If Plato is the origin of conservative thinking, then we might construe conservatism as the discipline of failure studies: looking at how human groups and ventures fail in order to avoid that path and in fact go the other direction toward not just avoiding failure, but achieving excellence.
To some of us, this study takes precedence over all else because of the historical fact that civilization has a zero percent survival rate over time. Societies fail by succeeding, and this means that we are looking at a counter-intuitive problem, or one for which conventional methods will fail.
Bruce Charlton has been for many years a theorist of this and other issues, and a hidden hero of the post-1990s (“boomerpocalypse”) conservative revolution. When the Left assumed total control after the fall of the Soviet Union, those who were not Leftist found themselves struggling to keep up with a rapidly changing world.
Charlton’s most recent book, written with Adjunct Professor of the Anthropology of Religion and Finnish Culture at Oulu University Edward Dutton, tackles this ancient problem with an entirely new view: that whether as cause or effect of our decline, our civilization is hurtling toward disaster through the elimination of genius.
En route to that explanation, The Genius Famine also convincingly looks into the psychology of genius and corrects several pop culture misconceptions through careful deconstruction and re-assembly of key terms used to describe those of high intelligence, genius and creativity. This part alone makes the book worth reading, since other than Maurice Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, there are few insightful analyses of the mental state and activity of genius.
Most importantly, the book states the seemingly obvious — geniuses are biologically altruistic, meaning that they help their tribe stay motivated to work together, and their innovations provide a means by which a society (especially Western Civilization) can overcome the challenges thrust at it. Charlton and Dutton establish a unique role for genius.
The benefits yielded by genius are not obtainable in any other way. (229)
This book has been previously reviewed on this site by a highly competent writer who did an excellent job. What follows after the brief introduction above is an exploration of some of the many insightful moments in the book, which is available online as an etext.
Perhaps a favorite moment for readers of this blog can be found in the following savagely accurate analysis of exactly why modernity is so miserable and unbearable for anyone remotely intellectually awake:
In a society of declining intelligence, we would expect: rising crime and corruption; decreasing civic participation and lower voter turn-out; higher rates of illegitimacy; poorer health and greater obesity, an increased interest in the instinctive, especially sex; greater political instability and decline in democracy; higher levels of social conflict; higher levels of selfishness and so a decline in any welfare state; a growing unemployable underclass; falling educational standards; and a lack of intellectualism and thus decreasing interest in education as a good in itself. We would also expect more and more little things to go wrong that we didn’t used to notice: buses running out of petrol, trains delayed, aeroplanes landing badly, roads not being repaired, people arriving late and thinking it’s perfectly okay; several large and lots of little lies . . . (185)
This passage explains the “death by a thousand cuts” of modernity: every day, things get a little worse and less competent. We start seeing the intricate web of inter-reliance by institutions falling apart. And then, we reach third world conditions, where everyone is selfish and foolish and society as a whole falls apart.
Charlton has described “the now,” or at least the time since about 1990, perfectly. We are in a declining society which will end up a third-world state, in which people are selfish and few are competent. The voices we relied on to give us direction and reveal the meaning in life — the geniuses — are gone.
How we got here, in his view, was through a process of dysgenics:
In other words, until about 1800 only the minority of people with (on average) the ‘best genes’ (i.e. the lowest mutation load) would be able to survive and reproduce; and among the great majority of the population only a very small proportion of their offspring (averaging much less than two, probably less than one, per woman) would survive to a healthy adulthood, reproduce and raise children of their own. In this context, which was for almost all of human history until about two hundred years ago; both new and inherited deleterious mutations were filtered-out, or purged, from the population every generation by this very harsh form of natural selection. (39)
He covers both sides of the equation: first, deleterious mutations accumulated through a lack of natural selection process based on competence and second, owing to the misery and bureaucratic nature of modernity, the intelligent ceased to reproduce at high numbers. This reversed the gains of previous centuries in which the lower intelligence portions of the population had few children survive to breeding age.
This view presents a new spin on ancient wisdom. As societies grow more powerful, they save everyone from natural selection, and in doing so impose their own form of unnatural selection, which rewards those who breed recklessly. This leads to a population in which intelligence declines, and soon, the intelligent become marginalized.
Even more importantly, and more relevant to the “It’s a trap!” perspective on civilization and progress, Charlton and Dutton identify the bureaucratic nature of an advanced society as responsible for elimination of genius. It replaces those with Head Girls, who are sort of like British honor students and over-achievers, who are good at everything on the surface back lack depth in their approach.
According to these authors, what distinguishes genius is its Endogenous approach, or a self-starting mentality that finds fulfillment in beating difficult tasks and by doing so, increasing the health and prospects of the civilization around them. Head Girls do not do this; they act in self-interest alone, and conform to what others expect of them, which is exactly what bureaucracies and commerce desire:
Indeed modern institutions are not even trying to select primarily by intelligence – the reality of which they often deny; but instead are implicitly – by the nature of their evaluations – and also by explicitly-stated policies – selecting on other grounds, especially for the ‘Head Girl’ personality – the conscientious, empathic, socially integrated all-rounders. Modern society is, of course, run by Head Girls, of both sexes (plus a smattering of charming or charismatic psychopaths), hence there is no assigned place for the creative genius. Modern colleges aim at recruiting Head Girls, so do universities, so does science, so do the arts, so does the mass media, so does the legal profession, so does medicine, so does the military. And in doing so, except insofar as they make errors; they filter-out and exclude even the possibility of creative genius. (189)
The civilization that has succeeded moves from being a cooperative venture to an inclusive one. At that point, it begins to focus on control, or making people follow a centralized agenda rather than interpreting general principles in specific ways. With this, society finds it more useful to have obedient people than genius ones.
This not only deprives society of an essential function, that of genius, but also puts it into a tailspin as intelligence declines and consequently, it begins to approximate a third-world state:
Working with Charlton, Michael Woodley discovered an already-published survey of historical reaction time data that demonstrated a striking slowing of sRTs from the time of Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century until the late 20th century.
This data carried the strong implication that there had been a rapid and substantial decline in intelligence over the past hundred-plus years – and opened-up a new field of research which Woodley has been actively pursuing ever since. (167)
These researchers have used reaction time as a proxy for intelligence, since faster nerve response correlates with higher intelligence. Through that lens, they can see what IQ tests — which are normalized to a control group — cannot, namely that over time, Europeans have been declining in ability exactly as the eugenicists predicted.
Charlton and Dutton take a nuanced view of IQ testing and other intelligence proxies. They explain the utility of these assessments, but also, how genius is measured differently: a collection of traits, explained in greater specificity than the usual modern methods, that make a self-directed, highly creative individual who is focused on abstract thinking in lieu of the social thinking with which most of us burn our time and energy.
These unconventional creative geniuses offer more to society than mere innovation. The Genius Famine theorizes that artistical/cultural geniuses serve to unify the tribe, giving society a leg up in endurance and depth, while technical geniuses are responsible for the big breakthroughs that later are explored through “micro-innovations” by those who expand upon the original notion.
Without these contributions, society self-destructs:
But as intelligence continues to decline, then growth in productivity will reverse into decline and inefficiency, as the ability of people to sustain, repair, even to maintain, the highly technical, specialized and coordinated world civilization will be lost, just as occurred with the fall of Western Roman civilization; when agricultural and industrial production and trade all collapsed, the standard of living and population plummeted, and general technical and organizational levels took more than a millennium to recover. (181-182)
The Genius Famine ranks as essential reading for anyone concerned with the fall of civilization and how to resurrect it. Expertly written, in a seemingly offhand but intensely analytical style, it does not grow old or slow as a reading experience but instead offers new revelations on nearly every page. This makes it an exhausting read, best sampled in small doses, but a highly rewarding one.
As Western civilization awakens from its slumber, the postmortem on its failure will be vast. The Genius Famine offers an important part of the picture, although as others have written, there are non-biological causes as well. In any case, it shows us how progress leads us away from the organic power of intelligence and in that choice, to our doom.