Miscellaneous thoughts on genius

    In this post, I am going to discuss some miscellaneous ideas about genius.  I will be working within the framework explored in Bruce Charlton and Edward Dutton's book The Genius Famine.           

    The main idea of this book is that breakthroughs whether in science or any other area (there can be geniuses in any field of human endeavor) don't "just happen"; they are the product of individual geniuses.  Another idea in this book is the "invisibility of genius," the idea that genius can go unrecognized because once a genius makes a breakthrough, the breakthrough becomes "obvious."  Many technologies that we take for granted, such as the needle and the wheel were at one time the product of genius.  

    Geniuses work at different levels of generality.  The geniuses that are most often recognized are the geniuses that work at a middle level, something that combines theory with application, for instance Newton's work on physics.  However, the geniuse who work at the most general and the most specific levels often go unrecognized.  I would call them meta-geniuses and micro-geniuses, specifically.  

    A meta-genius is someone who begins a paradigm that others then follow.  They make a breakthrough at a conceptual level and once the idea exists, then it can be elaborated on.  Often, a meta-genius's ideas may only be appreciated by a few and so they are considered a dreamer rather than someone who made an important breakthrough.  Two examples would be Rudolf Steiner and Paracelsus.  Paracelsus's ideas motivated people to develop different approaches to medicine and Rudolf Steiner's ideas about the evolutionary development of consciousness were also a conceptual breakthrough.  

    By contrst, micro-geniuses figure out how to make the details work together.  They take an idea or an existing technology and improve it.  Many people think that this is mere "tinkering," not genius at all.  But it certainly is.  There is a great deal of creativity involved in making something work.  An example of this kind of genius is Presper Eckert, who worked on the ENIAC computer with John Mauchly.  Mauchly was the "idea man" and Eckert figured out how to put the ideas into practice.  Here is what Jean Bartik, one of the programmers for the ENIAC said about the two: 

    "And they complemented each other so well, because John [Mauchly] said tht the thing about Presper was when he would give him an idea, Presper would say 'Well, we can do it if we're careful.'  And he said 'He never pooh-poohed any of my ideas.' He's always considered them.  And John says that he believed that Presper was the greatest component engineer in the country at that time, in terms of components."

and also

    Bartik: The thing that made Pres Eckert such a great engineer was that - and I guess nobody had really thought of it up to then - those decade counters were made up of a series of flip-flops, and they just flipped back and forth, like the binary system; but the working of this machine did not depend that much on the amplitude or the cleanness of the signal, because he arranged it so these signals only had to act like a trigger: either it triggered or it didn't trigger.  So you didn't have to have that good a signal to do it.  Everybody said, 'Oh, well, these vacuum tubes won't work, because the signals would fluctute'; but he designed it so that they didn't have to work very well for them to still work. 


So it was robust.


Robust? [laughs.] Well, I guess you could say that!  It was robust, but it was clever, and nobody thought it would work.  But Pres said, 'If we're careful, it will work.'  He was a brilliant man.  

    Another commonly held idea about genius is discussed in this post by Bruce Charlton: 

    "During the 1800s it was generally recognised that 'great men' - including geniuses - were essential to the survival, problem-solving ability and progress of societies.  If there was an insufficient supply of geniuses, then society would be static at best, and would crumble and collapse as soon as it encountered a novel threat which tradition or trial and error was incapable of solving. 

    But through the twentieth century the idea emerged, especially in science, that no individual person made an essential contribution - and that if Professor A had not made his big discovery, then one or several of Professors B, C, or D would have made essentially the same breakthrough within a short space of time.  This suggested that science was primarily a process, and tht no individul was indispensable.

This idea was propagated even among some geniuses, and even when arguing for the existence of exceptions - for example Paul Dirac (himself a genius) said in praising Einstein for the uniquely personal breakthrough of General Relativity that all other breakthroughs in physics (including his own) merely accelerated the progress of the subject by a few years at most.

    But I believe this view was an artefact of the extremely-unusual high prevalence of geniuses in science during the couple of centuries leading up to the mid-twentieth century; the fact that many were working in certain specific areas such as physics, and the sudden pooling of talent resulting from fast international travel and communication.  For a while, a short while in fact, just a few decades, there were more physics geniuses than were strictly needed - and any one of them (except probably Einstein) had 'back-up' from one or more individuals of similar ability and interests."

