Monday 6 August 2012

Why is genius so rare?

Thursday, 14 June 2012


If you are interested in creative genius, I would recommend two books:

Genius by HJ Eysenck, 1995

Human Accomplishment by Charles Murray 2003


Eysenck's is about the psychological basis of genius, Murray's more about the socio-political basis.


But why is genius so rare, even in places where there are a high concentration of geniuses - as there were here in England in the past few hundred years?

1. Genius requires very high intelligence - in a country with a high average IQ like England, this means in the top ten percent (above 120) and considerably higher for some subjects (e.g. mathematical subjects). But often geniuses are at intelligence levels of about the top one in ten thousand. Some societies have much lower average IQ than England.

2. Perseverance, self-motivation to pick-out and work in one area without need for external encouragement, autonomous indifference to the evaluations of others, ability to go it alone.

3. Creativity. This is Eysenck's big contribution.

Creativity is associated with a style of thinking that is relatively loose in its associations, inclusive in its linking of disparate elements - a style of thinking akin to that of dreaming sleep, psychotic illness, and intoxication.

Creativity is not positively associated with intelligence - or if so at a very modest level. Some societies with high average IQ have low creativity, and vice versa. European societies had (in the past) high average IQ and also reasonably high creativity.

However, creativity is moderately associated with mental illness, psychopathy and addiction - and also with impulsiveness and 'fecklessness' - with a lack of perseverance.

This means that most creative people, and most very intelligent creative people, lack the self-discipline and perseverance to attain the highest and accomplish great things.


Creativity is, in a nutshell, a bit crazy - and most crazy people are too disorganized to do much. But geniuses require to be a bit crazy, yet also do prolonged focused work - and this is a reason why there are so few of them.


So - high intelligence is very rare (and some societies have too low an average intelligence to generate more than a tiny proportion of very intelligent people).

Within this tiny group of highly intelligent people, on top of all this, to get the coincidence of a creative way of thinking with a sufficiently persevering personality type is very rare.

And among this small percentage of a small percentage, there are the workings of sheer luck, there is the higher than normal risk of (self) sabotage by mental illness and addiction, there are the problems of a higher than usual probability of an abrasive or antisocial personality - and (as Murray identifies) the likelihood that for a person to aim very high requires a belief in transcendental values (the beautiful, the truth, virtue) - and that some societies (such as our own) lack this belief.


Put all these together and it is clear why in all societies genius is rare; and why genius is completely absent from most societies.


Further reading: