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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

Mozart: I think that you can't get his type of tutoring. the kids is forced to spend much of his time at school and doing homework.

a single minded quality focus is no longer allowed at young age.

Edison and Newton too, MIGHT have been banned, or conditioned against their self taught experimenting. definitely would've been limited in time and options.....

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IIRC, most research also shows that schooling type (private, elite private, public, whatever) has no impact on future life outcomes when controlling for IQ and parental income. Which aligns with your conclusion.

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Another genius who grew up poor and (as far as I know) exhibited plenty of brilliance without or before tutoring was Carl Friedrich Gauss. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Friedrich_Gauss )

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Immediately checked out "How the MFA swallowed literature", just want to register that the take seems truly insane to me.

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I think it has more to do with specialization of knowledge, in a few aspects.

First, if you make a great discover in your field, your work is now largely incomprehensible to everyone else on earth. There are maybe thousands who understand your work. Compare that to Darwin, where any educated reader could grasp it. Perhaps less true with Einstein. Something to look at might be the role of popular explainers of scientific achievements. I don’t ever recall seeing such a thing in history, prior to Einstein.

Second, because you have to specialize in a field, you probably can’t excel in multiple fields. So wheee a polymath might rise to high acclaim previously, then might now only have the one or two discoveries in their own field. Again, Einstein feels like a turning point. His annis mirabilis was all in physics. Compare that to Newton -- astronomy, physics, and calculus.

Third, some extreme version of the 80-20 rule applies. The reason that Newton could make big discoveries in multiple fields was that there was a lot to be discovered by the straightforward application of genius. Now we are to the point where you have to learn loads to contribute to the body of knowledge. So much more effort has to go in to move the needle. You said something very like this, but I call it out because it is the driving force behind my prior two points.

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"If people are still working on AI a hundred years from now, I expect them to talk about Hinton in the same way biologists talk about Darwin now."

This seems (very) wrong. New fields are discovered all the time. People who enter these fields quickly grab all the low hanging fruit. Some of these fields also go on to become important in the future. However, these researchers aren't generally recognized as Einsteins in their own right.

Darwin didn't just create a new field of knowledge. He fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves, religion, pretty much everything. Man was not created in the image of God; he evolved from apes. And so on. Comparing Hinton to Darwin seems ridiculous, although I am sure Hinton is a very fine researcher in his own right, as are the 100-200 researchers alive today who have created their own fields and proved some interesting results.

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I think Mr Hoel does count parental tutoring as tutoring, simply because it’s one-on-one; this presumably has less of an effect if the parent isn’t an expert in the field, but would result in, eg, homeschooling producing higher SAT scores that can’t be entirely chalked up to genetics. But I don’t know if that’s actually the case.

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Yeah I noticed Hoel's post seemed to assume that the only thing required to become a world-famous genius is to be above a certain, fixed, ability threshold. It seems much more likely to me that there's a fixed pool of fame available and today it's divided among many more people, so even if they're as brilliant as past geniuses or more they get much less attention.

In other words it's a pretty straightforward case of Syndrome Syndrome: "When everyone's super, no one will be."

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One additional aspect for the sciences: even if you have a genius doing genius stuff these days, there will only be a few people who are actually able to understand how genius that work is. Not enough to make anyone famous.

In the arts, on the other hand, I think there's just too many geniuses at work. This diverts the attention of the public and again, prevents any particular genius from actually becoming famous.

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Here's a more simple reason - it used to be geniuses got a lot of attention because the only people who cared to pay attention was bored rich people without a lot to do, and thus, they became famous. Now, in a world where the normal person has a lot more money and ability to focus on attention on what they want, it turns out the mass want to pay attention to people who are attractive, sing well, and are entertaining.

In 1650, the equivalent of current AI researchers might've been famous, because a few rich lords cared about that issue. Now, they're decently to very well paid people whose names won't be known unless they happen to create a company that gets bought by Google.

I'd argue there are indeed, a lot of very smart people who are doing work close to the geniuses of the past - it's just more esoteric, because all the simple stuff has been found, and so it's more confusing to the laymen and takes more work. Gravity, evolution, etc. is simple enough for even a less intelligent than average person to grasp, even if they disagree. The things we're looking at now, not so much.

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I wonder if it could be that, in a world where economic growth has established unheard of levels of general affluence (in developed countries) that there's less fitness advantage to superior intelligence than there was when material depravation was something like the norm. Like, it's still an advantage to your perceived attractiveness to be smarter now, but a moderately-intelligent partner can provide a level of comfort and security that was once reserved for the truly exceptional, such as the exceptionally intelligent.

Probably not!

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A 4th option related to number 3 might be called "The low ceiling syndrome" wherein the number of obstacles to doing anything mounts up so high that the sorts of things people used to do and be called genius is now very difficult. Just off the top of my head, going to college at 14 is probably nearly impossible now, much less working early, starting a physical business, things like that. It has been pointed out before that much of the rapid breakthroughs in software were done by the young, partially because they didn't have to ask permission, and at most forgiveness. You can't get big innovations in many fields because getting permission is so difficult.

Related perhaps is how one gets recognized as a genius. Academia is almost certainly not a useful way to spend much time if you are a genius, but that's where we put kids when they are smart. How many geniuses spend time writing papers no one will read instead of solving actual problems? How many geniuses spend time in finance making money off trivial things?

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 23, 2022

I think answer "there are lots more scientists now" answer is more important than "good ideas are rarer" or "democratic norms". But I also notice that I know more geniuses from among my personal acquaintances than from the newspapers, and that acclaimed scientists today are much less likely to be regarded as being at the top of their field than previously. Famous scientists of the first half of the 20th century were great scientists; famous scientists since 1970 were great communicators, like Carl Sagan or Neil de Grasse Tyson.

I think that social organization has changed so that geniuses are no longer identifiable, so they don't get the support they need, and (more importantly) the share of attention they would need to become *known* geniuses.

One part of this is simply that there are more scientists. But I think there is also a more sinister dynamic at work: our filters are no longer high-bandpass filters, but bandpass filters, which filter out both the lows and the highs. In some cases, notably philosophy and the arts, they've become low-bandpass filters, which are likely to filter out anything reasonable and amplify anything bizarre or insane.

Another important factor is that, after 1970, we began using acceptance into an ivy league as an all-purpose filter for everything. Take a student who wants to become a prominent scientist, and whose SAT scores are in the 99th percentile. The odds multiplier that student gets from attending an ivy-equivalent (top 20) school was about 80 in 1997 (at least in physics, the field I used for my informal study). The odds multiplier for winning a Nobel prize became infinite after 1970--I didn't find a single case of a physicist who attended college after 1970, won a Nobel, and never attended a top-20 school in their subfield. Neither of these were true before 1970. And can you guess what odds ratio multiplier you get now for being on the Supreme Court by attending Harvard? I won't even say; guess, and then check the Wikipedia list of Supreme Court members.

Meanwhile, the ivies eliminated merit-based scholarships in the 1960s, which would have prevented more than half of Nobel-winning physicists who *did* attend the ivies before 1970 from doing so. And they escalated the price exponentially over time, and de-emphasized intelligence and academic work as criteria for admission, while emphasizing race, sex, and community involvement.

They've also been adjusting their practices to game the US News & World Report rankings, which doesn't have any criteria that measure the quality of education, but only the success of students who are admitted. So using their enormous wealth and omnipotent social networks to provide advantages to their graduates is essential to stay in the top 3 spots in the ranking. It's nearly impossible to flunk out of Harvard or Yale now, because having fewer than 99% of students graduate would tank their US News rating. (And I'd guess that 1% who don't graduate is mostly people who quit to start companies.)

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There are, though, a lot of geniuses who went to school who performed badly there and hated it, and/or are quoted as being very critical of it.

For example:

"I remember that I was never able to get along at school. I was at the foot of my class"- Thomas Edison

"Knowledge that is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."- Plato

"My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school" - Margaret Mead

"Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality." - Beatrix Potter

"What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook."- Thoreau

"There is nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school."- George Bernard Shaw

"How I hated schools, and what a life of anxiety I lived there. I counted the hours to the end of every term, when I should return home." -Winston Churchill

"It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of education have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty."--Einstein

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Suppose we extended this argument to a sport with objective measurements like the 100 meter dash. The objective results show a vast improvement. But there would probably be only one or two "geniuses" at any point. This same analysis would seek to explain how the old methods of training were much better because they produced a greater proportion of "geniuses".

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Agreed with the maximally boring reasons but would add: I sometimes wonder if across the web of society, distributed so it’s not the intent of any single person, we don’t all understand there have to be certain limits on progress in order to maintain stability and set up systems that hinder radical growth. An Einstein every thirty years would produce enormous growth. An Einstein every six months would destroy the world. I can’t quite make it explicit in my own head so I’m suspect of it myself, but I wonder if there’s a sort of selection pressure at work here with large corporate-style structures where it’s more important for paperwork to be filled out and risks insured than for people to take initiative so just as a natural by product genius is down regulated. The sort of tutoring described would be anathema to that and also down regulated. So much is now intellectually uniform and so little bespoke. Very smart people told nurses at the start of the pandemic that they weren’t allowed to get their own masks if supplies had run out, with a whole complicated piece in the middle about insurance and liability, and it to my mind it was because for their entire lives their minds had been turned toward optimally completing paperwork. Those might be totally unrelated and I’m not sure there not but there’s a ladle there I can’t quite make come out of the drawer.

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I think a large part of the decline is forcing every child even if they are relatively rich and smart, to care about school and grades, the overwhelming complexity of life and the constant tax by technology on attention.

This HN comment on the article exactly pinpoints the feeling:


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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

Would Darwin be considered a genius? I thought the thing with him was not super high intellect but that he was very cautious, rigorous, and Bayesian. Agree with the overall point, though.

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I think that (2) might have as much to do with how we remember history as it does with actual change over time.

Darwin was obviously building on other people's ideas, but those people are no longer around to demand partial credit. And sifting through nineteenth century priority disputes is really boring and irrelevant to most of our purposes in remembering Darwin. We are free, in our telling of history, to let Darwin stand in for an entire intellectual scene. But, if you try to do that about a contemporary intellectual scene, the second and third and eighty-fifth most important members will get mad at you (both self-interest and (3) come in, here).

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

I have taught at different universities, including Oxford/Cambridge and their tutoring system in which 1 PhD tutors 1-3 undergradute students is incomparable to traditional large classes/limited interactions in terms of allowing students to progress. Sure Oxford gets to pick the best students, but it can also take them much further. The fact that Oxford/Cambridge disproportionately produces elite scientists (including Hinton) might support Hoel's point.

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I can't emphasize how unnatural it is to read that current work in AI safety is comparable to Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

In some sense, AI safety is a field whose time has come. AI is getting better. We've had sci-fi suggesting a robot takeover for very many decades now. It is not difficult to speculate that we'll build a machine that is smarter than us, and will hence take over the world. Had Yudkowsky not created it, someone else might have.

Darwin's theory of evolution was not "in the air". If Darwin hadn't obsessively studied skeletons and beaks on his now-legendary voyage, probably no one else would have for hundreds of years. There were no scientific trends that Darwin was extrapolating. He created a mind-bending theory out of nowhere. Even Einstein's theory of relativity had more precedence than Darwin's theory, because it came out of the Morley-Michelsen experiment's inability to detect the ether.

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That chart at the top of the post can be at least partly explained by the principle of "graded on a curve."

There were more "geniuses" relative to the general population because of the wide difference in education from the top to the bottom - how it was delivered matters little. It may be we have fewer "geniuses" now because they don't stand out as much due to the current minimum education standard being much higher than it was 6-700 years ago, and thus more (but not all, of course) people are closer in education to what was considered a genius level in the 1500s.

That doesn't mean there aren't absolute geniuses that "break the curve" - like, say, Leonardo Da Vinci.

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

I disagree that most AI researchers would consider Hinton, LeCun, Bengio, or Schmidhuber (the big famous names in neural networks) to be geniuses. They are certainly people who were extremely creative and worked very hard, and were right when nearly everyone else was wrong. That's not nothing, they are definitely great scientists.

