Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The apparently *sudden* disappearance of English geniuses from the 1960s




Arrgh said...

I'm sure idiots breeding like rabbits has something to do with it, but why not also consider nutrition? Everyone suddenly becoming obese might have something to do with it. And there's a paleo diet theory that cholesterol phobia causes people to not give enough cholesterol rich foods to children while their brains are developing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Arrgh. No, I don't think it is diet.

So far as I know, there is no good evidence at all that obesity can cause slow reaction times or lower intelligence - and until the day before yesterday, it was always insufficient calories blamed for cognitive impairment. A red herring, in my opinion.

Evidence is accumulating (behind the scenes) that the main reason for rapidly reducing intelligence in developed countries is likely to be accumulating deleterious gene mutations - due to the greatly reduced child mortality rates (a large majority of humans used to die, from many various causes, before they reached sexual maturity - taking with them many deleterious mutations).

But the point of this post is that things collapsed so fast through the 1960s, that this must have had a social cause.

buckwheatloaf said...

henry adam's memoir has some parts on english genius in the 19th century that's pretty good. he was a really careful observer of all the prominent people he was around and their differences, and terrific with descriptions



The English themselves hardly conceived that their mind was either economical, sharp, or direct; but the defect that most struck an American was its enormous waste in eccentricity. Americans needed and used their whole energy, and applied it with close economy; but English society was eccentric by law and for sake of the eccentricity itself. The commonest phrase overheard at an English club or dinner-table was that So-and-So "is quite mad." It was no offence to So-and-So; it hardly distinguished him from his fellows; and when applied to a public man, like Gladstone, it was qualified by epithets much more forcible. Eccentricity was so general as to become hereditary distinction. It made the chief charm of English society as well as its chief terror.Read more at location 3086Add a note
Society swarmed with exaggerated characters; it contained little else.

Often this eccentricity bore all the marks of strength; perhaps it was actual exuberance of force, a birthmark of genius. Boston thought so. The Bostonian called it national character -- native vigor -- robustness -- honesty -- courage. He respected and feared it.

Eccentricity was not always a force; Americans were deeply interested in deciding whether it was always a weakness

That English society was infinitely more amusing because of its eccentricities, no one denied.

buckwheatloaf said...

ooh his recounting of meeting algernon swisburne is kind of cool, but im not really sure how relevant it is, but i'll just post it anyway


the singular guests whom Milnes collected to enliven his December had nothing to do but astonish each other, if anything could astonish such men. Of the five, Adams alone was tame; he alone added nothing to the wit or humor, except as a listener; but they needed a listener and he was useful.

That Swinburne was altogether new to the three types of men-of-the-world before him; that he seemed to them quite original, wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted, and convulsingly droll, Adams could see; but what more he was, even Milnes hardly dared say. They could not believe his incredible memory and knowledge of literature, classic, mediaeval, and modern; his faculty of reciting a play of Sophocles or a play of Shakespeare, forward or backward, from end to beginning; or Dante, or Villon, or Victor Hugo.

That Stirling as well as Milnes should regard Swinburne as a prodigy greatly comforted Adams, who lost his balance of mind at first in trying to imagine that Swinburne was a natural product of Oxford,Read more at location.
The idea that one has actually met a real genius dawns slowly on a Boston mind, but it made entry at last.

Adams could no more interest Algernon Swinburne than he could interest Encke's comet. To Swinburne he could be no more than a worm. The quality of genius was an education almost ultimate, for one touched there the limits of the human mind on that side; but one could only receive; one had nothing to give -- nothing even to offer.
The sentence was just and Adams never appealed from it. He knew his inferiority in taste as he might know it in smell. Keenly mortified by the dullness of his senses and instincts, he knew he was no companion for Swinburne; probably he could be only an annoyance; no number of centuries could ever educate him to Swinburne's level, even in technical appreciation.

buckwheatloaf said...

some more descriptions of english guys


Monckton Milnes himself was regarded as an eccentric, chiefly by those who did not know him, but his fancies and hobbies were only ideas a little in advance of the time; his manner was eccentric, but not his mind, as any one could see who read a page of his poetry.

