Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

file:// From _Skeptic_ vol. 2, no. 1, 1993, pp. 42-45. The following articles are copyright (c) 1993 by the Skeptics Society, 2761 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena, CA 91001, (818) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of these articles in their entirety, including this notice. For information about a special Internet introductory subscription rate, see the file subscription-rates or contact Jim Lippard ( OBSERVATIONS ON GENIUS By Steve Allen The answer to the riddle of genius remains elusive. When it is at last discovered it may prove to be closely related to another of psychology's deepest mysteries, that of the idiot savants, those peculiar individuals who are mentally handicapped, with the exception of one aspect of creative behavior, at which they are superior. What both genius and the puzzling abilities of the idiot savants have in common is that such praiseworthy factors as hard work, practice and determination would appear to have nothing whatever to do with the matter. Nor--and this is fascinating--does the unadorned factor of high intelligence account for genius. We all know people who are extremely intelligent and yet do not in any way distinguish themselves. The puzzle is further complicated by the fact that intelligence itself is not one factor but may be manifested in a variety of forms. In my own case the manipulation of words, ideas and their inter- relationships comes easily; unfortunately I cannot say the same for mathematical symbols. As for the broad field of science itself, what may be called the philosophy of it intrigues me, but I have no gifts for the nuts-and-bolts aspects of such disciplines. I am confident enough about one relevant insight to predict that when the mystery is finally resolved its location will be either solely or mostly in genetics. Thomas Edison is reported to have said that genius was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. While that may have been true in his case, I doubt if it has universal application since I have the impression that for many true geniuses, their work comes easily. This is at least consistent with the assumption of a genetic base for dramatically superior ability. If that hypothesis becomes established, it will have cleared up a bit of mystery but created a great deal more. With genius it seems we have truly entered a scientific Twilight Zone if it is indeed the case that some almost invisible blob of physical matter is literally responsible for Einstein's ability to conceive of the theory of relativity, for the paintings of Leonardo, the symphonies of Beethoven, the plays of Shakespeare, or dazzling proficiency in any of the arts. It has long been self-evident that there is a physical basis for bodily features and characteristics. Whether one had brown or blue eyes, one skin color or another, long legs, large bones or a particular color of hair--all of this was recognized as traceable to physical factors, which we now know are genes. But in recent decades, remarkable discoveries have demonstrated that what might be called character traits, too, have a genetic basis. Within the last year a gene for the personality trait known as shyness has been discovered. In contemplating the lives of those rare individuals who are so morally superior that they are considered saints, it has occurred to me that they might be better referred to as geniuses of virtue and that, moreover, the explanation for their moral good fortune might also lie in the accident of genetics. Whatever the relevant realities, we may safely consider them astonishing. If any or much of this becomes established, interesting philosophical questions immediately follow. There is something rather sweet about being Jeffersonian and believing that on some level all human creatures are born equal. But it is clear, even to children, that not all of us are born equal physically. Since Americans particularly are not comfortable with the concept of class, we experience some discomfort in considering the possibility, or fact, that there are superior and inferior individuals. When the inferiority is dramatic and undeniable, we respond charitably and generally treat the handicapped, of whatever sort, with at least a minimum degree of compassion, although it often requires the early work of solitary thinkers and doers to encourage us to such generosity of spirit. The genius is, by definition, superior to the rest of us. We would like to think that by adjusting the environmental circumstances of all but the physically handicapped we could perhaps create geniuses by the proper sort of education. I believe this cannot happen, although God knows the formal process of education leaves a great deal to be desired. Although it is reasonable to assume that there have always been individuals of genius, it was not until the 17th century that the word assumed its modern meaning. We can see in the first syllable of the word a clue to its original Roman meaning, which survives in such words as gene, genetics and genealogy. The fact that to the present day the term is still not susceptible to precise definition of the scientific sort is only one aspect of the ageless mystery of creativity itself. After centuries of attention by philosophers, theologians, psychologists and brain specialists, we still cannot explain why certain individuals can produce poems, plays, novels, stories, jokes, paintings, sculpture, music, or scientific theories when the great majority of the human race cannot. That even the still-revered philosophers of ancient times were at a loss in this regard becomes clear when we consider the two classical explanations for remarkable talent. One attributes such work to beings called muses, but that is nonsense since there are no such things. They are a purely hypothetical conception. The other explanation, equally groundless, is that all creative works have God as their true father. Simply stepping over the ancient debate concerning the existence of God, and assuming, in fact, that there is a creator of the universe, it hardly seems fair to attribute to him all the poetry, music and literature in the world for the simple reason that most of it is dreadfully inferior. There is also, of course, the difficulty as to why God would trouble himself to add a helpful line or two to one of his creature's poems while not exerting himself to save the lives of the millions who daily suffer in the most hideously painful and unjust ways--children dying in orphanage fires, nuns struck down by cancer, and other instances too depressing to long consider. So we are back where we started and little the wiser