The Genius Ecosystem

Keep Calm Stay GeniusSome time ago, a friend of mine asked me if I thought I was a genius. She was interested because her husband, who is in many ways like me, was going through a tough time and she was trying to get a better understanding of him. I’m not sure of the specifics, but it is definitely my experience that people who are mathematically oriented do tend to have fairly specific kinds of problems. I think reading between the lines, you can kind of see that in my article, Numbers, Narratives, and God. A lot of us are both introverted and intuitive and this can leave us cut off from reality in a profound way. As long as everything is going fine “out there,” we manage just fine. But when our environments change, we don’t respond as well as some others do. I think this is because those changes “out there” aren’t real to us. As a result, we can really lose our bearings—we aren’t good at managing that reality. That’s what I assume she was looking for from me, but I really don’t know. I think her husband is a whole lot more together than I am, but it’s very possible that he has to deal with the same kinds of things.

But what struck me in the exchange was that she said she didn’t consider herself a genius. That shocked me. She is one of the smartest people I know—and I don’t exactly hang out with an intellectually diverse group of people—it is skewed toward what are traditionally called “smart” people. I wondered if it could be that she had one of these ridiculously limited definitions of intelligence. Or worse: she been given an IQ test somewhere along the line. I can’t think of a worse thing to do to a child than to label them as dumb or smart. There are so many things wrong with IQ tests anyway. I discussed this a little bit in, What’s Wrong With Jason Richwine? But it is worse than that.

I always feel weird talking about intelligence. If you look at standard IQ tests, they consist of two parts: general knowledge and moving blocks around. Is that what intelligence is? Being good at Jeopardy! and chess (pattern recognition)? Because if that is what it is, why do we test for it? Computers can now beat the best Jeopardy! and chess players. So who cares? Add to that, this amazing factoid I learned: Richard Feynman had a IQ score of 125. In high school, I tested far higher than that and there is no way I’m as smart as he was, much less smarter. Based upon having read his autobiography, I think I understand why he got that score, though. When I was in college, my “brilliance” often allowed me to do well at courses without really mastering the fundamentals. (Interestingly, I think I was exactly the opposite in my literature classes.) What made Feynman a genius was the clarity and depth of his thought; IQ tests measure what information people have picked up (naturally underestimating introverts and those with dyslexia) and “quick” thinking. (I’m sure intelligence tests have gotten better over time, but they clearly still have the same fundamental problem of testing only what they test, and then placing more value on them than they deserve.)

What I think we ought to be more interested in is cognitive creativity. Are you able to think creatively? But even that strikes me as an awfully limited way to arrange people. An intellectually slow person who has become an expert on kitchenware of the 1950s has far more to offer my life than someone who can do arithmetic quickly in his head. And look at artists. There are a lot of them who are really not very creative. I don’t think van Gogh was very creative. He had a singular vision and it was magnificent and it is important to have people like that. I think the same thing of Paul Klee who I admire a great deal more. I don’t think Hemingway was very creative, but the world is much better because of him. (I loved him when I was young, but I’ve cooled a lot the last decade). I think Steinbeck was creative, but if he had only written variations on Sweet Thursday or The Grapes of Wrath, I would still love him. And it’s not just art. I’d say the same thing about theology or science. Or math, of course! (My sister Kim just sent me My Brain is Open about one of the most creative mathematicians ever, Paul Erdos. He isn’t so well know exactly because he was so creative. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it came out and kudos to Kim for knowing me so well.)

The point is that what matters is how we all add to the cultural ecosystem. Think about Melville. He died thinking he hadn’t made much of an impact on culture. Cervantes died with a vague notion of what he had done, but he could have had no idea just how profound his contribution was. I still find it interesting that I can be reading Don Quixote now in a totally different context than he wrote it in, and get things from it that are far beyond anything he was conscious of. What an amazing thing! What a wonderful gift he has given us all—even those who haven’t read it—yet he was most known in his own time as an ex-soldier, tax collector, and a failed poet.

I’m well aware that to some extent I am fetishizing a certain kind of cultural work. It isn’t that I dismiss those who have made money and built infrastructure. But it seems to me that these people already get way too much credit in our society. And most of them actually do harm, whereas “bad” artists are just ignored. Still, I don’t doubt that there is great creativity in finance. But that’s what brought on the 2008 financial crash. And there is great creativity that went into developing nuclear weapons. That’s what may cause the extinction of the human race. But for good and bad, the products of diversity of creative minds are what determines our culture.

All I’m saying is that we don’t want intelligence or creativity, or whatever you want to call it, to be a species; it is an ecosystem. It is all necessary. And we are stupid and un-creative to hold up one kind of genius as the genius. In my own life, I know that I can be brilliantly insightful about one thing and totally clueless about another—often something that is obvious to other people.

I think we are all this way. I do know that I have a flare for solving differential equations. And that isn’t raw brain power—of all forms of math, it is the most intuitive. It’s closer to theology than science. And although I think there is crossover, mostly it is the case that different minds are good at different things. Imagine a world with only people who were great at venture capital. Or theology. Or even farming. We would have gone extinct long ago.

The issue should never be intelligence or even creativity, but how people can live fulfilling lives as they add to our cultural ecosystem. Clearly, some will find their places better than others. But my friend has found her place. She is not only a great writer, she is perhaps even better at helping others. She’s the only person that really understands my own work and has ideas on how to improve it. I have other friends who are encouraging and even dictatorial—both of which can be helpful. But she understands the process at an incredibly deep level, and zeros in on what works and doesn’t and why. I’ve learned as much about writing from her as anyone, and that puts her in some amazing company: Fowler, White, Steinbeck, and Turow (Don’t laugh: I’ve learned a lot from him). She is, in other words, a genius. And the world is a much better place for her having no clue about how to solve a differential equation.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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