Sunday 11 July 2010

Reflections on Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment and genius

Charles Murray's book length quantitative analysis of Human Accomplishment, made a big impact on me. I 'brooded' over it for quite a while, especially the summaries and speculations concerned with the possible cultural causes of 'genius'.

I have always been interested in 'genius', and have read many biographies of geniuses in a range of endeavors.

Ad on the whole, I subscribe to the Great Man theory by which specific individuals shape the course of history - some of these individuals do exceptional damage, others are exceptionally creative, while of course some do both.

And therefore I regard the ability of a society to produce potential Great Men and embody the conditions they need to make a difference, as a major influence on it - and this ability has been very unevenly distributed between societies across space and time.

For example, the modern world - the kind of society characterized by growth in scientific knowledge, technological capability and economic production, which took off in Great Britain and became apparent in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries - and spread from there; this kind of society I believe was probably driven by the work of numerous Great Men (or 'geniuses') who produced qualitative advances (or 'breakthroughs') across a wide range of human activities.

I believe that these numerous breakthroughs required Great Men (i.e an adequate supply of GM were necessary but not sufficient), but once made could be exploited by ordinary men.

Most histories of society took the form of a series of mini-biographies. For example, Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man TV series was, for most of its length, focused on a series of specific individuals. And the implication was that this was not just a convenience for the purposes of teaching and entertainment, but an account of how things really, necessarily happened.

Up to the 1950s it was obvious for Britons to focus on Great Men, since they were living among us, and each new generation brought forth a fresh supply - so many, indeed, that only a sample could become household names.

Then, from the mid 1960s into the second half of the century, people began to notice that the supply of GM seemed to be drying up. This went along with various fashions for denying the importance of GM in human history, and attributing change to other forces (such as class). And for human affairs increasingly to be organized bureaucratically, in ways that implicitly denied the need for GM, and indeed sought to replace human creativity and genius with explicit and predictable procedure.

By the mid 1980s I noticed that the last real English poets were dying and that there was nobody to replace them. For the first time in several centuries, there was not one single living poet of real stature.

Looking around, the same situation was looming in science - and by now there are just a few elderly remnants of previous generations who might be regarded as geniuses. Medical breakthroughs also began drying up at about this time (although there have not been many major medical geniuses, according to Murray’s lists).

So apparently the age of genius is over for Britain, which probably means the age of progress via multiple breakthroughs is over; and the same situations seems to prevail everywhere else - so far as I can tell. If genius was the driver of the modern world, this means that the modern world is also over (unless you believe that genius has now effectively been replaced by bureaucracy – Ha!).

Whatever it was that created the supply of geniuses and the conditions in which they could make breakthroughs has changed. I do not know whether there are still *potential* geniuses being born, but the whole motivational structure of society is hostile to genius and it is likely that individuals who would have grown to be potential Great Men in an earlier phase of society, nowadays have their motivation and sense of self poisoned. Instead of trying to achieve great things, such people would now probably pursue a great career, or would simply find themselves fish out of water.

I find myself ambivalent about this. Of course I vastly prefer a society conducive to genius to one being destroyed by bureaucracy. And if human history is conceptualized –like Bronowski does - in terms of a story of progressively increasing power to shape nature (by increasing understanding of its underlying structure) then the prospect of a massive decline in human power is dismaying. It is also dismaying from the perspective of mass human happiness – the prospect of mass violence, displacement, starvation, disease etc.

Yet, realistically, modernity was not planned neither were the modernizing societies (such as late Medieval and early Modern England) in any sense designed to nurture, or provide opportunities for, genius. The whole thing was an unplanned by-product and the age of genius was accidental.

Indeed, it was transitional, never stable, containing the seeds of its own destruction – like so many things. The geniuses were usually transitional figures who – over the course of their own lives – rejected the religious and traditional societies into which they were born. In their own lives they sometimes combined the strengths of the traditional society of the past and the progressive society which was emerging (as a result, partly, of their own work).

Yet of course the transitional phase is necessarily temporary, evanescent, cannot be sustained – and the generations of fully modern people, who are born into the world created by the geniuses – are one-eyed, feeble, and lack the source of strength of traditionalism. They (we) are post modern hedonists, for the most part – consumers, not creators.

I now tend to regard modernity as a temporary aberration from the course of human history. It arose from an accidental conjunction of genetics and society; and the effect of genius was to destroy the genetics and society which had caused itself. Whether it would have been good to sustain modernity (and reform it – because its vices are intolerable and have grown exponentially) I don’t know for sure.

But I do know that we have not even tried to do this, has not even tried to sustain itself, but instead has parasitically exploited the heritage of genius; so the question is now unanswerable empirically.

I now see human choice, or at least our destiny, in terms of lying between traditional societies – a choice between the kinds of human societies which existed roughly between AD 500 and AD 1500.