How Many Geniuses Are There?

How Many Geniuses Are There?

This post originally appeared 15 September 2008.

Here is a question I often give on exams:

What is the probability that the next child to be born will be a genius? Give me a number and fully explain your answer.

There is not, of course, a single correct answer. What I just said is an important point, so let’s not skip lightly over it: there is no correct answer; at least, there is no way anybody can know the correct answer.

That nobody can know with certainty answers to questions of this type is under appreciated. I want people to learn this because we are, as I often say, too sure of ourselves.

What I want to see in the answer is acknowledgment of the ambiguities. First, what is a genius? Surely that word is overused to a remarkable extent. For example, this list says, with a straight face, authoress JK Rowling and movie maker Stephen Spielberg are geniuses. I often have the idea that to not call some eminence a genius is nowadays taken as a slight. However, a moments’ thought suffices to show that people exaggerate—if you are willing to take that moment.

The next step is to think of some geniuses for the sake of comparison. It’s best to think of dead ones so that you are not overly influenced by current events. After all, only history can truly judge genius. If you agree with even part of this, you will have made the next most important step: admitting that you can be biased.

How about some dead geniuses? Einstein pops into nearly everybody’s head first. Then, for me, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Newton, and the guy who invented beer. No, I’m not joking about that last name. The point is my historical knowledge is modest, and most of the names I pick are men from the last 500 years, and most are from Western culture. Humanity is older than 500, of course, and there are other cultures besides our own, so I know that my knowledge of who is a genius is limited. That’s what got me to thinking about the brilliant soul who invented beer. He did so, probably in Sumer, before people wrote down incredible deeds of this sort.

This line of thought eventually leads to other cultures (Confucius, maybe Lao Tzu) and other times where writing was non-existent (was there just one person responsible for the wheel and agriculture?). There must be a lot of geniuses I don’t know, and some that nobody can ever know.

Next step is to count, and to acknowledge that exact counting is an impossibility. Still, we can count to the nearest order of magnitude. This means “power of 10”, and it represents an enormously popular method of approximation. If you can get your answer to within “an order of magnitude” (a power of 10), you are doing good. The first power of 10, or 101, is just 10. The second power is 102=100, and so on.

So how many geniuses? Certainly more than 10, definitely less than 10,000, or the 5th order of magnitude. Could there have been a 100 geniuses? Given my above list, I say yes. 1000? I’m less likely to believe this number, but since I have said that there were lots of geniuses who went unsung, I can’t exclude it. Still, an order of magnitude more than this seems too large.

We have done a lot so far, but we still haven’t answered the question “What is the probability that the next child to be born will be a genius?” The answer will look something like # of geniuses who have ever lived / # of people who ever lived. Coming to this equation is crucial. This is because the question implies—I emphasize, it does not explicitly state—we are asking a question about all humanity. And all humanity certainly means all humans who have ever lived.

Thus far, we have nailed down the numerator in this equation to the nearest order of magnitude or so (102 to 103). How about the denominator?

What evidence do we have? Well, there about about, to an order of magnitude, 1010 or 10 billion people alive today. 100 years from now, nearly of these people will be dead and a new set, probably the same order of magnitude will take its place. Anyway, 100 billion people alive 100 years from now feels way too large to me, and 1 billion way too small, especially given recent population trends.

100 years ago, there were about an order of magnitude less people alive (nearly all of them different from the set we have today), or about 109 or 1 billion. How many 100s of years can we go back? About 2000, since the best guess is humanity arose about 200,000 years ago. That’s close enough; it’s within an order of magnitude. Without doing any math—just going by gut—we can guess that adding today’s 1010 to last century’s 109 (11 billion so far), and to the previous 199 centurys’ diminishing contributions (each previous century had fewer people), we arrive at about 1011, or 100 billion.

Was that larger than you had first guessed? This number usually surprises most people. But having a guess gives us our denominator as that we can finally solve our equation, which is

—— = 10-9

of, if there were 103 geniuses, 10-8. In words, it’s anywhere from 1 in a billion to 1 in 100 million.

Not very good odds, right?

This was a lot of thinking for such a simple question, wasn’t it? If you would have written down, as student’s often do, an answer “1 in a 100” or “1 in 1000” you would have got the answer wrong. Both answers imply that we should be flooded with geniuses, an answer which no observation supports.

Of oft-heard complaint among professors is that students don’t think about the answers they give. I agree with this, but I think it’s more than just students. It holds for professors and ordinary civilians, too.

“1 in a 100” is absurd, and far too certain. Just a few moment’s thought shows this. How many answers that we give in life are just as absurd?

Some kids will write, “I don’t know.” I usually give them 1 point for this because, after all, it is the strictly correct answer. But that answer is too certain itself. We do know something about the answer and we can answer it partially. We should always quantify uncertainty in any question and not seek the easy way out by given answers that are too certain.

Here, for fun, is another question I give:

How many umbrellas are there in New York City?


  1. This is dangerous territory for me because not only am I naricissistic, I am functionally illiterate when it comes to scientific inquiry.

    My first step would be to develop a working definition of “genius.” When I review the list of names in your post, I find myself looking at the lasting contribution of their intellectual lives. I do not think that is relevant, at least not in a dispositive sense.

    I remember sitting with an engineer in the 1980s. We were discussing some design he was deeply into. He said, “I knew I had to quit for the day. I followed this train of thought and was immersed. When I thought I had accomplished something, I took a break. When I returned and looked at my sketch, I realized that I had reinvented the transitor.”

    While it may have been that the saint that invented beer was no more than a blind squirrel finding a nut now and then, he may also have been a visionary whose other achievements are clouded by time. Further, the most brilliantly designed battle plan may have been defeated by a freak weather storm (say, caused by man-made global warming during the infamous 1824 Weather Spike), and the most ill-conceived battle plan may have won because the opposition shared the naricissistic trait that is me. These field generals may be viewed incorrectly based purely upon outcome.

    Clearly some achievements are noteworthy, and Einstein’s work cannot be discounted. But it seems to me that looking solely to production is misleading.

    So what other characteristics? Today we have IQ tests (setting aside the valid criticism of them) – but not historically, so that as a basis is too new. Reputation? That assumes accurate records, and we know some people through history pilfered the works of others.

    Things I would consider in developing a working definition of genius: Published work; degree that attributable work pushed forward then-existing knowledge; reputation; conditions under which work was accomplished (primitive v. all the resources the world could offer); novelty of work (work in a new field may not have pushed existing knowledge as much as it merely made others aware of an unexplored area).

    Once I could construct a working definition, then I would review the historical record for individuals that fit. During that process, I am sure I would refine my definition.

    Having the most suspect basis I could fashion, I suggest that from the first man/woman forward, there have been 97,847,742 geniuses. That yields a rate of 9.8 genuises per 100,000, assuming a denominator of 100 billion (taken from your post). Yes, the rate seems high, but I had to fit the curve to include me – so the lower parameter is low indeed. It includes, by way of further response, the gentleman that invented mayonnaise.

  2. Speed

    A definition of “genius” is required. And it’s not the guy who fixes computers in the Apple store.

  3. Joy

    Here’s a thought. The wheel, although useful, is it ingenious? Someone had to be first.
    Admitting bias is the first step in building a case for reasonable approximation.
    There is a high probability that keeping beer in the fridge is not a sign of genius.
    So it’s not what you conclude, it’s how, when, where and who concludes That makes an acceptable answer.

    How many brollies in NY?
    Never enough.
    What comes under the “NY” umbrella?
    What comes under the umbrella umbrella?

    I.e., have they fallen apart yet and do they still count as a brolley. Is there such a thing as half an umbrella? How about the ones outside pubs or cafes and should they be included?
    I suppose the answer depends on the desired outcome. The tendency is to count what pleases the expected answer.
    This might have been a bad one.

  4. Joy

    Here’s a thought. The wheel, although useful, is it ingenious? Someone had to be first.
    Admitting bias is the first step in building a case for reasonable approximation.
    There is a high probability that keeping beer in the fridge is not a sign of genius.
    So it’s not what you conclude, it’s how, when, where and who concludes That makes an acceptable answer.

    How many brollies in NY?
    Never enough.
    What comes under the “NY” umbrella?
    What comes under the umbrella umbrella?

