Saturday 1 December 2012

What happened to the geniuses? (Where will they pop up?)


The concept of the over-promoted society where general intelligence has been declining since around 1800, and where the average person from 100 years ago would probably be in the top 10-15 percent of the modern population, provides an explanation of what happened to the geniuses.

Because, looking around the intellectual world, there seem to be approximately zero geniuses.

(At least it is apparently zero if the criteria of the past are applied.)


In intellectual history it is interesting to observe how different subjects dominate at different eras; and how genius tends to migrate from one area to another.

For example, one of the last eras of genius was biology, especially genetics; and a significant number of the biology geniuses had migrated from physics - which had been the previous dominant area of science.

From this I assumed that the decline of genius in biology would be accompanied by a rise in some other area - and I was continually on the look-out for where this might be.


My first idea was computing science; but it seemed clear that the breakthroughs had been made several decades ago and the field was no longer alive.

A second idea (please don't laugh) was economics; and I read a great deal of economics in the mid 2000s - partly to see whether this was correct.

However, I realized (from about 2007-8) that economists as a class lacked basic honesty and were not motivated to know the truth. Any impression of genius in modern economics was mere public relations, hype.


I still kept scanning the intellectual horizon; on the assumption that there must (surely!) be geniuses just as there had been for 100s of years, and they must (surely!) be doing great work somewhere.

But this was challenged by a careful reading of Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment which made clear that zero (detectable) geniuses was the norm in world history - and that the distribution of genius across time and space was very uneven, and shown no tendency to equilibrate (fill the gaps).

Of the near geniuses/ unacknowledged geniuses whom I knew, only one was successful in career terms (and that after their scientific apostasy) while the others were grossly under-promoted and indeed persecuted by academe.


So at that point I thought that there were the same number of geniuses as for the past few hundreds of years, but that they were held back and not recognized; and therefore they failed to have impact.

This is clearly correct, and genius is discriminated against while various types of mediocrity are promoted and celebrated with moralizing zeal.

But it is not likely that all geniuses of the past were able to fulfil their potential, nor is it likely that discrimination would be able utterly to crush genius had it been as numerous and vibrant as it was a century ago in the West.


My current view is that the age of genius is over - and the West has returned to the normal default state for humankind.

That is, genius is now a very infrequent occurrence; and while it may have a significant impact, it does not change the fundamental nature of society because each genius is isolated and the breakthroughs generated are not frequent enough (in the same domain) as to alter the way society as a whole functions.

Furthermore, genius is now 'misunderstood' in the sense that the general standard of intelligence is too low for their work to be comprehended; so in fact the work of a genius (those rare isolated instances) can seldom be acted upon any more - and therefore the fact that there has been a genius is not longer obvious.


What we have, then, is that the decline of intelligence means there are many-fold fewer geniuses in the West (ten-fold, twenty-fold fewer? Or an even greater decline?); plus that those geniuses who are born are less likely to get into a position to make a significant contribution due to Leftism and bureaucracy; plus, even if they do excellent work and make a theoretical contribution, this cannot be recognized (because their work cannot be understood by enough people) - and they will not make a significant practical difference.

So there are now many-fold fewer geniuses; and the few there are, are invisible. And even if not invisible, they make little or no difference to society at large - because modern society is incompetent to use the products of genius.



John G said...

Are you excluding mathematics from your definition of science?

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - I wasn't specifically talking about science here, although that is my own focus.

Mathematics is very good at putting its practitioners into rank order and identifying who is the best; but my understanding is that the current best are working at a much lower level, than most of those in the past few hundred years.

In fact, mathematics would be a very interesting test case - since it seems to me that (up until recently, when affirmative action has begun to bite) maths was extremely meritocratic and international - so there should not be such a problem of undiscovered genius as there is in other fields.

But the fact that maths ability is so much a matter of pure intelligence (plus creativity is required, which is not evenly distributed) would imply that the concentration of mathematical genius would necessarily decline sharply. For a while it could be compensated by recruiting a lower and lower percentage from from a larger population - but that would only delay things.

