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Highlights from The Genius Famine (Bruce G. Charlton and Edward Dutton)

First, for context, the authors have a slightly different concept of genius than many readers might have. To them, genius is high intelligence (which IQ is a good, but not perfect proxy for) coupled with a specific personality type that they call "Endogenous", which is defined as an inwardly-motivated and intuitive personality type. The central argument of this book is that we have fewer geniuses than we used to and there are two main causes: decline in overall average IQ leading to fewer people at the tail end of intelligence (not in itself sufficient for genius, but usually necessary) and changes in institutions driving out and failing to select for the type of person with the endogenous personality type, which when coupled with high intelligence can lead to genius.

There's no real solution for the decline in average IQ. It's a product of reduced infant mortality and increased living standards for the non-elite portion of society. Where I differ from the authors somewhat is that I believe a subset of the population can continue to produce high IQ offspring with some frequency due to assortative mating and a willingness to have more kids (there is a nascent pro-natalism movement among some parts of educated society). Since genius depends more on absolute quality than on absolute numbers the overall average decline may not matter as much.

I don't agree with everything the authors write, in particular I think they are too pessimistic with regards to political issues and that their criticism of some forms of modern art and culture are overreactions (I like abstract art for example and think it's a natural reaction to the invention of photography, plus it's not obvious to me that the creation of pop music is lacking in genius just because it is popular, it's certainly not easy to make a hit pop song), but it is a thought provoking book and worth reading if you're interested in the subject.

The Creative Triad

We can conceive of a Creative Triad. It is composed of (1) Innate ability (2) Inner-motivation, and (3) Intuitive thinking. This triad is the essence of how we use the word ‘creative’ in everyday life. The ‘creative’ type is the ‘arty’ type: the novelist, the poet, and especially the artist; and by extension, also the truly original scientist and technological innovator.

Genius is made possible when all parts of this Triad flow together in a particular way: a person is internally-motivated to pursue that for which he has a natural ability; and does so in an ‘‘intuitive’’ way that mobilizes his deepest self, all his mental powers. Major genius occurs when the ‘natural ability’ dimension is also extremely high.

On von Neumann

Von Neumann was, late in life, lured away from focusing on his intellectual pursuits by love of power, status and prestige – leaving his work incomplete. And such was the greatness of von Neumann, that it proved difficult, indeed impossible, for anyone else to complete it. So, here was a real genius who accepted and partially completed his unique Quest – yet without quite finishing what he began.

My problem with this is that if genius is really related to this concept of the creative triad, of which one part is inner-motivation, then how does someone like von Neumann's inner motivation get replaced by status and prestige seeking?

The social contract with the endogenous personality

The way it is supposed-to-work, the ‘deal’, the ‘social contract’; is that the Endogenous personality, by his non-social orientation, is working for the benefit of society as a whole; at the cost of his not competing in the usual status competitions within that society. His ‘reward’ is simply to be allowed, or – better – actively enabled, to have the minimal necessary sustenance, psychological support (principally being ‘left alone’ and not harassed or molested; but ideally sustained by his family, spouse, patron or the like) to be somehow provided with the time and space and wherewithal to do his work and communicate the outcome. For the Endogenous personality, this is its own reward.

An argument for why historical geniuses were predominantly European

We would also expect different populations to produce differing levels of genius, due to differences in local and regional environments. This is something that has been highlighted by Charles Murray in his book, Human Accomplishment.

Murray finds that Europeans are behind the overwhelming majority of important scientific and artistic accomplishments between Classical times and 1950. Northeast Asians are in second place, but their contribution is relatively small. This is despite the fact that Richard Lynn has found that Northeast Asians have significantly higher average intelligence than Europeans, outscoring them by around 5 IQ points.

Our proposed answer to the relative lack of genius among Northeast Asians is that they lack the Endogenous personality; presumably from having had a different historical environment than Europeans – an environment which imposed less intense and less sustained group versus group competition, and therefore less powerful group selection for creative innovation (i.e. natural selection for one group to gain an advantage over rival groups).

Average intelligence is probably declining

Since general intelligence has a high heritability (approximately 80 per cent), the well-known fact that the most intelligent people (especially the most intelligent women) have the fewest children – in other words the inverse correlation between intelligence and fertility – must tend to reduce average intelligence over the generations.

Shocking if true

In other words, in terms of intelligence, the average Englishman from about 1880-1900 would be in roughly the top 15 per cent of the population in 2000 – and the difference would be even larger if we extrapolated back further towards about 1800 when the Industrial Revolution began to initiate massive demographic changes in the British population (although this was a time before reaction time measures existed).

This is a bold claim but it seems plausible to me. If you've ever read letters written by seemingly unimportant early Americans for example they are often impressively literate. Of course, there is probably some selection/preservation bias occurring here too.

The last sentence here seems exaggerated to me.

The Genius Triad is intelligence, intuitive creativity and long-term self-motivation – all focused on the same domain. Psychologically the triad could be termed Questing Creative Intelligence; and QCI will be found not only among potential geniuses of the major type, but also with lower strength among small-scale geniuses, more local or partial geniuses; who, although capable of far less than the likes of Rutherford, George Stephenson or Alan Turing; nonetheless will work for, and tend to make, original breakthroughs. It is up to other people whether these breakthroughs are noticed, understood and used; or (as so often happens at present) ignored, vilified and suppressed.

It's hard for me to think of very many examples where someone with a breakthrough was outright ignored or suppressed. Galileo might be one case. There are probably some examples in medicine as well (well gate-kept field, disdainful of outsiders). I think more often there are people who would be capable of making great discoveries or advances whose ambitions were stymied early on and thus the never accomplished what they could have.

I have often thought about this

To read of such difficult, annoying, disruptive geniuses as mathematical physicist Paul Dirac (1902-1984; who almost never spoke)103 or the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951; who refused to socialize or even eat with colleagues, or do administration; and taught only the people he wanted to teach and in exactly the way he wanted to teach them), and then to realize that these were Professors at the world-leading University of Cambridge – is to recognize that such characters would nowadays get nowhere near a Cambridge chair or any other chair (not least because actual ability to perform at a really high level in one’s subject or function, is no longer regarded as of primary importance in modern British universities, or indeed anywhere else in Britain).

They are overstating the case a bit, I'm aware of a few possible geniuses who hold chairs at Cambridge currently, although they are all old.

Re-labeling of non-geniuses as geniuses

By re-labelling, some non-creative nonentity (maybe someone of high career status, maybe of high but un-creative ability, maybe a charming character, maybe just a novelty-merchant) is simply stated to be a genius, repeatedly talked about as a genius – probably given awards and medals for being a genius – and the concept of genius is thereby blurred, relativized and even further discredited.

The denial of the concept of genius

By denial we mean the common notion among sophisticated modern people that ‘geniuses’ are no different from anyone else – the denial that there is indeed such a thing as a genius – that the whole thing is a matter of luck or labelling, or a cult of personality, or romanticism – or part of an hierarchical (and probably patriarchal) conspiracy. By the end of this deconstruction and subversion, the disappearance of genius has been disguised by denying that there ever was genius, and the whole thing relativized into a matter of professional eminence, or even just fame or notoriety – so the latest ‘shocking’ novelist is actually, basically, the same as Shakespeare; the latest art gallery ‘installation’ doing the same thing as a Rembrandt portrait or a Rodin sculpture.

I don't fully agree with their criticism of modern art and literature. I think Helen DeWitt or Michel Houellebecq for example are talented writers and perhaps qualify as genius, and I think they fail to appreciate modern art because they don't have the proper context for it, but they are correct that the denial of genius is a real, and modern, phenomenon.