    I.e., have they fallen apart yet and do they still count as a brolley. Is there such a thing as half an umbrella? How about the ones outside pubs or cafes and should they be included?
    I suppose the answer depends on the desired outcome. The tendency is to count what pleases the expected answer.
    This might have been a bad one.

  5. Joy

    and it’s not the guy that invented the spam filter either.

  6. mugwump

    I wonder how many “realized” geniuses there are today compared to the past. Presumably a large number of potential geniuses of yore lived short, brutish lives, and hence never came to our attention.

    As a rough guess, let’s say at least 2/3 of the humans born today will have sufficient education, health and nutrition opportunities to realize their genius, remembering that a genius needs a lot less in the way of educational opportunities to shine than do we mere mortals. What’s the corresponding figure throughout history? That depends on the context.

    When being a genius meant inventing things like the wheel, the bow, or agriculture, everyone had the requisite education, provided they survived childhood. But then most people did not survive childhood, so probably only 25% of the potential geniuses were realized.

    During and post Renaissance, you could argue only those with sufficient educational opportunities could realize their genius. So probably only 25% of the potential geniuses were realized then too.

    Between the two periods more geniuses may have been realized, but then the culture wasn’t always conducive (it wasn’t called the Dark Ages for nothing), so let’s just assume 25% for then too.

    So, roughly, 2/3 of the current/future 10B are “realized” and only 1/4 of the 90B throughout history were realized. Crunching the numbers, I get about 30% of all geniuses have been realized, with about 5% alive today.

    So, if there have been 1000 geniuses, 50 of them are alive today.

    Will you all please raise your hands.

    Another sobering thought that I like to tell my children: humans are distinguished from apes not because we’re smarter as a race, but because our geniuses are smarter. Ape geniuses worked out how to put a stick into an ant nest to eat the ants. Human geniuses invented agriculture. Without the tiny tiny fraction of human geniuses we’d still be poking sticks into ant nests.

  7. Lao Tzu was surely a genius.

    He said, “A good traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving.”

    Applies to a lot of things in life beyond Road Trips. Like Science.

  8. Joy

    “Full many a flower was born to blush unseen and waste it’s sweetness on the desert air.”
    Thomas Gray.

  9. I’ve been reading this blog for a while now, and this may well be my favorite post yet. Good stuff.

  10. LeeW

    Defining genius, as suggested by Speed, is a necessity. In today’s society, the definition of genius is most often determined by a score on an IQ test.

    Personally, I prefer to divide intelligence into two subcatagories…book smarts and applied smarts. Those people who have book smarts often find themselves in academia, as their capabilities often lead them to a life of study and theory. Those with applied smarts make the world go ’round.

    Is one better than the other? I would actually argue that one cannot exist without the other. The book smart person is often the innovator, devoting their life to research and theory, they find the breakthroughs. But it’s the applied smarts people that take that innovation and put it to good use.

    As for the question at hand Dr. Briggs, I would think that on a sunny day there are far too many umbrellas and on a rainy day there are not nearly enough!

  11. Briggs

    LeeW, You’d get 1 point, because we can do better.

    All, We see that there is more ambiguity then you would at first think. And this kind of ambiguity crops up everywhere. If we can’t be certain about this simple question, how can we be so certain about so many other questions?

    The way I started to answer the umbrella question was to guess how many people were “in the city”. Ambiguity again. Weekday, holiday, weekend? Rainy day, or sunny as LeeW points out? Question doesn’t ask, so you have to specify.

    Remember that all probability is conditional on explicit statements; it’s up to you to make those statements.

  12. Noblesse Oblige

    “Let us define your terms” Before attempting probablility estimates, we should agree on what it is we are talking about. What is a genious anyway? Maybe, “someone who completely changes the way the rest of us look at the universe, ideas, ethics and values, aesthetics, or ourselves. In order of mention, I would submit the examples of Newton, Francis Bacon, Aristotle, Beethoven, and Jesus. There may be two or three other examples in each catagory. be Einstein, So maybe 25 in all of human history. So 1 part per billion is not bad.

