Friday 5 October 2012

Is the lack of modern geniuses because there are no big things left to discover?


One of the most frequent arguments about the lack of modern geniuses hinges around the assertion that it was easier for geniuses of the past to make a mark and influence history, because there were so many 'low hanging fruit' - major discoveries just hovering there waiting to be plucked.

But nowadays, so the story goes, the early, easy, major discoveries have already been made; what now remains to be discovered is both harder and more minor - so that a modern person of equal genius to a famous figure of the past appears to make a lesser contribution.


Such an argument seems to assume what is false - that the quantity of human geniuses is constant in all times and places and among all people.

Nonetheless, let us assume it is correct: what then?


The importance of genius in human history - and specifically in modern society - is that the major discoveries (the breakthoughs) are so great and so fundamental that they enable a new wave of 'growth' to be built upon them.

But if we have actually (as the above argument asserts) run out of major discoveries to make; then the growth which depends on major discoveries will come to an end.

And since modernity depends on growth - specifically growth in capability and efficiency of productivity - then modernity will halt, then reverse. 


So, the end of genius means the end of modernity; whether the cause is that we have run out of geniuses, or because we have run out of major things for geniuses to discover.

Either way, the consequences are the same.



Kenneth Lloyd Anderson said...

Here is my unusual take on this issue:

Even though it has been well researched for years that achievement in society is improved with higher IQ levels, this is not fully accepted, bias and envy and competition continue to block this important knowledge...(cont. here:

K. Anderson

dearieme said...

A friend of mine was disquisiting on the recent hirings in his academic department. They are much better credentialled than we were when we were appointed, he said. Heaps of publications, a series of high prestige post doc jobs: they're older than we were at appointment too.

But, said he, two things stick out. (i) They are not as well educated, and (ii) they are less intelligent.

I know what he means. These are people to whom you have to explain your allusions, or repeat your point. Mark you, this conversation involved an intellectual level below that of genius (unless you live in the US, where the word "genius" seems to be used in a less demanding way.).

The Crow said...

Students, in modern times, under a leftist regime, are taught to not be able to think.
I return from a week on a philosophy forum, where nobody could understand a word I said, in simple English, concerning basic concepts.
Because, I fancy, that their new-found 'logic' sits upon the shifting sands of fantasy dogma.
If you begin from a 'reality' where atheism is intelligent, religion is retarded, everyone is equal, tolerance is king, and multiculturalism is God, what sort of logic are you going to be capable of?
These paragons of tolerance and equality reliably inform me I am a moron.
Who knows? Maybe they are right.

Jonathan C said...

I think it's useful to address the "no big things left" question by looking at a field like dentistry, which is so backward it's questionable whether the average dentist knows any big things yet.

For example, the official line is that cavities are caused by bacteria-generated acid, and brushing is an effective treatment. Of course, brushing is not an effective treatment, and the action of acid on teeth is really a distraction from the more important question of what causes the dysfunction in the teeth that allows the acid to have an effect. Tooth decay seems to be primarily a matter of vitamin deficiencies and bad diet, but few dentists recognize that.

Likewise, omega-3 oils and other anti-inflammatory foods seem to be more effective at treating gum disease than the standard treatments. Like much of medical science, dentistry seems to be held back by a drug-and-surgery paradigm of what constitutes valid treatment. Instead of treatments based on understanding of the causes, we get poisoned by fluoride and mercury.

Given that most dentists haven't even crossed the starting line, how can anyone seriously entertain the idea that there are no big things to discover in dentistry?

My argument here isn't really specific to dentistry, although it's a particularly pathetic field even by the dreadful standards of medical research. I'm sure you could give half a dozen similar examples from your own fields of study.

Ariston said...

One interesting thing is that there is a lot of funding poured into what—essentially—are rabbit holes. A friend of mine works on one such project where, whatever good side effects it might have for technology, the Big Breakthrough they are being funded for is generally agreed to be impossible by most of the experts in the field. But hey, .gov is paying, right?

There are big things, but I think we've reached a stable state in fundamental science which may last for a long time. Newtonian physics took a few hundred years before significant problems and the tools to deal with them were discovered and developed. Sometimes, you just can't see the issues because of the limitations of what you can research.

Mathematical development appears to be more and more piecemeal, but it as well may encounter a problem we cannot foresee in the future. We can also see this in certain technological disciplines, and so on, and so on…

This is why, in the earlier post, I argued that we should recognize genius in what we now think of as workmanlike endeavors like mechanical engineering. They may not have the high–drama of relativity or the germ theory, but they are real and require high intellect.

An interesting case where a workmanlike application of genius has been recognized is St Thomas Aquinas. He was largely a compiler, but he brought a subtle and rigorous application to his compilation. His work was not dissimilar to that of a historical philosopher of today or other exegete, but the massive scope of his vision and his execution were evidence of his genius, despite having almost no conceptual originality.