Monckton Milnes was a social power in London and of course he himself affected social eccentricity, challenging ridicule with the indifference of one who knew himself to be the first wit in London, and a maker of men -- of a great many men. A word from him went far. An invitation to his breakfast-table went farther. Behind his almost Falstaffian mask and laugh of Silenus, he carried a fine, broad, and high intelligence which no one questioned. As a young man he had written verses, which some readers thought poetry, and which were certainly not altogether prose. Later, in Parliament he made speeches, chiefly criticised as too good for the place and too high for the audience. Socially, he was one of two or three men who went everywhere, knew everybody, talked of everything

As a type for study, or a standard for education, Lodge was the more interesting of the two. Roosevelts are born and never can be taught; but Lodge was a creature of teaching -- Boston incarnate -- the child of his local parentage; and while his ambition led him to be more, the intent, though virtuous, was -- as Adams admitted in his own case -- restless. An excellent talker, a voracious reader, a ready wit, an accomplished orator, with a clear mind and a powerful memory, he could never feel perfectly at ease whatever leg he stood on, but shifted, sometimes with painful strain of temper, from one sensitive muscle to another, uncertain whether to pose as an uncompromising Yankee; or a pure American; or a patriot in the still purer atmosphere of Irish, Germans, or Jews; or a scholar and historian of Harvard College. English to the last fibre of his thought -- saturated with English literature, English tradition, English taste -- revolted by every vice and by most virtues of Frenchmen and Germans, or any other Continental standards, but at home and happy among the vices and extravagances of Shakespeare -- standing first on the social, then on the political foot; now worshipping, now banning; shocked by the wanton display of immorality, but practicing the license of political usage; sometimes bitter, often genial, always intelligent -- Lodge had the singular merit of interesting. The usual statesmen flocked in swarms like crows, black and monotonous. Lodge's plumage was varied, and, like his flight, harked back to race. He betrayed the consciousness that he and his people had a past, if they dared but avow it, and might have a future, if they could but divine it

buckwheatloaf said...

my favorite passsage is the one about sumners, well as far as descriptions of people go its my favorite in the memoir. that's the famous U.S. senator that all us american kids learn about in school.


His superiority was, indeed, real and incontestable; he was the classical ornament of the anti-slavery party; their pride in him was unbounded, and their admiration outspoken. The boy Henry worshipped him, and if he ever regarded any older man as a personal friend, it was Mr. Sumner. The relation of Mr. Sumner in the household was far closer than any relation of blood. None of the uncles approached such intimacy. Sumner was the boy's ideal of greatness; the highest product of nature and art. The only fault of such a model was its superiority which defied imitation. To the twelve-year-old boy, his father, Dr. Palfrey, Mr. Dana, were men, more or less like what he himself might become; but Mr. Sumner was a different order -- heroic.

buckwheatloaf said...

there still seems to be some of the tradition of eccentric genius alive in england but not really as much of it at all. and in a lot of cases it could not really make good comparisons to the past. like boris johnson cultivates the eccentric image and he's super smart, no one would deny that, and maybe he's genius, maybe not, but most people thinks for certain he's not really a good guy, which the eccentric genius society types are supposed to be i thought. but then there's people like russell brand. he must have all the genius abilities as much as anyone in english society ever did! and plenty of eccentricity too, which is as authentic as eccentricity gets i think. so he's really genius but then he's a comedian, not really a leader, which could be a good vocation given his type of genius which isn't really suited for innovation that comes from isolation but more for like unification and the direction of lots of people. he's much more of a prophet archetype than the philosopher one. but that's doesn't really seem like it's going to happen. more troubling than him being relegated to comic is how he's better known for other things than being talented in anything (which includes even his comedy).

yeah i really like all your points about genius being recognized and how that's as important (if not more so) in some times and locations as any increase in the scarcity of such people has been. its going to look a lot more scarce if peoples recognition of genius and proper leaders is failing really bad, which it seems like it has and is. i guess like you said recognizing it is hard so it could be more a serendipitous combination of other factors that gets the genius among us recognized in one time but ignored in another. it might not really be the direct identification that's failing or getting worse because we've never really been good at it (or maybe we have been im not sure) but societal conditions that's more indirectly influencing whether genius is nurtured or not.

Bruce Charlton said...

@b - wrt Boris J -


H├ęctor said...

I think you are wrong in reference to the relation with IQ and diet. Pesticides as well as the thousands of chemicals our bodies are bombarded with (chemicals that have never been present in human bloodstreams before in all recorded history and whose long term effects are completely unknown) is most likely the cause behind the points lost in intelligence and ability. It's already proven that metals like mercury, aluminum, cadmium and lead, as well as fluoride can cause significant reductions in IQ points.

Syahidah and Valentine said...

Although it is not the strongest argument, to pick on one person as an example, the speculation that obesity might impair reaction times doesn't seem to apply to my own family. We are a heavy lot - yet, are also noted for our rapid responses to the world. So I would agree with Professor Charlton's view that obesity is not a significant influence on this matter of mental decline. On the other hand, Hector may have a point: I am not too happy about all the poisons creeping into our diets and environment. No doubt they have many unmeasured effects, physical and mental. It would be better if we lived in a pristine world, free of such perturbations.