Not Every One Is A Genius

by V.S. Ravi - Oct 3, 2022 04:48 PM +05:30 IST
Not Every One Is A GeniusAlbert Einstein
  • In a world where the term ‘genius’ itself is loosely used, how do we decide who is a genius?

Gray, in his Elegy written in a country churchyard, arguably the most famous poem in the English language, observes that among the buried, there might be "some village Hampden with dauntless breast", "some mute inglorious Milton", and "some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood".

He  goes on to say that

"Full many a gem of purest ray serene, 

The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear: 

Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen, 

And waste its sweetness in  the desert air.

Gray means that there are in fact many geniuses in the world who have had no chance to reveal their extraordinary mental faculties due to lack of opportunities or factors such as poverty, or social pressures which are beyond their control.

Bertrand Russel had shattered the comfortable doctrine that genius will always make its way and on the strength of this doctrine many people consider that the ‘persecution’ of youthful talent cannot do much harm. But there is no ground whatever for accepting this doctrine.

It is like, the theory that  murder will out. He rightly argues that obviously all the murders, we know of, have been discovered but who knows how many there may be which have never been heard of. 

Likewise, the geniuses we know of have had circumstances in their favour, but there may be innumerable others who succumbed (due to their own timidity) to the wishes of a domineering father, or poverty or family responsibilities and took up  a  mundane career with a meagre income (the father’s financial insecurity, during his own childhood, had perhaps forced him to suppress the elder boy’s talent). 

In many families due to such factors the elder son, though equally bright, might not have been bold enough to rebel against paternal tyranny and pursue a career of his own choice, say literature, and thus given up his idealism.

By the time the younger son had reached adulthood the father himself would have acquired some financial security and generous attitude permitting the younger boy to pursue his chosen career, even providing active support.

The term ‘genius’ itself is loosely used, particularly in our country. Mere ability to produce a shapeless figure, which is a cross between a Modigliani and a Salvador Dali, a skill to write leftist-oriented articles on currently topical themes of social injustice, under the head ‘investigative journalism’ particularly in a book form (it is considered a mark of ‘scientific manhood’ to study, and write about ‘rural poverty’ and expose the exploitation of the down-trodden--a view shared by some bureaucrats who consider  themselves intellectual), a cleverness to produce poetry that seems to convey a certain idea but actually means something else, a moderate degree of proficiency that secures a thesis in one of the "unnatural sciences"(in the sense Nobel Laureate Medawar uses the phrase), and a professorial chair in a mediocre University, particularly in America (indeed there are hundreds of them there ! ) or making a simple technological device of limited application, will not qualify a person to be called a genius. 

There are millions of people like this, all over the world who can at best be classified as very bright. There are countless number of others, whose significantly higher achievements and awards would earn them only a classification of ' brilliant’. Therefore it is  relevant to discuss the question of intelligence itself, before defining the meaning of the word genius I

In his book The Mismeasure of Man, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has revealed how in the beginning of the last century a handful of racists deliberately distorted the purpose and results of Binet’s Intelligent Quotient (IQ) tests to keep out of America such as those who in their view were racially inferior. While Binet himself had conceded that the scores do not reflect actual intelligence but were intended only for identifying the ‘learning disabled’, (a theory  which itself is unethical, questionable and has no scientific basis). A racist official named Henry Herbert Goddard and two others like him deliberately misinterpreted the scores  as a measure of actual intelligence and were responsible for a colossal misuse of science to restrict immigration into America.

Describing the plight of the prospective immigrants, Gould said that their failure to pass a simple ‘memory test’ was due to lack of knowledge of English, fear, confusion and weakness after a long voyage by ship to a strange land rather than due to stupidity. On the other hand, Goddard attributed the failure to low intelligence and he enforced a series of measures that did incalculable harm to millions of people.

Goddard stationed himself at Ellis Island located at the mouth of the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. It was an island established in 1892 for the sole purpose of enforcing racially biased regulation of immigration into America, an ignominious purpose it served for more than 60 years until its closure in 1954. The infamous Ellis Island saw millions of newly arrived Jews pass through its doors and an equal number turned away.

Those considered absolutely inferior (mostly from Eastern Europe) were denied entry. God only knows how many Einsteins were sent back.

Among those who gained entry due to some carelessness, measures like sterilisation were employed later to prevent in-breeding of those considered to be morons. Another entity called ‘mental age’ was introduced on that scale, the average for Whites was 13.08, whereas Poles got 10.74 and the Negroes 10.41.

The IQ tests as interpreted by men like Goddard were obviously flawed. Nikolai Tesla would probably get only 10.5 whereas your friendly  neighbourhood electrician would get 150 ! In one highly misleading list of 13 people with the highest IQ in history, Goethe the German poet, with an IQ of 200 is the most intelligent man who ever lived. On the contrary Shakespeare who in genius excelled the human race doesn't figure in the list at all ! Need we say more ?

The question of superiority in performing tasks as a mark of intelligence is discussed by anthropologist Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Gems and Steel. Diamond says: ‘New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that we have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have not. Hence when unschooled New Guineans from village visit towns they look stupid to westerners. Conversely, I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I am with them in the jungle at simple tasks (such as following a jungle track, or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not.’ Earlier he says ‘At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of brain function, such as the ability to form a mental map of unfamiliar surroundings they appear considerably more adept than Westerners.’

Considering all the factors mentioned above, how do we decide who is a genius? We can perhaps imagine a ladder whose rungs would  progressively represent a higher order of intelligence i.e people with low intelligence at the bottommost rung and genius being the topmost rung. Above the  people with low intelligence , as we gradually go higher we pass through mediocre, then bright, then brilliant, then extremely intelligent and genius at the very top . 

Hence, we must treat the term ‘genius’ with respect. They are born very rarely, perhaps, a hundred of them in every century. That hundred would be composed of poets, scientists, philosophers, painters, sculptors , composers of music, who have had the greatest impact on society or progress in their respective fields. 

Invention of a simple technological device of limited application, will not qualify a person to be called a genius. There are millions of people like this all over the world who can at best be classified as very bright. 

There are countless number of others, whose significantly higher achievements and awards would earn them only a classification of 'brilliant'. Even a fellowship of the Royal Society may not be enough by itself; a Nobel Laureate may just make it, but in that ‘very wide spectrum’ there is a huge gulf between men like Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Pauli , Fermi, Feynman, and Rutherford (in the last century), who revolutionised physics and someone whose contribution was limited to being an ‘ordinary member’ of a team making a simple discovery. 

Similarly men like Crick who elucidated the structure of the DNA, Medawar, who made organ transplantation possible, Kendrew who discovered haemoglobin would qualify as geniuses .

Against such a scenario, just imagine the stature of ‘individuals who have changed the course of history, or improved the quality of man's life on this planet. Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin, --Archimedes, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, Adi Shankara, Thyagaraja, and Einstein have perhaps reached a level above which human intelligence cannot go. 

From the firmament where they dwell apart in unrivalled splendour as the brightest stars, If one were to  look down at  our  earth, and see those who strut about pompously, either in a laboratory or a university corridor, and refer to themselves as "geniuses" on the basis of some intellectual achievement of no great significance, or consequence, would it not look annoying, pathetic and even ridiculous?

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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