Saturday 29 November 2014

The problem of finding your problem - Francis Crick as a late-developing genius

Francis Crick (1916-2004) was not picked-out as a genius in early life; although his co-discovery of the structure of DNA, his intellectual domination of molecular biology in its golden age, and his role in understanding the genetic code make him a candidate for the single most influential scientist of the late 20th century.


Crick was clearly well above-average in ability, quick witted and had a flair for problem solving; but he was (and remained) an intensely-annoying person with an arrogant manner, a loud voice, and an irritating laugh.

His exceptionally abrasive personality was certainly a factor in holding him back as a young man - but later it became a crucial asset in his major scientific work.

Crick had an intellectually privileged childhood and went to a premier academic school, but failed to gain entrance to his first choice universities, and graduated with a second class degree; and then started but failed to complete two PhDs, despite changing from physics to biology

So that by the time he met James Watson in 1951 he was in his mid-thirties, on the third attempt at completing a PhD and with poor career prospects (having been told by the Director that he was not wanted at the laboratory after the PhD was completed).

He was a failure, who had squandered multiple chances; and people did not like having him around.


In other words, Crick was a very late-maturing genius - both by absolute and career standards, and for his early life (and what are usually the peak years of achievement) he was just drifting and he was going nowhere in particular.

Then he met Jim Watson, was persuaded that the gene was made of DNA, and that the structure of DNA was solveable - and he was off and unstoppable!

This illustrates how vital it is for a genius to find his problem.

Francis Crick was not visibly a genius until he found DNA - yet of course he was the same man, with the same abilities (the same intelligence, the same personality): but until he met Watson and discovered DNA he was unmotivated - or rather his motivation was too fickle, and too compromised.


It is presumably of some relevance that Crick was psychologically very 'normal' by genius standards; in that he was very sociable and gregarious, had a high sex drive; and, in general, wanted the kind of things that normal men want - alongside being very highly motivated to work at his scientific problems.

The relevance is probably that Crick was for many years too easily distracted from his intellectual destiny by 'worldly' matters, and was less aware of his inner compulsions than are most geniuses.

Perhaps this is a pattern for late-developing genius?


This matter of finding your problem is vital; and not only for genius level scientists but for us below that level who are yet very driven and motivated by intellectual matters: to be working in the right area, to have found one's destiny, is something that makes all the difference.


My own experience has some parallels with Crick - in the sense that I did not 'find my problem' until my mid-thirties when I seized upon evolutionary psychology/ evolutionary theory; up until then I drifted from subject to subject through early adult life.

By 35 years old I had been employed at medical school, medical 'internship', psychiatry training, neuroendocrinology research, English literature scholarship, and lectureships in physiology, anatomy, epidemiology and public health... 

In my case, this sudden clarity about what I should be doing damaged rather than enhanced my career (as so often happens in modern science), but there was and is no doubt that 'here was my destiny', at last.

So I was far more successful than Crick up to age 35, having done well at everything except the internship - but, obviously, the reverse afterwards; and I am not in line for a Nobel!

But - like Crick - I know what it is to have found your problem, and what it is not to have found your problem. 


In later life, aged about 60, Crick  left molecular biology and went into neuroscience to work on consciousness which continued until his death; but for whatever reason made no decisive contributions and was just a 'mainstream' member of the field.

Crick's intellectual deficiencies, in particular his rather crude 'shallowness' as a person and his strident atheism, indeed made him especially un-suited to working in the field of consciousness; where he never really even grasped the scope and nature problem (leave aside solving it).

Also, by the time Crick went into neuroscience, science was becoming very corrupt - and neuroscience was one of the most corrupt parts (because it was so lavishly funded) - so most of the papers Crick will have read (and he read far too much!) were dishonest and/or incompetent - so the data he was working with was unsuitable for theoretical purposes.


Altogether, the life and work of Francis Crick makes a very interesting and relevant study - as perhaps the last British genius to be famous outside of science professionals.


Note: There is a stylish, concise and scientifically-informed biography: Francis Crick by Matt Ridley -  2006. Also, here is what I wrote after Crick's death:


Thursday 27 November 2014

The nature of creativity - purposive inner thought

Creativity is about a mode of thought relatively cut-off from the environment: it is about inner thought.

Thus creativity implies a disengagement from sensory input (e.g. detached from visual and auditory stimuli), and from engagement with the immediate surrounding environment, including the social environment.

But, to be inner-directed is not sufficient to define creativity; for example, sleep, psychosis and delirium are all states in which attention is directed to inner stimuli - yet these are not creative.

When there is no control over the direction of thought - as in dreams, or in hallucinatory and thought-disordered states - there is no purposive control. Thought is being passively-driven-by the inner world.

