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Genius
Posted: 23 July 2007 03:55 PM   [ Ignore ]
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We all have a fair idea what intelligence is.  We can all acknowledge that Einstein, Eliot, Ghandi, Curie, etc. were genii (although most people I speak to will acknowledge that Einstein was a genius, but when questioned further make it plain that they haven’t the foggiest idea about anything he did - most even think that he won the Nobel prize for one of his relativity theories).  However, what is genius?  What defines genius as opposed to very high and very specific intelligence.  My personal view on this (this may change as this thread progresses) is that genius is the ability to think creatively, laterally and very differently in order to expand the body of knowledge in ways that nobody else would have imagined within a subject.  This divides philosophers into two types.  One group simply ploughs away at line of thought or experimentation altering one condition at a time, observing the effects and then repeating the process ab initio until something works and does something new and then working out why this change caused that effect and writing that up as a theory.  The other group thinks around it: what if I plot all of these things against time instead and find the area under the curve, would that be equal to any defined physical quantity, or if I’m add a different catalyst, instead of adding a different one each time randomly until something works, is there a way of working out which one will and if there isn’t can I come up with one.  My idea of a genius is someone who thinks it through and doesn’t filter their ideas in order to get there quicker by finding creative solutions rather than someone who just plugs away at it and gets there in the end.

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Posted: 23 July 2007 05:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’m not entirely sure genius, as it is usually conceived or as you describe it, actually exists. I think there are different strategies of thought and experimentation that yield optimal results in different contexts. And I think that in addition to high intelligence (another concept I’m not sure is as clear as you suppose), people called geniuses usually have a somewhat obsessive nature, focusing on their work/art/whatever with an intensity that is unusal and that often precludes a more conventional social life. We must beware of confirmation bias here. Plenty of people think originally, even wildly outside the dominant paradigm and come up with crap. And, of course, how many potential geniuses never emerge due to circumstances? So is genius smarts, effort, creativity, luck, good marketing (on their own part or post hoc by others), something else? I’d say yes. I’m not sure we can really identify one attribute that separates people who contribute to science, art, history more than the great mass of us ever will. It probably requires a rare concatenation of many attributes and the luck of being in the right time and place for them to be effectively utilized.

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Posted: 23 July 2007 05:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’m not sure that there is any intrinsic difference in the mind or the way of thinking of a genius that makes him or her a genius (except perhaps in limited cases like mathematics) ... a lot of it is the obsessiveness that Brennen talks about. IIRC it was Thomas Edison who said that genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Often geniuses are otherwise unexceptional people with a particular unrelenting drive to do a certain thing, or solve a certain problem.

That said, I consider people ‘geniuses’ who can get me to see a mundane matter in a different light. Flash-in-the-pan geniuses can do this for awhile, but then the illusion fades. The real geniuses are those who get one to think about things in a way so fruitful that one never goes back.

One also shouldn’t forget that just because one is a genius at one thing (founding a science, creating a new technology, writing poems or operas) doesn’t mean anything whatever about one’s capabilities at confronting issues outside of the areas of one’s competence. Often in daily life (and newspaper columns!) it is assumed that the great master of X is just the right person to tell us about Y ... nothing of the sort follows. That’s to say, geniuses have their strengths. And if you don’t play to their strengths, a genius can be just as dumb as the rest of us in everything else.

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Posted: 23 July 2007 06:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Something Brennen said has tempered my idea of a definition of genius (not a genius but the quality of genius): the bit about thinking wildly outside the box and coming up with crap.  I’d have to narrow it down to thinking wildly outside the box but being savvy enough to determine it’s validity after the event and avoid putting it out there if it fails reasonable tests.  I thoroughly disagree with the 99% perspiration and have heard it said many times before.  Einstein, DesCartes and Feinman were certainly not what you would call dilligent and hard working.  Much of what they did appears (if you believe their stories) to have come about while the idea’s were gently ticking over in the background of their everyday lives.  And I would say they went for the shortest distance between premise and conclusion whereas I have known many professors who have spent their lives going at things in a much more plodding linear fashion - a million and one experiments with little prior thought as to were certain of them ever likely to succeed, more a whichever just happens to succeed approach.  I consider that to be 99% perspiration.  I totally agree with doug that geniuses don’t tend to have a great deal of polymathic ability, but very few people do.  this becomes much more acute when you meet (and worse - have to manage) anyone with a marketing degree.  You can think through the consequences of a business strategy and tell them exactly what is likely to happen and they will say that they have no idea until you’ve explained it fifteen different ways (all equally obvious and clear and amounting to exactly the same thing each time you explain it), whereupon they suddenly remember someone’s economic theory and tell you that you are right.  Not because you reasoned it logically (even though you did) but because suddenly it’s something that has a name attached to it that they learned on their degree course. These people are intelligent, but can’t generally reason these things themselves - if the same theory isn’t given the exact same label as it is named in a text book, it takes them ages to recognise it.  Douglas Adams really knew who he was talking about when he described the golgafrinchans.  The experience of having had to chair meetings with marketing people leads me to believe that groups of intelligent people’s minds do work differently and I still think that if we are going to call people genii we need to be able to define a quality known as genius.

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Posted: 23 July 2007 07:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Human behavior is just so complex, I don’t think we have enough grasp of it yet to clearly define words like “genius” and “intelligence.” I don’t want to dredge up the previous debates on intelligence/IQ Tests etc, but I see genius as similar in that you know what you mean when you say it, but when you try to reduce it to components you run into trouble—vague categories, lots of exceptions, and so on. Maybe we could work through some examples of “genius” archetypes and see if we can agree on common characteristics?
1. Absent-minded Professor-Einstein-a genius because he saw things in a new way and then was able to work out and demonstrate the implications of this vision. I’ve heard he was a very visual thinker, more than a great mathematician or experimenter, and that his successes came largely from a vision, in the literal and figurative sense. Also an example of DOug’s point that such folks may not be highly functioning in more pedestrian spheres.
2. Perspirer-Edison, Darwin: Create revolutionary technologies or methods both with new ideas, but even more with a systematic, dogged pursuit of these ideas and the work of others to their fulfillment.
3. Evil Genius-Hitler, Napolean, Stalin: Able to organize and motivate people to accomplish historic societal changes.
4. Sage-Ghandi, MLK, Jesus/Buddha etc (if they existed)-Good side of evil genius (same thing?) Also charismatic and able to motivate and organize people by rhetoric and personal example, but more likley to contribute to lasting paradigm shifts than evil counterparts.
5. others?

[ Edited: 23 July 2007 08:30 PM by mckenzievmd ]
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Posted: 23 July 2007 09:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I don’t see much of a mystery here. There is an imbecile and an idiot on one side and a very intelligent individual or a genius on the other. An imbecile won’t know how to read or write and a genius (Chaplin, for example) can create a beautiful film or compose music.

What is complex (or different) here is the “wiring” of the brain.

[ Edited: 23 July 2007 09:05 PM by George ]
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Posted: 23 July 2007 09:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Hmmm ... well, George, I’ll take the bait. There may be examples like those you mention—where you’re comparing a person who is intelligent across-the-board against someone who is of very limited mental capacities. There may well be something genetic that tells the difference in that case.

But really we’re not talking about those cases here, at least not necessarily. When you compare a smart person (doctor, lawyer, professor, etc.) against a “genius” like Edison or Darwin, what precisely is the difference? I doubt it has anything (or at least anything obvious) to do with genetics. They would all be able to read the same poetry, review the same films, solve the same equations, maybe even write the same music. Indeed, Edison and Darwin might not even do as well!

And yet in many important ways Edison and Darwin were “geniuses” in ways that our smart doctors, lawyers, professors, aren’t. That, at least to me, is the more interesting and more usual case.

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Posted: 23 July 2007 10:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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dougsmith - 23 July 2007 09:24 PM

When you compare a smart person (doctor, lawyer, professor, etc.) against a “genius” like Edison or Darwin, what precisely is the difference?

Maybe Edison and Darwin were just lucky. Maybe that’s what makes you a genius: being a smart person at the right time and at the right place.

And yes, the genetics is troubling. Besides the Bach family I don’t know of any genius having a genius child. Maybe both parents need to carry the genius gene – just like the blue eyes gene. But that’s enough “maybes” for now…

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Posted: 24 July 2007 09:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Well, Doug, I’d say the diferente its that Darwin (don’t know about Edison work) could see something so beatiful, clear and simple that sometimes it appears as an obvious idea (ok, not for everyone). Darwin saw something where the rest saw nothing.

I tend to think that a genious is someone who could see something based on some clues which are meaningless to the rest of us. I think a genious is someone who could see the evolution looking at some fosile and living things, or someone who could tell about the electrodynamics of moving bodies just thinking in the michelson-morley experiment. I speculate that this discoverers or developments requires hard work even to genius, but what was the diference between Einsten and the rest of physician who thinked in MM results?. Poincaré and Lorentz were close, but ... what happended? they didn’t dare?. 