I don't quite know how to articulate the difference, but I don't think their success came from the near-mystical intellectual insight that I associate with genius. There aren't (yet) any profound, earth-shattering conceptual breakthroughs in neural-network-based AI. Hinton's most famous contribution, when you look at it, amounts to a more efficient way of coding up the chain rule from calculus (edit: and Hinton himself says the idea was in fact discovered earlier by others in various ways).

I'm not trying to put them down, as I think these achievements were obviously era-defining, and other people did not come up with these ideas even though they could have. But it's a different kind of thing from the profound insight Darwin and Einstein had.

AI research just doesn't seem like a field, currently, that rewards genius very much at the margin, compared to other traits such as creativity, persistence, and executive skills. So on the one hand, this adds support to the thesis of your post that geniuses get outsized credit for being early; on the other hand, I do think it's still possible that someone will have some amazing breakthrough that makes deep learning "make sense", and we will actually remember this person as a genius.

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We can find geniuses easily when the internet reaches remote areas at a very low price and genius people have time beyond daily survival. As school allows people to specialize sooner and connect with information, people and problems. Changing needs arise with new solutions or develop old ones. As space is accessible, new ideas may come out. As genetic engineering takes off and computers are allowed to be the geniuses or genius's best friend.

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

I think the nature of the discipline may matter. Chemistry, mine, is a "working class" science where remarkably few faculty come from white collar backgrounds, generally first generation college, or near so (i.e., a high school teacher as a parent). If you peruse the links in the list of chemistry noble laureates, you find few that had elite tutors.... I've known a few of these scientists personally and many by 2 degrees of separation and they are clearly geniuses!

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If you look at the graphs in the post linked there is no decline in geniuses per capita. Instead there is a decline in the number of geniuses per educated person. But that assumes that education was random! If geniuses were identified among the general public and preferentially exposed to more education that would be enough to explain the supposed decline on its own.

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I think the move to general education is partly to blame. It used to be that you were being educated IN something. Reading, writing, arithmetic. Violin playing. Smithing. Whatever. If you ran ahead of the subject matter you'd just move on to harder lessons.

No one is a genius at "general education" because it's not a subject. You are encouraged not to specialize or go deep but to go wide. And depth is only rewarded to a point through advanced classes (and only in concert with a bunch of other things). No amount of being an amazing math student will get you out of your English classes even once you're past the basic level.

Was Mozart any good at physics? If so we have no evidence for it. If he'd been forced to spend an equal amount of time in math and physics and history as he did on music then he'd be less likely to be a genius in my opinion. And if he was very bad at one or two irrelevant (to music) subjects like history or math then he might have trouble getting into top schools.

The end effect is that we've raised the barrier. You need to be both a genius in music and a passable mathematician. If not then you'll have trouble getting seen by the big institutions that are necessary to back genius. (And were necessary back then too!) It's no surprise less of them manage to make this leap.

Compare how Mozart was invited to play in front of the Emperor to what the Juilliard requires of applicants. And how credentialist biases make things like Juilliard more important. Or compare Edison and his long period of basically solely mechanical education (through self-teaching or apprenticeship) to what your average engineer goes through both in education and hiring today.

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

I agree with the takedown but disagree that the point was ever interesting enough to warrant attention in the first place. It's the slightly more literate version of "in my day we had the Beatles and they were geniuses and you kids today with your Carly Rae Jepsens and your Duas Lipa...BAH!"

To be more charitable and dovetail with the point: OBVIOUSLY genius requires some degree of hindsight to recognize. The closer you get to the present, the less hindsight you have, by definition. So you'd expect the number of geniuses to trail off as you reach the present. The interesting point, if there is one (I doubt it) might be just how MUCH hindsight is required.

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Speaking from a perspective of a physics crackpot who is reasonably certain he's onto the next big thing - I think education style has basically nothing to do with it, and it is entirely barriers to entry, many of which exist largely to exclude crackpots.

The lone genius who defines the field doesn't just define the field, but also creates fertile soil for the imaginations of crackpots; I could do that. So each new genius who helps define an entire field makes it harder for the next genius to do exactly that; the field is increasingly engineered to keep out exactly those people, who outnumber actual geniuses a thousand to one, and who rapidly exhaust everybody's tolerance / enthusiasm for ideas that would radically restructure the field.

And, speaking personally, ultimately I'm never going to put in the energy; maybe I'm genuinely onto the new big idea, maybe I'm just another crackpot in the field of thousands. I know what I think, but I'm also aware of the odds. I can be quietly satisfied that I understand the universe better than anybody else alive - and maybe in a century I'll be proven right, and people will wonder at this crazy guy. Or most likely I'll be forgotten. But either way at that point I'll be dead, and I can enjoy my supposed understanding of the universe right now, right or wrong.

Because - and here's the big thing - like, the only reason I bother, once every year or two, to try to convince people - is mostly out of a sense of obligation. My "genius-level" smarts tell me to stay the hell away from the kind of recognition that being proven right would result in.

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Maybe it had something to do with elite competition. IE, perhaps it wasn't so much the aristocratic tutoring, but the high stakes social striving among members of the aristocracy? After all, that graph you posted also tracks the decline of aristocratic privilege, overall. Granted, correlation and causation do not always walk arm in arm.

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You are short-selling Archimedes. The bathtub story concerning him is by a later Roman writer. What we have by Archimedes on the matter is a lucid and extremely concise treatise structured in an axiomatic way that would be uncommon (but perhaps not non-existent) in physics nowadays. His main insight was not "I can measure how much I splash" but "I am buoyed by a force equal to the weight of the fluid I displace". If the story on the crown is true, his solution was probably not the one you most likely learned in high school, but rather a more elegant one, requiring no precise measurements of volume: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes'_principle#Eureka

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

Michael Faraday is another genius of lowly background. It helped that he got a job with Humphrey Davy though.


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Are you sure Harvey Milk is a good example? Everyone else you mention, I’m familiar with their works. What did he write?

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I would imagine that the more interlocked the media caste is, the fewer "acclaimed" anything that there will be, and the less that acclaim actually means anything. A couple hundred years from now, would a similar study determine that Neil DeGrasse Tyson was our generation's preeminent scientist and Fauci more of a genius than Pasteur?

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As an undergrad, I had a conversation with a bunch of artists, who were supposed to be making art "for the workers". (This also shows how old I am.)

They commented that, not only would a "worker" use their installation not as a think piece, but as a spitoon, but that no art that they did or would or could ever do would compare with, say Ancient Greek sculpture. And that Ancient Greece was a total slave society.

At the same time, Abraham Lincoln was no slouch as a reader, writer, thinker or lawyer, and he had no more than about six weeks of schooling in his life.

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Is it too obvious/too vague to bring up Ross Douthat's ideas about decadence when talking about the (alleged) decline of geniuses? As an explanation it doesn't have the advantage of being simple and compact, but it does link society-wide intellectual, artistic, and moral decline in a way that appeals to me and strikes me as true.

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Otto Rank says the cult of genius that developed with the Renaissance is the result of a strong collective ideology that the creative personality both uses and reacts against in order to express their individuality. This is why the great works of art both capture the collective soul belief and compel the recognition of their individual expression. While this explains the genius in art and artist, Rank didn't investigate how the relation might apply in the sciences. It could be argued that Einstein was reacting against the Newtonian ideal as he himself says that his work was inspired by principle when reading Mach and not the Michelson Morley experiments.

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I think that the answer is even more boring and it centers on the issue that what Hoel is measuring as genius e.g. "acclaimed scientists" is not the number of people above some absolute ceiling of "quality" but a relative metric of status or capability versus their peers.

If there are 1000 people in some domain, then one of them is a 0.1% outlier and will be acclaimed, but so will be 5-10 others who are worse but still really good and at the top of the field and they will naturally be celebrated, and so perhaps 1% of that domain would be considered "acclaimed geniuses". If some centuries later there are 1000000 equally well tutored people in the same domain, then for the thousand people who are in the top 0.1% that's not sufficient to be acclaimed anymore simply because there's not enough "fame budget" to ever consider 1000 people from a single domain at once as outstanding geniuses, instead those 1000 people (each of whom is objectively as amazing as that genius from centuries ago) become the "benchmark peers" relative to whom we judge whether someone is a genius or merely good.

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The writer Samuel R. Delany wrote an essay, in the 1970s I think, discussing this question using poetry as his topic, on the grounds that he was well-acquainted with contemporary English-language poetry.

He picked the early 19C Romantic era in England as his test area for past standards, and calculated the number of 'great' and 'significant' poets of that time versus the size of the literate population. Then he extrapolated that to the contemporary USA and figured out the number of 'great' or 'significant' poets there ought to be if the incidence was the same rate.

And his answer? This will surprise you. He said that was about right. Delany found himself impressed by the amount of great, and generally good, poetry going on, and didn't think there was a decline in genius at all.

I don't recall that he addressed the question of, so why do we think there is a decline? A number of reasons, but one is that 200 years of renown does wonders for your reputation.

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I have to wonder how much our easier modern lives contribute to this. Potential geniuses can live very comfortable happy lives without struggling to push the boundaries of human knowledge or whatever. Sure, some geniuses are completely internally driven but not all of them all the time. Maybe lots of genius goes the easier happier route.

I’m Gen X and grew up in comfortable upper middle class surroundings. I went to an elite public high school and had several really brilliant friends and acquaintances. Maybe none of us were quite genius level but I’m not sure I’d know if we were because we basically had it so easy. Most of those friends are now extremely successful professionals but none needed to do genius stuff.

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With the internet, you can get your own aristocratic tutoring at home. You only really need libgen and sci-hub and you're good to go, good enough to get your foot in the door if you want to do research.

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> there are a couple of individuals who have developed entire new paradigms, who are widely acknowledged as way above the rest of the field, and who everyone expects the next interesting result to come from.

As an AI person who doesn't follow safety research, who are these people?

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I am (mildly!) disappointed in your epistemics in this post. (Unless this is a move of misdirection in a strategic game you're playing against... opponents; in which case, I'll keep my mouth shut.)

Newton and Darwin are anti-examples, and evidence for the opposite of your claim.

First, the prior on the explosive returns to tutoring is high: you are doubtless aware of Bloom's 2-sigma result.

Secondly, Newton's tutor was Barrow, himself academic nobility of impeccable pedigree and inheritor of academic lineages now passed into legend — Marin Mersenne (of the primes, among other things), Galileo (the big one), Torricelli, and that whole cluster. Barrow himself had exposure to brilliant teachers from a young age, at the schools he attended.

Most importantly, Oxford and Cambridge are *known* for their primary method of education being... tutoring. And I don't mean one-on-many, I mean 1:1 to 1:3 ratios at most. That's literally what they're famous for. That's what's produced the strings of geniuses we see, including even modern eminences such as Dawkins (Dawkins' tutor was Niko Tinbergen, founder of ethology and later Nobelist; the description Dawkins gives of what that was like is astounding, and makes for a stunning and depressing contrast with the meatgrinder/factory model that's the default otherwise — you realise the later may not in fact deserve at all the name 'education').

So *all* the statements of the kind 'and then he went to Oxbridge, which is a totally normal education' are a major category error. That's not how they do things there; over there, they actually bother to press the 'Win' button occasionally.

(For more information on this, I'd suggest the book 'The Oxford Tutorial', by Palfreyman. Dawkins renders his own opinion about the tutorial in a contributed chapter! )

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100% agree on your points - If you wanted to be Newton in the 1600s you could just learn all the math and physics we knew to that point and then notice that two things were similar (to be apocryphal, an apple falling out of a tree towards a planet and the planets being pulled towards one another). This was hard, but not impossible.

A Newton today would spend the same amount of time learning one subset of calculus. As a result, he'd be likely to publish results that are incredibly groundbreaking and exciting for the six dozen people who know what he's talking about. Then 30 years later someone would build a quantum computer using methods he pioneered and pop-sci articles would screw up discussing how it worked.

But that line of thought makes me wonder if there's another issue here. I've been thinking a lot about the focus on happiness and harm avoidance in modern society lately. I'm wondering if maybe some of the restlessness we feel as a culture is because we do not set other, larger collective goals than just making as many people comfortable as possible.

I suspect that a "well-rounded" and standardized education is good from a limited utilitarian point of view (though I've seen plenty of arguments that it's not). Its goal, at least, is to protect from favorite-playing and children getting left behind by the system. It may raise general standards of living. But if Newton had to do analogy practice to get his SAT scores up so he could get into Cambridge, and had to be in a marching band because he was required to take one non-academic elective each year, would the world be a better place or a worse one, especially taking into account that it now takes longer to get up to speed on a given subject? Wouldn't it be better for *some* children if they were allowed to start that journey, uninterrupted by the need to be well-rounded or whatever, as early as possible?

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Do we have less geniuses, or does it feel like we have less geniuses?

“Look at this 300 year time gap, we had so many geniuses, but if you look at the present moment we have so little”

Also, to use society’s capacity for recognizing geniuses, especially as our society fragments, seems like a recipe for generating the antidotal feeling of society currently having less geniuses

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It may be a mistake to post a reaction that I can’t rigorously support, but I do think something has been lost in our culture beyond the boring explanations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it relates to the phenomenon under consideration. If you read the real intellects of the nineteenth century—not just Darwin or the other huge names, but really good academics who never became household names—it’s just obvious to me that we aren’t producing people of the same deep knowledge capable of synthesizing broad and diverse strands of thought, using sound judgment and care in avoiding over-extrapolation, to form good, reliable, new ideas. There are lots of explanations, of course, like the vastly increased literature in every field precluding mastery of any broad subject area. But I’m quite convinced it isn’t just the absence of low-hanging fruit and whatnot. I just can’t find contemporary writers who exhibit the same kind of mastery as their forebears in those areas I’m competent to understand.

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Three points on this.

1) Many former examples of genius only get recognized widely after many years and some reasonable teaching about them. We know about the genius of Einstein because *everybody* hears about Einstein all the time. I would strongly argue that on-par would be people like Shannon or Djikstra or other pioneers of information theory and computation, but they don't get taught in the standard US high school curriculum. Same thing with Henry Ford and Carl Johansson -- Ford gets all the credit for assembly line manufacturing, but much of that would be impossible to scale without the gauge blocks Johansson invented, but the former is a household name while the latter is not.

2) Many examples can be pointed to of contemporary genius/fundamental direction shift type technology invention. The invention of CRISPR is clearly a game changer, similarly the invention of mRNA delivery systems, but I can't tell you who invented those off the top of my head. On the other hand, in hobbies of mine that I'm more in tune with, I would argue that many advancements in 3D printing or machining are coming at an insane rate, but often without an individual who can be pointed to as a foundational genius.

3) Many fields experience delayed fundamental shifts due to ossification where peer reviewers stick to their pet theories and direct the field to make slow, incremental progress, which is then shifted significantly as they lose influence and move on. I can't point to a good source on this off the top of my head, but I've read more than one article making this point, typically citing the behavior of paleontologists regarding fundamental theories about extinction event causes.

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I think you have to separate scientific genius from artistic genius.

It's plausible to say that the low hanging fruit has been plucked when it comes to science or philosophy, but it seems much less plausible to say that all the "easy" combinations of musical notes have been taken.

On the creative/artistic side of things, I imagine an important part of the explanation is critical disdain for popular works. Without pointing to the subjective aesthetic judgments of a small group of critics, how would one justify the claim that Mozart is a "genius" and Max Martin is not? That Dickens is a "genius" and JK Rowling is not?

But the critics, who get to label someone a genius, have an instinctive loathing for anything with mass popularity. And the most talented people nowadays are not doing the things the critics want. So it's hardly surprising that classical music isn't producing more Mozarts. The best musicians are writing music for bigger audiences and much bigger paydays. Even in classical music, I'd class John Williams as a "genius" by any objective metric but the fact that he writes for the public rules him out for that tiny critical class.

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There are lots of important scientific questions that aren’t close to being answered. What is dark energy? Dark matter? How did life start? What is sentience?plenty of opportunities for geniuses.

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I think there’s a couple of things going on here.

The first is the market cap problem; as a company grows large it becomes less and less likely that it will keep growing at the same rate.

If genius is one in 1000 (arbitrarily) then, if the population of the earth is 1 million there are 1000 geniuses.

If the population is 8 billion then there are 8 million geniuses. And we kind of have to assume that all these seeds will not fall in fertile soil.

Then, as some others have mentioned here, there is the low hanging fruit issue. As things become more complex it seems less likely that anyone person would make some staggering advance.

Also, just as an example, there were no geniuses of cinema until about 100 years ago.

I’m sure there are other disciplines that could be thought of that are equally as recent. All in all I think the idea of aristocratic tutoring is not very compelling

Then there’s the hindsight 2020 issue. Not all geniuses are celebrated in their time and there is no reason to think that this time is any different.

Mozart didn’t really end up looking much like a genius at the end of his life.

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Let me address some of these points, since I think, in many cases, they are dealt with appropriately in the original essay.

First, to one of the main points you make: is aristocratic tutoring still alive and well? If it were, then I agree the thesis would be bunk. And it is alive and well in very particular fields, like Chess and music (and sports, in many cases). There, it is obviously successful and helpful—your brother being such a case. But is it practiced beyond games, in academic/intellectual fields? No. Not at all. And that was my point. For example, a private tutor of the elites reached out to me, and this is what they had to say:

"Wish more of our clients asked for what you propose in your (wonderful) essay. Over 15 years working with elites around the world, I'm afraid I can only think of 2 or 3 who have sought what you suggest. The rest - test-prep."

So, no, aristocratic tutoring is not still practiced for intellectual subjects, even among elites, tutoring is reserved for test prep.

Then to your other main point: I do not say that the decline of genius is mono-causal. I explicitly give credence to the “ideas are getting harder to find” thesis and say I agree with it. I just say I don’t think it explains 100% of the effect, since it implies some ridiculous things, like that (a) science and arts are “mineable” in exactly the same way since the decline seems similar in both, and (b) that ideas got harder to find in such a way it counterbalanced the explosion of free information to everyone on Earth in a period of under 20 years. Are ideas really that much harder to find in 2015 compared to 1995? Really? That much harder? That giving every human being infinite free information did *nothing*?

And finally, the tertiary point: yes, you can find historical figures that weren’t tutored, as I, again, say in the essay. But I find it odd that, of your the list of six geniuses who weren’t supposedly tutored, two of them were. 

First, Wolfgang Motzart was tutored by his father, as you point out, but I’m not sure why that doesn’t count. There’s a whole section on how family members can act as aristocratic tutors. 

Second, I'm pretty sure Darwin was indeed tutored as a youth. His house had a massive servant’s quarter, and he had governesses (who I believe taught him languages). If you look at reports of his own household when he was an adult, all his children had tutors and governesses as well. They were an aristocratic family and that’s just what aristocrats did. I literally give him as an example in the essay of how casual they took tutoring, for Darwin, at 16, independently hires tutors just to teach him outside skills, on his own, like it's totally natural.

I think you’d have to work very hard to find a host of intellectuals who weren’t aristocrats past a certain time in history, so this contra game is limited. Lastly, governesses are usually not counted as "tutors" but acted as such.

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

I’m surprised the internet hasn’t produced more geniuses. As a 7 year old I soon hit the limits of questions that could be answered. The town library certainly had its limits. But to have a device in your pocket that contains essentially the sum total of all human knowledge? Why haven’t 99.9999 percentile humans, orders of magnitude smarter than I am, been able to do more with that advantage?

One possibility - my 8 year old nephew tested off the charts. His parents are very anti-screen. Is that holding him back? The modern parents most likely to have genius children are also the lost likely to be anti-scree…?

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Maybe in a age in which aristocratic tutoring was more widely acknowledged as an ingredient of genius (i’m speculating here), some parents or acquaintances might have attempted to model their help to gifted children on the basis of their impressions of what aristocratic tutoring might be like. Think of the difference in subject exploration style you might get from a bright parent digging into a subject and trying to work on it collaboratively with their bright child, as opposed to merely helping a child answer pre-assigned homework prompts made to fit all 20 children in class. If something like this happened in the case of the others, would it necessarily be noteworthy enough for us to know about it 100 years in advance or so?

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Richard Fineman went to Far Rockaway High School in Queens. Very much a GATE school, but he certainly far from being tutored.

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i thought it was a cool article , but the genius angle was a red herring

Its interesting enough to just say aristocratic tutoring was a better system and we should go back to it where we have the means. It produces better educated and more interesting people. What that does to 'genius' production is tough to say.

When you read Tolstoy's accounts of his education you find elementary age kids in Aristocratic Russia learning multiple languages fluently, playing advanced classical music on multiple instruments, reading tough works and advanced math. Nothing like the results you would see at even the best private schools in my city. Theres definitely something there

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Hey ACX Readers! More great comments as always.

There are a few great comment threads on PhD education below, and my comment didn't seem like quite a reply to any specific thought, so I am posting a standalone comment.

I think one factor in PhD students getting trapped into their advisors pet projects and ways of thinking is the sheer cost of doing much modern science.

As a personal example, my work is both pretty interesting and (I think!) a bit impactful. Not change-the-world impactful, but generating data all the experts agree is needed impactful. However, to do this work, I basically need $2million worth of equipment to myself. My advisor secured the labspace and funds to get this equipment, which is something he can only do because of his position as a Professor. I could never get this sort of funding myself, and am not the level of genius that could convince the NSF or a wealthy patron to give me the resources personally. And then I get tied in to my advisor's way of thinking because I manage his lab in exchange for all these resources!

This ties in neatly with Scott's comments on smart people only being able to make small contributions to big fields - the resources needed to make even small improvements are huge.

Nothing too original in this rambling comment (sorry for the lack of a direct point!) - just wanted to point out that many of the disheartening aspects of getting a PhD are a little less tragic when zoomed out, though still hard to deal with on the everyday personal level. Other than maybe my professor, nobody in my group is world-class-genius. But! We are mostly high-school-valedictorian level smart. So, for us smart people who aren't geniuses, a lot of the bureaucratic downsides of grad school seem like just a natural consequence of wanting to research cool and interesting topics that only an academic will pay for. This also means that we need to learn a lot about project management and other organizational skills rather than just thinking about electrons all day.

I do wonder about classic geniuses like Mathematicians and Theoretical Physicists. Can they get a little more leeway in the course of their academic career because the physical cost of running experiments is lower? Someone below mentioned famous tech entrepreneurs getting their starts as kids because of the relatively lower barriers to entry; a similar idea might still apply to math?

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

Sorry just a random commenter who can't stop thinking about AI alignment.

Is there anything that would stop us from 'cheating' on the alignment problem and adding a 'maximum power constraint' to its utility function?

"At no point should you be using, directly or indirectly, more than 100 MW of power. Modeling power usage of any amount counts as using power. You should attempt to model the power usage of everything in your map of reality."

I'm guessing that "or indirectly" does a lot of the work here. It seems to put .... weird limits on the AI (it's not allowed to simulate, say a dyson sphere). But a lot of the difficulty of the alignment thesis seems to stem from saying "i want to point the universe in some direction, take an arbitrarily large step, and have it not kill all of us", and what we've been trying to do is formulate constraints on the direction, rather than find a way to limit the step size.

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Newton said he saw further because he was standing "on the shoulders of giants." But now, the accumulated global knowledge of all prior "giants" is like the Himalayas. You can spend your whole life climbing to the top by understanding what is already known. And even if you succeed, you will only be seeing .0001% further than the current peak.

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> Below, we can see the number of acclaimed scientists (in blue) and artists (in red), divided by the effective population (total human population with the education and access to contribute to these fields).

That sounds like a weird way to measure the number of genuises to me. From what I understand, genuises are defined by being above their peers. I would expect to have a relatively "fixed" number of genuises at any point, rather than a number proportional to the population. Considering the "total human population with the education and access to contribute to these fields", it sounds normal that the ratio of genuises to "regular people" decreased.

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I also wonder if the whole thing was explained well enough by Stephen Jay Gould back in the 1960's, as to why there are no more 400 hitters in baseball (or why the number of basefall triple crown winners has plummeted). The proferred answer was that the pool of talent has become so much larger, from the pitching as well as the hitting, that it's proportionaly harder to stand out (or perhaps, given the dominance of pitching, harder than ever to stand out as a batter).

For this reason Miquel Cabrera should be added to our list of geniuses. I don't know if he was tutored.

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From the article: "With these examples in mind, it’s likely that at [sic] a significant contributing factor for the phenomenon of genius running in families is that genius family members act as aristocratic tutors, encouraging learning, the life of the mind, and inculcating the pursuit of the higher mysteries in the young."

My reading of this is that the author DOES count tutoring by parents as tutoring.

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I'm surprised that no one has made this counter-point yet: we have plenty of geniuses. They work in tech.

If you are a brilliant, independent and unorthodox thinker today, where do you go? Paris? Vienna? London? No, you go to Silicon Valley. Do you pursue music, art, or science? No, you found or join a tech company, or maybe or a hedge fund.

Elon Musk is a genius. His undergrad was in physics and he considered pursuing a PhD in Physics at Stanford. I expect he could have made interesting contributions to some subfield. But instead he went into business and became the wealthiest man alive.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin are geniuses. While PhD students at Stanford they figured out how to organize the world's knowledge. Instead of building on that idea academically, they founded a spectacular business on top of it.

Hal Varian is a genius. He is a microeconomist with a set of theorems named after him. What does he do? Design auctions for Google. Even people with long careers and scientific achievements are drawn in.

Michael Burry is a genius. He could have been a very successful medical researcher. Instead, he started a hedge fund, developed a novel understanding of the mortgage market, invented the Big Short and made millions.

Steve Jobs, Naval Ravikant, Marc Andreessen... we could spend a long time arguing for our favorites. The point is that constraining "genius" narrowly to art and basic research creates a selection bias. These people are still around--they're just pursuing other fields.

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

Well, if we're gone downhill with the decline of 'aristocratic tutoring', then it happened from the 15th century onwards.

Thomas More - went to a local school in London:

"Not far away from Milk Street, is Threadneedle Street. Today, it is home to the Bank of England, but in the 1480s it was the location of St Anthony’s School, where More went when he was around seven years old. The distance from his house was no more than a few hundred yards – down Milk Street, along Cheapside, and into Threadneedle Street. As the schoolboys walked along Cheapside, they probably had no idea that they were walking over the heart of Roman Londinium.

St Anthony’s school was founded in 1440, attached to the Church of St Benet (Benedict) Fink, which was originally founded by one Robert Fink, presumably a wealthy Londoner. St Anthony’s itself, like all of the grammar schools of the period, was attached to a monastic community. It was here that More would have taken his first steps in the oratory for which he was renowned."

Thomas Wolsey - likewise educated in a local school

"The oldest record that may refer to the school in Ipswich goes back to 1399, in a legal dispute over unpaid fees. The first recorded mention of a grammar school in Ipswich is 1416. The school was most likely set up by the Merchant Guild of Ipswich, which became the Guild of Corpus Christi. The sons of the ruling burgesses were educated for a fee, and the sons of nobility and gentry could attend at higher fees.

From 1483 the school moved to a house bequeathed by ex-pupil Richard Felaw, a merchant and politician. His will also provided rental income for the school and stated that, for Ipswich children, only those parents with income over a certain amount should pay fees.

In 1528, building work began on an ambitious project for a 'college' school in Ipswich to rival the likes of Eton College. Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England, funded his 'College of St Mary' by ''suppressing' local religious houses such as Rumburgh Priory.[4] Ipswich school was incorporated into the college. Wolsey, who was from Ipswich and may have attended Ipswich school, intended the new institution to be a feeder to his recently built 'Cardinal's College' of Oxford University, which is now known as Christ Church. However, Wolsey fell out of favour with King Henry VIII and the college in Ipswich was demolished in 1530 while still half-built. The school pupils returned to Felaw's house."

There may be something (*may* be) to the idea that what was taught in Times Past was very different to what is taught in schools today, but if we're wondering why there are no more Albert Einsteins, well - where did Einstein go to school?

"Albert attended a Catholic elementary school in Munich, from the age of five, for three years. At the age of eight, he was transferred to the Luitpold Gymnasium (now known as the Albert Einstein Gymnasium), where he received advanced primary and secondary school education until he left the German Empire seven years later."

Einstein's tutor? There certainly was someone involved, but it's hard to know if he was formally employed by Einstein's parents as a tutor or if it was a mix of extending charity to a poor co-religionist and permitting him to lend books to the kid and talk to him about such subjects:

"Talmey was 21 when he first met Albert Einstein who was ten years old and who was on a third year of Luitpold Gymnasium. Talmey was then attending Medical School in Munich, Germany. For five years, from 1889 to 1894, Talmey was a weekly lunch guest of Einstein's family, as was Jewish custom. They used to discuss themes of interest to Albert Einstein, and Talmey lent him a number of books about science, including works on general science like multi-volume Popular Book on Natural Science by Aaron Bernstein, works on physics like Force and Matter by Ludwig Buchner, mathematcs, and philosophy, like The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant; according to Talmey, "Kant's works, incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, seemed to be clear" for young Einstein. Many of those books were considered leading sources on their subjects, and at each meeting Einstein showed his mentor some of the problems he had solved that week. As Talmey recalled, teenage Einstein soon surpassed his mentor in mathematics and physics, and their discussions moved to philosophy."

So I think perhaps there might be an argument about the *content* but certainly not about the *model*. And I think the general idea that the low-hanging fruit has been picked and it's not so easy to produce Staggering Geniuses is correct.

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I'd add two possible reasons you don't notice as many geniuses today:

1. If Einstein were alive today, there's a pretty good chance he'd have been recruited out of school by some financial firm to work on advanced trading algorithms, or by an intelligence agency to work on cryptography. There are traps that suck up the most talented people in the world to do things that are not beneficial/noticeable to the rest of society.

2. A genius is someone who stand head and shoulders above their peers. Bring enough of their peers up to their level and it looks like there are no geniuses anymore. Maybe modern education is so good that lots of people are at ceiling for ability, and a lot of what we take for granted as 'normal' is actually at genius level.

Compare the complexity of any random song on the top 40 today to medeival bardic music, for instance. It may feel counter-intuitive to call Taylor Swift a musical genius, but how sure are you that her talent isn't on that level compared to the *average* 13th-century composer?

(and by 'her' talent, I mean whoever writes her music iff it's not her)

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Here's a model that explains that graph: genius emerges regardless of education, so as we educate more people, genius seems rarer. I hope that this has been controlled for.

I also wonder why aristocratic tutoring began to decline in the 1500s. That seems early to me.

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Hmmm. I can't think of as many modern brilliant military field commanders, either. Yamato, Rommel, Patton...any more recent?

(Half serious, half jesting in service of a different question: is music and science where our genius people are working now?)

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Far more likely that the problem is that kids today are primarily being taught how to fit into their socio-economic class as opposed to learning anything.

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Is it possible we have *so many geniuses* now that it's extremely difficult to stand out?

I suppose this is where classicists and modernists would clash. Is Beethoven that special in the modern world, or was he special because the competition was so low that someone exceptional truly stood out and left a permanent mark on the society? Do you reject the idea that there may be dozens of Beethoven level musical geniuses producing music today? I can't say that I do.

Einstein is a tougher one, and I don't know that my suggestion or Scott's really address why there hasn't been another Einstein. It also hasn't been that long. Long tail events, such as the production of someone of Einstein's genius, really are long tail and the lack of them in a 70 year period doesn't imply a fundamental change in the conditions that "produced" them.

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> "Below, we can see the number of acclaimed scientists (in blue) and artists (in red), divided by the effective population (total human population with the education and access to contribute to these fields)."

Two potential confounders for this graph spring immediately to mind:

1) In the past, people would mostly acclaim locals, since they mostly only heard about locals. With improvements in communication, people here about successful people all over the world, causing everyone to acclaim the world's best, instead of acclaiming the local best. The world's total acclaim is concentrated into fewer individuals, reducing the number of distinct acclaimed people, even if actual accomplishment remains constant.

2) In the past, fewer people had the education to potentially succeed in these fields. If we were previously educating geniuses preferentially (either because teachers sought out gifted students, or because geniuses were more motivated to seek out education--both of which sound plausible), then we would expect broader education to reduce geniuses as a percentage, even if the absolute number of geniuses were constant or slightly increasing.

I haven't done the research to verify whether these things happen or how big the effect size is, but I find it pretty hard to take the graph seriously without it being accompanied by some discussion of these possibilities (if only to explain why you think they're small).

(Scott also makes good points, but these two possibilities leapt off the page at me.)

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The NEXT Question, regardless of WHY:

Does this mean we are approaching a 'soft wall' in technology, where diminishing returns eventually make further advancement unprofitable? I wonder what happens when AI solves *basically all* problems, with nothing left to do but make more of the same... That'll entrench a few interests.

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Partly it must be that in many fields it's just much harder to make a genius level contribution. Edward Witten, the physicist, has made contributions to both mathematics and string theory that are astonishing to those in the fields. But he doesn't have the 'genius' celebrity of Einstein even though the problems Witten has solved are by many accounts harder than the ones Einstein or Newton did. The advancement of knowledge is much more incremental today. In music, the audience is vastly more fragmented than it was in Mozart's day which means there is no consensus on what is 'best.'

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There is a theory that the mean of biological intelligence has been reduced by roughly one standard deviation since the Victorian era. This old blog has a number of interesting and scholarly references to research into it by using the search term 'dysgenic':


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If you think there are no musical geniuses right now you are clearly not paying attention to music

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I'm a parent of three adult children so i'm thinking about this question from a modern parent's view. At a very young age, maybe five, one of my children exhibited a precocity for chess. But after a month or so of sessions with a chess tutor, he got bored. There were other activities he wanted to do, so we had no motivation or desire to force chess on him. I'm certainly not saying that he'd have turned into a chess prodigy of the first order. I am wondering, however, whether the fact that good modern parenting calls for letting your children have agency in choosing their interests has something to do with the decline of genius.

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I think the biggest factor is that genius is becoming more niche. Seldom are geniuses as widely celebrated as they used to be, in part because to understand what they are talking about you would need a degree in the field. I'd say everyone who won a fields medal is a certified genius, but I probably couldn't tell you what they did.

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Maybe the simpler solution is that we are getting stupider. The people reading Dickens back in the 19C were mostly educated to primary school level.

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

"The answer is: they were, we just need to look further back. The titans of black anti-racism are Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, both most active in the 60s. The titan of Hispanic anti-racism is Cesar Chavez - also the 60s. The titan of gay rights is Harvey Milk - now we’re up to the 70s. Ask someone who isn’t an expert on feminism to name famous feminists, and you’ll probably get people like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Andrea Dworkin - 70s again. I’m not sure any modern black, gay, or feminist activists measure up to these people in terms of influence, which is fine: the modern paradigm of minority rights began around the 60s and 70s, the first few people to operate within it got outsized acclaim, and there’s no easy way to equal them now."

I think social justice activism is a highly atypical case that has virtually zero relevance for any of the other things being discussed.

Standing up for minority rights in the 1960s was an enormously important, but difficult and dangerous task. Note how many of the names on your list were jailed and/or killed for their activist work. To become a prominent anti-racist activist in that kind of environment, you *had* to have an exceptional mind. Nowadays, the urgency of the task is much less than it used to be, but the risk has been reduced to effectively nothing, so there's no longer a filter keeping morons and mediocrities from dominating the field. I don't know of any equivalent phenomenon in science, music or literature.

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There are still many geniuses in Pure Mathematics. Like Terrence Tao, Andrew Wiles, Grigori Perelman, or Peter Scholze, but the list could go on and on.

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Another thing is I think there are geniuses in the arts - it's just the snobbery/small-c conservatism of the people who are worried about a lack of genius in the arts excludes these people. Two people who come to mind for different reasons is Eminem and Kevin Feige.

Eminem's wordplay is monumentally good even in his middling songs, and has such a presence in his industry as a master of it, that in a very machismo-based one in some ways, basically nobody attempts to attack him.

For Feige, and maybe you can say this is organization genius, but he managed to plot basically the mythology of our century (comic books) into film in an organized populist way that appeals to billions around the world. More importantly, the failure of basically any other IP to come close to Marvel's success in the past 15 years and the spectacular failings of other attempts show just how good Feige is at his job.

Now, I realize there will be those that claim the above isn't real genius. Shrug.

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It feels like a big problem that we're conflating two meanings of "genius" here -- a person with extremely high mental capabilities, and a person who does extremely important work. Many extremely capable people never do extremely important work for one reason or another, and sometimes you see extremely important work done by people who just happen to be in the right place (or rather the right sub-field) at the right time.

Einstein is both, while someone like Darwin is probably in the latter category, and the former category is filled with people that you might know personally but don't read about in the newspapers.

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Perhaps it's easier to monetize IQ today by being a programmer.

Also "IQ Shredders" https://web.archive.org/web/20200810024409/http://www.xenosystems.net/iq-shredders/

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Hoel's argument was not even internally consistent. He claims that geniuses (i.e. outliers) were caused by aristocratic tutoring, and then later says that tutoring was universal among the wealthy. "All the geniuses were tutored" followed by "everybody was tutored" is not exactly making the case for tutoring being causal.

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If it doesn't take as much genius to discover displacement as it does Special Relativity, that suggests that our metric for measuring past genius is skewed toward overestimating past genius. Say we didn't know about water displacement but we still had today's level of research training; how many of today's researchers would find it? I don't think we'd have to wait for a once-a-generation genius to come along and discover it. I think multiple people would co-discover it pretty quickly. Yet back in 300BC they had this one guy who figured it out.

And how many Pasteurs would have been able to invent something like Bitcoin? As we build the intellectual structure higher, maybe we're capitalizing on what would have once been called 'genius' every day, but we're using them for things like discovering in-app payments and opt-out behavioral nudging.

I'm not saying we didn't have true geniuses in the past, just when you're playing on easy mode it's easy to call someone a genius who by today's standards would be just considered pretty smart. Instead of innovations that go down in textbooks, they'd end up inventing autonomous ocean-cleaning robots instead. Still important, but not genius level from today's standards.

This is subtly different from saying "we've collected the low-hanging fruit". Here, I'm saying we're over-estimating past genius by calling things amazing discoveries that weren't that amazing in retrospect.

(Although quaternions have to be genius-level, right? Pretty sure you have to wait for a genius to come along to invent those.)

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I think we should cleanly distinguish the two thesis:

1) Focused tutoring is a very good method of education;

2) The decline of focused tutoring is the cause of the decline in the number of geniuses.

I believe 1 is true, and very much so. I think Scott's reasons for doubting 2 are persuasive. The weakness of Eric's essay is in leaning on 2, when I think he could simply have written fruitfully about 1.

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Mar 22, 2022·edited Mar 22, 2022

I think it's just outright false that there are fewer musical geniuses around today. Offhand, I would hold up Jake Heggie, John Adams, and Philip Glass as belonging to the Pantheon, along with Beethoven and Mozart and the rest.

I think also that there are a few composers who are primarily known for their "commercial" music aimed at movie and game soundtracks who have the talent and creativity to have worked at that level, but the strictures of those markets have made it harder for them to show off their full range. Again, just offhand: Nobuo Uematsu, Kow Otani, and Austin Wintory spring to mind as being brilliant classical composers. If opera and symphonies were still artforms where more people could make a living focusing on them, I expect they would've.

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Also, when you look into the accounts of what tutoring was like at the time it was generally in the realm of "memorize Latin all day and get a beating if you fidget" not in depth tailored learning. So unless teenagers knowing how to read the Bible and Iliad in the original has some magic stimulating effect I'd be surprised if it's that u

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This is a pretty disappointing essay, not up to your usual standard I think. It looks to me like you're not even trying very hard to defend the conclusion you clearly had in mind from the beginning -- that clever ideas are harder to find. I mean, obviously you will be aware that citing six (6) individuals from the past 400 years who were *not* tutored is no serious evidence at all for the proposition that "Probably well below half of [past genius] were [tutored]." Not unless it's also your assertion that 6 represents a good representative sample of all the geniuses in the past 400 years.

The hypothesis is pretty unlikely on its face anyway. It requires one of two strange coincidences: that we are at this exact moment in history bumping up against the natural limits of human intelligence, after 2 million years, or have discovered nearly all there is to discover, or created all there is to create, in multiple scientific and artistic fields. That seems...highly coincidental.

A much more plausible hypothesis draws its inspiration from the fact that multiple periods in history saw similar declines in productivity, and were preceded and followed by substantial bursts in scientific advance and artistic creativity. They weren't called "Dark Ages" just because of the Inquisition, after all. The path of human advance has *never* been smoothly monotonic, so it would seem dubious to infer that a downward trend over the past 200 years must arise from some exogenous cause, as opposed to just yet another fluctuation.

It may very well be a fluctuation that lasts longer than any of our lifetimes, of course. That has also happened. You could be born in 1090 and die in 1155 and in many places observe essentially no technological advance at all -- farmers would be using the exact same tools and methods in your old age as they did when you were born.

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Three points:

1) To the extent that genius is defined as "the best in the world in a topic area", the fraction of people that are geniuses must decrease when the world population increases. One out of every 2 billion people could win the Nobel Prize in Literature each year in 1900, now it is only one out of every 8 billion people. If you compare "upper-class white men in 1800" to "everyone in 2020", the math is even starker.

2) The "tall poppy" syndrome is very real. I have met quite a few people who I would describe as "genius" who have made it clear that they don't want to be publicized in that way.

3) There is a tendency to exaggerate the genius of historical figures. How many of the "Old Masters" are described as geniuses? And of those, how many were truly genius, and how many were simply good craftsmen with a posthumous fan club?

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I don't know - I think in my field, at least (mathematics) geniuses are alive and well. In the last thirty years some of the huge problems in the history of mathematics - some of which were open for hundreds of years - have fallen. Fermat's Theorem, the Poincare Conjecture, the Classification of Finite Simple Groups, just off the top of my head. Wouldn't surprise me if the twin prime conjecture was coming soon. Fermat was proven by a borderline stereotypical "genius" (British guy from Oxford I think, holed up in his attic or whatever for years) and Poincare by a perfectly stereotypical genius (crazy eccentric Russian guy). CFSG was proven by a team of super smart folks, I think it's safe to say John Thompson was (well, still is - apparently the Riemann conjecture is his retirement hobby, and I don't think anybody would be shocked if he pulled it off) an absolute genius by any measure. They don't get the mainstream publicity that a Degrasse Tyson does (FLT is somewhat explainable to a layman, the CFSG is certainly not) for obvious reasons, but I feel pretty comfortable categorizing them as geniuses. Couldn't speculate as to their "tutoring" background, but, in math at least, I would say geniuses are alive and well, just not historically sexy as a Gauss (or with a cool story like Galois).

Part of it of course is the low hanging fruit aspect of it. Gauss was brilliant, but most, if not all, of his work would be easily comprehensible to a typical math grad student these days. Nowadays we're all standing on the shoulders of really freakin' tall giants, which makes us hard to see from the ground where everyone else is. (I'm basically little Ant-Man standing on top of Giant Ant-Man in my field, for instance).

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Re: music, the aristocratic tutoring model is alive and well for performance, but for composition? Not so clear.

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Genius decline probably has something to do with our decline in polygenic scores for intelligence, and probably also testosterone levels. This is a popular book arguing this thesis, the first one. https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/40224881 This post reviews the evidence of this dysgenics. https://kirkegaard.substack.com/p/recent-evidence-on-dysgenic-trends-february-2021

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I know this has been argued by multiple commenters (certainly don't have the patience to find how many) and by Scott in the post himself, but I'm going to add my voice to them here from my own angle: I can't get very far in engaging with Hoel's thesis because of how strongly I disagree in the first place with the premise that there are hardly any geniuses anymore. As a research mathematician, I feel like I frequently encounter people in my professional life (big-name speakers at conferences, occasionally even colleagues) who are easily as rich in raw intelligence and capacity for out-of-the-box brilliant insights as Einstein was -- yet, they are not living in the right place and at the right time to change the world with a massive breakthrough that establishes them as the general public's conception of "genius". (Indeed this has made me annoyed for years at how "Einstein" is treated as synonymous with "most intelligent human being ever" in popular culture, as brilliant as Einstein obviously was.) In terms of the types of accomplishments for humanity that put someone on the map as a genius, I suspect that the low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

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If we read Hoel's post in light of Considerations on Cost Disease, we reach a surprising conclusion: aristocratic tutoring for everyone is possible today.

A typical Victorian aristocrat would have one full time tutor hired to live with their family and would have 5-6 children.* Today in the US, we spend about $12,000 per student per year, and the average teacher salary is $64,000. So 5-6 children could support one of their teachers full time. If there's little overhead & building & etc cost for tutoring, we could have as much tutoring as Victorian aristocrats for the same cost as our school system.

* I'm not an expert here, so if this is not typical, please let me know. I'm not sure if the average family size was significantly different for the aristocracy or if hiring multiple full time tutors was common.

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“ If they’re still working on alignment (which would be profoundly weird for many reasons) I expect them to talk about Bostrom and various other people I won’t name because some of them read this blog and don’t need bigger egos.”

And with a self-assured nod to themselves, hundreds of AI bloggers now believe Scott thinks they’re geniuses.

Scott has created hundreds instead of just a few by not naming them!

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I'd argue that the communal mind can only hold a certain number of celebrities, and with improved communications, everyone knows about the same bunch of heroes. If the population increases, then obviously the ratio of famous to not famous is going to go down. Also, being famous entails putting up with a lot more bullshit, and not every genius is willing to do that so they rest in obscurity.

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I'm brilliant. Let's get that out of the way. Not because I claim it myself, but because I've been called that by multiple parties. It was easy to do big things when personal computers were expensive and only institutions had them. I wrote a text formatter for PDP-10 BASIC so I could submit a formatted paper for Social Studies. Okay, it was more fun to write the program than the paper, but still. I wrote a text editor 40 years ago that is still being used. I wrote a graphics editor much like MacPaint (I even called it MockPaint, that is, until I tried to sell it to Zenith Data Systems. They didn't want to be sued, especially since I copied EVERYTHING, including the icons). I wrote a set of Ethernet drivers that for a time, were necessary to get your PC on the Internet.

Now that everybody and their brother and their brother-in-law and their sister and their grandparents have a computer, it's a lot harder to stand out no matter how brilliant you are.

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The trope of the "ancients" being better educated, smarter, etc. etc. than the "moderns" is as old as culture itself, and very similar cross culture, at least, to my limited knowledge. Ascribing it to an decline of the education system, that would probably mean that education has been going downhill for several millennia.

With aristocratic tutoring, in my view you have to ask, what about the much more numerous examples of such tutoring creating idiots and villains? Virtually all the nobility in history was educated using this method. If you compare humanity's progress when it depended on aristocratic tutoring to more modern systems based on meritocracy and mass education, well, yeah, you can see very substantial progress when aristocratic systems are dumped, including aristocratic styles of education.

You can always find examples of individuals schooled in one way or other who became great geniuses. I really doubt anyone can demonstrate that aristocratic tutoring was a necessary cause of it, much less a more effective way to inspire genius than other approaches to education.

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The low-hanging fruit explanation works for science, but does it work for music? I'm no musician, but it doesn't seem like symphonies would get exhausted the way theories do.

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What about the possibility of more potential geniuses going into business rather than research or the arts? Certainly much respect, fame, and money is given to the business or finance "genius" these days, but I don't think anyone really thinks of these people as being in the same category as Einstein or Darwin. But perhaps some might have been if their talents had been directed elsewhere?

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1. Literally, there is more to know, now.

2. It's too easy for really smart people to make a lot of money today than pre-integrated circuits/VCs/financialized capitalism. That diverts them away from "genius" paths.

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"Isaac Newton went to a local school at at 12"

Maybe "at age 12"?

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There was some debate online about a decade ago about the lack of a "Shakespeare in Topeka."

Here is Bill James (sabermetrics guy) in Slate, about why American society is better at cultivating its athletic geniuses than its literary ones: https://slate.com/culture/2011/03/bill-james-solid-fool-s-gold-why-can-we-develop-athletes-and-not-writers.html

There was push-back. Here is a New York Times blog containing some and linking to more views on the topic, and what causes Shakespeares to develop anyway: https://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/04/shakespeare-in-left-field/

So, definitely not a new debate! The framing in these articles from 2011 might offer some useful perspective.

(Hopefully this comment isn't too low quality to deserve placement here! Apologies, if just a couple links without my own addition to the conversation doesn't really cut it.)

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I largely agree with your hypothesis. However there is also another possible explanation - maybe the important part in aristocratic tutoring isn't the tutoring part but the aristocratic part, as in the emergence of geniuses may be substantially helped by having an entire class of people with financial resources to not have to pursue a line of work and too much leisure time on their hands. In his book "At Home" Bill Bryson talks at one point about the amazing list of famous artists, scientists, authors etc. that came out of families of clergymen in 17th/18th century England, and his argument was that it was because these guys were guaranteed a very comfortable income but the job only required minimal time on their part, so they had tons of time for outside interests. This doesn't work anymore nowadays because a) most people are not men/women of leisure - working is now fashionable and b) for the rich kids who still are, modern entertainment options (travelling, clubbing, drugs, restaurants, video games, etc.) provide way to many ways for quick boredom relief for anyone to take up harder innovative interests.

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I don't think the graph is very strong evidence for the thesis of declining genius. Acclaim as a genius is always going to go to the top handful at most. That number is fixed. As the population increases, the ratio will go down. I do think the other evidence out there about progress per (say) dollar spent is somewhat convincing that there is a thing to explain, but I think Scott's boring explanations are better.

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Add Einstein to your list. His background was middle class. He attended a catholic elementary school and gymnasium (German academic secondary school). He quit at 15 and enrolled in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The rest is history. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein

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Speaking of aristocratic tutors, the foremost literary examples are Thomas Square and Rev. Roger Thwackum in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. Square is a buffoon whom Tom finds in bed with Tom's lover Molly Seagrim, and Thwackum is a sadist who conspires to have Squire Allworthy disinherit Tom. How anybody took tutors seriously after that is hard to say.

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Scott's arguments are unassailable, yet it is interesting to speculate about how much aristocratic tutors helped the brilliant minds they did.

I'll never stop being blown away that Alexander the Great's tutor was Aristotle. My best guess is that what Aristotle instilled most in Alexander was confidence. Or maybe a thirst for conquest. If not for conquest of knowledge, maybe something else.

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I feel like there are loads of geniuses now, and the problem is that Hoel (and you) are being unfair about what constitutes a 'genius'. Like -- the requirements to make this analysis are a) be a genius b) have something really ripe to work on c) figure it out d) get famous for it and e) be remembered. But only (a) makes a genius. There are lots of people out there who are _absurdly_ smart, definitely geniuses by any measure (except for the above!) and their genius-level efforts are being channeled into more mundane results. Like... hedge fund finance. Or building software. Mastering all the works of Beethoven. Speedrunning video games. Writing incredibly complex and esoteric papers (Terry Tao is definitely a genius, if you want another good example, by the way. And Ed Witten.).

So what you're really talking about is "creative, paradigm-shifting geniuses". To that, I think most of the discussion here applies. There is probably less genius-level work to do in fields that are mostly 'figured out', although it's hard to be sure. I mean -- maybe there's another special relativity to think up, or maybe not, but if we knew of it then there wouldn't be one to think up! And our society / education system really doesn't emphasize _trying_ to shift paradigms, in my opinion: it emphasizes .. busywork, publish-or-perish, incremental progress, staying in your lane.

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As evidence for the idea that genius is not rarer, just more diffuse, I present the microprocessor.

I suggest that there's at least a hundred different brilliant genius-level insights that went into making a modern CPU possible, along with thousands of other very clever ones, over the course of fifty years. I'm not a chip design expert, but I've moved adjacent to that field, and the number of bizarre and counterintuitive steps involved in modern microprocessor design is incredible, and each one of these techniques was invented by somebody brilliant. These geniuses will never be celebrated -- there's too many of them, they were all big company employees who are discouraged from having a public profile, and the context and meaning of their work is hard to explain to someone not already immersed in that world. But that doesn't mean they're not there.

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As for the lack of intellectual progress, it depends on what fields you are talking about.

The physical sciences seem to have reached a stopping point because of the maturity of theories developed in the first half of Century XX. There are unresolved contradictions between existing theories and no real good ideas for their resolution. But, it was 14 centuries from Ptolemy to Copernicus and 4 more centuries from Copernicus to Einstein. Progress can be very slow.

The biological sciences had a spectacular efflorescence in the last 75 years. And are still producing spectacular new technologies like the mRNA vaccines. But one of the things they have discovered is that the mechanisms of life are insanely complicated. I just did a google search to find out how many genes there are in the human genome, because I recalled that the human genome project of 20 years ago was surprised to find out how few there were. I found that the answer is it depends and we aren't quite sure yet. "Open questions: How many genes do we have?" by Steven L. Salzberg 2018 Aug 20. doi: 10.1186/s12915-018-0564-x The recent plague reminds us that the human immune system is still poorly understood.

The arts and humanities suffer from self-inflicted political wounds. The communities that produced art found that commercial republics dominated by the bourgeoisie were repellent to their still aristocratic tastes. They adopted anti-liberal politics largely centered around Marxism. The chaos and bloodbaths of the 20th Century epitomized by the Holocaust culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

More sober minds might have taken the opportunity to repent and reflect. But the arts and and humanities communities have doubled down into ever more obscure and self destructive politics like racialism, genderism, and climatism.

My theory is that they will spend six generations in the wilderness before new arts and humanities can be born. Why six. I was born right after the end of the Holocaust. I am a boomer, the first generation. My children are millennials. Their children are babies. The babies grand children will still be plagued with our memories. The grandchildren of those grandchildren, the seventh generation can be free. Two hundred years after the Holocaust, Century XXII.

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Would Scott/others here consider the following views of David Chapman relevant to the question:



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There have always been periods of great cultural productivity. Classical Athens, Augustan Rome. Renaissance Florence. They have always been brief in the long sweep of history. They always come to an end. Why are we any different? Perhaps explaining quiescence is not the problem. It is the normal state of humanity. The real problem is how do explain outbursts of creativity.

Reminds me of Orson Wells in the film version of Graham Greene’s The Third Man and Harry Lime’s great line:

"Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed … but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? ... The cuckoo clock."

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I'd fully agree on this point and would lay the blame at the foot of shifting cultural ideas around genius even more so than at the altar of increasingly difficult tasks. Though it may be semantics to even try to split those ideas.

I would ask the simple question 'what would someone have to do in order to be called a genius today?' It is seemingly a question with few answers. And having done such a thing, thought such a thing, or led such a movement to success....would the world of today even deign to recognise such efforts as genius?

Do we have a lagging factor where genius can only be seen from history. Many probably thought of Darwin or Einstein to be very intelligent, near the top of their field, etc. during their lives. But perhaps the mystique of the genius title was granted posthumously decades later when the genius of discovery has met with the reality of actually effecting people's lives.

When terrible weapons of war, new medical treatments given to tens of millions, and as yet unrealised impacts on our energy system stem from the genius insights of Marie Curie and Einstein...only then many decades or even a century later through the continued use and impact of their genius level contribution can the clever, novel, and nascent moment of creation in their minds lead to the social title of genius being applied to them.

I would ask the same in the specific subset of spiritual and religious life. Would a new prophet be recognised or understood today? If a new Jesus like figure appeared, would we have the capacity to recognise it? Might such a person's influence only be understood hundreds or thousands of years after their death?

Outside of a few upset typesetters on the East Coast of the US and the people along the Moron's journey to Utah...were there more than a few thousand or tens of thousands of people who ever knew or cared about John Smith? If the Mormons had died out or never grew beyond their early numbers to remain a small curious sect of quasi-christianity in some rural area...then the title of prophet or genius or whatever would be impossible to attain.

The importance of an idea, the attribution, and its sustained impact lead towards the canonisation of a person into such a class. Certainly one can look back for evidence and for nearly every genius you'll find people during their lives praising them...but looking more broadly many people are praised by their peers today and exceptionally few of them will go on to be called a genius.

Perhaps Elon Musk will be forgotten and become akin to Howard Hughes...an eccentric and very talented person who made many contributions, but is ultimately a person who was both skilled and ahead of the curve. Airplanes were coming and with or without Hughes they would develop and become popular. The same might be said for the electric car or corporate space flight or whatever for Musk.

It goes back to the classic wisdom which puts all of this so succinctly and lets us know how few new ideas there are under the sun. Where some phenomenon we think is new is actually a well considered idea with thousands of years of thought behind it. Where the concentration of 'great people' comes in incredible waves where somehow history itself pivots on the century of their lives and seems to stagnant for hundreds of years in between or the geniuses of those eras are perhaps simply forgotten and their contributions lost to us. Such as the incredible astronomy of the ancient south and central americans which was hundreds or thousands of years ahead of Europe for long stretch of time, but was lost knowledge which did not have continuity into our present era.

"You have to be the right person, at the right time, at the right place."

And you can't really control any of those factors other than improving yourself and your own impact and perhaps relocating if possible to a place of power in your era. Be that silicon valley or london in the industrial revolution or ancient Rome to seek power not available elsewhere or perhaps simply on a battlefield so big and so bloody that Alexander or Genghis who could somewhat create their own 'right place'.

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"The titan of Hispanic anti-racism is Cesar Chavez - also the 60s."

With all due respect, Caesar Chavez was a straight-up racist, albeit a very particular kind. He was a Union organizer, and once his Union (United Farm Workers) achieved legal monopoly power in California, he proudly employed the Hispanic union rank-and-file to turn in and deport "wetbacks", a tactic he loudly and proudly boasted of.

Chavez was no Progressive, just an anti-immigrant exploitave protectionist thug. The fact he is lauded as some kind of Brown savior disgusts me. Beware any populist leader who claims to speak for "his/her" ethnic group and gets a halo of anti-racism about them, while pursuing only Stalin-ist power to direct the "movement".

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As other people pointed out, Mozart should not be in this list. Not only he was indeed tutored by his father, a great musician on his own, and an aristocratic figure, but almost all his education came from him, at an extremely young age. No time wasted in school. That's exactly the tutoring Hoel was talking about.

Another point about the lack of geniuses in music. You point out that nowadays it's common to get tutoring in music. That's true, but almost only for playing/performing, not for composing, and you can make a point that the level of eg classical piano performance nowadays is astoundingly high. Yes, there were many great pianists in the past (they were also almost always privately tutored) but there are many, amazing pianists today too (most people in the field would probanly agree) , and the art in this sense hasn't declined one bit and has probably increased. The art has indeed declined on the compositional side, and in fact private tutoring on composing is basically non existent (it wad common in the past). In my career as a classical musician I have only heard of private tutoring for composing as a crutch when stuff weren't going well during the normal, boring and uninspiring teaching hours in the music school. Similar to normal school.

There are many other reasons why there aren't geniuses in music nowadays, but I wanted to point out that music performers still get tutored nowadays and their level is great; music creation does not, and the level indeed sucks.

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Didn't the use of "genius" to mean "great man (or person) of superhuman intelligence (or insight)" become common only in the 19th century? I got the feeling that it first became popular in the Anglosphere, and was considered vulgar in German-speaking circles. Originally - as in, for the Romans - a genius was a person's tutelar deity (perhaps related but not identical to what Socrates had in mind - after all, Socrates's belief was personal, considered suspicious, and close to what we would call a "conscience"), born with the person itself. (If Agamben characterizes it well, then it covers some of the same ground as the Freudian notion of "the unconscious".) When, in the 19th century (or even later), someone spoke of Goethe's genius, what was meant was an intuition that drove him beyond what he or his fellows understood, conceived as a daemon that nagged and affected him, and perhaps afflicted him.

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I disagree with Scott, and with Hoel - I think we have had more geniuses in the last 50 years than in any other 50 year period. This is a strong claim, but I feel I can support it. I have some hypotheses on why as well, which I may get into later or in the replies. Also, I am writing on my phone and it is late, this will be poorly sourced - all info is from biographies and books I've read, with tidbits here and there from wikipedia and articles I've read. Sorry for spelling and grammar mistakes, I turn off all spell check and grammer check stuff on my phone in an insane and futile effort to fight google's telemetry.

My main argument is going to be just naming people I think are geniuses off the top of my head and why I think they have earned that status.

John Carmack - incredible innovator in game engine design, pushing the envelope for years, starting with smooth scrolling on PCs with commander keen (never done before on PCs before he figured out a clever solution that large teams worked on and never could figure out - a common theme through the 90s and early aughts). He followed this with the first 3D game engine, then first fully 3D game, then first game to require a standalone GPU and creating the concept of using one for games, and on and on. The book Masters of doom does a good job demonstrating why Carmack deserves genius status. He also collaborated with Luckey Palmer in pushing VR tech from dead end hobby to viable and incredible. John is currently working on general AI, which scares me a lot. This guy has a flawless track record of attacking and solving impossible technical problems that large teams have failed at. AI alignment needs to poach him, it may literally save the world.

Lucky Palmer - founder of Oculus - probably is also a genius, but I don't know as much about him from first hand sources. It speaks volumes that Gabe Newall (creator of Valve and Steam) - correctly - predicted Lucky would bring VR to the mainstream, and that he got John Carmack so excited about the space that he left ID software to be Oculus' CTO - being second in command to CEO Lucky, a guy under 30 who was at the time a nobody.

Tim Sweeney - similar to Carmack, but for the Unreal engine, which by all measures has overtaken Carmack's achievements in engine design. Worth reading about his process. He has had bigger teams over time but much of the work is just him.

Elon Musk - Made electric cars viable (many will doubt and point out he wasn't one of the original founders - but he led the battery innovations that made it viable, starting with stacking laptop batteries in a configuration that didn't explode when impacted, an oft forgotten technical obstacle that Musk cleared that paved the way to viability). Also, first (maybe only still) billionaire to create not just a successful space company, but the definitively best space company the world has ever seen by an order of magnitude. Literally, Boeing and Lockheed martin sued SpaceX early on, because the launch cost savings for using SpaceX instead of Boeing or Martin was enough to pay for the payload at times. Invented re usable rockets. Caveat - of course he had help - but it is clear he paved the way. If his top people in each respective company actually deserved top status and as much kudos as Musk, I would expect at least one or two being disgruntled and coming forward taking credit - I am unaware of any instances of this.

Ed Catmull - Inventor of 3D computer imaging as we know it today. Invented Z masking. Founded Pixar. Reformed Disney animation culture out of their late 90s bust period. (book -creativity Inc.)

Additional people who most are familiar with their accomplishments:

Steve Jobs

Steve Wozniak

Bill Gates

Mark Zuckerburg

Murray Gellman (Yes, the Gell man amnesia guy... Dude discovered quarks and the internet regurgitates the gell man amnesia idea as if thats all he did)

Richard Hamilton (Ricci Flow)

Grigori Perelman (Poincare conjecture)

More flimsy contenders, which I would need to fight hard to defend as genius but I feel they are:

Paul Graham

Gabe Newall

Peter Thiel

Satashi Nakamoto

Segey Brin

Larry Page

Warren Buffet and his partner Charles

Steve Wolfram

Most controversial genius commendation (at the end, as the bias against him and misunderstanding of him will lead to many completely writing me off for suggesting it):

Joe Rogan - just genius podcaster and interviewer. Joe can keep a conversation flowing, live for 3 hours, with literally anyone on the planet. I have a podcast, and have done 14 episodes so far only - doing what Joe does is not possible for me or anyone I know. I think his comedy blows. I skip his MMA episodes (yawn). He's dumb as rocks when it comes to medicine, or Trump, or whatever - but he doesn't claim to be an expert in those areas. He is an entertainment interviewerer, and no one on the planet does it better.

This just covers mostly tech - which in our time has the most low hanging fruit by far, as the transistor and modern computer architecture (Von Neumann architecture as it happens, John essentially invented the computer as we know it today to make the Ulum.-teller thermonuclear bomb design happen) has just completely changed the ceiling on human productivity.

Also, you may think, hey this guy is just naming famous billionaires! Well, yes - but that is kind of expected no? Our age is one of the few where you can turn Genius to riches. I don't think Vanderbilt, Rothchild, Carnegie, Ford, or even Edison were geniuses to be honest. Shrewd business men, yes - but not really impressive technically.

This is all from memory - list would become vastly longer if I began going through reference material.

music, art, etc. have many names I could offer as geniuses. This is getting too long, may add later.

Again, many will say these guys just led large teams, or didn't actually contribute that much, or whatever they need to tell themselves that these guys don't deserve to be billionaires. I am lazy and haven't cited anything, but the books I've read present very convincing evidence that these are all truly geniuses in the league as all the well knowns like Einstein.

True, many will disagree that all (or any) of the above are geniuses on the same level as Gauss, or Feynman, or Fermi, or Maxwell - but I feel they are having at least equal impact, their productions have been at least as novel, and many are at similar intelligences. Would have to argue case by case which just isn't tenable.

I guess there is no formal way to definitively say geniuses are more or less common than in the past - my post is to offer my strong gut intuition, poorly backed up by logic though it may be - that we are swimming in genius like never before. And I have some gears level formulations on why I think that is, and why I think tomorrow will have more geniuses than ever before, and this will continue until we reach a population plateau.

To be clear, I do understand and agree with the points many in the comments here have established - i.e, low hanging fruit is taken, specialization is increasing to the point where it is harder to identify genius, and often the largest breakthroughs such as the Webb telescope, the falcon 9 rocket, the apple M1, etc require teams of hundreds to thousands and the leading contributors are more likely to give credit to the team and for good reason. However, I believe we have more geniuses doing as many important notable things as the old ones, despite these additional obstacles to attaining genius status.

I also think if you put a blank slate elon musk into Newtons era, Musk would likely be remembered today as a genius. Same for Wolfram. Same for Luckey Palmer. And Carmack. And many, many, many more.

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Another possible explanation is the there is limited room for "geniuses" as the kind of geniuses you describe are relative ones. Mozart was not the only gifted composer of his time, but he was the most gifted. Darwin was intelligent, but most importantly he was the first to widely publish about a new field. There can only be a limited cadre of groundbreaking geniuses. There can only be 10 people in a top 10 list. As the population grows our ability to notice geniuses stays the same, so memorable geniuses become a smaller share of the population.

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Sociology is a pretty inexact and feeble science.

Now may I get genius status for stating this maxim with respect to dismissing the aristocratic tutoring decline hypothesis.

I think I would make a rum genius about toon!

My hypothesis is that genius defies the normal curve and is the only thing that defies the normal curve, apart from my luck on horse betting of course.

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On top of the list of boring reasons Scott gives, there's also the (boring) fact that being a genius in the sense of Hoel depends on "acclaim", i.e. public perception (even if a subset of the public). Clearly a Totally Objective Metric. In turn that depends enormously on communication capabilities.

Two centuries ago, you became a really good musician in (say) Brussels, and people would be queuing to hear you play, because that what's their immediate environment offered them. Sure, some of the simultaneously most intellectual and affluent people also knew about the very good musicians in Paris and London, and may have even traveled there to enjoy their performance. But you got an environment with relatively restricted competition to cement your fame, and get the status of "genius" among enough of a population that it became a meme. Finally you got written into some history book as "definitely a genius". Debates about whether you merited more or less the genius title than the geniuses from Paris and London and Wien and New York get left as an exercise for academics and fanboys.

Skip to today, and whatever you do, you are competing against the whole world. Anyone can know what the intellectual scene in any place is up to, anyone can easily read books from authors who wrote in a tongue they don't understand, and anyone can easily listen to music written by a weird indie band from Small Town, population 300. Yet while both population and "connectivity" increase exponentially, the mind-space each human has for "list of geniuses" remains the same. Instead of having localized lists of different geniuses that are coalesced into a large ensemble when written down in the history books, we have a sort of common globalized perspective that can be quickly updated mostly everywhere at mostly the same time.

This was true of early 20th century with respect to the 17th, it is true now with respect to the 20th, and it will be trivial commentary if we hit the singularity and the overmind knows exactly which is that one brain that is Objectively Best for writing jazz music.

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Well, in every field with measurable achievments from sprinting (time) to chess (elo) elite performance has steadily increased over time. I think that this is a strong indication that the supposed decline of genius in less measurable fields is bogus and the idea mostly comes from the lessening of the big fish in a small pond effect that Scott mentions. Does anyone know of a counterexample in a measurable field?

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Aristocratic tutoring tends to come with a confounder: Aristocratic tutoring => aristocratic breeding => aristocratic inbreeding => flatter, broader bell curve.

How do the decreasing numbers of geniuses compare with the numbers of imbeciles (from comparable househoulds, to exclude causes like lifestyle and nourishment) ? Do the latter decrease also, to a similar extent?

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Publish or Perish makes it very difficult to be a genius in academia. You have to do high probability research and crank out lots of mediocre papers to stay in the game. There is no time to step back and truly challenge paradigms.

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Mar 23, 2022·edited Mar 23, 2022

Aren't your conclusions in part IV very similar to Holden Karnofsky’s in the series you reference? I think your first two bullets are covered by "ideas as mining". The third cultural point I don't remember, but I read it a while ago: https://www.cold-takes.com/wheres-todays-beethoven/

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For those interested, my reply to some of Scott's thoughts are here: https://erikhoel.substack.com/p/follow-up-why-we-stopped-making-einsteins?s=w

To summarize (but this is just a summary, details in the piece): Contra Scott, professional tutors say aristocratic tutoring is now dead, the historical figures Scott chose were indeed tutored once you investigate, and most importantly overall, the hypothesis doesn't contradict "ideas are getting harder to find," rather, it supplements it, while explaining a number of further observations (like the lack of a genius boom following internet saturation).

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Is it just a signal-to-noise problem? As the total population has increased, as the number of people engaged in creativity or science has increased, have we simply drowned out the voices of the 'geniuses' because of the amount of creative/science speech by the non-genius?

I imagine an Einstein, in a community of dozens or hundreds, could be seen and heard. An Einstein in a community of thousands and tens of thousands... perhaps not so much. As a result, are interesting ideas and takes simply not propagating?

Add to that the defensive measures taken to ensure 'your' voice *is* propagated and others are not: the very screening and censoring machines we build for modern digital media applied to scientific discourse gets really scary.

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I think that it's not even that the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. There's still plenty of low-hanging fruit, it's just that even understanding the questions that the low-hanging fruit are answers to can take a lot of work, and thus many geniuses are only visible to specialists.

I am a mathematician, and off the top of my head, I could name plenty of mathematicians in the last 50 years who I would consider to be Einstein's equal, and who have made contributions that I think are fundamental to the field of mathematics. And it's not even like their contribution are so much harder to understand than general relativity, it's just that people don't have the right background to appreciate them, and the popular press doesn't single them out because they aren't actually that rare.

I am not as familiar with other subjects; perhaps physics and chemistry are truly stagnant? But I would guess that all the brilliant discoveries in those areas just aren't dispersed into the public consciousness, and there are plenty of geniuses in those fields too.

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Speaking of [Constant returns to exponential inputs being the null hypothesis](https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/11/26/is-science-slowing-down-2/), I'm surprised that this doesn't make you more skeptical of the silly AI hard takeoff scenarios where "AI" is a magic word that lets us magically ignore everything we've ever seen about the world and the nature of technological progress.

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For me public school K-6 was both a horrible prison and a complete waste of time that I could have spent actually learning something somewhere else. Almost all chess grandmasters started very young and spent a lot of time specifically studying chess while they were young. Jamming people into a one size fits all curriculum designed for average kids wastes the valuable youth of talented people and reduces the likelihood that they put enough time into becoming a prodigy at anything.

But "aristocratic tutoring" is a very narrow subset of the many alternatives to standard horrible boring public schools, and it's unclear why we should single that one out for consideration.


To explain a decline in genius, "low hanging fruit" seems like the biggest factor, but post-industrial-revolution dysgenic patterns (after we went from ~33% child mortality to ~0%, and meanwhile hugely expanded higher education which delayed=reduced childbearing by more intelligent people of both genders but especially women because they go infertile sooner) probably played a role in reducing genius despite the Flynn effect. Imagine it like this: In order to be a world-historic genius, you have to high roll everything. Far more people high roll environment now than 200 years ago, but far fewer people have the extreme high end of the bell curve in genetics, because a small decrease in the mean can cause a large decrease in the area under the tail of the curve.

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There's also a question of institutions becoming more bureaucratic and restrictive. In the early 20th century, the hospital where I work had a famous doctor who in his 35 years here invented dozens of medical instruments, taught hundreds of students and performed an estimated 200,000 surgeries. If he wanted a tool, he’d draw a diagram, call a metallurgist and have one made up. And then he could stick it in someone’s body an hour after it arrived.

Now, I’m not sure this was an optimal situation- we probably *should* have intensive review for medical devices, and surgeries have gotten more sophisticated in a good way in the days since that doctor could rack up 100 operations per day. Even though he seemed to have had excellent success rates, I would still rather have a modern doctor operate on me than Famous 1920s Doctor. But he got to be a genius and a titan of medicine in large part because he had the *freedom to do that.*

I bet there were plenty of casualties of the other *non-geniuses* who tried to be like him, and that’s how we got here. But that restrictiveness affects everyone in an institution and ultimately the entire field. I’ve spent eight months and collected six signatures from various departments in my hospital in order to purchase a bookcase. I’m not sure how a genius would handle this situation. Maybe they quit working in any other field and go do AI, where there nobody scrutinizes your purchase orders for furniture in this way yet?

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I'm looking at the graph and reading "divided by the effective population (total human population with the education and access to contribute to these fields)" and wonder whether it can be explained by this hypothesis: back in the day, most of the population spent their time digging fields and illiterate, so the "effective population" would have been a much smaller percentage of the overall population. If access to education goes up and the rate of geniuses stays at the same tiny number, wouldn't that alone push the graph downwards?

Paul Graham in Beyond Smart (http://paulgraham.com/smart.html), which of course also mentions Einstein, has some interesting lines. One of them is "For example, having new ideas is generally associated with youth. But perhaps it's not youth per se that yields new ideas, but specific things that come with youth, like good health and lack of responsibilities." It doesn't take a degree in social justice to spot that access to good health and lack of responsibilities in youth is a bit, um, unevenly distributed in the population?

PG of course does mention earlier in the same para that "And of course there are a lot of fairly mundane ingredients in discovering new ideas, like working hard, getting enough sleep, avoiding certain kinds of stress, having the right colleagues, and finding tricks for working on what you want even when it's not what you're supposed to be working on." I'm going to read "poverty" into the "certain kinds of stress" here.

This supports both the hypothesis that it's not aristocratic tutoring per se but being in the kind of low-responsibility low-certain-kinds-of-stress high-access-to-networks (including of tutors) environment that a young aristocrat might have found themselves in that tends to nurture geniuses, and my guess that the graph is showing an expanding "effective population" denominator with access to some education but not an environment with enough slack (in the sense of LW "studies on slack") to make great discoveries.

I said "nurture" not "produce" because I read Freddie deBoer, among other things.

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One thing I think you missed is that academia actually discriminates heavily against potential geniuses these days: https://juliusbranson.wordpress.com/2020/10/07/does-academia-discriminate-against-geniuses-and-could-this-explain-the-decline-of-science/

Consequently plenty of people who could have been amazing scholars probably end up coding at FAANG or something, while professorships are increasingly taken by non-geniuses. It's probably the same in music too with publishing companies or whoever makes classical these days. The genius phenotype is actively despised by the powers that be now -- it's too introverted, disagreeable, not diverse enough, etc.

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It doesn't take a genius to see Scott's right about this! Newtonian physics isn't too hard to get your head round. Einstein's beyond me. Quantum mechanics....

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Did you really read Hoel's examples and think "these are cherry-picked, I can find counterexamples," and not "this definition of tutoring is ridiculously broad"? Did you really think he would agree with your characterization of your examples?

I don't believe it. I think you cowardly avoided the confrontation of contradicting his examples. There may be some rhetorical value to avoiding confrontation, but it has destroyed all communicative value in this post.

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Was Cesar Chavez a civil rights activist?

His wikipedia article asserts this, but doesn't give a single example of him fighting racism. I searched for "civil rights" and every usage was examples of labor tactics that he learned from other civil rights activists. Yes, he was a leftist, tied in with other leftist movements, but that doesn't mean it's useful to describe him as a member of all those movements. A cursory google search does give a few examples, but I am unconvinced.

Of course it is salient that he had a racialized union. I don't think he appealed to rights, but to market power. Of course, the Montgomery bus boycott did, too, but it also appealed to rights. There is room for an argument. But I don't think anyone calls him a civil rights or anti-racism activist because they've thought about the topic, but for the sole reason that new left has defeated the old left and it is erasing history.

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The other problem with the argument is that tutoring isn't blind. Many people who were tutored didn't succeed, but if you can only afford to educate one of your kids you'll send your smartest kid. And Hoel is very flexible on what constitutes tutoring; if your uncle likes playing math games with you, it's likely that over time at least part of the explanation is that *you're good at playing math games*.

Maybe tutoring doesn't have any more influence on genius than general education, it just gets to be choosier about its denominator. I don't believe that either, but it does follow from the evidence Hoel presented just as much as his own thesis.

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Mar 23, 2022·edited Mar 23, 2022

Chess is a rare situation where we can objectively measure performance over time and the current chess players are the strongest who have ever lived. But most of the really memorable chess geniuses that are household names in one way or another (e.g.: Mikhail Tal, Bobby Fischer, Jose Raul Capablanca) are historical. So maybe it's genius-mythos-formation that's stuck in the past, and it's confused to equivocate genius-mythos-formation with the number of actual geniuses on the ground (which I strongly suspect is higher than ever, at least in any field that hasn't precipitously declined in importance). Also, if these are genius myths, what if genius myths bottleneck due to a fixed zero-sum capacity for stories to become popular mainstream memes so you only get a few Great People for a given field every generation (this is also consistent with modern genius myths as I would say we actually do have a share of them, e.g. Garry Kasparov, Terry Tao, etc. etc.)

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>"Below, we can see the number of acclaimed scientists (in blue) and artists (in red), divided by the effective population [pic: graph of both decreasing]"

To some degree this could also just be that "acclaim" is a winners-take-all thing: maybe reserved for the top N people in a field, and N doesn't grow with population. Listicles of the world's "top 10 most famous living scientists" aren't going to become top 11 lists just for population growth.

(Maybe coupled with inertia [plus low-hanging fruit in terms of influence?], for "of all time" lists: even if the 10 "objectively" best scientists of all time were alive right now, top-10-of-all-time lists would still want to include Newton and Darwin and Einstein.)

Recorded music being a winners-take-all thing is also why famous artists are famous and so rich. Singers used to only have to compete for audiences with their town's other singers; now they have to compete with Rihanna [https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/01/opinion/sunday/music-economics-alan-krueger.html].

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"Now it’s considered kind of cringe to believe in geniuses"

Cmon, you're a better writer than this. Cringe is a noun. Cringey is the word you're looking for.

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I think there oughtta be two different categories for geniuses, the first being what Hoel talks about (think of the long line of western tradition starting with Aristotle and Alexander), and second the counter-examples which Scott brings up. The difference between the two is determining how exactly each genius realizes their genius. With the former, geniuses are made with brute force ('cause with the resources of the king, no matter how incompetent the prince is, his behaviour will become the standard by which the rest of the populace governs themselves, cause parents will all want to raise their sons and daughters to be royalty) whereas in the latter, it's brute force by sheer numbers (not implying that one out of every X people have to be a genius, but rather that the number of geniuses scale with population size, and once a minority population becomes big enough, their status as a whole increases, and it becomes less acceptable to deny the existence of the bright members of a minority, so the first ones accepted would be whoever of the smart ones is the smartest of the smart ones (see also: minority revolutionary leaders during the American civil rights movement, and also Ramanujan from British India.)

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Mar 24, 2022·edited Mar 24, 2022

Could genetics play a roll?

This generation of sigma 6 geniuses were born from last generation's sigma 3 geniuses.

I think of the the last 100 years the world has become much more blended. If you were a Hungarian Asheknazi Jew in the 1901 you probably married a Ashkenazi Jew who lived in Hungary and most likely of the same economic class. This meant people were much more likely to marry people similar to them, making it much more likely for a sigma 3 person to marry a sigma 3 person.

Smart people are more likely to have fewer kids. I assume this trend started in the 50's with the invention of birth control. This would have small effect on average intelligence due to the rarity of sigma 3er's, but could have a very large effect on how many sigma 6 geniuses you get.

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"Genius" is partly a matter of perception and social construction. There are way more candidates who deserve consideration in our era than can possibly be noticed, deliberated, and agreed upon by the diverse audience of "genius makers." There's no way to even get at the underlying issue -- "Are there fewer or more?" -- because of the noisy process.

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Maybe we haven't "stopped making Einsteins", but rather we've reached the limits of what our Einsteins can deduce about the fundamental laws of the universe. I fall into the “ideas are getting harder to find” camp. There may be hundreds and even thousands of Einstein equivalents out there right now wasting their time on GUTs which will fail as theories, because the universe is beyond their comprehension—because, even though the 1.4x10^26 atoms in their little brains are hosting thoughts in complex electro-chemical patterns, those thoughts exist in a finite computing space—and those thoughts are unable to comprehend an observable universe that's 10^26 larger than their brains and that's been evolving 1.8^10 times longer than their lifespans—and whose underlying laws were crystalized outside (and before) the observable universe.

21st Century civilization is running on the fumes of basic discoveries made 60+ years ago. It was once assumed that we could go on into the infinite future making profound discoveries about the universe. But this hasn't happened. And I would argue we have more brilliant minds now working on these problems than we did through most of the 20th Century. With the help of search engines, the average graduate student today has access to more basic knowledge and research than anyone had in the 20th Century. So don't tell me it's an epistemic question of the what or how much to know (i.e. "education"). It might be a question of semantic conception—i.e. how we organize our knowledge and belief—but if that's the case, then we're still not much beyond the ancient Greek philosophers or the 2nd Century Indian philosophers in the how of knowing.

Also, Hoel fails to define genius. Without a concise definition, all the arguments about genius become vague generalities.

Maybe we're in a Kuhnian lull before the next scientific revolution. If so, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to see it in my few remaining years.

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Tangentially related: consider this late 1800s Harvard Entrance Exam:


It's difficult for me to imagine anyone passing this without private tutoring. Setting aside the questions on Latin and Greek (which people don't care about nearly as much in the modern day), even the geography and math questions seem quite challenging. I'd certainly be impressed if a student at a modern day public high school could answer them well.

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Perhaps the "ordinary education" that Newton/Mozart/Darwin/Pasteur/Dickens/Edison received resembles aristocratic tutoring more than the ordinary education of today.

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Don't we have a lot of chess geniuses these days? Magnus for instance. The Polgars peaked in the early 90s as far as famous female chess players.

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Hm Newton and Darwin fundamentally altered their fields. Which makes them founding fathers in a sense

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I'm most familiar with England. If you go back far enough, lots of famous people are said to have been "privately educated" (i.e., had tutors rather than going to school). But, my impression is, over time that declined and more and more of the elite attended boarding schools like Eton and Harrow and then on to Oxford or Cambridge. The social advantages of being part of the Eton or Harrow old boys network grew big enough that even aristocrats less and less passed them them up.

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