March 23, 2007

Geniuses on MTV: The portent of intellectual culture

Having been born in 1980, I remember when MTV used to broadcast music on television; now its programming consists mostly of bad reality shows. There are two such shows I actually find somewhat interesting, though, depending on the focus of the episode: True Life essentially brings the freak show tent into your living room, each episode spotlighting a handful of individuals who share the same unusual quality (at least by the standards of TV stars) -- for example, those who have OCD. Made tracks the progress a single person makes in achieving some outlandish transformation over a brief time period, such as a tomboy who wishes to blossom into a girly girl, or a 100-pound runt who wants to play on the varsity football team. Typically, the individual falls far short of their goal; e.g., usually they are given a token spot on a sports team, one assumes only because to do otherwise would crush the ego of the under-a-magnifying-glass subject. Where the person does achieve success, it is frequently a case of a "hot girl with glasses" transformation of the type parodied in Not Another Teen Movie -- that is, where the person has already been blessed by good genes and good luck, and so simply needs a brief intervention to smooth out their few remaining wrinkles. These shows tie together two important perspectives on human variation: namely, that it is ubiquitous and wide in scope (True Life) and that a lot of it has more to do with fortune than effort (Made).

Not being a TV junkie, I don't always care to watch the new episodes, but the summary of a recent True Life installment caught my eye: the "I'm a Genius" episode would profile three young individuals deemed geniuses. As I didn't recognize any of their names -- which you would expect given that two were in high school and one in his early 20s -- I knew immediately that "genius" didn't mean "genius" but "gifted" or "talented," since there is no such thing as an unrecognized genius.

The 20-something guy was skilled at chess, an immensely overrated means of detecting "genius" -- although it clearly places high IQ demands on the participants, it's difficult to construe playing chess as a creative endeavor rather than a display of cerebral prowess. Not knowing much about the subject, I'm sure there are bona fide geniuses, such as those whose insight opened up unexplored possibilities of attacks, defenses, and so on. Still, it's a bit of a stretch to claim that top chess players will leave an indelible stamp on the human record after their interment, unlike eminent poets or physicists. So, this person's profile is interesting mostly as a showcase of our culture's irrational reverence of chess masters as geniuses.

A more plausible candidate emerges in the profile of a 14 year-old boy who has published several novels, attained virtuoso status as a violinist (he has played Carnegie Hall), and participated in laboratory research. From the vignettes in the lab, it seemed he was more of an assistant than a member contributing original insight, but again, he's only 14; he's clearly capable of conducting novel research in adulthood if he wanted to. If I recall correctly, he got a perfect or near-perfect score on the PSAT. He displays the personality traits typically associated with a child prodigy: an unrelenting work ethic (including after-school tutor sessions to study AP subjects that he couldn't squeeze into his regular school schedule), a broad curiosity about many areas of culture, and a social life befitting an outsider (though not necessarily that of a pariah or recluse). Tellingly, he scarcely used the term "genius" to describe himself: his accomplishments speak for themselves.

In marked contrast, the final subject, a 16 year-old boy, dropped the "g-bomb" in a manner as profligate as the swearing of a weakling who confronts a brawny bully: the goal is to puff himself up in the face of a clearly superior contender. Unlike the other two subjects, he had no accomplishments to speak of -- as in, zero. He leads the social life of a common teenager, his only intellectual pursuit consisting of bubbling in responses to online IQ quizzes. Aware of his lack of achievement, he made a last-ditch effort to impress college admissions officials by trying out for Teen Jeopardy!; and though he easily qualified, he was smashed in his TV appearance. Despite this, he applied early-decision to Stanford, certain that the admissions committee would be awed by his "genius." In fact, he was so sure that he hadn't even bothered to start his applications to any other schools yet -- that would only happen in the (to his mind) rare event where he wasn't admitted early. Not surprisingly, the admissions committee must have been unimpressed and denied his application. Stewing in rancor, he muttered something to the effect of "I guess being a genius just isn't enough to get into Stanford." Replace the word "genius" with "cognitively gifted," and you'd be right.

No doubt this last individual will make a fine long-term employee at Starbucks or Barnes and Noble, where other smart yet directionless individuals eke out a living. Sometimes I wonder why, with so many smart people in the world, we don't enjoy a level of cultural production like that of the Renaissance or century of the Scientific Revolution, proportionate to the size of the population. Charles Murray wrestles with this question in Human Accomplishment, and I have my own peculiar hypothesis -- namely, that positive changes in health conditions -- long a significant environmental source of variance in traits -- has resulted in more individuals being bunched around the average, with fewer "deviants," including geniuses of the stature of Newton or Beethoven. (This applies only to variance in personality and other traits unrelated to intelligence, since general intelligence has steadily increased over the past 200 or so years.)

Yet another, not mutually exclusive explanation, which Murray considers only in a footnote, and which I'm becoming more convinced of as time goes by, is that our modern world offers too many opportunities for gifted individuals to earn a comfortable living from doing work that is not particularly culturally productive, as well as offering too many quick-fix distractions such as video games and TV -- and now, maintaining, reading, and commenting on blogs. As with all vices, they are all well and good in moderation, but we also inhabit a world in which self-restraint has become the watchword mostly of culture-skeptical fuddy-duddies. Although I wouldn't count myself among them, many paleoconservatives will tell you how embattled they feel in both the political and cultural arenas, Burke having been replaced by Bush as the most recognized conservative political figure. This loss of heterodox thinkers has surely retarded advances in the arts and sciences.

As an illustration, consider the differences in the lives of two of the greatest mathematicians -- Gauss, whom many regard the greatest math genius of all time, and John von Neumann, whom many view as the greatest math genius of the mid-20th Century. Both were deeply conservative, yet Gauss was more of a traditional, religious conservative who so valued restraint that his credo on publishing his ideas was Pauca sed matura -- "few, but ripe." Von Neumann, on the other hand, was a conservative mostly due to his anti-communism and militarism. In his personal life, he indulged in such a rakish lifestyle that one marvels that he didn't die earlier in a car crash. He is more of a neoconservative, then, and he also fits another aspect of the neocon profile in that he was an Ashkenazi Jewish intellectual. Now, clearly von Neumann inhabited an entirely distinct region of the intellectual galaxy than the 16 year-old soi disant genius from the MTV program, but imagine what more he would have produced had he not pursued such a thoroughly hedonistic path.

And for sure, most undergraduates at elite universities couldn't hope to be as imaginative as either of these figures -- but that doesn't excuse complacency. They can always worry "what if" their IQ were 15 or 30 points higher than their already gifted level, or "what if" they were possessed by a tireless passion rather than being "merely" highly motivated. But there are factors that they do have control over: e.g., how much leisure time to allow and what to do with it, or whether or not to sell out and join a profession rather than a culturally productive field. In fairness, I'm not talking about those who would enjoy a career in law, but rather those who are suited to culturally productive work but who wimp out and choose even more comfort and money than would be accorded a professor or composer (who surely don't want for human necessities). Nor am I poo-poo-ing those who hold down a day job to pay the bills while they churn out creative products, as with Einstein when he worked in a patent office.

But with the explosion of middle-class and professional niches since the Industrial Revolution, there has been no shortage of temptation to lead an intellectually indolent lifestyle. I certainly don't believe that individuals capable of cultural work should be forced into it, since they are intelligent enough to make their own decisions, unlike small children, but I still wish there was a stronger push to emphasize restraint in enjoying one's vices. Make no mistake: it is sheer vice for a mathematically gifted person to join the ranks of "quants" on Wall Street in order to be buried beneath a pile of money once they're gone, or for a singularly dexterous wordsmith to apply their craft in public relations or some other apparatus of the Ministry of Disinformation. Making some money on the side, or helping out some organization in wording a press release -- OK, but not devoting your life to it.

In short, when you look at how many gifted individuals expend their time in fields whose present and future contributions could be flushed down the toilet without much affecting the state of things, it's almost enough to make you long for harsher times when they could not have survived so easily as Lotus-Eaters. Fortunately, though, our modern world does allow us to enjoy much longer lives than before, so although none of us "is getting any younger," at least we have a more forgiving window of opportunity in which to correct the errors of our misspent youth. And on that note, I'm off to bury myself in some textbooks on math that I should have learned in college.


  1. Interesting commentary. One possible reason for declining accomplishment that you didn't consider (I don't think Murray did either) is that we may be running low on new things to discover/invent. In his book "Paradoxes of Progress" Gunther Stent discusses this possibility and so does John Horgan in his book "The End of Science".

    I find them both to be way too pessimistic, but they make some points worth serious consideration.
    There may come a point where it becomes almost impossible to make a nontrivial contribution to the arts or sciences, no matter how many Mozarts, Einsteins, or Newtons we have.

  2. Spike Gomes3/24/07, 2:59 PM

    I thank the non-existant God for having spanked me with failure enough times that it finally got through that IQ test scores mean jack without the ass-busting necessary to learn how to put it to good use.

    On the subject of self-control, I'm of the belief that at least in the arts, genius can be fueled by a lack of control. I liken it thusly, a Picasso steadily feeds the creative fire over time, achieving a lifetimes worth of work and development. A Van Gogh dumps all the tinder into the flames at once which makes a huge fire that burns out quickly. One couldn't achieve the big flame along a slow and steady path. At times there's a "method" to the madness.

  3. I watched that program as well. Perhaps part of the problem is that there are schools now. Most of the intellectual giants of old were upper class (likely because lower class meant malnutrition), and were probably tutored in private or with a few others of their status. A great amount of their learning was memorization of great works and facts - which could consume an entire day. It's likely they had little free time with other kids, and the kind of popular clique culture in existance now wouldn't have been possible when the young were always chaperoned. In effect, every upper class kid studied every subject all day without distraction, and was punished if those cultural references were not ingrained by adulthood. Even girls had to know how to quote literature, sew, paint, play the piano, and speak a few languages.

    Alternately, even the 14 year old genius in this show feels he must attend a drunken underage party to feel normal, and get some normal friends (even though he has outsider friends). So maybe the problem is that those who might live the life of the mind are being convinced by a mob of teenager that it sucks, and they should worry more about what the mob of teenagers thinks.

    (Also, I cannot believe that the 16 year old did not realize he needed extracurriculars. His brother was applying at the same time!)

  4. One of things that struck me while reading some of your past posts is that your main research interest -Hot Chicks (HCs) (e.g. who is the HC? what lands do they hail from? of all HCs, which are the hottest? how do you score one?) seems like a rather silly use of your time & brains. I hope you'll take your own advice & use the time you spend poring over beauty pageant data on something a little more relevant.

  5. Ray -- I haven't read that book, but my response to the "low-lying fruit" argument is that this is a misnomer: it's only low-lying in retrospect. A late 19th C physicist could've complained about how physics had become reduced to filling in the minor gaps left by Newton. Then boom, quantum revolution -- not gap-filling at all.

    Scientists can apparently never see the revolution coming, or else they'd beat the "intended" discoverer to the punchline and claim easy fame. So we're always going to be in for surprises. Same with art and music -- who saw linear perspective coming (and remember how long art had stagnated due to lack of perspective), or the fugue (again, look at the stagnation -- no polyphony in the ancient world, only in late Medieval France)? Technology is the one domain where there's pretty steady progress, and I have an idea why, which I'll write up soon.

    Spike -- lack of control to some degree, sure. I'm talking about giving in to distractions. Picasso or Van Gogh wouldn't have created anything if they didn't focus at least long enough to become inspired and execute their vision. An important mathematician (Galois) barely left an intellectual legacy at all because he was mortally wounded in a duel at age 20. So, high-ranking figures probably need to exercise even more restraint than a normal person since they tend to be a bit nuts.

    Axolotl -- that's quite an argument for home-schooling! Or at least trying to stick your kids in a school where degenerates don't dictate fashion. This is definitely harder when you also have to worry about your kid playing lots of video games and watching lots of TV (not corrupting morally, but it takes time away from doing things).

    Anon -- "hot chicks" are definitely relevant to my intellectual pursuits, as I study human variation and try to account for it through an evolutionary lens. It's no different from an ornithologist trying to account for why the prettiest birds with the most ornate songs are more likely to come from some regions than others.

    One man's trash... in fact, several of the bloggers and many of the readers at GNXP, not to mention the larger Western intellectual culture, are fascinated by religion. My Japanese grandma must've passed me her alleles at the religion genes, because I think an interest in religion is a perfect waste of time. (NE Asians are pretty a-religious.)

    The research psychology part is interesting, if no more so than other topics in psych, but Dawkins, Dennett, and others spend too much time talking about religion, from my point-of-view. That's a higher-paid version of a smartie working at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble.

    Then again, I may be missing something -- I'd trust a poll of a large, representative sample of people in my line of work. If they said trying to measure and explain variation in good looks, singing ability, dancing ability, etc., was a waste of time for a whatever-I'm-called*, then I'd trust their judgment. But I don't see that happening.

    *Human behavioral ecologist, evolutionary anthropologist, evolutionary psychologist, sociobiologist? Y'know what I mean.

  6. agnostic said
    Ray -- I haven't read that book, but my response to the "low-lying fruit" argument is that this is a misnomer: it's only low-lying in retrospect.

    I'm not so sure about that. For example, a study by NBER researcher Benjamin Jones has shown that the average age at which individuals produce notable inventions and ideas has increased noticeably.

    This suggests that we may be approaching cognitive limits in our ability to make new discoveries.

