Where have all the genii gone?

The title of this might sound a little unexpected, but to clarify,when I say genii, I’m not talking about very smart people. Rather, I’m on about polymaths – people who are experts, and even innovators, in many different areas. The obvious example for most people is Da Vinci, and it’s very difficult to name anyone recent who is like this- my question is, why is that?

Using my random theory from a few weeks ago, one idea for why less people are innovators and polymaths today is that we are forced by our culture and education to specialise what we want to do way too early in life. The idea of the connections is that as soon as we start narrowing down what areas we focus on, we increase the strength and regularity of the connections dealing with it, which makes connections for other areas weaker as they are used less. The fact they are weaker then means it is more difficult to use them, so they are used even less.

In England we have to start specialising from the age of 14, when we choose our GCSE options. Then, we pick A-Levels, which narrows us down again because the university admission system and syllabus criteria mean that when we pick one subject, we often have to pick others that are related- for example, people studying Chemistry will almost always want to, or be forced to, study Maths, Physics and/or Biology as well. Then there is university, where we have to choose just one subject to gain our knowledge and expand our thinking in. Applying the theory to our education system means that from early adolescence teens are already made to focus down on a few areas, creating generations who excel at one subject, but cannot diversify or innovate as they cannot connect their subject to the majority of the other potential knowledge that is around them.

There are also two culture-based arguments which can be used. One motivation present in some way in pretty much everyone is the desire to be great; to be knowledgeable, influential, and an expert of some kind. The problem is, because there are so many educated people now, and because so much progress has been made on the “big theories” in each field, there are few openings left to do something big that will satisfy this desire. So a logical conclusion to this situation is that people would react to this by forming smaller and smaller fields, and becoming the best person around in that small area.

You can see this if you look online or in books for advice on how to make your business, blog, college application etc better; almost all of them will tell people to create their “niche”. In other words, the easiest way for someone to be the best in their area is to be the only person in their area. This encourages an almost cripplingly narrow specialisation.

 I decided to study the people known as polymaths to see if there were any patterns in when and where they worked. So, once I found a massive list of them, I looked to see if there was a connection between the time period and the country they came from. As seen by the hastily-drawn paint diagram on the right, there was a connection for the majority of the time, as there were always groups of polymaths from specific countries in each time period.

Also, even after 1400, when the Renaissance spread throughout Europe and created a  polymath culture- as they believed a gentleman should by default know two languages  be a musician, be a sportsman, and be well-read, most Renaissance nobility would be low-level polymaths to us- there were still clusters of polymathy in 50-100 year rotations.

In other words, it looks like polymaths don’t just pop out of nowhere, but are influenced and developed in some way by their culture and education. Looking at the Golden Age of Islam (the area between 700-1400 AD on the chart, where there were an incredible amount of polymaths, and phenomenal scientific discoveries), their educational system and culture were massively different from our “low-polymath” system. (On the list there were only 4 English people regarded as polymaths, yet 26 Arabic ones.)

The main differences between HP cultures and LP cultures seems to be as much in their attitude to education as well as its quality. In the Golden Age all schooling was free and accessible equally to the rich and the poor, even in university. They also aimed to shape and develop a love of learning in every single student, and for them to appreciate its power- this is seen in a famous quote, reportedly from Muhammad himself of “the ink of the scholar is stronger than even the blood of the martyr”.

Finally, the biggest difference was that students did not study separate degrees at university, instead they all studied between 5-10 disciplines; these included science, history, geography, philosophy, theology, astronomy, medicine and literature. So not only were they well-read, they also had a lot more connections formed, meaning they could integrate many different areas of their culture and world into their lives and academics. This is, at least in my head anyway, a possible reason why they had so many genii and polymaths at that time.

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