What is a genius?

‘What exactly is a genius’ is a very hard question to answer. Hard still is answering ‘who is perceived to be a genius’.[[ To do : The idea of natural inequality ]]

We often see a ‘genius’ as a gifted person, endowed by nature her supreme gift – intelligence. Many, however, believe that ‘practise makes a man perfect’. They argue that a person can be made ‘genius’ by giving him enough time to grow with a suitable training and education. Confucius said once, ‘A donkey goes on travelling, it does not come back as horse.’ implying that it is not neccessay that a man can be changed much simply because his later education or training has been improved. It is very hard to change ‘pattern of minds’ of individuals. Different patterns of mind are cultivated in different environment one grows in and are strengthened or weakened by the company one keeps. But the question is, is it true that nature sometimes really gift people at birth which can not be developed in one’s lifetime by training?

It is worthy to note that what Adam Smith said in his book, “.. the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porters, for example, seems to arise not so much of nature, as from habit, custom, and education’. – The wealth of nations, Chicago Univ press, 1967, p19.

There have been many stimulating discussions on ‘what makes a genius’ in last century mostly by biologists, economist and anthropologists. Biology has  contributed immensely to the folk belief about natural inequality. What is  interesting about this biology is the extent to which, in dealing with the question of human nature, it took for granted the categories of the society of which it was a product (See, M. Sahlins, The use and abuse of Biology, 1977). Among others  who supported these ideas was T. H. Huxley who carried his weight of  reputation as one of the Britain’s leading scientists. He attacked Rosseau for  being both inconsistent and disingenuous. He was not at all warm to the idea of  equality. “Equality was sanctioned neither by science not by philosophy; even the equality sanctioned by great religions, Judaism and  Christianity, was a residual kind, ‘an equality either of insignificance or of imperfection.’ (On the natural inequality of men, Jan 1890,)Echoes of his words can be found in many contemporary writers.

Sir Francis Galton who in 19th century ‘laid the groundwork for studies which examines the relationship between biological hereditary and social achievement was greatly struck by the unequal achievements of the individuals in various walks of life, and sought to prove that much of this was due to hereditary‘. Galton was successful because he did not even try to overcome the presupposition in his framework of analysis. (See, hereditary genius) “There can hardly be a surer evidence of the enormous differences between the intellectual capacity of men, than the prodigous difference between in the number of marks obtained by those who gain mathematical honours in Cambridge.”For technical reason, later, he accepted the success in mathematical tripos as evidence of superior natural abilities. He, however, did not pause to consider that men and women have to be certified as naturally unequal because examination system guarantees their unequal success, and examination system is what it is because a larger society requires it to be so. On this point, Prof. E. Leach suggested,

If society insists that individual be segregated out into categories – first class, second class, third class, uper, middle, lower – the system will always have to waste an enormous amount of time and energy allocating individuals to the right slots and marking them with up proper labels.

Though one sympathise with Prof Leach, its hard to see how a modern institute can work with doing away such a labelling. However, in his perspective, it stands out that inequality are an artefact of social inequality.

Its only in the 20th century when these ideas of natural inequality, merit, talent or abilty were chased with a seriousness it deserves.

It is difficult not to be impressed by the inputs that have gone into measuring intelligence in this century with US leading the way. It is doubtful that any other human quality has been measured so extensively and implicit in much of such labour is the belief that intelligence is a gift of nature, perhaps her most supreme gifts.

Still, it is true that measured intelligence today is of higher significance than ever before …. In our society there is an increasing values placed on measured intelligence as the basis on which rewards will be allocated, in preference to other characteristics such as honesty, creativity, altruism, leadership, and dramatic, painting, dancing or gradening skills. (O.G. Brim Jr. Glass, Neulinger etc al, American Beliefs and Attitides about intelligence, Russel Sage Foundation, 1969, p3)

Some have argued that anything valuable in this world is hardly measurable. What makes intelligence particularity appropriate as a quality by which individuals can be ranked? How one justify the belief that intelligence as a whole can be measured? Now we have come to a point where experts know more about measuring intelligence than about what intelligence is? To put it in the words of Arthur Jenson ‘Intelligence, like electricity, is easier to measure than to define.” (How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?, A R Jenson, p5)

In our time, abilities and achievements are closely linked together. And the ability is reckoned not in the abstract, but in some standard of achievement. These standards have their locus-path in various institutes through which a individual collects certificates for one’s ability. Its hard these days that someone which superior abilities will go unnoticed. The fact that there are so little super-genius these days is due to the fact that we are producing too many of them. Although people say these days no new basic contribution is being made. It could be due to the fact that most of the subjects have matured and one has to spend much more time getting accustomed to one’s chosen field. At best, contribution can only be incremental, even if substantial. There are may who has not contributed anything very fundamental like of Newton, Guass etc to their chosen subject but they are genius nonetheless, Terence Tao, Donald E Knuth, N. Karmarkar etc are some good example.



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

2 thoughts on “What is a genius?”

  1. is this a reply to infosys narayanmurthy statement on iit's.its not just iit's,MIT AND HARVARD too lost its standards cuz people should be genius by instinct and not by training how to be or get genius.according to law of nature,anyone who can identify his instinctive capability and pursues that field can become genius.but word GENIUS is glorified according to field that dominates survival of fittest world.hmmm does anyone speaks much about cricketing genius or chess genius.

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