Creativity entails that the direction, the subject matter, of thought be voluntarily directed; directed towards something like understanding a circumstance, solving a problem, or making a thing.

Creative inspiration is therefore IN-spiration - comes from inner reflection; but to be truly creative inspiration is sought, it is strategic, it is a product of motivation.

So, there is a type of inner-directed thought which is deranged, and may be pathological (for example induced by drugs).

But, the inner-directed thought of a creative person is a result of the way he is made - the inward-attending-bias of creativity is 'hard-wired', innate, present from young childhood.

The creative person is made so that his attention and interest tends to be relatively cut off from the environment, relatively uninterested in the social world (which - in most people - commands most of their interest) .

And indeed, because he is made with an inward bias - if or when a creative person suffers some mental impairment, he is more-than-usually-likely to become psychotic.

But it is not the psychosis which gives the creativity; rather the creativity and the prone-ness to psychosis have the same basis - presumably the same nature of inner-directed hard-wiring.


The acorn theory of genius

It seems likely that (as a rule) genius is inborn - and the way this works could be described in terms of an acorn which grows into an oak.

The pre-requisites of genius are intelligence, which we know is mostly inherited; and creativity, which is much less well understood, but which is also substantially in-built.

(Intelligence cannot be taught, although IQ tests can - neither can real creativity be taught.)

So a mature, adult genius is a product of the growth and development of a child in whom the ingredients and their balance can be traced right back to early childhood; much as the oak tree grows from the acorn.

So, there is destiny to genius - and the primary qualities are either absent, or present (to varying degrees) from the very start - and (unless thwarted) these qualities will tend to unfold by their own inner logic.

And as with an oak tree, the exact, specific result depends on the environment - if the tree is growing in thin soil on the top of a windy mountain, the tree will be stunted and bent; if alone in the middle of a landscaped park it may grow to symmetrical magnificence.

But, whatever the final result - even if the oak is eaten as a sapling by a rabbit - its basic potentiality and distinctive nature was in the acorn from the beginning.


Note: The acorn metaphor (although not my proposed psychological mechanism) comes from The Soul's Code by James Hillman (1997), who also collected a wide range of examples.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

How are highly intelligent people sometimes born to unintelligent parents (and ancestors)?

This (assuming the phenomenon is real) seems hard to explain in the way that intelligence is normally considered - in terms of intelligence being a consequence of very large numbers (thousands?) of genes-for-intelligence. With intelligence genes conceptualized as additive in effect, and in such large numbers, it is hard to understand how a very highly intelligent child could emerge by chance from low intelligence parents.

But if  person's level of intelligence is also determined by the number of deleterious mutations they inherit from their parents, and these mutations are numbered in tens - then it is imaginable that, by chance, a child may be born with very few deleterious mutations, despite his parents having a relatively heavy mutation load.

This notion is perhaps testable, on the basis that a low mutation load should be associated with generally higher fitness - so the high intelligence child of low intelligence parents would be expected to be (on average) taller, healthier, more symmetrical, more long-lived than his low intelligence parents.

Monday 24 November 2014

Geniuses are "vulnerable and fragile" and "need to be looked after"

Quoted from an article in The Daily Telegraph

Dr Michael Woodley of Menie, from the Free University of Brussels, believes that individuals who can be classified as geniuses have brains that are wired differently and are programmed to be unable to deal with small details. “They’re incapable of managing normal day to day affairs,” says Dr Woodley.
“History is littered with anecdotes of geniuses who fail at the most spectacularly mundane tasks. Einstein got lost on one of his sojourns in Princeton, New Jersey. He went into a shop and said, ‘Hi, I’m Einstein, can you take me home please?’ He couldn’t drive and the small things that most people take for granted were totally beyond his capabilities.”
Dr Woodley believes geniuses are “literally not hardwired to be able to learn those kind of tasks. Every time they attempt to allocate the effort into dealing with the mundanities in life they’re constitutionally resisted; their brains are not capable of processing things at that low level.”
Genius, Dr Woodley says, can be found in people with modestly high levels of psychoticism [often typified by interpersonal hostility] and very high intelligence, with IQs scores of more than 140 or 150. Furthermore they are, he says, often asexual as their brains use the space allocated to urges such as sexual desire for additional cognitive ability.
"You have a trade off between what Freud would have referred to as libido and on the other hand pure abstraction: a Platonistic world of ideas,” he said. The evolutionary reason for this may lie with the theory that geniuses have insights that advance the general population. “It’s paradoxical because you think the idea of evolution is procreation, and that might be true in a lot of cases,” he explains. “But what if the way you increase your genes is by benefitting the entire group, by giving them an innovation that allows them to grow and expand and colonise new countries?”
The lack of common sense is in keeping with the idea that a genius exists as an asset to other people, and so: “They need to be looked after,” he says. “They are vulnerable and fragile.”