  13. geoff chambers

    If you assume that genius is evenly distributed geographically and through time, then your calculation means that only 10-100 geniuses are currently alive. Fair enough. But that there were only 1-10 geniuses in Europe in roughly the past millennium (present company excepted) is more difficult to defend. You can have Mozart, Beethoven and Shakespeare, but it doesn’t leave much room for the 1000+ poets painters naturalists explorers and scientists knocking at the door. You must either admit you’re out by a factor of two to three magnitudes, or be honestly Euro- and moderno- centric. (After all, it’s not even clear that the idea of genius has a sense outside post-enlightenment European civilisation).

    The Sunday Times came up against the same kind of difficulty when they compiled a list of the 1000 great men (and a few women) of the 20th century. Whether from political correctness (wanting to apply a racial quota) or a good ear, they decided to include about 20 jazzmen in the list. Now, common sense suggests that it’s just not possible that 2% of the geniuses of the 20th century were playing saxophone in Harlem basements. Yet anyone who knows anything about jazz will tell you that twenty geniuses is a magnitude too low. And if Charlie Parker was a genius (and he was) how about that guy playing the sheng back in mediaeval China? Your student who answered “I don’t know” merited maybe more than one point..

  14. Joy

    What if there were only two points for a maximum score as opposed to 100?
    Giving another point would either give the student 100%or 2%

    How valuable is one point?

  15. Joy, value can only be viewed in the eyes of the recipient. I recall a Spanish test in high school that had a total of 350 points. I didn’t know Spanish, although I was physically present in class for several weeks. The entire exam just made me shrug my shoulders. I received 3 points for putting my name on the paper – Pedro (there was no equivalent for Clyde).

    I cherished those 3 points, and promptly withdrew.

  16. Briggs

    Geoff, Noblesse,

    I think you both close to the main point—and Geoff, I am easily convinced that my 1 in a billion is too high. That number implies about 3 to 9 geniuses alive today. Probably way too high. My guess is that it’s 0 to 1, and more likely the former. Maybe I was wrong in my numerator: perhaps an order of magnitude 10 is more like it.

    But let’s not miss what we are after. All probability statements look like this:

    Pr (Statement | Evidence and Qualifiers)

    You and I might come up with different estimates for the probability the Statement is true. Usually, this is because we are each using different Evidence and Qualifiers. If you and I agree absolutely on the Evidence and Qualifiers then we must agree on the probability the Statement is true.

    This is why there is more than no right answer: in fact, there is a different right answer for every set of Evidence and Qualifiers.

    Many people try and jump to Pr (Statement ) with explicitly delineating the Evidence and Qualifiers. This is why I don’t give many points (Joy, out of 100) to the answer “I don’t know”.

    I’ll have lots more to say on this subject.

  17. Jonathan Guthrie

    I don’t think there’s a need to estimate the population throughout time as it seems to me that the proportion of geniuses to nongeniuses will either remain about the same or will vary thoughout time. If it stays about the same, then we can use a limited sample as representative of all people from all time and if it varies, then we would want to choose a sample as close to our own time as possible so as to reduce as much as possible the error introduced by the fact that we’re using the past to predict the future.

    I also point out that the mass communications system wave would seem to make it more likely that we would have heard of any geniuses from recent times than we would for those who lived in the past. That doesn’t entirely deal with the problem of unsung genius because it’s not clear that genius leads to publicity. I like Lois Bujold’s definition of genius, which is something like being right once, when it really counts. (And Lois Bujold’s father was someone I would argue was a genius.)

    Anyway, I think there are perhaps 100 people alive today that I would consider geniuses. Of the list that was linked, I strongly disagree about many of the choices. I mean, they have Brian Eno, but not Paul Simon? C’mon! Anyway, I would estimate that there are probably 100 geniuses alive today out of a population of 10E-9, which would imply the odds would be 10E-7.

    On the other hand, I point out that whether or not a child is a genius is not “random” (there’s that word again) and a genius child will likely come from bright parents. I’m reminded of a story a writer told me once about the odds of getting published where he pointed out that getting published is not a random process so talking about the odds of being published gives one an unrealistic view of what it takes.

  18. Joy

    “How many umbrellas in NY?”

    Number of people multiplied by the average number owned by each resident of NY.

    Define number of people in NY city to nearest order of magnitude.
    Define umbrella.
    Define average.

    “Umbrellas in NY” must be resident umbrellas i.e they live there.
    Immigrant umbrellas don’t count.
    Umbrellas that reduce sun and shade count the same.
    Broken umbrellas count if they are recognisable as an umbrella.(and if they turn inside out at the slightest breeze they still count.)

    It would be appropriate to do a survey although to the nearest order of magnitude this may not be necessary to discover the average, who knows?
    Instead I define the number that I own as average which is 4!

    This assumption is two fold, as Men don’t own as many umbrellas as women and people in London may tend to own a different number than people in NY.
    So if I say that men own one each.
    Children are not factored out and are counted according to sex.
    I assume that there is not an umbrella factory in NY
    Also assume that shops selling and offering shade by umbrellas don’t count enough to affect the order of magnitude target number.
    Counting children as adults pushes the average up. Not counting shops (department stores) and bars/cafes pushes the average down. I assume this will cancel out to some degree.
    Men and women make 50% each of the population of NY.

    Ten million people in NY.
    = 5000,000 women plus 5000,000 men
    5000,000 times 4 = 20,000,000 owned by women plus
    5000,000 times 1 = 5,000,000 owned by men
    total 25,000,000.

    Maybe that’s too many! I own too many umbrellas!

  19. LeeW

    Defining the parameters of genius is an argument for the ages unto itself. This is a very subjective matter which most people would tend to have a difficult time agreeing on.

    For example, how do you delineate between the disciplines? Does a scientist receive more weight than a writer? What about the inventor, someone who may have little in the way of educational background, but nonetheless contributed something of immense value? And does DaVinci get extra weighting since he is multidisciplined?

    Divining a standard in order to even begin establishing evidence and qualifiers could take more time (possibly a magnitude 🙂 ) than actually calculating the probability!

    By the way, can I get the name of your ombusdman, I would like to file a complaint about my 1 point!

    (on a side note…the bot detection software you use is miserable)

  20. Briggs


    Joy is handling all complaints.

    What’s WordPress doing now?

    I should say that I don’t love it, but I am reluctant to change now.

  21. Joy


    The points remark was reply to Geoff as I inferred from his comment that one point had an inherent low value whether stated as a percentage or as inherent value to the pupil/ teacher.
    Incredulous as may be, I have scored 100% on occasions some of which counted towards “Something”. However the greatest number in my book was the four out of ten I scored in physics in a test that counted not towards any final mark. Why? Because the others had scored 1’s and 2’s!
    I had not had opportunity to study physics at school and had always fancied it. “Girls learn Biology, Botany, Maths and Computers, (and of course Domestic Science)”
    The teacher was in his eighties and was grandson or great grandson of Faraday. I felt for him, as he clearly must have thought his lessons had been in vain. They were not. He achieved more than he assumed. His disappointment was tangible.

  22. Noblesse Oblige

    I would like to know if geniusity in humanity is inceasing, decreasing, or holding about constant. We observe that most of the great geniuses we routinely mention are no longer living. Is that because there really are fewer today; ior it takes a while to recognize them; or (noblesse oblige) we are naturally nostalgic.

  23. How many umbrellas in NYC? No one has mentioned yet whether an umbrella warehouse is present. Could be a manufacturer or merely storage from overseas (port city). That would raise the number of umbrellas without respect to the population.

  24. Whoops, Joy – I just saw your mention of a factory. But I still believe it is highly probably for mass storage of some kind – if not for distribution to an area larger than NYC (port city) but at least for sale within the city over a several month period. Shops, depending upon availabel capital and storage, may purchase an entire season’s worth in one or two shots.

    NYC sends it’s garbage to NJ and Staten Island (latter being a part of the city), so discarded umbrellas need to be accounted for in some fashion.

  25. Greg

    The New York umberella question seems so obvoius.
    One umberella for every working man and woman. Reading from the U.S. Census Bureau there were approximatly 14,788,536 adults (above the age of 18) in 2006, with a population increase of 1.7% per annum, therefor approximatly 15,296,620 adults today.

    Assumptions include;
    The question refers to umberellas in existance in a usable state at home or in the office.
    Children do not own umbrella’s.
    Some adults will not own an umbrella.
    Some adults will own more than one umbrella.
    Adults in a family situation will have an umberella each.

