Hint: It’s not about having a high IQ.· 5 min read
by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash
We all know that annoying person who seems to know the answer to every question: How many hearts does an octopus have? (Three) What’s the oldest cultivated grain in history? (Spelt) How much wood would a woodchuck chuck? (As much wood as he could.)
But having a mind stuffed full of trivia doesn’t make you a genius. I’ve got one of those brains that are great at retaining useless information, and while I’m no dummy, I certainly fall short of the “genius” standard. (If you want to know, that’s generally accepted to be someone with an IQ above 140.)
But is IQ really the mark of genius? There’s a lot of debate about that. While there’s a whole club full of people who like to cherish their high IQ numbers (looking at you, Mensa), IQ is simply a mathematical construct introduced to the US by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman to rank academic progress. Though Terman implied otherwise, there was nothing determinative about it.
The center point (aka median) of IQ rankings is arbitrarily set at 100. Half of test takers are going to score above 100 while the other half are going to score below that mark.
IQ became associated with psychology when clinicians decided to use it as a measure to determine whether a potential client had the mental capacity to understand the treatment protocol well enough to participate in therapy. It’s just a comparative scale that might as well say “yes”, “maybe”, or “nope”.
If not a number, then what?
Taking IQ out of the equation (see what I did there?), we are left with a much more accurate, but less simplistic, way of measuring genius. Let’s start with a definition from Dictionary.com:
Genius: a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.
Aside from IQ, genius can be determined by an individual’s: creative capacity, ability to make associations, or even physical excellence(“Tiger Woods is a golf genius.”) The problem with physical attributes, however, is that they are difficult to quantify. Walter Payton, for instance, was of average height and weight for a professional NFL player in his position at the time, but no one would argue that “Sweetness” wasn’t a genius running back.
Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher
The only apparent way to measure creative thinking is by its results. We can’t determine ahead of time whether or not someone will be a creative thinker; only when they actually demonstrate a talent for it does the ability become apparent.
There are a couple of different avenues of creative thinking commonly seen: artistic creativity and philosophical creativity. It can certainly be argued that the two overlap significantly. When philosophers write, they become artists; when artists think up new techniques and genres, they become philosophers.
While artistic skill can certainly be described as “subjective”, philosophical thinking requires the particular ability to ask the questions no one else is asking and then find the answers no one else can think of.
Some people see things that others cannot, and they are right, and we call them geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. ~ Nancy Andreasen, psychiatrist and neuroscientist
Examples of creative thought.
One of the hallmarks of genius is finding connections between seemingly random topics, and then extrapolating those unconsidered questions from the connections.
Here’s an example:
- PDH kinase inhibits the activity of PDH enzymes in cells, decreasing a cell’s ability to use oxygen efficiently and ultimately decreasing that cell’s ability to renew itself and remain healthy.
- Cancer cells don’t use oxygen, so they are essentially “immortal” and can grow and grow forever, leading to tumors.
- Obese people are more prone to certain cancers than people of normal weight.
Question: Do obese people have more PDH kinase in their cells, and is this why they have higher rates of certain cancers?
While the possible connection between PDH kinase and cancer in obese people may seem obvious in this example, it’s only because of the way I’ve set up the question.
Here’s another example:
- Funding for the arts and humanities has been declining for decades, and many schools have greatly reduced or practically eliminated such programs from their curricula.
- Incidents of violence and hate have been skyrocketing in the US for the past twenty years, give or take. (Columbine occurred just over 20 years ago.)
Question: Is rising violence, hatred, and intolerance related to the excision of art and humanities programs in American schools?
There’s certainly evidence that arts teach us to be better people, more tolerant of ideas different from our own, and more appreciative of other people’s talents. Might this, in turn, lead to a decrease in the need to be competitive and win at any cost?
Contributions to society.
That last point brings us to the final way of measuring genius we’re going to look at in this article: contributions to society. Albert Einstein never took an IQ test, but he has been estimated to have had an IQ somewhere in the 150s (this is an example of measuring genius based on results.)
But Einstein did more than develop his theory of relativity and advance the study of mathematics and physics. His studies of the phenomenon of “wicking” (capillary action), and of the motion of particles in water droplets (Brownian motion) contributed to awareness and acceptance of the existence of atoms and molecules. His research into the nature of light helped the development of solar cells and lasers years after he had died.
People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates can certainly be considered geniuses. Their inventions have not only completely transformed our lives and our society, but they and people like them are using the enormous fortunes they have amassed to give back in other ways, such as feeding the hungry or cleaning up the environment.
Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.~Thomas Edison, American inventor
What’s important to know about genius and IQ is this:
- IQ numbers say nothing about how smart you are; the scores simply measure how well you take tests. Really!
- IQ scores can change drastically as you gain skills and knowledge, and as you age.
- IQ scores do not reflect your capacity to learn. No one should be given less opportunity or consideration as a result of a low score; nor should a high score result in greater regard or reward.