    This is a very important point.  The amazing thing is, when one considers the history of science in the West, from the early 1600s up until 1970 or so, it is amazing that even though certain geniuses stick out from others (Newton and Leibniz for instance, in the late late 17th century) there are many others any one of whom would stand out tremendously were they to live today, such as Christopher Wren, Hooke, Halley, Huygens, and even among non-geniuses many people of tremendous knowledge and technical skill.  Over the broad scope of history this is a very unusual situation.  In fact, it has only happened once in world history so far as we know.  

    So, looking back on the history of the West, people tend to think that genius is something that "just happens," that there is always a baseline level of genius and given the opportunity, science will occur.  But that is not the case.  This situation lasted for approximatley four centuries, but is now gone.  This is discussed in more detail in The Genius Famine book, but essentially what has happened in many instances is that new ideas have dried up and old ideas are being mined for smaller and smaller scraps. 

    In his book Meditations on the Tarot, Valentin Tomberg discusses an interesting idea about the horizontal and vertical aspects of the human being.  The horizontal is influences of ancestors, whether genetic or spiritual, while the vertical is the influence of each individual human.  

    This concept applies exactly to genius.  Any breakthrough of a genius takes place within a broader paradigm (the horizontal influence) and the geniuses individul breakthrough is the vertical influence.  It is commonly believed that breakthroughs (especially technological breakthroughs) are neutral, but this is not true.  Some are.  For example, the knife is an invention that is very close to neutral.  The circumstances of a breakthrough determine whether it is good, bad or neutral.  

     Both the horizontal and vertical influence have an effect.  The horizontal are the ideas and influences drawn on by the genius and the vertical are the character and motivations of the genius.  For example, social media isn't netural.  It was deliberately designed as a form of ersatz socializing.  Further, the inventors of social media were, at best people duped into believing it was inevitable and at worst, expecting huge amounts of money and influence.  Under those circumstanes, a good invention will not come about.  

    By contrast, think about the dog.  The dog is one of humankind's greatest "inventions" in the sense that there had to be a first person or group of people, maybe a family who first conceived of the idea of domesticating wolves.  Maybe multiple people had this idea independently, but nonetheless, the domestication of the dog was the product of a genius.  And, since the dog has maintined its loyalty for many thousands of years, I would guess probably one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived.    

    The importance of this idea is that we need to recognize that the situation we are in now is not inevitable.  Because technological change is impersonal as opposed to cultural change which manifests itself in personal manner, it is easy to just consider technological and scientific change "background," something that just happens and couldn't be otherwise.  But this is not true.  The last two centuries could have been entirely different had people made better choices.  And then the present would be something almost unimaginable.  But to recognize this fact is very important for the present time.  It allows us to recognize that there is always an option to make a better choice.  The system is not inevitable and, so, at least spiritually, we can not give in.  


  1. Outstanding post!

    "The geniuses that are most often recognized are the geniuses that work at a middle level"

    Great insight. I wish I'd said that in the book, but then I hadn't really noticed. Your discussion of meta-genius is full of potential significance.

    For example, I think it might be a way of unlocking some of the great insights of Steiner - prising them away from the affectations of omniscience and cult acceptance of that omniscience - to regard him as working primarily at this kind of 'broad brush' meta level.

    BTW *lots* of typos in the middle section of this essay.

    1. Thanks.

      Another thing about meta-genius is that I think this is the type of genius that started the scientific revolution. Once scientific thinking was known about, people in many different places could pick it up and then make contributions, but someone had to even conceive that science was possible. And it appears that such people were relatively rare (maybe some in the middle ages such as Robert Grosseteste or Roger Bacon or others later such as Kepler or Francis Bacon).

    2. Jeremy Naydlers In the shadow of the machine was very good on this level, about how the computer became conceivable.

    3. Actually - on further reflection - Naydler's book was framed by the idea of evolution of consciousness. That is something which - ideally - needs to be integrated with the idea of genius; especially of meta-genius. A meta-genius is something like a person at the cutting edge of evolution of consciousness, so that enough Men are already (or soon will be) ready to hear what he has to say.

    4. " A meta-genius is something like a person at the cutting edge of evolution of consciousness, so that enough Men are already (or soon will be) ready to hear what he has to say."

      Great insight.


The real AI agenda

    On a post  by Wm Briggs, about artificial intelligence, a commenter with the monniker "ItsAllBullshit" writes:           "...