Anthropologist Edward Dutton (Oulu University, Finland) and psychiatrist Bruce Charlton (Newcastle University, UK) in their fascinating 2016 tome, “The Genius Famine” [say that] geniuses are a distinct psychological type.
They have extremely high intelligence, meaning they excel at quickly solving cognitive problems. This strongly predicts socioeconomic, educational and even social success. But geniuses combine this with relatively low conscientiousness and low empathy.
They also tend to be uninterested in worldly things — money, sex, power — focused intensely on the intellectual pursuit of solving whatever seemingly unsolvable problem has come to obsess them. New ideas always break established rules and offend vested interests, but the genius couldn’t care less, claim Dutton and Charlton. This is why it is the genius who is able to make original, fantastic breakthroughs.
These kinds of people are fundamental to the growth and survival of civilization, the authors maintain. They are behind all major innovations.
But, frighteningly, levels of genius have been in decline during the twentieth century. Measured from 1455 to 2004, macro-inventions — those that really changed the course of history — peaked in the nineteenth century and are now in on the slide. So, what has happened? Why is genius dying-out? …
Until the Industrial Revolution, we were subject to Natural Selection. This meant that every generation 50% of children did not reach adulthood. And there were two crucial points about the children who did. Firstly, they were more likely to be the children of the rich and educated. The wealthier 50% of 17th century testators in England, for example, had about 40% more surviving children than the poorer 50%. Secondly, they would be physically fit; they would have the lowest numbers of ‘mutant genes,’ which accrue each generation and are almost always damaging. In that social status is predicted by intelligence (which is 80% genetic) and intelligence is negatively correlated with genetic signs of high mutational load — such as an ‘asymmetrical’ (ugly) face — it seems that we would have been becoming cleverer and cleverer every generation and this is documented by proxies for intelligence such as literacy or numeracy
But we were also selecting for religiousness, which is around 40% genetic. In terms of individual selection, knowing God loves you and is watching you, you’ll be less stressed, more pro-social, and less likely to be ostracized. Dutton and Charlton use the example of a peacock. A peahen sexually selects a peacock with a big, bright tail because the tail displays his genetic quality. He must have good genes to be able to grow nice plumage and cope despite being weighed down by it. In much the same way, it has been shown that in humans both sexes sexually select for religiousness. Religiousness is a sign that you are cooperative, have self-control, can be trusted, have access to a useful network of people and are industrious enough that you survive despite making material and other sacrifices to the religious group.
And then there is group selection. All things being equal, the more religious group — convinced that a moral God is watching it, that non-believers are Satanic, and that the group, and life, has eternal significance –- will dominate the less religious one, the authors show. It will cooperate better, be more aggressive to outsiders, and be more likely to engage in extremes of self-sacrifice for the good of the group. In computer models of group selection, groups with these qualities always triumph.
The triumph of human ingenuity led to technology but also to the downfall of religion and the people who invent the technology:
So, this all meant that we achieved a cooperative, stable, wealthy society which could provide a space for geniuses to flourish. And that the genius minority themselves became cleverer and cleverer. Then a tipping was reached where their innovations were so brilliant –- in the form of the Industrial Revolution — that their impact on the standard of living was able to outpace the negative impact of population growth, leading to a soaring population with ever improving material standards. …
The Industrial Revolution heavily reduced environmental harshness — combating disease, injury, starvation and everything that removed mutant genes. So, where once only the physically fittest, with almost no mutant genes, survived to have children, now almost all of us do, meaning far more mutant genes interfering with brain functioning and thus intelligence. Being religious is predicted by genes and by stress. So, as our stressors were combated and Natural Selection stopped, the percentage of us who believed in God decreased.
This had a knock-on effect. It meant that we no longer had to have large families to guarantee the survival of some of our children. So, large families became associated with people who were impulsive (i.e those with low intelligence) and there is a negative relationship, in Western countries, between IQ and fertility.
It is fashionable to bash IQ tests, but scores correlate with objective measures, like reaction times (how quickly you respond to a stimulus). Large families are also associated with religious people — because they believe it is God’s will for them to multiply — but it seems that the stress-reduction of modernity has outpaced the fertility advantage of the religious. And the more intelligent are anyway more likely to not believe in God, reducing their fertility in comparison to the less intelligent.
The emancipation of women only worsened this fall in IQ … But with the fall of religiously-inspired conservatism, the more intelligent women dedicate their twenties to their careers. They have far fewer children than less intelligent women, who are more likely to become pregnant young and by accident.
All of this has come together to mean that IQ — the very engine behind the Industrial Revolution — is falling.
Based on representative samples, the authors show that reaction times are getting longer and have been getting longer since about 1900. Between 1900 and 2000, IQ — using this proxy — seems to have gone down by about 15 points. This means that the doctors of today are the high school science teachers of 1900. The result of this is that for purely genetic reasons there would be a far smaller percentage of [genius Alan] Turing-types today. …
Since the 1960s, the authors note, universities have become bureaucratic businesses. This reflects the anti-intellectual, anti-religious attitude that their purpose is to make money. Academics contribute to this by getting funding, publishing frequently, and attending conferences.
All of this is anathema to the genius, who wants to be left alone to solve his problem. He also won’t tick the bureaucratic boxes that get you an academic position — Francis Crick, discoverer of DNA, was rejected from Cambridge, failed to get a top mark in his bachelor’s degree, and dropped out of assorted PhDs.
As such, universities are less likely to appoint genius types. They will appoint what Dutton and Charlton call the ‘head girl’ (at UK schools) — quite intelligent, socially skilled, conscientious; absolutely not a genius. This person will be excellent at playing the academic game and will make a great colleague. But they won’t innovate; won’t rock the boat. Once upon a time, they note, a ‘country vicar’ had lots of free time to research, but with the shrinking of the Church, the days of the Victorian ‘scholar-rector,’ are long gone as well. The genius has no institution to nurture him and his potential will not be fulfilled.
Genius not needed any more?
And with the downfall of religion, life is no longer serious. In a world in which people have to struggle, the genius could be tolerated because of the benefits his innovations would bring to society. …
But we have reached a point where our lives are so secure, and where death is so remote, that we no longer believe that our lives, or our society, has eternal significance. Indeed, many believe quite the opposite: Western society is selfish; the human race is damaging the Earth.
In addition, our high level of comfort means that the problems with which a genius may now grapple are either too theoretical to care about or too long-term to think about now. He will cause offence and question the dogmas which give us the comfort of certainty all for the sake of a problem so distant that most of us can postpone thinking about it. In this context, of life not being serious, we would expect the genius to be pilloried. And geniuses are more sensitive than most.
So what happens then?
Accordingly, Dutton and Charlton’s book predicts that genius will continue to decline and civilization will collapse because it is ultimately underpinned by intelligence and genius. Technology will reach a peak, stagnate, and go backwards, as there are fewer and fewer people intelligent enough to maintain and eventually even use it. Life will become harsher and simpler and, eventually, more religious.
hat-tip Stephen Neil