Michael Woodley makes an important point here. Far from being high in reproductive fitness, in biological terms many geniuses or vulnerable and fragile, and benefit the group rather than themselves; and therefore they often need to be looked after.

The corollary is that when geniuses are not looked after, they do not fulfil their potential, and everybody loses.

If you look at the geniuses throughout history, which obviously only detects successful geniuses, and not those who were thwarted or crushed - there are a very large number who had some kind of 'minder' - typically a specific person who looked after them; whether an influential colleague, a sympathetic employer, a patron, or a monarch - or else their family or a group of close friends.


So, the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson was 'managed' by Colonel TW Higginson; and Jane Austen flourished in the obscurity of her family. Thomas Aquinas was looked after by his brother Friars; and Mendel in his monastery. Pascal by his family. Plus many a genius was sustained by a capable wife.

When there is a close-knit and idealistic community, this may also do it - for example, the community of mathematicians looked after Paul Erdos, who never had a home and camped out at in the house of one mathematics Professor after another for decades, while collaborating on research papers. The Indian genius mathematician Ramanujan was discovered and protected by the Cambridge Professors Hardy and Littlewood.

But poor William Sidis was exploited rather than protected by his parents, and was a sensitive man who had to survive in a hostile and mocking world; so his achievements were limited, and indeed largely unknown and unappreciated.


Modern society is dominated by 'bureaucracy', that is by voting committees and formal procedures - rather than individual humans making personal judgments.

And committees do not look after geniuses - rather they ignore them, or persecute them.

It is no coincidence that English genius very suddenly all-but disappeared in the era (from about 1955-1980) in which bureaucracy waxed dominant in national life - and nowadays geniuses are absent, invisible, or fighting for survival against the forces of mass media, committees, peer reviewers and other faceless officials.

This is sad for the geniuses; fatal for our society.


Tuesday 18 November 2014

The Creative Triad: Need for a new concept to replace Eysenck's Psychoticism in relation to creativity?


I am beginning to believe that - important though it was in understanding creativity - it may be necessary to replace Eysenck's personality trait of Psychoticism to distinguish between adaptive and pathological causes.

The sub-traits which constitute Psychoticism have been summarised here:

In brief they are

High Psychoticism is in bold font; Low Psychoticism is normal font.

1. Cold - versus warm, charming
2. Aggressive - versus submissive
3. Egocentric - versus follows groups expectations
4. Unempathic - versus sympathetic, feels the emotions of others
5. Tough-minded (i.e. impervious to events) - versus tender-minded, strongly affected by experience
6. Antisocial - versus gregarious, needs other people
7. Impersonal - versus life consists of intense, direct relationships
8. Impulsive (behaviour dominated by current emotions) - versus behaviour dominated by predictions or weaker emotions.
9. Creative - versus applies peer-approved, learned rules and traditions 
I believe that there may be two distinct reasons why a person is rated as high in Psychoticism:

1. One cause is pathological, i.e. functional brain damage from various causes - innate/ genetic, traumatic, drugs or toxins, and psychotic diseases. These increase the susceptibility to altered states of consciousness, and damage evolved psychological adaptations for social living.


2. The other cause is adaptive - the evolution (probably by some kind of group-selected mechanism, associated with an extreme K of slow Life History) whereby some minority of individuals are developmentally specialised for socially valuable roles in creativity; by means of a variety of lop-sided maturational trajectories that lead to some highly developed cognitive motivations and intuitive abilities at the cost of others.

For example, among the most extreme creative - creative geniuses - there are 'always' some deficits indicative of an imbalance away from 'normal' abilities and motivations - for example a reduced interest in sex and reproduction, reduced interest (and often aptitude) in social affairs (including indifference to the opinions of others), reduced motivation to achieve power, status, wealth and other socially-valued 'goods'.

And highly creative people often use states of day-dreaming, trance, sleep and other altered states as the primary mode of their creative thinking - but not because these states are imposed on them by disease and deficit; rather as a deliberate strategy, because these states are when creativity is facilitated.

These altered states are usually only deployed in solitude - and switched-off when full alertness is needed (driving a car, operating dangerous machinery etc.), or in social interactions.

So high creativity is a package of positive abilities and emotions, and also a relative indifference to aspects of life which would tend to interfere with creative autonomy and self motivation.


However, pathology might mimic evolved creativity, when there is focal damage to social/ sexual psychological adaptations - leading someone to pour all their interest into a specific and idiosyncratic interest. But such pathologically focused individuals would lack the positive aspects of creativity - the type of mind capable of make wide and unusual associations and jumps of logic. Pathological individuals would perhaps be obsessed with a subject - but only in learning about it and not in making original contributions to it.


So, what could be a term for the trait displayed by those High Psychoticism individuals who are creative?

Perhaps Creativity is indeed the proper and best term?

So, the category of Psychoticism could be broken down into sub-categories of 1. Pathological Psychoticism, and 2. Adaptive Creativity - and the list of sub-traits modified accordingly.


I suggest the following Creative Triad as characteristic of those who display adaptive (and presumably evolved) high level creativity - Creative Genius:

1. A characteristic mode of thought - primarily intuitive, associative and generative; rather than logical and rational and factual. This mode of thought is attained in some kind of altered state of consciousness, usually attained in solitude - rather than full alertness and social interaction.

(Logic, reason and facts are of course necessary to creation - but come after the creative process; as a test applied to the products of creativity.)

2. High ability of a specific kind - different in different creative people: mathematical, inventive, artistic, philosophical etc.

3. Internal, self-motivation to channel one's major energies into the subject of that High Ability.

(High specific ability is of little value unless it is fed with sufficient time and energy to develop that ability, and to apply the outcomes of that ability.)


Wednesday 5 November 2014

Intelligence probably declines by considerably more than a standard deviation from age 16 to 63


IJ Deary, G Der. Reaction Time, Age, and Cognitive Ability: Longitudinal Findings from Age 16 to 63 Years in Representative Population Samples. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition  2005; 12: 187-215.


Deary and Der's paper referenced above seems to be the best available estimate of the effects of ageing on simple reaction times (sRTs).

Simple reaction time correlates with general intelligence (g) and there is, I believe, a lot of reason to believe that group-averaged sRTs are the best, most valid measure of long-term changes in intelligence.

At the individual level, the modest correlation of sRT with IQ makes the sRT a relatively poor predictor of cognitive; but this is dealt with be averages the sRT measure in a large group, and of course the sRT is a real, physiological measure on a ratio scale - while IQ is only a measure of relative performance in tests, and is merely an ordinal scale with has no fixed interval measure or zero.


It is well known that general intelligence declines from late teens/ early twenties and into old age - for example as measured by fluid intelligence. In other words, raw scores of fluid intelligence in IQ tests will decline.

But the real magnitude of this decline cannot be obtained from IQ testing - and only a ratio scale, physiological functional measure such as sRT can measure the real magnitude of decline.

Deary and Der 2005 make possible this measure. They measure Men and Women in three cohorts: aged 16 retested at 24; age 36 retested at 44; aged 56 retested at 63. So, there are six data points for men, and another six for women.


Simple visual Reaction Times in milliseconds (rounded to nearest integer)
- Mean (Standard Deviation)


16- 293 (72)
24- 294 (78)

36- 304 (75)
44- 316 (90)

56- 348 (109)
63- 373 (124)

Total decline 16-63 - 373 minus 293 = 80 milliseconds.

Using age 16 average as a baseline value with its standard deviation of 72 - this 80 ms decline represents an intelligence decline of slightly more than one standard deviation - i.e. slightly more than 15 IQ points.

So, an average man of average IQ would decline from 50th centile age 16 to somewhat below the 16th centile aged 63.



16- 295 (57)
24- 306 (73)

36- 314 (79)
44- 333 (95)

56- 346 (101)
63- 375 (126)

Total decline 16-63 - 375 minus 295 = 80 milliseconds.

So, using age 16 as a baseline value with its standard deviation of 57 - this 80ms decline represents an intelligence decline of significantly more than one standard deviation - i.e. significantly more than 15 IQ points.

So, an average woman of average IQ would decline from 50th centile to significantly below the 16th centile aged 63.


A decline of more than one standard deviation - or 15 IQ points, represents the minimum average decline in general intelligence from 16 to 63 - in women the real value is likely to be even larger, because the three cohorts of 16-24, 36-44 and 56-63 very probably had different starting levels for intelligence - with the oldest age group having had a starting (age 16) sRT of about 36ms faster than the measured value for the 16-24 group.  See:

This may be taken imply that among women the true decline of sRT from 16-63 is more like 113 ms instead of 80 ms - and 113 ms decline would be two standard deviations.

However, 2SDs is likely to be an overestimate, because the distribution of sRT is not really a normal distribution, but positively skewed such that there is a longer tail of higher values - so the standard deviation breaks down as a valid description after about one standard deviation.


