So argue anthropologist Edward Dutton (Oulu University, Finland) and psychiatrist Bruce Charlton (Newcastle University, UK) in their fascinating 2016 tome, The Genius Famine. According to the two British academics, geniuses are a distinct psychological type.
They have extremely high intelligence, meaning they excel at quickly solving cognitive problems. This strongly predicts socioeconomic, educational and even social success. But geniuses combine this with relatively low conscientiousness and low empathy. They also tend to be uninterested in worldly things—money, sex, power—focused intensely on the intellectual pursuit of solving whatever seemingly unsolvable problem has come to obsess them. New ideas always break established rules and offend vested interests, but the genius couldn’t care less, claim Dutton and Charlton. This is why it is the genius who is able to make original, fantastic breakthroughs.
These kinds of people are fundamental to the growth and survival of civilization, the authors maintain. They are behind all major innovations. But, frighteningly, levels of genius have been in decline during the twentieth century. Measured from 1455 to 2004, macro-inventions—those that really changed the course of history—peaked in the nineteenth century and are now in on the slide. So, what has happened? Why is genius dying-out?
The answer these authors provide may surprise you. Genius, they claim, is dying out, in part, because we are less religious. In his bestseller The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins tells us that religion is in opposition to science and civilization. Science values reason; religion values faith. And most geniuses are irreligious by the standards of their societies. Turing was an atheist and intelligent people are (slightly) more likely to be atheists than believers. But the rise of atheism has had a significant impact on the fall of genius.
Until the Industrial Revolution, we were subject to Natural Selection. This meant that every generation 50% of children did not reach adulthood. And there were two crucial points about the children who did. Firstly, they were more likely to be the children of the rich and educated. The wealthier 50% of 17th century testators in England, for example, had about 40% more surviving children than the poorer 50%. Secondly, they would be physically fit; they would have the lowest numbers of ‘mutant genes,’ which accrue each generation and are almost always damaging. In that social status is predicted by intelligence (which is 80% genetic) and intelligence is negatively correlated with genetic signs of high mutational load—such as an ‘asymmetrical’ (ugly) face—it seems that we would have been becoming cleverer and cleverer every generation and this is documented by proxies for intelligence such as literacy or numeracy.
But we were also selecting for religiousness, which is around 40% genetic. In terms of individual selection, knowing God loves you and is watching you, you’ll be less stressed, more pro-social, and less likely to be ostracized. Dutton and Charlton use the example of a peacock. A peahen sexually selects a peacock with a big, bright tail because the tail displays his genetic quality. He must have good genes to be able to grow nice plumage and cope despite being weighed down by it. In much the same way, it has been shown that in humans both sexes sexually select for religiousness. Religiousness is a sign that you are cooperative, have self-control, can be trusted, have access to a useful network of people and are industrious enough that you survive despite making material and other sacrifices to the religious group.
And then there is group selection. All things being equal, the more religious group—convinced that a moral God is watching it, that non-believers are Satanic, and that the group, and life, has eternal significance—will dominate the less religious one, the authors show. It will cooperate better, be more aggressive to outsiders, and be more likely to engage in extremes of self-sacrifice for the good of the group. In computer models of group selection, groups with these qualities always triumph.
So, this all meant that we achieved a cooperative, stable, wealthy society which could provide a space for geniuses to flourish. And that the genius minority themselves became cleverer and cleverer. Then a tipping was reached where their innovations were so brilliant—in the form of the Industrial Revolution—that their impact on the standard of living was able to outpace the negative impact of population growth, leading to a soaring population with ever improving material standards. However, this set off another process: an inter-related process of intelligence and religiousness decline.
The Industrial Revolution heavily reduced environmental harshness—combating disease, injury, starvation and everything that removed mutant genes. So, where once only the physically fittest, with almost no mutant genes, survived to have children, now almost all of us do, meaning far more mutant genes interfering with brain functioning and thus intelligence. Being religious is predicted by genes and by stress. So, as our stressors were combated and Natural Selection stopped, the percentage of us who believed in God decreased.
This had a knock-on effect. It meant that we no longer had to have large families to guarantee the survival of some of our children. So, large families became associated with people who were impulsive (i.e those with low intelligence) and there is a negative relationship, in Western countries, between IQ and fertility. It is fashionable to bash IQ tests, but scores correlate with objective measures, like reaction times (how quickly you respond to a stimulus). Large families are also associated with religious people—because they believe it is God’s will for them to multiply—but it seems that the stress-reduction of modernity has outpaced the fertility advantage of the religious. And the more intelligent are anyway more likely to not believe in God, reducing their fertility in comparison to the less intelligent.
The emancipation of women only worsened this fall in IQ, argue Dutton and Charlton. Religious people tend towards more conservative attitudes to sex roles. But with the fall of religiously-inspired conservatism, the more intelligent women dedicate their twenties to their careers. They have far fewer children than less intelligent women, who are more likely to become pregnant young and by accident. All of this has come together to mean that IQ—the very engine behind the Industrial Revolution—is falling.
Based on representative samples, the authors show that reaction times are getting longer and have been getting longer since about 1900. Between 1900 and 2000, IQ—using this proxy—seems to have gone down by about 15 points. This means that the doctors of today are the high school science teachers of 1900. The result of this is that for purely genetic reasons there would be a far smaller percentage of Turing-types today.
But this has set off environmental factors which are making things even worse and here the rise of atheism plays crucial role as well. Intelligence is correlated with a trait known as ‘Intellect’: being open to new ideas and fascinated by intellectual pursuit. Until the 1950s, this kind of attitude underpinned the British university and perhaps even the US one—the book focuses on the UK. Academics were under no pressure to regularly publish or obtain grants. They were expected to teach and were given vast amounts of time to think and research based on the hope that some would produce works of genius. Religion was part of the reason that universities were created along these lines. Their purpose was to reach a greater understanding of God’s Creation. If this involved frittering away money—with most academics not publishing anything—this didn’t matter. Some things are more important than money, such as the glory of God.
Since the 1960s, the authors note, universities have become bureaucratic businesses. This reflects the anti-intellectual, anti-religious attitude that their purpose is to make money. Academics contribute to this by getting funding, publishing frequently, and attending conferences. All of this is anathema to the genius, who wants to be left alone to solve his problem. He also won’t tick the bureaucratic boxes that get you an academic position—Francis Crick, discoverer of DNA, was rejected from Cambridge, failed to get a top mark in his bachelor’s degree, and dropped out of assorted PhDs. As such, universities are less likely to appoint genius types. They will appoint what Dutton and Charlton call the ‘head girl’ (at UK schools)—quite intelligent, socially skilled, conscientious; absolutely not a genius. This person will be excellent at playing the academic game and will make a great colleague. But they won’t innovate; won’t rock the boat. Once upon a time, they note, a ‘country vicar’ had lots of free time to research, but with the shrinking of the Church, the days of the Victorian ‘scholar-rector,’ are long gone as well. The genius has no institution to nurture him and his potential will not be fulfilled.
And with the downfall of religion, life is no longer serious. In a world in which people have to struggle, the genius could be tolerated because of the benefits his innovations would bring to society. Also, society was inherently important—it was blessed by God—and so we needed to make sacrifices for the good of society, including tolerating the difficult people who seemed to solve problems in crises (the ‘shaman’ figures), because crises will surely come. But we have reached a point where our lives are so secure, and where death is so remote, that we no longer believe that our lives, or our society, has eternal significance. Indeed, many believe quite the opposite: Western society is selfish; the human race is damaging the Earth. In addition, our high level of comfort means that the problems with which a genius may now grapple are either too theoretical to care about or too long-term to think about now. He will cause offence and question the dogmas which give us the comfort of certainty all for the sake of a problem so distant that most of us can postpone thinking about it. In this context, of life not being serious, we would expect the genius to be pilloried. And geniuses are more sensitive than most.
Accordingly, Dutton and Charlton’s book predicts that genius will continue to decline and civilization will collapse because it is ultimately underpinned by intelligence and genius. Technology will reach a peak, stagnate, and go backwards, as there are fewer and fewer people intelligent enough to maintain and eventually even use it. Life will become harsher and simpler and, eventually, more religious. At the moment, it seems that there’s nothing we can do to stop this short of a horrendous reversion to pre-Industrial levels of child mortality. But if we could better nurture genius then somebody might come up with a solution before it is too late. So, the authors ask, how can we help geniuses?
Firstly, we need to identify them. The genius is likely to be highly intelligent but it will be a lop-sided kind of intelligence. Oxford University philosopher A. J. Ayer, for example, had such poor spatial intelligence that he never learnt to drive. The genius will combine this very narrow intelligence with very narrow interests. Thus, he might be rejected from a top university, like Francis Crick, and do brilliantly only on aspects of his degree. He’ll also be socially awkward and eccentric.
Secondly, we need to give them an environment in which they can flourish. They tend to be useless at everyday things—Einstein had a tendency to get lost—so these need to be taken care of for them.
Thirdly, they are very fragile people and they are not usually interested in money. They will work for the minimum they require as long as they are looked after and free to get on with problem solving. The mathematician Paul Erdos, note Dutton and Charlton, lived out of a suitcase and camped out with various math professors. They need long-term security so that they do not have to worry about ordinary things, which they not interested in and are no good at.
If we can make these changes, insist Dutton and Charlton, then in spite of declining intelligence, it is possible that a genius may be produced who can develop a solution to this problem. And if people could become more religious—before the destruction of civilization and renewed Natural Selection ensure this—we’d be half-way there.
Lance Welton [Email him] is the pen name of a freelance journalist living in New York.