Hodgkin, Rubbia (plus of course virtually all the Prizes for Literature, Economics and Peace).

    Virtually *none* of the recent prizes - whether Nobels or Fields Medals or Lasker Awards or Royal Society medals or whatever - have gone to geniuses, not least because there aren't any geniuses to award them to!

    Medical Science is by far the biggest and best funded science in the world; yet I was told by one of the committee that awards one of the major medical prizes that they couln't find anybody at all who *really* deserved an award - yet somehow they had to find several winners per year...

    So that is why (I infer) the big prizes nowadays go to competent industrious drudges, ruthless psychopaths, and affirmative action representatives.

  3. This brings to mind an interesting little article I came across in my peregrinations:

    When I was at LBL, I worked with a lot of these guys. Unfortunately, they were a dying breed. Now a days, contractors do the work, or folks with Ph.D.'s, which is both inefficient, and a waste of human potential.

    I've always considered them my "tribe." Whatever intellectual horsepower I might have above 'em is mostly the result of introversion, cheap student loans and an asthmatic childhood. It's a shame there isn't more of a place for them in modern society, as the "one to two sigma" types are a fairly common human resource. I wonder what they're doing with themselves, besides rolling up webpage apps?

  4. @scott - Thanks for the link. Very good piece! These types fit the sub-genius type - some may have very high IQ but their high Psychoticism means that they can't work at things which bore them (low conscientiousness), and cannot submit to bureaucratic structures (low agreeableness) - and won't do make-work/ coursework/ pointless projects (therefore cannot get through the modern educational system).

  5. You tell me - is Fred Sanger as genius? I can see a case either way.

    You're point about prizes that have to be awarded willy-nilly is a good one.

  6. @dearieme - I don't know, I haven't read enough about him, nor have I read any of his work.

    I should say probably - but genius is essentially a mode of cognition, rather than a set of results. It entails a qualitative aspect.

    In his book about Feynman called Genius, James Gleik quotes Mark Kac saying that there are geniuses who are magicians (like Feynman, or Einstein - people can't understand how they are thinking); and 'ordinary' geniuses who are the same as everybody else, only more so - for example super smart, or super good at calculating.

    I would say that 'ordinary' geniuses are not really geniuses since they are not creative - but certainly 'ordinary geniuses' (or non-geniuses) can win Nobel Prizes, and indeed do very worthwhile science. eg Dorothy Hodgkin - who seems to have been a very hard working, intelligent, meticulous technician without any spark of creativity.

    Presumably she got help from her lover JD Bernal) - who (tho' without a Nobel Prize) was as certainly a genius as he was an evil, charmingly-psychopathic, philandering, communist fifth columnist.

  7. After our chat with other commenters a while ago - on the subject of the (top drawer)genius-deficiency of the USA, Canada, and their precursor colonies - it occurred to me that one problem is the difficulty in assessing people since, say, the Second World War. It's maybe a bit too recent to get a sense of perspective about them. But until at least 1975 there were wonderful advances in medicine and molecular biology. It's more your patch than mine - any contenders there for civilisation-making standard top-drawer geniuses?

  8. Errr- no.

    If you need to ask, the answer is no!

  9. "medicine and molecular biology... any contenders there for civilisation-making standard top-drawer geniuses?"

    Actually, this is interesting because somebody I know well - David Healy - http://davidhealy.org - is at least a potential genius. He has all the requisite abilities and has even done everything necessary to change the world, but is unrecognized/ vilified. But as things stand, this is merely a matter of opinion. I suppose there remains the possibility that he will be recognized at some point in the future.

  10. Can't resist pointing to this:


  11. Scott - in Havelock Ellis's study of British genius from a century ago he remarks on the importance of childhood illness on tending to create an environment in which mental development can substitute for the dispersion of energies via the more normal physical route. Many great men were sickly as children.