I have to admit that I’m not sure about that. I don’t have a good definition to intelligence too (I tend to think that IQ test just measures the ability to solve this types of logical games. I speculate this based on a personal history: I meassured just average until my twenties, but after that my ‘IQ’ as meassured by this test rose notabily. The theory I had become more inteligent has no grounds on other facs, so I speculate it was because the mathematical subjects in the university).

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Posted: 24 July 2007 09:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Barto, absolutely. But a lot of what Darwin and Edison did was simply focus on a single problem for a long time, and spend a lot of time data-gathering. Darwin spent years on the Beagle, Edison in his NJ laboratory trying out different materials as filaments for the light bulb (to take one example). Their genius was of the “99% perspiration” variety. It had little to do with innate intelligence, or at least less than might be supposed.

And of course Darwin wasn’t the only person to see the clues. After all, he only published his work on evolution when it became clear that Alfred Russel Wallace might do the same ...

A lot of this certainly does have to do with luck and being the “right person at the right time”, as George notes. There is another old saw, however, which is that good luck is mostly preparation. That is, the better prepared people are more likely to be able to take advantage of luck when it comes.

Separate question is whether there is some genetic heritability to the ability to focus; this might be related to obsessive/compulsive disorder, just a weaker form of it. Many geniuses of both artistic and scientific sorts do come across as basically obsessives of one sort or another. Their obsession is what made them geniuses in their fields, but it also tends to make them extremely difficult people and bad family members. (They just don’t have time or temperament for family. Here in particular we can think of Edison, Newton and Einstein; less of course for Darwin, but there are always exceptions).

With people like Einstein, and particularly Newton, the temptation to claim some sort of odd genetic inheritance is even stronger. But that is because much of their genius was in the mathematics, and it does seem to me that extraordinary mathematical ability is generally inborn rather than learned.

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Posted: 24 July 2007 09:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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dougsmith - 24 July 2007 09:32 AM

Their obsession is what made them geniuses in their fields, but it also tends to make them extremely difficult people and bad family members.

It is also interesting that most of them were womanizers.

[ Edited: 24 July 2007 09:55 AM by George ]
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Posted: 24 July 2007 12:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I don’t know about Edison, but the stories I know (one of them, the light bulb test) dont make me thing in a ‘genius’. As far as I know, it’s something more similar to hard work and commercial vision.

I tend to think that, while formation and opportunity is important (clearly the latter is prone to present itself to the educated men), and without hard work usually is impossible to achieve any important goal,  there is something about their brain wire (Einsten, Darwin, Wallace, Newton). Of course, we could have missed genious because of lack of oportunity or education.

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George, sorry, what ‘womanizers’ means?

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Posted: 24 July 2007 12:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Barto - 24 July 2007 12:14 PM

George, sorry, what ‘womanizers’ means?

Mujeriegos.

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Posted: 24 July 2007 12:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Well, Barto, Edison did far more than simply invent the lightbulb. For a short synopsis of his history, see HERE. He had a huge number of inventions to his name, founded perhaps the first (or one of the first) research labs, invented the phonograph, the motion picture camera, was the first instigator for distributed electric power (used for the lightbulbs), and so on. His company is basically the founding of the contemporary General Electric company.

His work, particularly in distributed electric power and lighting, changed the world through a kind of genius of foresight—he not only did the invention, but understood how it was likely to develop. Yes, this did involve some business ability, however he was no genius at business.

A similar sort of technological genius today would be Steve Jobs at Apple, although Jobs is more a genius at industrial design and marketing.

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Posted: 24 July 2007 01:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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dougsmith - 24 July 2007 12:45 PM

A similar sort of technological genius today would be Steve Jobs at Apple, although Jobs is more a genius at industrial design and marketing.

Yes, I think they are comparable. Maybe my lack of enthusiams on Edisons work has the same ground that the lack of enthusiam I have on apple products: I never understood why we need something beyond unix (I mean unix with command line prompt, X and graphical desktops are bitter betrayals grin )

Seriously, I didn’t know about the Edison work.

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Posted: 24 July 2007 01:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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George - 24 July 2007 09:53 AM
dougsmith - 24 July 2007 09:32 AM

Their obsession is what made them geniuses in their fields, but it also tends to make them extremely difficult people and bad family members.

It is also interesting that most of them were womanizers.

Now I know the meaning of the word (thank you), I’d say it could due to confirmation bias, but I think the same. I remember I had the same thought

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(Edited to add the final ‘t’ on thought, which I use to forget).

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