Is there any such thing as a genius?

The more I read about the history of science, the more convinced that I am that there is really no such thing as a true genius. For every Einstein, there were hundreds and thousands of other scientists, mostly uncredited, who did vital work in order to allow that one person to bask in glory. The concept of genius seems to paint scientific discovery as a disjoint affair, with scientific discovery temporarily halting in between geniuses, when in fact, it is nothing of the sort.

Is singling a scientist out for genius status not analogous to awarding the runner who crosses the finishing line in a relay race with a medal whilst ignoring the rest of his team?

To those who say that there is such thing as a genius, then how do you define genius?

I define it as “me”, but when I start getting too big-headed I remember Newton’s use of the phrase “on the shoulders of giants” and that yanks me back to reality.

A crude way to think is that intelligence manifests itself like a wave. There are crests and troughs. The mean position across people is also not the same. An average person may exhibit ‘spikes’ occasionally. The ‘genius’ is more likely to attain those heights, but not necessarily. The genius might also have deep troughs where he/she gets beaten by an average person. And yet, you may define a vague mean position. And define a genius as one who has a substantially higher than average probability to attain the heights that can only be attained by the average via a good spike.

I’d say the definition of a genius is not so much a towering intellect but one who sees a particular thing much more clearly than the average. They see some detail or intricacy in their subject matter that many have missed, or else they see how that subtle detail is connected to the larger picture. I don’t know that Einstein was necessarily smarter than his contemporaries, merely that his viewpoint on the subject allowed him to understand it in such a way as to advance the field by leaps and bounds due to his study. As Newton said, perhaps they were just the people positioned in the right time to climb onto the shoulders of the giant with the best view of the subject at hand.

Throughout my life I have been both blessed and plagued with seeing things quite differently from other people. It serves me well for the most part, but also makes me feel alienated from people a lot of the time, as it is hard to explain what it is I see to most people. However, I look around at many of my friends who seem brilliant in their particular skillset and I feel inadequate because I don’t have any particular practical skill that that sets me apart, and sometimes my ability to communicate my ideas is so inadequate that I make a complete ass of myself. I grew up intimidating adults and not understanding why until much later when my Father told me that they couldn’t handle me as a kid because I was “Too bright for them”.

In business I can oftentimes see ways to put other people’s work together to make something larger than the sum of it’s parts, and other times I figure out ways to tweak things to get more from them. However, I don’t understand the legalistic details of making a business viable as well as my partner, I am nowhere near the technical genius that our systems administrator is, nor could I get anywhere in Lightwave at all, let alone perform the magic that our 3D modeler does. I don’t think I am smarter than the people that I work with, and each person I work with is exceedingly brilliant in their own way and without them I’d probably be scraping by to earn a living. I even oftentimes wonder what my place in the whole thing is, and why I even deserve a piece of what we’re getting into, but invariably I find myself adjusting some little thing, or introducing the right people to one another in a way that maximizes our ability to achieve our goals.

I can’t say whether or not everyone is a genius in one way or another, because I’ve met some people that I’d be hard pressed to see genius locked away inside somewhere, but I certainly have met my fair share of geniuses in my life, and I think what makes them a genius is their ability to understand a wide variety of issues relating to their field to an adequate degree while excelling at one thing in particular. It doesn’t necessarily diminish what others have contributed to the field in any practical sense, but it makes them much more visible in the eyes of those that want to give them notoriety for what they do.

Also, I think that we as a species like to categorize a gestalt with an anthropomorphic figurehead, and that is probably why we single out one particular luminary who will then remind us of that particular time of advancement in history.


I don’t really think there is any such thing as genius. The concept is so nebulous that you’d really have to define it in more detail, and as soon as you do, you effectively establish a skill set - which by it’s very nature begins to diminish the concept.

Suppose you say that genius is the ability to solve problems. Okay. Which problems? Linguistic? Mathematical? Visual-spatial? Pattern-matching?

If you can determine it as one of the above, in the end it’s pretty likely you could train the vast majority of people to substantially improve one or more of these skills.

Yes I agree that some people appear to be more adept at picking up certain material than others. But is there an element of chance, human interpretation or fallibility in these findings? You’d have to establish a keen link between brain structure and function (and use the results to somehow establish how this translates into “brilliance” in some individuals), and none of the studies I’ve seen so far (including those involving g) really show some people to be “superhumanly” gifted with universal “intelligence” (or something of the like).

I read an article in Scientific American a few years ago that described development in certain parts of the brain in some individuals resulting in “exaggerated effects” with respect to certain skills (i.e. right-hemisphere “visual spatial brilliance”), but you can hardly call it “genius”.

After all, with a certain amount of prolonged training, neurones in the brain respond to these specific skill sets. Think of these London Cab drivers. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t call them “genius”.

But a ha! You say, those guys had to learn this trait. It didn’t come naturally. Fine. But just remember, we have no way of knowing exactly what sensory experiences have shaped thier (re: Geniuses) brains. They may have unwittingly been exposed to certain stimuli that we just don’t know about (e.g. excessive TV accounting for high Vis-Spa skills).

On the other hand, I do think there may be something about genius in the personality. Maybe it’s something a little metaphysical, like whoever performed the first slam dunk. It just has that human aesthetic appeal about it that really isn’t defined by numbers or performance. It’s just a quality we humans have learned to appreciate, like Nikki Cox’s pert yet supple ass cheeks.

But there’s a huge difference between the incremental advances made by the typical scientist, and the revolutionary advances made by the likes of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. They thought about things in entirely new ways. It’s hard for us to understand how they reached their breakthroughs, especially the first two. We learn about the universal law of gravitation in elementary school, so it seems “obvious” to us.

Genius, of course, is a subjective categorization, but it’s hard to imagine that the three guys I mentioned were just engaged in evolutionary rather than revolutionary science (Newton’s famouse quote not withstanding).

Kind of like the guy who first opened the door. Certainly we all can now walk through the door that they opened, but none of us opened it ourselves.

Of course their are geniuses, individuals who possess an extraordinary talent. Yes, to some degree, we all owe credit for our accomplishments to those who have preceded us. But there have been individuals who have taken huge leaps. I think it would be difficult to claim that Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Pascal, Mozart, DaVinci, and others did not have abilities that went beyond mere brilliance. In a way they, I think they are “freaks” of nature, that which comes along once in every ??? births.

I disagree. It seems every time I’ve heard someone more knowledgeable than I discuss the advancements made by a particular scientist, they confirm my hypothesis that such discoveries would have been made anyway (usually within a short amount of time). I don’t think Einstein was a far better thinker than many of his peers, it’s just that he was there at the right time and place, privy to the right inspirations, and dedicated to his study. It’s a confluence of things that had very little to do with Einstein (or any other person’s) innate skill and talent. If Einstein was born in a third world country, we would have never heard of him. He’s only considered to be one of our great geniuses because of the time he lived, society valuing his accomplishments, and media exultation.

One of the great examples I can think of is Norman Borlaug. He is a humanitarian and noble peace prize winner who has, according to many, saved over one billion lives. Yes, over a billion lives. Yet, very few people know who he is because he chose to direct his talents to agriculture instead of physics. History is full of Norman Borlaugs, and other who don’t get the credit they deserve for making great accomplishemnts.

I’m not saying everyone is blessed with the same talents and attributes, just that these people we deem geniuses are usually not much more talented than many among us. Especially, when you consider that many of those “geniuses” were socially inept and had many character defects.

I can appreciate the fact that some people have extraordinary talent in some areas, but I don’t think that such things are that uncommon. I’m sure there were people in Newton’s time who were just as talented, but decided to pursue other interests. Maybe they decided that picking up women, and drinking were more fun than thinking up formulas. Some probably had abusive husbands, or drunken parents that consumed much of their time and energy. Others died of a disease before their productive years. It’s not the talent these “geniuses” have that’s uncommon, it’s the drive, work ethic, and perfect storm of circumstances that have to occur for them to achieve the things they have.

Good quote. But don’t forget Murray Gell-Mann, who upon winning the Nobel Prize summed up his success a little less delicately: “If I have seen farther than others,” he said, “it is because I have been surrounded by midgets.”

A competent person can get mistaken for a genius. Especially if working for the government or some of our notable corporations.

Mr. Bourlag may have indeed been exceptional. And just considering the laws of probability, would guess that there have been brilliant minds–perhaps even the most brilliant–born into situations that they were unable to direct their talents and make their marks. But that does not negate the idea of genius, only that some of them may go unfulfilled or unnoticed.

Well, okay. But we’re talking about geniuses, not perfect beings.

This seems to be a contradiction. If something is extraordinary it is, by definition, uncommon.