And the populations which previously generated mathematical geniuses have actually been numerically declining over recent decades.

Boethius said...

Do you think there were other periods
besides modernity with abnormal concentration of geniuses?
Classical Greece

Bruce Charlton said...

@B - Oh yes, of course!

See Murray's book for examples.

It is important in all this to understand that I am regarding genius as a fact, and a necessity for modernity - but that I am not pro-genius as such.

The results of genius are not necessarily good; and indeed in a fallen and corrupt and unrepentant world, genius mostly leads to increased power which is - net - deployed in doing evil. Genius has been a matter of creating or arming super-villans, as much as anything.

Matias F. said...

I know very little about mathematics, but I've understood that many of the last acknowledged geniouses or near-geniouses were from the Soviet Union, were there was a strict meritocracy in some fields too important for political correctness. But it is clear that after the communist practice of murdering the bourgoisie and with atheism and low fertility, the kind of people that bred these mathematicians did not really reproduce in the Soviet Union.

According to German ex-Central Banker Thilo Sarrazin, the German scientific and literary elite of the 19th Century was mainly the offspring of Protestant pastors. These tended to have large families and married the daughters of other pastors, which had an eugenic effect. But the famous professors reproduced a lot less.

Jonathan C said...

I've been following your arguments with sympathy for some time, but I'm starting to wonder if you're underestimating the degree to which the low-hanging fruit gets harvested, and then it becomes substantially harder to make a breakthrough wth as broad an impact. Could it be that there are plenty of geniuses today, but it takes more brainpower to take a smaller step as the frontiers move in the direction of increasing complexity?

In math I think particularly of Andrew Wiles and Grigori Perelman, men who moved mountains to prove specialized (albeit very famous) results. They didn't invent entirely new fields of mathematics (though Wiles widened his field substantially), but it took extraordinary brilliance and perseverance to do what they did; I doubt it took less than what it took to make fundamental breakthroughs a century earlier.

I am a computer science researcher, and cannot agree with your claim that the field is no longer alive. Especially on its mathematical side, I find it to be blazingly alive, and I think there are people working in it who are as smart as Alan Turing. However, the easy results are mostly taken. (Some very non-genius folks are famous in the field because they got there first.) But there have been mind-blowing discoveries in computational complexity theory, approximation algorithms, etc. I will even name a few living geniuses: Sanjeev Arora, Laszlo Lovasz.

ajb said...

" low-hanging fruit gets harvested, and then it becomes substantially harder to make a breakthrough wth as broad an impact"

I don't like this analogy. There is more fruit in a tree that isn't low-hanging than that is. If you're so smart, then invent a scaffold (or what have you) to scale the tree and start picking the fruit, of which there is *more* than the initial workers in the field would have had access to.

Crosbie said...

Apologies, I wish to amend my previous comment but do not know how to do so.


What breakthrough in computer science since 1980 has had the greatest practical impact? I am probably not equipped to evaluate the significance of mathematical breakthroughs. I am not thinking of 60s and 70s era breakthroughs which have since produced practical benefits, but post-1980 theoretical breakthroughs which have, or will, produce great practical benefit.

I admit my suspicions are that Mr. Moldbug is correct when he says:

"Math outcompetes creative programming in the funding process, simply because it appears to be more rigorous. It is more rigorous, and it generates a longer, deeper river of more impressive publications. And, because its area is nominally applied, it doesn't have to compete with the real mathematicians over in "algorithms," who would clean the bureaucrats' clocks in five minutes. (What's wrong with CS research)

- Crosbie

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crosbie - I don't know which comment you mean - but what you need to do is log-in and delete the old comment and replace it with another; they can't be modified.

ajb said...

Pursuant to comment above about low-hanging fruit, consider an analogy.

Imagine a situation where there is less and less exploration. When this is pointed out, the modern explorers say: "But exploration today is so *difficult*. Back in the day, explorers just had to walk for a few hundred kilometres, or tie a few logs together to create a raft, and they could explore. There was so much low-hanging fruit. Nowadays, I walk and I walk - and I'm *fit* and *determined* and *smart* - but it's so difficult to explore new places."

Well, of course. A competent explorer would utilize the latest resources, technologies, and so on, to make new discoveries. Deep sea submersibles, rocketry, high-altitude equipment, and so on. Simultaneously, the sentiment expressed by our imaginary modern day explorers underestimates the challenges faced by early explorers - if they walked a little bit, they could easily be killed by various animals, be swept up in storms, and so on. Yet, they *did*.

The universe (physical and intellectual) is vast - I want to say something along the lines of "Get to it, and stop making excuses."

Jonathan C said...

@Crosbie: Off the top of my head, I would put forth the tools of statistical AI (classifiers, learning algorithms, convex and semidefinite programming, control theory, etc.) developed over the last 30 years as having a very large impact...on everything from improved medical imaging to manufacturing design to fraud detection to computer vision to network analysis to the first half-decent language translators.

I can't name a *single* paper that's changed the world lately, nor a breakthrough as tangible to ordinary people as the World Wide Web, but I think it's the nature of a field just out of the blush of its youth that the breakthroughs will be less likely to fit in a single paper and their impacts will more often be hidden inside the engine.

@ajb: Your analogy might be right, or it might be wrong. My question is, how do we know? How do we know, say, whether it took more or less brains to prove the PCP Theorem (probabilistically checkable proofs, 1992 and thereabouts) than Turing needed to solve the Entscheidungsproblem (1936-7) at the birth of computer science, or even to design the early computers? Did it take more or less genius for Perelman to resolve the Poincaré conjecture than it took for Cantor to invent set theory? I don't pretend to know, but I find the hypothesis that it takes more genius to make smaller steps in a mature field plausible. You haven't given any evidence for your view.

ajb said...

@Jonathan C,

My guess is that doing something so as to get diminishing returns in a given field is probably *not* genius, however much intelligence there is behind it.

My point is that 'diminishing returns' involves a scarcity mentality when it comes to knowledge, which we have no good reason to believe in.

Regardless, if there are a significant number of geniuses, then others simultaneously should be getting 'non-diminishing returns' in new areas of a given field, or new fields.

Brett Stevens said...

I started off writing about popular music.

See if you can recognize this pattern:

1. New genre or sub-genre is formed. A handful of exceptional musicians or artists drive its creation. It is musically different, and different in content. It is unique without trying to be so. Rather, it tried to express a different idea, and ended up unique. It is not popular and is in fact disregarded.

2. New genre or sub-genre starts to become the butt of jokes. People are making fun of it because it is different, and because it is not "talented" in the way that is traditionally recognized, e.g. jazzy or bluesy solos and syncopated drumbeats.

3. New genre or sub-genre becomes envied because it is unique, and its uniqueness makes everything else seem sort of drab and similar. People start to imitate the new genre.

4. New genre or sub-genre becomes popular and now others join the bandwagon at full speed. Now it is fully accepted, its musicality recognized if not endorsed, and it is seen as a good place to be an up and coming musician.

5. New genre or sub-genre becomes assimilated because it is now a way to be unique, not unique for a purpose of its own. As a result, it becomes absorbed in the goals of the normal music out there, inundated with its musicians and techniques, and soon begins to resemble the rest. At this point, a genius musician in the genre will not be recognized, because he or she will not be conforming to the assimilationist standard.

It's the same way with intellect in the West. Once we had geniuses, now we have incrementalists. A really good incrementalist can popularize something by making it aesthetically unique and/or trendy, and these we call geniuses. We have at this point designed our educational system against the genius, in preference to the memorizer and regurgitator, and correspondingly have adopted our workplaces to penalize genius.

I think Schopenhauer's comments are worth mentioning here. Genius is of no practical value, because it is not immediate. It does not make money, for example. It makes perfected designs and orients itself toward ideals of beauty, truth and organization. However, it hits the target that no one else can see, and reduces the vast complexity of the memorizers into simpler rules and thus new territories upon which the next generation of thought can be based.

Roberto Masioni said...

Why does everyone say "impact" these days when "affect" and "effect" are more correct?