Long Time Passing: Where Have All the Geniuses Gone?

Scholars who study genius — far from geniuses themselves — claim that humans only came to revere genius when they lost their belief in God or gods. Humans seem to need to “believe” in something, so it may as well be genius.

Claims of genius are as common as night soil. Before he was elected, Obama was widely praised as a genius. Hitler received similar praise:

Joseph Goebbels claimed to have known from his first encounter with Hitler that he was a “genius,” “a natural, creative instrument of divine fate,” who would shape the German Volk into a political-artistic masterpiece. _Darren McMahon in Chronicle Higher Education

I suppose the Germans of the day should have felt fortunate to receive Hitler’s close attentions. Modern Americans might feel the same way about Obama.

But true genius requires more than a brace of ghost-written “autobiographies,” an army of handlers, a subservient academia, or an adoring press corps. True genius should create important things that last. In Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray laid out his own criteria for genius:

There are, according to Murray, four conditions for the highest realization of this innate impulse toward excellence. The sources of energy for accomplishment are a sense of (1) purpose and (2) personal autonomy. The sources for what he calls the content of accomplishment are (3) organizing structure and (4) transcendental goods. Here Murray moves, by his own admission, into an area beyond statistical demonstration; his data are relevant, and he thinks supportive, of these conclusions, but they are not decisive.

Purpose. Accomplishment “is fostered in a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose.” Murray calls people who doubt or deny that life has a purpose “nihilists.” Since accomplishment at the level Murray specifies requires enormous levels of work, nihilists are at a disadvantage. They lack a sense of vocation, either in the form of an idea that God has called them to a life of scientific or artistic endeavor, or, if they are not religious, in having a sense that they were put on earth to accomplish great things.

Autonomy. A culture that “encourages the belief that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals” will be best in encouraging human accomplishment. Freedom for the individual and tolerance of nonconformity are positive contributors to a climate of achievement. It is not only formal political control (e.g., dictatorship) that will discourage initiative, but strictures found in familism (which presumably helps explain relatively lower levels of scientific and technical accomplishment in cultures of east Asia and the relative lack of innovation in Asian art). A culture that fosters individualism stands a higher chance of producing significant creative individuals in art and science.

Organizing structure. “The magnitude and content of a stream of accomplishment in a given domain varies according to the richness and age of the organizing structure.” In the sciences, “the structure from the Renaissance onward has been an evolving scientific method.” In the arts, structures present themselves differently: sonata form, haiku, Pointillism, the novel, and the motion picture are all organizing structures. All can be richly elaborated. Some structures are checkers-like in allowing a limited range of elaboration; others are more chess-like in their vast potential. Historical bursts of creative activity are initiated by theories, styles, and techniques (including the development of instruments, such as the spectroscope in physics or the grand piano in music) that open rich research or aesthetic possibilities. The age of an organizing structure is important: they are born, can have a vigorous youth, and then enter senescence, losing their potential to yield insights.

Transcendental goods. Accomplishment requires “a well-articulated vision of, and use of, the transcendental good relevant to that domain.” These values are the true, the good, and the beautiful — the first central to science, the last to art, and the second to both science and art. Without a coherent sense of these values to underpin them, science and art may rise to “the highest rungs of craft,” but they will not achieve exalted heights. A culture without a sense that science can reveal truth will never develop a stream of scientific accomplishment; a culture without a sense that beauty is real will never enjoy a great epoch of art, literature, or music: such artistic cultures are likely, as Murray puts it, to be “arid and ephemeral.”

…Murray finds it inescapable that accomplishment has been slumping since around the beginning of the nineteenth century. In this respect, anyway, he resembles such gloomy cultural observers as Nietzsche, Spengler, and Toynbee. _Dennis Dutton on Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment

Murray backs up his flowing prose with reams of data and numerical analysis.

The author of the blockbuster non-fiction book Godel, Escher, Bach (GEB) — Douglas Hofstadter — clearly showed early signs of genius when he published “GEB” in 1980. His goal was to find the key to human intelligence, and to recreate human genius in machine form. But the complex realities of mind pulled Hofstadter in a more philosophical direction.

Someone says something, which reminds you of something else; you say something, which reminds the other person of something else—that’s a conversation. It couldn’t be more straightforward. But at each step, Hofstadter argues, there’s an analogy, a mental leap so stunningly complex that it’s a computational miracle: somehow your brain is able to strip any remark of the irrelevant surface details and extract its gist, its “skeletal essence,” and retrieve, from your own repertoire of ideas and experiences, the story or remark that best relates. _James Somers in the Atlantic

35 years after GEB, Hofstadter continues to hack away at the mystery of analogy and metaphor. And rightly so, since metaphor is the slippery interface between brain and mind. But in the meantime, artificial intelligence (AI) as a field has escaped from the realm of individual genius onto the savage fields of weapons technology and the competitive underpinnings of Google, IBM, and Amazon.

But Hofstadter continues to believe that his own slippery approach holds at least “some keys” to developing human-like intelligences:

Einstein, he said, had come up with the light-quantum hypothesis in 1905. But nobody accepted it until 1923. “Not a soul,” Hofstadter says. “Einstein was completely alone in his belief in the existence of light as particles—for 18 years.

“That must have been very lonely.” _James Somers quoting Hofstadter

And perhaps loneliness is the hallmark of genius, along with a single-minded obsession with finding some truth.

Why should one expect to find genius in a world so obsessed with money and power that the very concept of “truth” is considered the province of bumpkins? Imagine, for example, Barack Obama’s life trajectory had he been most consumed with discovering truth, and completely disinterested in power and the trappings of wealth.

Or even Hitler’s?

Where have all the geniuses gone, long time passing? They have gone to the wings, to work, and wait. They are not likely to be lauded by a skankstream obsessed with politically correct MacArthur fellows and Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Remember: It only takes a few Newtons, Einsteins, Da Vincis etc. to leaven the dough or ferment the wort. The Dumbing Down industry in government, academia, and journalism may succeed in stunting the vast majority of young minds, but a goodly amount of genius is able to slip through the cracks.

Call it the “genius underground,” in order to protect its true identity.

You can play a part by holding steady, accentuating the positive, and remembering that it is never too late to have a dangerous childhood.

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One Response to Long Time Passing: Where Have All the Geniuses Gone?

  1. bob sykes says:

    Or perhaps it’s a kind of psychosis:


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