What is Genius?


November 2012
Ivan Obolensky

Today a genius is considered to be a person of outstanding intelligence and ability. Names such as Einstein, Newton, Da Vinci, or Hawking are given as examples. Exactly how intelligent, or how able, is not specified. ‘Genius’ currently has no precise scientific definition. Is one born a genius or does it show up over time? Is it genetic, or is it the result of education? These are questions that research is attempting to answer. It is still in its infancy.

Originally the concept of genius had little to do with how smart one was. Its connection with cognitive power is a modern one that arose during the early 20th century based upon advances in statistical concepts of the 19th century.

The original concept of genius began at least as far back as ancient Rome.

The word ‘genius’ comes from Latin, and means to bring into being. ‘Genius’ referred to an individual’s tutelary deity or their guiding spirit. To early Romans, guardian deities guided not only individuals but families and places. The one for a male individual was called a genius and accompanied an individual from birth to death. The female equivalent was a juno. Our modern-day translation would be a guardian angel.1

Roman culture was essentially contractual by nature. This contractual aspect was so universal that it even extended into the province of religion. According to the roman statesman, Cicero, religion was cultus deorum, the cultivation of the gods. Religious practice did not involve mere passive adoration and prayer but demanded active participation. Sacrificing a bullock was expected to matter to the gods and therefore likely to activate a divine quid pro quo that would benefit the practitioner.

In Imperial Rome (Rome under the Emperors) there existed an Imperial cult. Because context and definitions have changed so much over time, one might expect to interpret this as: There existed a cult that venerated and focused attention on the Emperor.

In actuality, the focus was not on the Emperor but on his genius, the divine entity that looked over him.

So when one reads that we admire Michelangelo’s genius, this is far different from the modern concept of “the fellow was seriously smart”.

The link between genius and intelligence did not come about until the early 20th century.

It started with the mathematician Fredrick Gauss around 1828, when he discovered that if large numbers of measurements were taken of a specific observational variable (such as the length of a metal rail) the observational results would vary but with the majority of results clumped around an average value. This gave rise to the bell-shaped curve or what is known today as ‘the normal distribution’.

The Frenchman, Adolphe Quetelet, working with French Government statistics around 1835, came up with the concept that measurements of human traits also follow the normal curve. But it was Francis Galton (see The Mathematics of Dissent) who was inspired by Quetelet’s work to try and define the average man by combining the normal curves of every possible human attribute.

Galton then made the intellectual leap of interpreting the results of human accomplishment (such as the time taken to run a race) not as random samplings but as the result of natural ability. There were those who did poorly and those who did very well with the majority somewhere between the two.

Whether the distribution of human ability levels truly conforms to a normal distribution is hard to say. After all that distribution was developed to reflect random observational errors. Those familiar with statistics know that there are many distributions other than the normal curve and perhaps because the fit was not exact is why what followed in regards to IQ has been so controversial.

The concept of the bell-shaped curve interested the French psychologist, Alfred Binet, who together with Theodore Simon, invented the first IQ test between 1905 and 1908. But it was Lewis Terman from Stanford in 1916 that used Binet’s work and that of William Stern (a German psychologist who invented the idea of an Intelligence Quotient) who helped create the Stanford Binet Intelligence Scales, which became the most popular test in the United States. Such tests were needed to evaluate army recruits on a massive scale during WWI. Terman helped categorize results in order to discover those who should be trained as officers and those that shouldn’t. His real interest, however, was in gifted children.2

Terman started The Genetic Studies of Genius, a long-term study of gifted children. He wrote a paper called A New Approach to the Study of Genius. He hoped to find out how to educate them and at the same time, dispel the negative stereotype of gifted children being conceited and socially eccentric. The results of his studies showed that the more gifted did better socially and academically and were generally more successful than the average. As of 2003, there were 200 members (of the original sample group of 1,444) who remained alive.

Since the early 20th century, IQ, intelligence, and genius have been inextricably linked and its ancient roots forgotten.

The subject of IQ and testing for IQ went on to be used in a prejudicial fashion. Interpretations of the WWI army tests were influential in drafting the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act that set quotas on immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and were an early justification of racism and Eugenics. Since then, IQ has been used as an excuse to restrict access to learning by those who tested poorly, and has been the subject of such urban legends as the popular notion that pregnant mothers should listen to classical music in an effort to help their prenatal infants gain a leg up in their future lives as it will raise their IQ.3

Factually there is a correlation between IQ and some forms of Intelligence. But intelligence seems to encompass more than a number. One need only read the story of Dr. Judd Biasiotto to understand its limits. When he was in elementary school he did very poorly. So poorly that the school called in a psychologist who gave him an IQ test. After a week, he was called into the psychologist’s office and told to go home and tell his mother that his IQ was 81. Judd was thrilled because it was the highest grade he had ever made. Had his future been based on this result a grievous error would have been made because by the time he entered college, he scored a near perfect on his SAT’s and his IQ tested at 147. 4

In the same way, ‘genius’ as a general concept has more dimensions and encompasses much more than simply intelligence. Because little Johnny has an IQ of 180 does not mean he is a genius. Granted he may be really smart, but is genius just really smart? Those that we name as examples of genius are known for having accomplished something significant. No doubt little Johnny has the potential to be a genius but whether he will is not certain. One of the reasons for Terman’s study of gifted children was to discover how best to help those with potential achieve their true potential.

It seems not all geniuses are born geniuses, although some are. Some very smart people never seem to rise to the level of genius yet they have the potential to be one. Some people appear not particularly gifted during their lives and according to existing ideas, but they have demonstrated genius in their fields to later generations. Van Gogh certainly qualifies as such a one.

The surrounding intellectual and everyday level of culture and civilization seems to play a part on how geniuses are perceived.

Take a genius from Paleolithic times, the one who painted the cave drawings in southwestern France and place him in today’s world. In the present, we consider him a genius from the past. Would he have been considered a genius by his peers? We do not know. If he was teleported to our time would we consider him still a genius by today’s standard, or a simply a social misfit because the society in which he was originally born has since advanced thousands of years? One has to take into account the amount of intellectual infrastructure that has been created since. Would he be able to make so gigantic a leap mentally to still be thought a genius in the present?

On the other hand, if Albert Einstein were placed in southwestern Paleolithic France would he be considered a genius by those who lived during that time?

My guess is that provided the initial greetings and languages barriers were overcome, he might give his remote ancestors a run for their money. Not only was he really smart, but he has the added benefit of centuries of previous geniuses who have helped create the intellectual, mental and conceptual reality we now experience. Thought, inventions, and discoveries have context, and intellectual leaps are based on the prevailing intellectual milieu. The time and culture in which the genius lives matters not just for the ideas that are present but because of all the ideas that went before.

As an example, Newton’s calculus, during the 18th century was at the forefront of mathematics. Today in the UK it is taught in early high school. A genius can only build and stretch the concepts that are already in existence. Push these concepts too far and acceptance becomes unlikely. Those who stretch too far are either shunned and their work forgotten or, perhaps, only appreciated many years after their death.

Ludwig Boltzman, who discovered the Kinetic Theory of gases, used statistical mathematics to demonstrate the movement of heat and energy in the late 19th century. His views were so controversial at the time that he grew more and more discouraged. Perhaps already suffering from depression, he committed suicide before he could be vindicated (which he eventually was, but years after his death).

Perhaps the defining difference between genius and mere intelligence is that geniuses change the way we as humans think and view the world. We look at them as humanity’s brightest and best. They light the way for those that come after and form the foundation for still further leaps by the geniuses of the future. Is it any wonder they are thought to be divinely inspired?

1 Lindemans, M. F. (1998, December 27). Encyclopedia Mythica, “Genius/Juno”. Retrieved November 19, 2012, from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/genius.html

2 Cherry, K. (n.d.). History of Intelligence Testing, The History and Development of Modern IQ Testing. Retrieved November 19, 2012, from Verywell.com Psychology: https://www.verywell.com/history-of-intelligence-testing-2795581

3 Boring, E. G. (1959). Lewis Madison Terman 1877-1956. Retrieved November 19, 2012, from The National Academies Press: http://books.nap.edu/html/biomems/lterman.pdf

4 Biasiotto, J. (1999). In Pursuit of Excellence and Self-fulfillment. Albany, GA: Solaris, Inc.


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© 2012 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. craig

    Hey Ivan,

    Fun article. Thanks.

    • Ivan

      Hey Craig,
      You’re welcome. Glad you liked it.

  2. Tech-Gazette

    When do you submit? This is excellent.

    • Joanna

      Thank you. Ivan posts a new article once a month. You may sign up for the newsletter if you would like to be notified when a new article is posted.


    Si, excelente articulo; este ha sido uno de los que mas me ha gustado.

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