for our search. My own theory as regards the long-held beliefs about the origin of genius is that a combination of envy and the contempt said to result from long familiarity engendered the idea that the gifted individual himself could not possibly be responsible for his abilities. And indeed such puzzlement is understandable since it is perfectly possible for a person to be (a) a genius and (b) something of a disappointment in other regards. Some geniuses have appeared less than bright during their early years--Aquinas, Newton and Einstein being classic examples. Others have left a great deal to be desired morally. And Havelock Ellis, in Study of British Genius, observed that muscular incoordination, physical awkwardness and difficulties with speech were characteristic of both idiots and geniuses. POTENTIAL AND ACHIEVEMENT CATEGORIZATION OF GENIUS By Paul B. MacCready "Genius" is one of those broad, imprecise words that is widely used but never exactly defined (like "common cold"). A generally accepted definition is "extraordinary intellectual power" where extraordinary just means much more than possessed by the person doing the labeling unless the labeler is the genius him/herself. If intellectual power is normally distributed, perhaps we can be justified in setting the criterion for genius at three standard deviations above average. This corresponds to the top 0.13%, so rare that you may not know one. However, it is humbling to realize that in this world of 5.4 billion people, there must be 7,020,000 of them out there some place, and since the earth's population is increasing at about 250,000 a day, another 325 are added daily to this horde of geniuses. Another humbling fact is that intellectual powers in the population are not distributed exactly normally; the distribution curve is skewed in such a way that more people are below average than above. The above clarification has introduced one way of categorizing genius. There are many others, all of which could be argued endlessly for or against. Here are four others worthy of consideration: 1. "Everyone Agrees" Category (posthumous award). Such a list must include Leonardo, Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Mozart, etc. 2. "Officially Designated" Category (which includes many still living). This list incorporates all Nobel Prize winners, and recipients of the so-called "Genius Awards" by the MacArthur Foundation (many of whom were selected for genius potential rather than genius proven). All these awardees, and those receiving recognition for other comparable prizes, have the added feature that big money accompanies the award. Money and television publicity certainly make these awards generally accepted in our modern culture as defining genius. As a cautioning note I must mention that, for one of these individuals, the genius skills did not apply to all aspects outside his/her specialty, and so my wife had to be called on various times to program his/her VCR. He/she will remain nameless here. 3. "High Achiever" Category If you pick 100 very high achievers who have recently become nationally or even internationally renown--for top level acting or writing or art or athletic performance, for creating a giant business empire, for outstanding political leadership, for a dramatic, dangerous trip, for scientific achievement, etc.--you will be surprised to find how poorly many of them did in school. Achievement is not hurt by intellectual gifts, but more important for most spectacular achievement are dedication, enthusiasm, selecting the right challenges, timing, and good luck. And the achievement must be recognized by others as unique and important. I.Q. may suggest how well you will fare in school, but it is a poor predictor of how you will fare in life. Some very high I.Q. people are great at winning the debate but not at solving the problem. Some are tripped up by overconfidence, or inhibited from being venturesome for fear of being wrong. Thus, a genius can be considered someone who actually creates the unusual or spectacular result. If the great potential chemist happened to be born and live in a remote, impoverished Third World village, there would be no opportunity to perform the great creative acts. 4. "Six Year Old Youngster" Category Every six-year-old in the U.S. speaks a complicated language fluently, handling subtle terms and exceptions. If bilingual, the child does this for two languages, with perfect accent. The child also is a bit of a scientist, learning by experimenting with bike, swing, or sand box. And the youngster can skillfully manipulate two adults. The child is obviously a genius--until, in many cases, school, parents, or the neighborhood grinds out the spark. In summary, genius is as genius does. There must be a well- recognized output. Extraordinary intellectual power is sometimes needed, but by itself is rarely enough. The number of geniuses depends strongly on how one defines the term. By any definition, the number is growing-- and will continue to until computers take over and render genius obsolete, or will they? Steve Allen is comedian and creator of the _Tonight Show_ and the _Steve Allen Show_. He is a composer, singer, producer, conductor, a songwriter of more than 4,000 songs, and the author of 38 books. He is a political activist, a Humanist Laureate for the Academy of Humanism, and the producer of the award-winning PBS-TV network series _Meeting of Minds_, a "talk show" with some of history's most significant figures, with Mr. Allen acting as host. His tireless efforts on behalf of the promotion of science, skepticism, and humanism have kept these movements on the cutting edge in the media and popular culture. His book _Dumbth_ was a national bestselling social commentary on the state of U.S. education. Paul MacCready is best known as the "Father of Human-Powered Flight" for his engineering feat of designing and building the Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatross, both of which won the Kremer Prizes for first achieving human-powered flight over a fixed course, and then across the English Channel. Dr. MacCready was also successful in designing and building a solar-powered plane, and the flying Pterodactyl featured in the IMAX movie "On the Wing." Dr. MacCready is the founder and President of Aerovironment in Monrovia, California, where his team of engineers have, among many other things, designed the solar-powered car "Impact" for General Motors. In addition to his scientific and technological achievements, he has actively supported the skeptical movement for many years, as well as promoted scientific education for all ages.


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank