The statistical model of ability vs. the unpredictability of genius

    As education has expanded and the opportunities for intellectual accomplishment has increased, the great minds of the past can still hold their own.  They had less knowledge than we do now, but in terms of intelligence, creativity, and in particular insight, they are as good or better than anyone working today.  

    And if you think about it, this is quite surprising.  Not only do we have a much larger population than existed prior to the twentieth century, with a far higher proportion of the population literate, but there are also many more people who do intellectual work either professionally or in their leisure time.  

    If it is assumed that ability is evenly distributed throughout all populations, then for the reasons listed, we should have far more ability to draw upon.  And thus, we should have completely surpassed the past.  And certainly in some areas we have.  But then why are some of the greats of the past still great?  Consider Dante, Virgil, and Homer.  William James Tychonievich has referred to them as the "three greatest writers who ever lived".  I have not read enough to make that assesment but what I would say is that they are not only better than the vast majority of writers working today, but much better.  

    Why should it be that one of the small number of literate people from a society with a small poulation should be so much better than the far greater number of writers working today?  

    One reason of course is that the modern environment is not conducive to producing great literature; modern culture has gone so far off the rails that it does not provide promising raw material.  Especially for areas like literature, talent alone does not suffice, one's life experiences are also important.  

    But even in mathematics and areas of science that are less dependent upon life experience, many of the past masters are still as good as anyone working now.  And it is even more surprising when we consider that athletic records have been regularly broken and yet intellectual accomplishments still stand.  

    I do not think there is only one answer.  There are a variety of reasons that could be involved: one is a lack of motivation: people in the past frequently considered intellectual accomplishment as having some sort of transcendental value, now it is just viewed as a career.  Another reason could be decreasing intelligence or creativity.  But perhaps the most important reason is that geniuses appear when and where they appear and this is not easily predictable.  


  1. I suspect that as-of-now, there are plenty of people who would content even your primary assumption (which, of course, I share!) that past geniuses were *much* better than present, in some times and places.

    After decades of leftist subversion; there isn't much appreciation of the stature of Shakespeare - let alone poets in other and ancient languages whose excellence we can only take on trust.

    It's a surprisingly common problem. People will vehemently assert that 'the best' of current poets, novelists, scientists, artists etc - are better than the well known names of the past (whose reputation has been falsely inflated by the patriarchy etc).

    Of course, most people are indifferent to the truth of the matter, and wedded to their (imbibed, current...) socio-political notions; so the whole discussion is futile!

    1. Yes, that's true. It's only an issue that people would appreciate if they acknowledge the traditional criteria of accomplishment or at least haven't completely accepted the leftist means of evaluation.

  2. Previous comment was by Bruce Charlton (strangely, Anonymous is the default...)


The real AI agenda

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