20 August 2009

No such thing as genius

The commonsense view of invention ... overstates the importance of rare geniuses ... the question for our purposes is whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius inventor had not been born at a particular place and time. The answer is clear: there has never been any such person. (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jonathan Cape 1997, pp. 244-245.)

I think that the wish to establish that there is no such thing as genius, in the sense of ability to do things in a way that is qualitatively different from other people, is very strong in the modern ideology, and this accounts for the constant opposition which I have encountered.

When my mind gets enough to work on I don’t think it does work like other people’s. When I mentioned to a philosopher that Rosalind Heywood wanted to prevent my incipient research institute from building up to any size, he asked ‘Why?’ Various answers can be given but certainly one is that if I were allowed any freedom of action at all there would be a distinct risk of my noticing some relationship that other people had not noticed and would be unlikely to notice, and also starting to build a quite complex system of relationships on the first one. (As I did with the areas of potential research that I identified when I was at the Society for Psychical Research and have been prevented from proceeding with.)

I suppose that is why there was so much aversion to my taking degrees in science when I was at school so that I would be able to have a suitable career in research. Consciously or unconsciously, people perceived that I did not have the inhibitions that would have made me safe. At that time I did not think about being able to do more than other people in the way of making progress in research; I thought only of having as intense and hardworking a life as possible, both in exam-taking in the present and in research in the future.

Now, of course, I do think that I could make a lot of progress in any field that I was able to work in. Other people are inhibited by their social belief-system as well as by relative lack of IQ.

I say I could make a lot of progress in any area in which I was permitted to work, but that depends on its being something to do with reality. I know that no real progress could be made if I were financed to run a large research department on topics such as Causes of Absenteeism in a Bootlace Factory or similar. However, provided it were large enough to have a hotel environment attached, my life would become liveable and I might get something out of any research or writing which I might do in my spare time, as well as its contributing to the progress of science.

If I were provided with finance for a philosophy department, primarily devoted to criticising the pernicious rubbish that is being freely produced by other university philosophy departments, the same would be true. It would not exactly be making progress to criticise what has sprung up under the auspices of the modern ideology, but it should be done.

When someone I know was studying philosophy of science at Cambridge, they showed me a paper which included dogmatic assertions that no advance in science depended on above-average individuals. There was nothing that could not be done by ordinary people, provided they worked together as a group. This paper also, if I remember correctly, referred to the concept of IQ as an example of a false hypothesis which (it was apparently considered self-evident) had failed.

That was over twenty years ago; there must be a great many equally criticisable papers being produced all the time now.