From _Skeptic_ vol. 2, no. 1, 1993, pp. 42-45.
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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
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
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
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.
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