Sunday 1 July 2012

The invisibility of genius


The reason for my interest in genius is that modern (post-industrial revolution) society depended (past tense) on creative genius to generate the regular and frequent breakthroughs in key areas that sustain increasing efficiency (productivity).

Yet our culture has seldom been keen to acknowledge its dependence on a small proportion of individuals - mostly very smart creative men with difficult personalities and often significant psychopathologies.


It is likely that almost all significant attainment comes from (crucially depends upon) individuals (not on groups, not on institutions) - but the fact may be disguised because the products of creative genius can so easily be exploited by others: indeed that is their very value.

The breakthroughs made by a matter of some hundreds of men genetically-originating in Western and Central Europe over the past several centuries have affected every person in the whole world.


The exploitation may be so rapid that the name and even the existence of the genius has often been lost to history, or never known.

While it may take a one in ten thousand persons to make a breakthrough; the ability to recognize and use the breakthrough may be much commoner - one in a hundred, even one in ten...

The most striking example is the Romans - whose extraordinary attainments in engineering and administration made theirs one of the great Empires - yet the persons who actually made these breakthroughs are not known, so people have assumed that the Romans had no geniuses, but were simply 'well organized'.

On the contrary, the huge buildings, aqueducts, central heating, roads, military structures etc. were a product of specific individual geniuses whose names are lost or were never known.


This has happened a lot in medicine, where there are only a handful of named geniuses (Pasteur, Harvey, Koch, Fleming etc.). The breakthroughs were so swiftly caught-up and exploited that the names of the geniuses were never known or lost.

For example AIDS as a syndrome or cluster of features representing a new disease was discovered by largely unknown clinicians, and am not sure who made the breakthrough - perhaps Michael Gottleib. Discovering the syndrome was the creative act, but the concept was instantly taken up by Big Science who scooped all the cash and credit and prizes for what was a scientifically-trivial act of identifying the responsible micro-organism.

I have seen this thing happen in small ways and big ways throughout medicine: big breakthroughs which benefit (or at least affect) vast numbers of people are not attached to the identities of creative individuals who made the breakthroughs - from Viagra, apparently discovered by an un-named Welsh general practitioner, to the cure for dandruff   


The lack of rewards, especially financial success, of the actual person who made the creative making major breakthroughs is well documented - and probably inevitable.

But lack of reward or fame did not seem to stop the breakthroughs in the past.

The kind of 'high-Psychoticism' creative genius who makes breakthroughs simply does it, or tries to do it, since motivation comes from within - and precisely not as a consequence of incentives such as money and the approval of others.

He typically cares little for the opinions of others, and works on something which he finds fascinating unless he is actually prevented from doing so.


However, the lack of encouragement and recognition of individual genius does open up the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that the importance of creative genius is denied, and that creative genius is actively suppressed in favour of some other model of attainment.

I think this must be what happened to cause the extraordinarily rapid collapse of genius in Britain (similar things happened elsewhere) from the mid-1960s.

No doubt part of this was the 'dysgenic' decline in average and peak intelligence due to the collapse in fertility of the most intelligent people, which had been building-up since around 1800;

but the collapse in creative genius in Britain from say 1965-1990 was almost complete, too rapid for a genetic explanation - and almost certainly due to that complex of social explanations revealed in the collapse of Christianity and the absolute domination of society by Leftist and progressive ideas.

Medical Hypotheses: UK scientists down-shift to second rate research


The type of men who would have made breakthroughs were actively and more-and-more efficiently excluded from being in a position to do so - by regulations and laws and the media and a hundred other channels.

And since men these amounted to only about a hundredth of a percent of the population - nobody noticed what was going on.

As Steve Moxon described in The Woman Racket, there are evolutionary biological reasons why humans tend to despise men perceived as 'failures' - so once men have been made failures then nobody cares about them either as individuals or a class, indeed low status men become objects of active dislike and are more likely to be exterminated than assisted.

Nobody knows nor cares what happens to those few hundred very intelligent and highly creative (but awkward and impulsive) men which presumably languish, ineffective, near the bottom of modern society - the same kind of people who (some of them) used to change the world.


The significance of this phenomenon of the collapse of creative genius is extraordinary; since it means the end of modernity.

As a society, we (probably) retain sufficient ability to recognize and exploit breakthroughs - but it is a fact that there just aren't enough breakthroughs to keep the system going.

If modernity depends on efficiency outrunning population growth, then modernity has ended - some time ago.

Nothing will be done about this, because it would involve a recognition impossible to the Leftist elite: that everything that materially distinguishes modernity depends on the hundredth of a percent of intelligent, creative, selfish, awkward, semi-crazy men (mostly having their genetic origin in Western and Central Europe).

Indeed, it is probably impossible to organize a society on this basis; and it was almost certainly just luck and neglect that, for a while, passively allowed creative genius to make modernity.



Phil R said...

Haven't there been enough 'breakthroughs', eg in biotechnology, to keep the 'exploiters' and thus modernity in business for a good while yet?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Phil R - that is why the collapse in capability is still deniable.

But also because of the vast increase in dishonesty (called spin, hype, advertizing, marketing, public relations etc.).

Parasitism is passed-off as capability.

Obsolete stuff and arbitrary inversion/ recombination is passed-off as novelty; novelty is passed-off as breakthrough (e.g. in biotechnology).

By the time collapse is undeniable we will be well down the curve.

Phil R said...

I think that's true Bruce but the essential quality of the 'breakthroughs' isn't really relevant to the abilities of the rest of us to exploit them and keep our material standard of living at least constant for a few generations. It seems we CAN feed off these 'novelties.' But for how long is moot.

Simon said...

I love it; what could be more fun than reframing Leftist narrative?

dearieme said...

Thirty years ago I'd have been inclined to dismiss your spiel, but now I suspect
(i) You have identified a phenomenon in need of explanation, when few people have even noticed the phenomenon, and
(ii) Your explanation may contain a fair bit of truth - at least I don't see any evidence that disproves it.

On which Popperian note, I should ask you what sort of evidence might falsify it?

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - the nice thing about blogging is I don't have to convince anyone else!

I think that the more one knows about the fine detail of significant discoveries, and the character and psychology of great scientists and other creative people, the more plausible this seems.

But essentially we are in the realms of 'meta-science' (or metaphysics) talking about frameworks for understanding. These aren't validated in a Popperian way, but in terms of coherence and explanatory power, usefulness, sustainability etc.

I mean, a bad/ wrong metaphysical framework will be incoherent, its explanations will be tortured and multi-step, predictions imprecise, and will preside over declining capability.

The other slant is to look at the people who promote PC science, bureaucracy, planning, Big Science, feminist science etc. 9i.e. research that doesn't need genius) and to notice that the individuals are very obviously dishonest, very obviously not interested in real science, very obviously concerned more about feelings (especially hurt feelings) than attainment.

People like, well... the editors of Nature, for example:

The double helix story is a good case exemplar here; the scientists who really wanted to understand the structure of DNA were the ones who succeeded in understanding the structure. The ones who were technicians stayed focused on the techniques.

Cantillon Blog said...

BGC (the left-hemi bias aspect of the acronym is amusing) - I think you hit the nail on the head when describing the past.

Is the past prelude to the future? Or - just as the more alert of us are awakening to this phenomenon, is the world on the verge of shifting?

The internet does change things a great deal. Under modern hegemon but pre-internet how many books on the topic would you have been able to publish? What proportion of key thinkers in the investment community would have read your words as published in a certain investment report?

We are seeing the stealth restoration of the principle of natural authority. One sees this in so many different areas - 'game' blogs of course, but also paleo diet/fitness, condition-specific medical forums, investment discussions, and one could go on.

One is today much less dependent on modern channels of communication, even if it is exceedingly difficult today to function authentically within a large institution. It doesn't cost so much to live these days, and furthermore there are many more flexible ways of earning a living.

Did Spinoza have it better or worse than a man of his ability today? (I don't wish to discuss here whether his work had a positive effect overall, but I suppose we would agree that he is one of these men you refer to in your blog post).

I suggest that a modern Spinoza would have no need to grind lenses, but could - if he had sufficient ingenuity and persisted - find a way of supporting himself outside the 'system' and its controls.

Cantillon Blog said...

Under modernity, we do not see the likes of Charlton, Kalb, Moldbug, or de Bonald have any influence or social importance whatsoever. These poor chaps are languishing at the bottom of the social scale. Or perhaps the situation is bad, but not quite as bad as feared.

It may be that science at present is more about the working-out of what was established long ago by great men whose kind we no longer seem to see. But isn't it always the case that the action is in a different area at different times?

The Crow said...

Well, there was 'the brain drain', where the USA bought up all the european genii in the sixties and seventies.
And there is the very modern phenomenon of leftist equality, where everyone ridicules people who come up with anything new, because:
a: There is no pre-existing documentation for it, therefore it must not be valid, and:
b: One is only trying to 'look' important.


Bruce Charlton said...

My main point here is that those who want, or say they want (more than anything else) to sustain modernity and progressivism are *in fact* destroying it.

Or rather they have destroyed it already and are now simply pillaging - moving wealth around (and in the process destroying wealth, efficiency and incentives) - not creating it.

But it is quite possible that we are in a tower of Babel situation, when modernity *needs* to be destroyed before we get the capability (which clearly would be used) of destroying all human souls.

I mean something like the divinely assisted destruction of The NICE is CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength.

Cantillon Blog said...

I agree that the internal logic of modernity is self-negating.

If this goes on, we are certainly doomed - and maybe within our lifetimes.

But I have noticed that it is human nature to expect the corrective forces of Providence to kick in more quickly than they do, and then to despair that this will ever happen - shortly before they make their grand entrance.

dearieme said...

Here's a paper that might interest you, Bruce.

A passage that I found revealing was this:
"The advisor is the most important member of a student’s thesis committee and has the final say in approving a student to graduate."

What a dreadful bloody idea - the PhD student is effectively trussed up by his supervisor. In the system I'm used to the student's supervisor is not allowed to be one of the examiners of the thesis. By custom one of the two examiners is "internal" to the university (though not necessarily to the department) and the other external. This system still has weaknesses but it does give the student some leeway.

L. Russell said...

Excellent post. I myself am one of the few, who languish at the bottom. I know of two others in my workplace. There is no good system in place to funnel people to where the belong in my country.

Everywhere I look within these shores, there is waste of human capital. Nothing maddens or saddens me more than this state of affairs.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

For a great example look at Nikola Tesla, the true genius, who was exploited over and over again by Eddison...

Further, I am not going to claim to be a creative genius, but I am both intelligent and highly creative, and I can barely function in this society. Everything seems intent on destroying my ability to create or think and making me into a dull, grey, chirping drone.
Academia is now about repeating the correct dogma. It is about kissing ass and publishing repetitive papers...killing your spirit little by little.
Office work reduces to makework and busywork, unbearable tedium made worse by the inane office politics that cater to the loud and stupid.
Finally, blue collar work. Less politics, people are no stupid than anyone else (though there topics of conversation differ), but intellectual stimulation is not there.
Which leaves the most attractive jobs as those with little to do and plenty of time by yourself to think; the lowest paying rungs of society.
Where are the geniuses? Security guards and truck drivers. Look at the man who was recently found to have the world's highest IQ. He works as a bouncer.

Further, society is so much more expensive today, and the demands to work are so much more. To survive in most places you need to work fifty hours or more. Gone are the days when you could work part time and devote yourself to creative works.

This is just my perspective, and I am not a creative genius. How much worse must a truly creative genius have it?

Its no wonder Veblen saw the leisure class as those who advanced society. Free time to think, free from the need to participate in politics...

- Tom White