Wisdom, Genius, Knowledge and Intelligence

I am always struck by the variations in human capacities. We humans are strikingly unequally endowed in physical and mental capabilities. Non-human animals of a particular species are generally very similar. For instance, individual members of the species common pigeon  are quite indistinguishable; if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. The pigeons from Germany are not that different from the ones in India. Can you tell which one is a German pigeon and which one Indian?

But we humans are different. The range of human physiology is vast even though all humans belong to the same homo sapiens species. People from different regions of the world look different and we easily distinguish between Germans and Indians. Not just across regions, individuals vary within regions too. That is not an earth shattering fact but it is worth noting.

I believe that the range of mental variations is much wider than physical variations among humans. We are seriously unequally endowed when it comes to brains. Most of us are sort of average but among us there are outliers who are a few sigmas above the mean. The outliers also are varied. There are geniuses in chess, and in music, and mathematics, and physics, … the list goes on indefinitely.

Until the very recent past, the average person did not even know about these far-above average people. But in the modern age of universal access to the internet, we have the opportunity to know about them, to watch and listen to them, to get to know them virtually. And I find it simultaneously delightful and extremely depressing at times.

It’s delightful that I have access to the fruits of their awesome talents; it is depressing to realize that I am absolutely incapable of doing even a fraction of what they do. But I should be grateful that at least I am capable of appreciating their genius, and I am thankful that at least I have the capacity to learn from them; the vast majority of humanity can’t appreciate the geniuses we have around. The world has great quantities of seriously talented people in a wide range of disciplines, and we all benefit from them nearly all the time.

Genius is a function of high intelligence and high knowledge.[1] Genius levels have been going up because both intelligence (see the Flynn effect) and knowledge are increasing with time. Consider a person living a hundred years ago with the same intelligence as a person living today; the latter would be more of a genius because he has more knowledge to work with than the former. Knowledge of course by its very nature keeps on increasing monotonically because it can be used without being consumed. Technology, a product of knowledge, keeps on increasing.

The number of geniuses is a function of the number of people. If intelligence quotient (IQ) is normally distribution with a mean of 100 and standard deviation of 15, as shown in the graphic on the left, then you would expect one out of 1000 people to have an IQ three sigmas above the mean. Now if we define a genius-level intelligence to be six sigmas or more above the mean, then there would be one genius in half a billion people. By that standard, we can expect that a world of 7.5 billion people, there are 15 geniuses. We can’t be sure who they are but they are there for certain.

The actual numbers don’t matter, and in any case, it’s an arbitrary definition. We just know for certain that there are more people with three sigma above mean intelligence (around 7.5 milion) than there are with four sigma above mean intelligence, and so on.

Do these geniuses have an impact on the world? And is that impact positive or negative? I think that evil geniuses don’t exist. Extremely high intelligence must incline a person to be good. The large number of highly intelligent people (three, four or five sigmas from the mean) have a larger impact on the immediate circumstances than the super-geniuses whose impact happens in the long run. I believe that super-geniuses are underappreicated during their time. James Clark Maxwells or Albert Einsteins provide value in the long run. Politicians have an impact in the short run but become largely irrelevant in the long run. The biggest benefactors of mankind are people who are not only super-intelligent but are also super-wise. That brings me to the matter of wisdom.

Wisdom is harder to define than intelligence. You can measure, however imperfectly, intelligence but wisdom is too vague a concept to admit any measurement at all. Wisdom is much rarer than intelligence. But I am convinced that just like the growth of intelligene and knowledge, wisdom has also increased in the world. Wisdom requires intelligence and knowledge. Stupidity and ignorance cannot provide the foundation for wisdom.

Intelligence more or less remains the same throught a person’s life. But a person likely becomes wiser with age. Over time, one acquires experience and knowledge, and that is why wisdom increases with age. I know that I was not any stupider when I was young but I am wiser now than before. Note that I am not claiming to be wise but merely that I am wiser than before.

I don’t believe in the “wisdom” of the ages. The ancients were not stupid but they were less knowledgeable than the later generations. Therefore the wisest of the past could not have been wiser than the wisest of the present day. People today have the benefit of the wisdom of those who went before, and therefore people today are capable of being more wise than before. At the very least, because we have the benefit of hindsight (“the ability to understand an event or situation only after it has happened”), we can learn to avoid the mistakes of the past.

The good news is that today we have access to the collective wisdom of humanity. It’s trivially true that we can learn whatever subject interests us over the internet. More important than that, we have access to information that can make us wiser if we so desire, not just more informed. The bad news is that there’s a whole lot of junk that distracts the masses and makes them stupider than they would otherwise be. Stupid people (the majority) do much more harm to society than the intelligent or the wise (the tiny minority) can repair. Stupid people scare me.

Alright, I am almost done here. Let me conclude this with a video of a very wise man — the late Freeman Dyson. Freeman was a genius. Then over a very long life, he gathered a huge amount of knowledge. And then acquired that elusive thing called wisdom. The world is a better place because he existed. Listen to this brief interview.

I wish I could have met Freeman. He was wise. The list of people I consider wise is quite brief. Included in the list are Alan Watts, Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith, Karl Popper, and a few others.[2] The list of geniuses is really very long, though.


[1] We economists are generally fond of functional notation. Allow me to use it just for the fun of it. Genius is a function of intelligence and knowledge. g = f(i, k). Function g is a convex function; the partial second derivates of g with respect to both arguments i and k are non-negative.

[2] I am leaving out the super-wise such as the Buddha or the persons who composed the Upanishads because too little is precisely known about they said; most of what is attributed to them is just stuff made up over the ages.


Author: Atanu Dey


2 thoughts on “Wisdom, Genius, Knowledge and Intelligence”

  1. It’s all about random mutation experiments. Give human genes a hundred thousand generations and a population of several billion, and “miraculous” levels of intelligence will eventually happen. So bigger geniuses than Einstein or Dyson will happened and probably have already been born. Unfortunately, the same goes for mutations in a quadrillion RNA strands (in just one patient!) and over time, something far worse than COVID19 is guaranteed. It is of (at least) academic interest to see which mutation will prevail.

    PS: A German pigeon may identify an Indian (at least, non-German) pigeon easily; we just don’t know.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: