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The Genius Famine by Edward Dutton and Bruce G. Charlton

The Genius Famine: Why We Need Geniuses, Why They’re Dying Out, Why We Must Rescue Them
by Edward Dutton and Bruce G. Charlton
232 pages

The Genius Famine focuses on a topic that remains obscured behind our modern view of a term that once had meaning. Genius refers to both a type of ability, and a person who possesses it. This book redirects our focus toward genius in three steps: it provides a definition for genius, an explanation for why it arose and faded out, and a plan for how geniuses might return.

Its writers have explored this territory before but never in such a directed topic. The content of this book will be familiar to readers of Bruce Charlton’s Intelligence, Personality, and Genius blog. Readers of this blog are sure to recognize his name. Edward Dutton is a writer and religious scholar who writes articles and books on a variety of topics.

The central insight of the book is its description and definition of genius. A genius is someone who makes an insight or discovery that has a significant effect on his group’s fortune and evolutionary success. This kind of insight could not be made by regular people thinking in a regular way, because it requires seeing patterns or connections that are not obvious and not straightforward.

The authors argue that this creative thinking is not simply a product of high intelligence, which though necessary for solving problems of a known type, is not enough to be able to solve new problems of which there is no memory. High intelligence excels at applying known solutions and techniques, but a genius can step beyond the known. A genius is able to think this way because he (or, rarely, she) has the type of personality that Charlton has coined as Endogenous.

An Endogenous personality is directed inwards, and works intuitively. Whereas regular people are motivated by external concerns, such as social standing or sexual pursuits, an Endogenous personality is inward focused. He dwells within his mind, and that is from where he motivations originate. He works on his task and makes his discoveries not as a means to gaining wealth or status, but as an end in itself. Man is a social animal, but geniuses are an exception to this. The authors suggest that perhaps the parts of the mind that normally handle social thinking is in these people repurposed in a way that would explain both their reduced interest in social concerns and their higher intelligence and creativity.

Having described the Endogenous personality, the book progresses through chapters overviewing intelligence, which is mental ability, and personality, which is character. Intelligence is shown to be real and meaningful, and capable of being accurately — though not perfectly or uniformly — measured using IQ tests. Personality is commonly measured using the “Big 5” traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and extraversion. Similar to how various measures of intelligence correlate and have an underlying factor called g, J. Philippe Rushton found that these five can be reduced to a single dimensional measure, which he calls General Factor Personality (GFP). A high GFP is eusocial, and is typical of those who are good citizens, who generally get along well with others and don’t cause problems. Because of this, genius is associated with lower GFP; with lower conscientiousness and agreeableness.

On the difference between these two mental aspects, the authors write,

In terms of computers — intelligence is something like the processing speed, while personality is about the types of software installed. Or, intelligence is about the efficiency of the brain, while personality is about what that brain is designed to do. Or intelligence is about how well the brain works; while personality describes the circuitry, the hard-wiring — what kind of brain it is.

This is a fine example of Charlton’s style of writing, with its serial repetition of the same concept in different words as if to display it in different lighting and from different angles. Rather than compress the text to a minimally reduced expression of the intended meaning, and without the unnecessary verbiage and jargon typical of modern academic writing, explanations are straightforward and allowed room to breathe. The result is simplicity that strengthens clarity without compromising substance. This style seems fitting of a competent lecturer, and makes reading a pleasant ease.

Genius is colloquially used to describe everyday cleverness, but the meaning the authors have in mind is narrower. A sociological perspective would identify genius by their large impact on the course of history. A biological perspective would notice how he contributes to a the reproductive success of his group, becoming more numerous than others, or how how his contributions result in an increase in his group’s genetic quality. Or he may direct his group to be more fit to some higher purpose, in a philosophical or theological sense. In any case, a genius is capable of producing a large positive effect on his group due to his special ability. Some with this ability may not make use of it, making them potential geniuses.

The nature of this special ability is the Creative Triad: high intelligence, combined with an inner motivation, combined with intuitive thinking. Intuition is a third mode of thinking that makes use of the first two, which are rational thinking and emotional thinking. It is a holistic mode of thought most fundamental to the real self or inner consciousness. It is a sum greater than its parts that is necessary for the highest levels of creativity:

The result of intuition is therefore an evaluation which is uniquely convincing because it is validated by the full range of positive responses. It is an insight that satisfies both logic and reason, and also ‘feels’ right.

Inner motivation is what drives creativity. Creativity isn’t something that can be managed or externally controlled and directed the way that physical or technical labor can, it arises from within. The authors describe the way this inner motivation leads to genius discoveries through a process they call the Genius Quest, which involves recognizing a problem and the sense of purpose that arises from becoming dedicated to finding a solution.

Because genius is “having an enormous impact in some field through highly original activity,” it is a subspecies of creativity. The authors describe what creativity is, and how it has been confused with mere novelty or shocking offensiveness. An obvious example of this is modern art, where provoking outrage is seen as proof of originality and creativity.

Considering that geniuses benefit a group by being able to solve novel problems, identifying potential geniuses is important to the fortunes of a group. But genius is not readily apparent (e.g. Albert Einstein performed poorly in school, Francis Crick’s academic career was unremarkable until his mid-30s, William Faulkner failed out of college), and identifying potential geniuses is not as straightforward as selecting the top academic performing children. That group of people may include potential geniuses, but it would also mostly consist of those who are simply highly intelligent and high in the conscientious and agreeable personality traits, who follow the rules and respond to social cues directing them to perform well. As noted earlier, geniuses, who have an Endogenous personality, are not conscientious, and are not motivated by social pressures. This necessitates different selection criteria and the authors describe the traits to look for.

Given what has been described so far — that geniuses improve their group’s situation, and that the traits that contribute to genius are heritable — one might expect genius to be evolutionarily selected for, and thus the incidence of genius to be on the rise. However, it is shown that the opposite is true, and several causes are offered to explain this effect which gives the book its name.

One cause is a decline in intelligence. The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and the medical advances in their wake reduced child mortality to such a degree that it switched from being so commonplace that members of the lower class had an effective rate of reproduction near zero to being a rarity.

This switch had two consequences. First, instead of a downward class mobility that replaced less intelligent lower classes from above, lower classes began to outbreed the higher. Second, it removed the screen on deleterious genetic mutations, which normally would be removed from the population when their presence in infancy prevented survival. Instead, medical technology allowed these slight defects to remain and become more numerous in each generation, to the point where this load of defective genes now depresses intelligence and retards mental function.

Another cause is the increasing bureaucratization and modernization of academia, which creates an environment that is unappealing, and often outright hostile, to genius. The traits that identify genius are more likely to be noticed by individuals who themselves have the Endogenous personality type, and so when applications and appointments are overseen by committees, a compounding effect of reduced ability to identify, promote, and even simply tolerate genius occurs. Some policies directly reduce the proportion of Endogenous personalities in academia, such as those that select against males and Europeans, amongst whom the incidence of genius is by far the highest.

More generally, the increasing rarity of genius is a result of civilization no longer being serious. Success has created such wealth and power that a large buffer exists between individuals in modern society and bare nature. No longer is there felt an immediacy of danger and an urgency of survival; with only extreme exceptions, no matter what one does, no matter the choices they make, they are assured a pleasant, safe, long life, and so taking reality and nature seriously only happens after conscious effort. This means that it becomes difficult to recognize tough problems that would require genius solutions. When there is no obvious crisis, genius is ignored in a sea of false ideas and false solutions for which it would require getting serious to reject. This itself is a looming crisis that desperately calls for a genius solution.

For this reason, Genius Famine may be useful not only to those who wish to understand genius itself, but also to those searching for the best ways to fight against and reverse the decline of our civilization.

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