We also underestimate the amount of futile genius, I think. Heidegger was definitely a genius, but despite one penetrating set of phenomenological terminology and application, he sent his genius chasing up imaginary trees. …

Perhaps the apparent lack of genius is due to these two factors: Lack of immediately pressing issues and the lack of accurate and accessible enough conceptual frameworks.

And to the above: bull.

Every dentist I've had has given dietary advice, including some of the specific suggestions you make, but the big problem is the research end of things. While, like big pharma, denistry has reasons to favor studies on surgery or regular intervention, you'd be surprised at the real variation in study simply because of the (often destructive) emphasis for graduate degrees (and then tenure) on ‘original research’.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - I thin what you suggest is simply redefining genius so that we d not have to accepts that - by the old definitions - it has almost disappeared.

We are emerging from an age of geniuses, which was also the age of modernity; the one making possible and perhaps even causing the other.

I find this fascinating - not least because in it the best of modernity (pinnacles of human achievement) is mixed with the worst (e.g. the effect of people like Heidegger, and I pretty much agree with your estimate of him - although Nietzsche or Marx was probably a better example of the kind of thing).

Ariston said...

I don't think it's a deficit, however, except to the extent that there may be some dysgenic pressure going on.

There will always be bleeding edge of the right–hand of the bell curve, it just depends on what it is enabled to do and what it has to do. Whatever else you may think of him (to give a more modern example) Leo Strauss was a genius who had very little original to do; in fact, his most powerful original insight was that he understood philosophy proper to be impossible— if not very difficult. Conditions change.

Reading your posts about Byzantium, there was plenty of genius and even scientific (mostly medical) and engineering achievement, but we don't remember it because of historical bias and then because of what things Byzantium's modern hagiographers choose to highlight. If any genius of Byzantium is remembered by general scholarship it is the brilliant—but twisted—mind of Gemistos Plethon, who helped jump–start the Italian renaissance. Plethon can be identified with—despite his weird mysticism and proto–nationalism (he was against the Empire, and hoped for a specifically Greek kingdom)—us he gets some remembrance.

When you see the birth of modern genius, you see it in the context of the breaking down of what I would call the Medieval Consensus. We achieved, sometime in the 19th century (with its victory solidified in 1919), a Modern Consensus. Now, the Modern Consensus is obviously less stable, even in its good parts, so there were grumblers even before it started to get really underway (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, et al.). … But this was also to do with the fact that there are just more persons, information flows faster, and we can have a sort of permanence given to brilliant thinkers who may have flamed out with their deaths before Gutenberg.

The weight of that information, however, could be another problem. Genius tends towards polymathy, and the modern world is both not kind to it and provides too many targets for it. When you have an educational system that doesn't steer talent, my guess is you have a lot of aimless persons out there.

Another thing I thought of is the growth of finance: You can get paid an absurdly tempting amount to do the impossible work of pretending to predict the worldwide economy and creating new (and increasingly unreal) markets. I wonder how many persons of real potential have been brought into that world. Genius is not immune to avarice by any means. (And the philosophical life—for example—almost never pays.)

There's a line from Clifton Fadiman that I remember reading as a child in his Lifetime Reading Plan where he said (in reference to Descartes, if I recall correctly) that it was a sign of our decline that we gave ‘full room and board to lunatics’ (I remember that part well enough to think I am giving the exact quote), but nothing like that to men of genius. The lack of real patrons (don't get me started about the American NEA…) is another problem.

Genius needs to eat, as well, and earning one's keep outside of its proper applications will also limit achievement, and so on…

So I don't precisely disagree with you, it's just that I think we have a severe problem with two things:

1) Allowing for genius to be manifested.

2) An ‘intellectual market’ that is currently undergoing a scarcity of clear problems which have proper tools. I would say that the exceptions are philosophical—i.e., founding the basis for a new project that both can look behind the modern and in front of it—but they are the most difficult of all!

Actually advancing philosophical genius is perhaps the rarest of all manifestations of genius; there were maybe two or three minds that one can have stand in those (roughly) fifteen centuries between Aristotle and Aquinas on the timeline of philosophical genius.

In any case, I suppose I can sum up my position as such:

I do not think there is a shortage of potential genius, but rather of dramatic genius; there is functioning genius, but largely not in the areas associated with the modern cult of genius.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - You may or may not have gathered that I regard almost all philosophical genius as malign - certainly since Aquinas.

But even the influence of Aquinas turned malignant within another generation of scholasticism (Occam, Scotus) which is perhaps why 1. Eastern Orthodox have always loathed and feared scholasticism, and 2. Aquinas made his concluding comment about his works being straw.

It is not that Aquinus is necessarily malign, of course not; but that given human corruption such a powerful but partial system was almost bound to be abused, and was. (Like an intellectual nuclear bomb.)

I personally don't think the human mind can be trusted with anything more abstract and complex than Socrates/ Plato; and even that is a poison for many.