    Source :

    A late 19th C physicist could've complained about how physics had become reduced to filling in the minor gaps left by Newton.
    > Then boom, quantum revolution -- not gap-filling at all.

    Great, but what comes after that
    revolution? And the next one? We've been stuck with string theory for the past thirty years, which so far has escaped empirical verification.

    Maybe a bigger, better particle accelerator can solve that conundrum. But I suspect we could easily come to a point where its no longer economically feasible to
    invest in more powerful equipment.
    Or we run into cognitive limitations that bar us from making further advances. This argument also applies to the arts, not just the sciences.

    > Technology is the one domain
    > where there's pretty steady
    > progress, and I have an idea why, > which I'll write up soon.

    I'd be interested in your thoughts on that one. My own feeling is that immense changes are still in store for us as a species but our technological capabilities will also come to a level of near-stasis.

    And they will do so within a time period very short compared to our history as a species.

    Realistically, how long do you think our era of rapid technological progress can continue? A century or two is certainly possible, but surely it can't be thousands of years.

  7. Interesting post. To pull something, almost at random: "it is sheer vice for a mathematically gifted person to join the ranks of "quants" on Wall Street in order to be buried beneath a pile of money once they're gone". In Emanuel Derman's book, "My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance", he makes it clear that being a physics genius means endless low-paid postdoc and assistant professor positions that go nowhere and lead to few scientific discoveries. One can hardy blame people like him for going to work on Wall Street. Besides, lots of important discoveries have been made in finance over the past generation by geniuses who applied themselves to it (Sharpe, Markowitz, Black,, all Nobel Prize winners).

  8. According to Norman Matloff, a professor of Computer Science at UC Davis, the US has been massively overproducing PhDs for many years. That's the main reason why there's such a high proportion of foreign PhDs and postdocs - they're willing to work for peanuts in return for a shot at a green card. Native-born American have no such incentive, so they've gone off to greener pastures. The choice isn't between being a wealthy but "underachieving" financial analyst or attorney and just doing OK as a scientist or a mathematician. It's a choice between a lifetime of financial insecurity and working brutally hard for starvation wages vs. the possibility of making a decent income.

  9. Well, "starvation" and "decent income" are surely exaggerations -- you can live on any faculty member's salary, and raking in the dough on Wall St. is far above "decent."

    Another option for physicists who feel they won't be able to make huge contributions is to simply invade a less developed field. 20th C. biology would have been totally different were it not for two "career-changing" physicists: R.A. Fisher, a pioneer of population genetics and statistics, and Francis Crick, the brains behind discovering the structure of DNA (as well as some neuroscience stuff). In linguistics, Paul Smolensky is a physics PhD who has brought a lot of new ideas to the field.

    Usually, such people are pretty smart, know a lot of math, and have logged lots of man-hours modeling stuff. All that's left is some "summer reading" that will get them up-to-date with the basic ideas and literature of their new field, some chatting with established figures, and then there they go.

    Again, I'm just suggesting moderation -- maybe the physics PhD decides to devote 1/3 of their work time to a lucrative career and 2/3 to work of (in principle) lasting importance. Anything but shrugging their shoulders and disappearing into non-culturally productive occupations.

  10. If you're tenured faculty, sure - it's a decent income. If you're a postdoc shuttling between three neighboring universities in order to make ends meet, it's a whole different story. Guess which one is more likely scenario for a would-be PhD?

    As far as Wall-Street goes, my guess is the guys raking in the dough are going at it whole-hog. A guy trying to achieve a work-life balance in such a hypercompetitive field is likely to end up broke.
    If you know any counterexamples, I'd like to hear about them.

    A more workable option to someone who wants to divide his time between making a lasting contribution and paying the bills is to find a niche that's fairly low in status, is not too demanding, and not too crowded.

    For example, I have a relative who maintains old COBOL programs. It's not terribly exciting but it pays decently, she only has to work about 30 hours a week, and so far her employers haven't been very successful in displacing her work with cheap foreign labor.

    I'm ok with your idea of switching from one field to another, newer one. I believe that most of the discoveries in the 21st century will be in multidisciplinary fields and the applied sciences. So an aspiring mathematician might consider specializing in mathematical genetics, or a chemist might go into nanotechnology.

  11. I think it was Watson of DNA structure fame who said something similar to one of your ideas - that when he was a young man in the 1950s science was one of the few interesting things around. But now there is a lot more freedom to pursue all sorts of esoteric interests, which are just as immediately arresting but less hard work. I always find it amusing to see very bright people focusing on the silliest and most trivial topics - the Comic Book Guy effect.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."