I think I agree with your larger point, that the “geniuses” we are aware of had the benefit of certain conditions. Michael Jordan may be the greatest basketball player of all time because he had the right body, the right work ethic, the right encouragement, the right coachiing, etc. But my guess is that if you took every person ever born and gave them the same “benefits”, you could find a better player. May 100 better players. Similarly, the best mind for physics may be living an prehistoric existence in some Amazon jungle just waiting to be introduced to Plank’s Constant and the Higgs Field. But what is the point of such a mental exercise?

I believe that just as we are all born with different degrees of strength or height or quickness, we are born with carying degrees of talent in all its different flavors. There will always be those on the outer reaches of some Bell Curve. Of those, conditions will be right for some and we will then refer to them as geniuses.

Shakespeare, Goethe, Bach, Mozart, Rembrandt, etc.

On whose shoulders did they stand on?

Mozart really didn’t invent anything new; just made a lot of it really well. So I’d say he stood on the giants who invented the Classical Music Era, 12-tet, and the piano. I think I’d give Bach as a genius and pioneer, though; practically was the Baroque period, yet he’d still have relied on the invention of 12-tet. But again, most artists had to draw from the examples from previous times as some sort of guidance.

I’d personally say Socrates. Archimedes. Oh, of course, Turing. :wink:

Bach, absolutely. How about Pythogoras, Descartes, Mill, Tesla, and Frank LLoyd Wright?

Well, “privy to the right inspiration” is what genius is, although “privy to” makes it sound like luck, which it isn’t. And it doesn’t matter if a genius is never exulted-- I’m sure there have been many in 3rd world countries who simply applied their genius to other problems.

And just because great scientific achievements would have been made by someone else, doesn’t make that someone else any less a genius. You seem to be placing an ridiculously high bar for genius-- that a person figure everything out from scratch by himself. To say that Relativity had “very little to do with Einstein” makes me think that, frankly, you know very little about Relativity. That statement is simply incorrect.

I don’t think most people traditionally consider genius to be consequence of being in the right place and time. Plus, if you add all the geniuses we acknowledge with those that have been given short shrift, you have a huge group of people. At that point, their talent doesn’t seem all that special.

It should be a high bar because a low standard would render the word meaningless. If great discoveries would have been made anyway (which is debatable), then the argument that the people who did discover these things were geniuses is weaker.

Get off your high horse buddy, I didn’t say that. Please point out where I said that.

right here (it was in the original quote):

That simply contradictory. All of his “peers” were in the same place at the same time, and yet they didn’t develop a Theory of Relativity. There’s no evidence that Einstein was any more “didcated to his study” than plenty of other scientists of his time, or our time for that matter.

The debate has taken on an odd term.

It now seems to be centered on, whether a genius is someone unique. Not really, just rare. brickbacon’s argument is that the geniuses that we revere, are known to us because of fortuitous circumstances in their life. Of course. That doesn’t mean they were just lucky. The point being that if you were to substitute everyone in those circumstances, only very few, among the whole population, would realize something extraordinary. They are the geniuses. Doesn’t matter if not every genius is fortunate enough to be in such circumstances.

I think the other difficulty is deciding on the cut-off point. Suppose for a minute that intelligence were measureable as a single quantity, and that genius is a matter of intelligence. If we were to plot the distribution, would we get a true Gaussian distribution, or would it possibly have some secondary peak, however small, in the higher range? If it just tailed off smoothly, any genius cut-off point would be arbitrary.

That’s a gross oversimplification to be sure, but it does seem like we have more than a simple Gaussian distribution going on here-- that the few geniuses we do recognize were more than just a tiny bit smarter than their peers. They seem to be in a different league altogether. Impossible to prove, of course, but it sure seems that way to me.

No, it was not. You said the following:

I never mentioned relativity, yet you seem to feel it’s logical to take something I didn’t say and then insult my intelligence for it. Not to mention the full sentence I believe you were referring to was as follows:

Did you miss that part? There is a big difference between what I said what and what you claim I said.

You need to work on your reading comprehension. Not all of his peers alive then were in the same place as Einstein. I would bet plenty of people had the intellectual gifts to do the things that Einstein did, but they didn’t because of outside influences and circumstances. They also weren’t privy to the same inspirations and information he was. There is no contradiction.

You also somehow missed the fact that I said “his” study. Not every scientist was working on the same things he was. Please read more carefully.

I also think these quotes by Einstein are relevant:

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious”


“There’s a Genius in all of us.”

Of course you could claim this is an example of his modesty, but I think he’s being honest.