Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The necessity of genius for societal problem-solving - much greater than recognized due to the recent 'surplus' of geniuses

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 that no individual 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 won) 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.

But now that geniuses have dwindled and dwindled in numbers and as a proportion, until it is hard to name any living geniuses in most major areas of human endeavour; I think we are ready to recognise that the usual situation is that there is at most one person in any given time and place who is capable of making a major breakthrough.

And if for whatever reason that individual person does not exist, or fails to make the breakthrough - or if the breakthrough is made but ignored - then that is that: there is no back-up.

If a genius cannot do it, then it is not done.

Part of this is ability - but that is only part of it: the other half is motivation. Most major breakthroughs require several or many years of dedicated and focused work - the kind of dedicated work that can only arise from genuine, spontaneous inner motivation.

For example, for Andrew Wiles to prove Fermat's Last Theorem required not only one of the best mathematicians in the world, but the inner drive to do many years of solitary, dedicated (and career threatening) work - then to fail in the initial attempt, to resume the solitary and focused search, and second time to find the right answer.

Wiles's level of motivation coupled with ability is very, very rare indeed - such that I think we can say that if he had not proved Fermat's Last Theorem  twenty years ago, it would still not be proved - and perhaps it never would have been proved.

This, I believe, is the usual situation with geniuses through most of history and most of the time: they do what only they can do; they are irreplaceable.

And the shape of history is substantially affected by the presence, or absence, of such men.


^See William James - Great Men, Great Thoughts and the Environment - 1880. James himself was an example of an irreplaceable Great Man - indeed I believe that the scope of his vital contribution has not even yet been comprehended or implemented.

1 comment:

Ngoc Nguyen said...

I agree. Imagine, for example, a genius like Newton for whom sex and women were not a priority. Would Newton have been able to make all the impressive breakthroughs that he did had he been more prone to women-chasing and his libido (during the pivotal early years of his twenties) instead? Had Newton been more "normal," or had his extraordinary genius been more moderated by such mundane concerns as sating his sex drive would it have taken precious energy and consummately focused devotion and attention from his work? Who really knows, or can really say? But what is known is that Newton himself, when asked (and recorded by his personal biographer), confessed that it was necessary for him to hold an idea or problem of interest in his mind for long periods of time in order to later have its solution "reveal itself" to him in a sudden moment of clarity. This kind of process, to be sure, is uncommon among rather normal human beings (to this degree) and chances are high that such a mental phenomenon would be retarded or even permanently blocked by such pursuits as chasing women or gratifying one's libido, which, by the way, is an unending process (of itself) that never really is adequately fulfilled. To wit, we are talking about a man who barely took time away from his physical and mathematical ratiocinations to even eat, sleep, or properly dress in public at Trinity College, Cambridge (his alma mater).

Also, imagine if you will, what our modern world and civilizations would look or be like if Newton never made his discoveries and breakthroughs had he been more (or even totally) absorbed by sex and women. Chances are the world would have been set back by some decades (perhaps by even more, had Leibniz not also invented the Calculus independently, as did Newton) and man (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) would have not set foot on the moon in 1969 in Apollo 11. Also, the current technology that we enjoy today might not have been realized until very much later.

If this alternate universe or world seems farfetched (as a suggestion), then consider Archimedes. All scholars agree that if the entire works of Archimedes had not been lost to us for centuries (1,500 years or so, in fact) our world would or could have been advanced further by as much as a hundred years (due, largely in part, to Archimedes' initial discovery and use of the integral calculus--approximately 1,800 years before Newton and Leibniz!). Then, as well, later geniuses like Newton, Leibniz, etc. in their time would have developed further the advancements of Archimedes (all the way up to Einstein): this would have created an intellectual momentum of significantly stellar proportions that thinkers, physicists, scientists, and mathematicians can only dream of today (had Archimedes not been lost to posterity through his premature death as long as he has been).

Granted, though these "ramifications" are imaginary, they are still plausible to ponder on. All this requires is some knowledge and a lot of imagination. So, to conclude my point, just imagine (the alternate consequences of another world or timeline for yourself).