Nonetheless the data presented in Dear and Der 2005 seems to be measuring a very significant degree of decline in real, underlying, physiological general intelligence/ fluid intelligence between ages 16 and 63; suggesting a significant decline in those cognitive aptitudes underpinned by g.

In practice, this decline in general intelligence may well be obscured by increased specific or 'crystallised' intelligence, due to accumulated specific knowledge, skills and expertise. But the decline in g would be apparent in reduced cognitive flexibility, e.g. slowing of the learning of new knowledge and skills, reduced capacity at solving novel problems and so on.

This data set also suggests that the effect of declining intelligence with age may also be obscured, in this group of women, by declining average intelligence over time, with older generations having a had a higher starting point of for intelligence.

But however the data is adjusted or corrected, the basic finding seems to be that average intelligence declines by more than one standard deviation from age 16 to 63.


Ref: see also

Monday 3 November 2014

Broadly inverse correlation between average intelligence and per capita standard of living in pre-modern societies (before the industrial revolution)

One neglected inference from Gregory Clark's master work A Farewell to Alms: a brief economic history of the world - is that before the industrial revolution the effect of average societal intelligence was broadly the opposite of what it is today - the higher the average intelligence, the lower the per capita standard of living.

In the modern world, after the industrial revolution, it has been exhaustively shown by Richard Lynn and co-workers, and multiply confirmed, that there is a positive correlation between average intelligence and economic measures such as GDP and per capita income.

(More exactly that high average IQ - or perhaps a high IQ of the ruling elite - is nearly always necessary for economic success in the modern world - however, this tendency can be blocked by adverse economic ideologies, such as Marxism/ Maoism, which kept China poor for several decades.)


But, before they underwent the industrial revolution, China and Japan probably had the lowest standard of living per capita in the world - the average Chinese was perhaps the poorest in the world; with the mass of the population almost exclusively on rice, and a very small amount per day - despite that the population laboured almost every waking hour. (See also Ron Unz reference below)

By contrast, in Africa at about the same time, it is probable that the amount of food per person was among the highest in the world, and most African people had far more leisure than people in China or Japan.

Western European societies seem to have been somewhere in between - higher standard of living than China/ Japan but less than Africa; more hours of work than Africa but less than China/ Japan.


If it is assumed that the rank ordering of average general intelligence, as measured by performance in IQ tests, was then as it is now - with China/ Japan highest; Western Europe intermediate, Africa lower - then this represents an inverse correlation between intelligence and per capital standard of living.

Clark explains the reasons why this would be the case - which is that higher intelligence and a more conscientious personality were selected-for in complex agrarian societies (because higher intelligence and the ability to work had for long hours both improved reproductive success); and these selection pressures and the higher average intelligence led to things like increased productivity of food, improved hygiene^, and reduced violence; which combined to increase the population density until the population was constrained by starvation (China/ Japan) and starvation mixed with infectious disease (Western Europe).

(^High standards of hygiene - as was normal in medieval Japan - therefore reduces the mortality rate from infectious disease, which drives down standard of living by increasing population density.)


This is the 'Malthusian Trap' which affected all pre-modern societies in the long term, population could only increase at the cost of reduced standard of living - although average material conditions could be improved over the short term of a few generations after a drastic population cull, or qualitative jump in productivity - before population density increased, and the Trap resumed. This happened in England after the Black Death halved the population - a couple of hundred years of improved average prosperity resulted.

But Africa had extremely high mortality mainly due to diseases, and to a lesser extent violence; which meant that for the survivors of endemic infectious disease and violence there was enough land, enough to eat, and little need for long hours of intensive hunting, gathering or agricultural work.


So, broadly speaking, comparing between societies in the pre-modern world, high average intelligence led to lower average standard of living: intelligence was negatively correlated with standard of living;

Despite that within pre-modern societies, and looking at individuals, higher intelligence was positively-correlated with a higher standard of living (and higher average reproductive success from reduced child mortality).


(Many of these correlations now go the opposite direction in modern societies: between societies, higher intelligence is now associated with higher wealth, as I have just described; within societies higher intelligence is still associated with higher wealth - which is the same as for pre-modern societies; but, both between and within societies, higher intelligence is now associated with lower reproductive success, via lower fertility.)


I am co-author on a new paper published on decline of intelligence, measured by slowing of simple visual reaction times

Possible dysgenic trends in simple visual reaction time performance in the Scottish Twenty-07 cohort: a reanalysis of Deary and Der (2005).

Michael A Woodley, Guy Madison, Bruce G Charlton.

The Mankind Quarterly 2014; 55: 110-124


This is based on the same data as: