Concerto for Intelligence Book Cover


There is a widespread misconception, common among laypeople and many academicians too, that genius is the equivalent of greater intelligence. This can be seen for instance in the tendency to categorize high IQ scores, such as those above 150, as falling within a genius range, and reciprocally it can be seen in the anachronistic practice of doling out impressive IQ scores—usually in the neighborhood of 200 or so—to well-established geniuses such as Mozart and Newton. To be fair, many researchers do recognize that the possession of a high IQ is not sufficient to establish genius, that other factors must also be brought to bear. For instance creativity frequently gets mentioned as a necessary concomitant to genius, and others have noted the tendency towards aloofness and oddity that many geniuses seem to exude. Still for most people, it is hard not to conceive of a direct relationship between genius and greater intelligence, in many respects the relationship seems so blatantly obvious. And this remains so even though such a relationship would these days give rise to a troubling conundrum: in this era of the Flynn effect, when intelligence is everywhere measurably on the rise, it has to be downright puzzling as to why genius is not blossoming around every corner, indeed why it seems to have almost entirely disappeared.

The irony here is that there is a direct relationship between genius and greater intelligence—the blatantly obvious turns out in this case to be actually true—and yet this direct relationship remains entirely misapprehended. The trouble lies perhaps not so much with the concept of genius itself, a concept that remains fluid enough to still be amended. The trouble lies more fundamentally with the concept of intelligence, a concept that has now hardened into intransigent dogma. Humanity thoroughly misunderstands what intelligence is, and thus in turn, it thoroughly misunderstands what genius is.

Perhaps no statement is in less dispute than the following: intelligence is a neural activity, it is what humans produce inside their evolutionarily superior brain. Indeed when humans applaud a high IQ score (and in the same breath applaud genius), what they believe they are paying homage to is the activities of someone’s brain, they are giving their due to a presumed instance of neural excellence. People’s brains are wired to be smart, it seems that everyone knows that by now, and if a person has managed to improve his intelligence through education or some other means, it is because he has managed to rearrange the intricate workings inside his skull, he has had recourse to that marvelous (and practically miraculous) concept known as neural plasticity. As a weightlifter can harvest the strength of his over-sized muscles, an ingenious thinker can brandish the power of his super-connected neurons: such notions have become the unquestioned dogma of the land.

As with many other well-entrenched dogmatic mistakes, this one began honestly enough with a grain of truth. That there are natural intelligence differences from person to person would have been apparent even before the dawn of civilization, and now with the advent of intelligence exams and psychometric analysis, these distinctions have not only been experimentally confirmed, they have been broadly linked to genetic and neurological foundations. So the brain certainly does play an important role in human intelligence, of that there can be no doubt. But that the brain plays the entire role in human intelligence, or even the most significant role, that is something that might have been doubted from the very beginning.

The primary indicator that intelligence cannot be explained by human neurology alone is the Flynn effect, the observation that intelligence scores have been increasing population wide since first being measured. If intelligence is indeed exclusively a brain-based activity, then the Flynn effect implies that human neurology must be rapidly and tangibly changing, becoming substantively more effective with each generation. Scientists hesitate before such a notion, because it defies every known characteristic of physiology, genetics and evolution—populations do not change that dramatically from generation to generation, such an occurrence would be biologically unprecedented. Therefore scientists look to alternative explanations to justify the Flynn effect, a grand plethora of alternative explanations—heterosis, better nutrition, social multipliers, video games, increased schooling, test familiarity, fast and slow life. But despite these many suggestions, the Flynn effect remains essentially unexplained, and the unavoidable consequence seems to be this: the Flynn effect is incompatible with an entirely neurological human intelligence, meaning that ultimately one of those two concepts must go. And the Flynn effect is an observation, while an entirely neurological human intelligence is merely an assumption.

Plus it is more than just the Flynn effect that speaks against this notion of a brain-based intelligence. Genius too seems to be utterly incompatible with the concept. Because if intelligence really were exclusively a brain-produced activity, then the common wisdom regarding genius would precisely thereby become true. Genius would be the product of the more effective neural structures, and in this era of an ever-increasing intelligence, genius will have become as plentiful as springtime rain. But genius is not more common in the modern era, it remains as rare today as it ever was, the population’s greater intelligence notwithstanding. Thus the unavoidable consequence seems to be this: the characteristics of genius simply do not fit to the characteristics of an entirely neurological human intelligence, meaning that ultimately one of those two concepts must go. And the characteristics of genius are derived from observation, while an entirely neurological human intelligence is merely an assumption.

In the essay The Flynn Effect’s Unseen Hand a description of intelligence is detailed that rejects primary reliance upon an exclusively neurological foundation. In this new description, intelligence is defined more directly as being the amount of pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment. The network of highways, the symmetry of buildings, the repetition of clocks, the arrangement of letters upon a page, these many artificial environmental features constitute the material substance of intelligence itself—directly observable, directly measurable, directly defined. Intelligence palpably exists around a human, it does not exist primarily inside his head. And although humans differ in their ability to absorb and respond to this surrounding intelligence, a difference with genetic and neural basis, the overall level of human intelligence is not determined by the sum of individual neural abilities, the overall level of human intelligence is not the combined product of many human brains. Instead intelligence grows via the concrete addition of pattern, structure and form into the human environment, and it is this physical accretion of environmental intelligence that constitutes the direct source, the direct driver and the direct cause of the Flynn effect.

Plus this new description of intelligence does more than provide an accounting of the Flynn effect, it also leads to a straightforward and observable definition of genius. Accumulation of intelligence into the human environment does not happen by way of magic; in order for new intelligence to accrue within the human surroundings something must put it there. A large portion of this accumulation can be accomplished via replication, by copying the already existent pattern, structure and form from one context into another. Blueprints, books, education, communication, plus a myriad of other means—all these devices serve to take the intelligence already embodied within the human environment and then spread it further around. But replication can only go so far. If intelligence is to continue to grow, then novel pattern, structure and form must eventually be introduced. And while replication can be achieved by almost anyone (it is humanity’s greatest shared activity), the introduction of novel intelligence is an activity reserved for the very few. What is needed for this unusual feat is an individual with an exceptionally unusual eye, an individual with both the ability and inclination to perceive the world not as it already is and not as others already perceive it, but to perceive the world quite differently from everyone else, to cast the world into a whole new paradigm. And only after these anomalous perceptions have been promulgated far enough, only after they have been copied a sufficient enough times, only after they have significantly increased the overall amount of pattern, structure and form contained within the human environment, only then can the source of these catalyzing perceptions be finally recognized, often very much in retrospect, and the originating individual can be given the name he or she most accurately deserves, can be given the name of genius.

Genius is the fountainhead of increasing intelligence within the human environment, it is not the result of greater intelligence inside the human head. In short, genius is the spark that fires the Flynn effect.

The telltale characteristic of genius is its deep fascination with non-biological pattern, structure and form, the material substance of intelligence itself. It is a fascination that can often border on the aberrant. This characteristic already establishes the rarity of genius, because for most humans their primary focus is not on non-biological pattern, structure and form, for most humans their primary focus is on other people. This is in keeping with the powerful hold that biological perception and conspecific awareness have upon nearly every animal organism, a hold essential to survival and procreation but a hold effectively blinding to the possibilities of new intelligence. The individual genius is one who has been mostly loosened from this conspecific grip and who in compensation has turned hungrily towards the structural details of the surrounding world. This perceptual mismatch between the individual genius and the remainder of humanity explains in large measure the oft-mentioned secondary traits of genius: iconoclastic, abrasive, aloof, strange. The individual genius simply does not perceive the world as does everyone else—genius and humanity are fundamentally at odds.

The characteristics of genius align closely to the characteristics of the condition known as autism. In each case, these are individuals conspecifically distanced from the remainder of the population. In each case, these are individuals focused primarily on non-biological pattern, structure and form (and not focused primarily on other people). In each case, these are individuals misunderstood and frequently disdained by conventional wisdom. To those who have callously written off the autistic population, including nearly the entire scientific community, this alignment of genius and autism will seem nothing short of outrageous. But the observable characteristics of genius and autism speak eloquently for themselves, characteristics that align with typicality hardly at all.

The acclaim that typically attaches to genius is perhaps its most ironic feature, in part because each occasion of genius is celebrated as though it could not have been otherwise, as though its originator were neurally predestined for the momentous task. But in fact, in a context of accruing intelligence, nearly every instance of genius involves a discovery that was destined to be made sooner or later anyway. Take Newton for instance: if Newton had not returned home in his twenty-third year but instead had traveled to London and therein succumbed to the Great Plague, it does not mean that the differential calculus, the laws of motion and the theory of gravitation would have never seen the light of day. Other individuals of eccentric perception would have eventually discovered and promoted these notions, and today those individuals would be heralded as genius. As far as is known, there may have been several predecessors to Newton all capable of his exact same feats, but who through unfortunate circumstance never gained the opportunity.

The more authentic reason to celebrate genius is that it is an act of individual defiance and individual courage. The approbation often showered upon genius is always done so from the safety of retrospective time, after the favorable consequences of the ingenious act have had adequate years to become well established. But at the moment of its birth, novel intelligence will always cut against the common grain and thus will gather no immediate stamp of approval. Instead, what novel intelligence usually gathers is neglect, scorn and derision. Humanity is content with what it already knows, it feels the bravest with what it can perceive in unison—and thus each revision is greeted as a hostile intruder. To bring pristine pattern, structure and form into the human environment, the individual genius will discover he must weather a storm of rebukes from without and a flood of doubts from within—the introduction of new intelligence is one of the loneliest acts imaginable.

This past century has seen a grand-scale movement to accommodate genius to a broader population. Perhaps motivated by genius’s retrospective acclaim, and likely unaware of the requisite isolation, humanity has been pooling its efforts in an attempt to distill genius’s indispensable merits into dispensable recipe. Scientific method and artistic technique have emerged as the templates of choice, and the academic institutions, once home to the most bizarre and misanthropic of creatures, today attract gregarious millions, each eager to play a role in the next great discovery. Optimism is announced daily by press release, pending results form the backbone of nearly every grant proposal, but there is an awkward silence now surrounding the din of these swelling universities. It is the silence of genius having walked away from these overcrowded academic halls.

The ever-more tightly prescribed requirements of scientific method have been leading to an all-too-predictable result, a tidal-wave of bland minutiae, more monotonous and more dogmatic with each publication. The increasingly rote specifications of artistic technique have been leading to a similarly predictable result, an avalanche of trivial art for trivial art’s sake, more self-conscious and more self-congratulatory with each debut. Having pooled their efforts in the hopes of being part of something cognitively grand, today’s university denizens find themselves herded along in an increasingly frantic race for more: more requirements, more specifications, more standards, more ethics, more committees, more peers, more reviews, more co-authors, more citations, more statistics, more funding. The promise seems to be that if everyone would just stick together, if everyone would just follow the routine, then the fruits of genius could flow forth like manna and honey, could flow forth as the combined product of everyone’s evolutionarily superior brain. And thus the grand-scale movement has morphed into a music-hall comedy, full of bathos and farce.

Genius does not work this way. Genius attaches to individuals, it does not arise from groups. Indeed genius appears only in those who have mastered that rarest characteristic of all—the willingness to dare to go it alone. Although scientific method and artistic technique will always have their place, as tools in the massive replication of intelligence, still the honorable work of all mankind, nonetheless, scientific method and artistic technique have no power to inspire genius. And as the academic institutions become increasingly shoulder to shoulder, as they sink further into a slavedom of prescribed routine, it can be expected that the individual genius will continue to hasten away. It can be expected that the next great discovery will come from someplace unexpected.

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Copyright © 2017 by Alan Griswold
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