    Therefor there are approximatly 15.3 million umbrellas in New York City.


  26. Greg

    I would like to delete the word “working” from the second sentence.

  27. There have only been two geniuses ever. They are Benjamin Franklin and Hedy Lamar. (In interviews, Antheil said the idea was for frequency hopping was all hers. He just worked on the implementations with the piano roll. )

    All the other sois dissant geniuses were certainty bright, hard working and benefited from excellent formal educations for their time. They excelled in their field of expertise and made permanent contributions. But you just can’t compare them to Hedy or Ben.

    So, that makes the probability of a true genius being born p= 2/ 10^11, which is even lower than you suggest.

    On the other hand, if we define a genius as someone in the top 1% of IQ scores on a test administered by Mensa, the probability is 1%– by definition.

  28. I think you people are far too conservative. Genius is everywhere. Webster’s defines a genius as extraordinary intellectual power. I’ve seen that in 3-year-olds. Another Webster’s def: a person endowed with transcendent mental superiority. I’m pretty smart but cannot read Chinese: a billion people can who transcend me!

    To answer the quiz question, I say 100 percent. Everybody has a stroke of genius once in awhile. Newton, Gauss, Euler, and you. Don’t be so modest.

  29. Raphael

    What is the probability that the next child to be born will be a genius? Give me a number and fully explain your answer.

    The literary response: (this is what happens when you have english majors in your statistics class)

    Answer: 0

    Definition 1: Average intelligence equals total intelligence divided by total population.

    Postulate 1: Population of the universe: “None. Although you might see people from time to time, they are most likely products of your imagination. Simple mathematics tells us that the population of the Universe must be zero. Why? Well given that the volume of the universe is infinite there must be an infinite number of worlds. But not all of them are populated; therefore only a finite number are. Any finite number divided by infinity is zero, therefore the average population of the Universe is zero, and so the total population must be zero. –Douglas Adams. ”

    Conclusion 1: (fron D1 and P1) Average intelligence is undefined. Even if we assume the total inelligence of the universe is a very large number indeed, given the population of the universe, the average intelligence is undefined.

    Discussion: Given the undefinable nature of the average intelligence of the universe, it is quite impossible to define the existance of greater intelligence. So obviously genius does not exist. Thus, the answer to the question is 0.

  30. JH

    Mike D. and Dan Hughes, Love your answers.

    Umbrella, eh?! I asked my students whether or not they would bring an umbrella at various probabilities of precipitation to illustrate the consequences in a statistical hypothesis test (Type I and II errors).

    And I can always find some students agreeing with me that a 60% chance of precipitation means that it will rain during 60% of the day…

    I know for certain the number of umbrellas in NY could vary daily and is a positive integer falling between 1 and, oh, say, nonillion.

    Good answer? Yeah, always. Well, “…. It’s so unfair. My teacher told me that my answer was wrong just because it was not what she wanted to hear…,” said my genius daughter when she was in 2nd grade. Hey, she is a Lao-Tzu in the making…

  31. mugwump

    I think 0 or 1 geniuses alive today is a gross underestimate. To focus on one field, mathematics, even high school students can understand the revolutions wrought by the likes of Newton, Gauss, Euler. But mathematics today is far more advanced. Present-day Newtons cannot make the same revolutionary advances as Newton could in his day. Nor can most people even understand the advances that are made.

    To compare genuses across the ages you have to ask: “Could today’s putative genius X have done Newton’s work in his time?”

    I suspect there are many more than “0 or 1” people alive today for whom the answer is “yes”.

  32. Joy

    “There is no darkness but ignorance;” ‘twelfth night’

  33. Joy

    I assume the genius question was to illustrate, with a fair example, how one might go about tackling such a question; that the answer is based on assumption and bias that affects the outcome probability, and that if all were to agree on the definitions we would be more likely to give an answer that pleased all.
    One would hope that if Mr Briggs had wanted to know who or what was a genius he would have asked,
    “What is the definition of genius?”
    But he didn’t.

  34. Raphael


    If you were my sister, I would simply assume you were using an allusion to call me mad, and I would have responded, “… in which thou art more puzzl’d than the Egyptians in their fog.”

    But I tend to give the benefit of doubt to those who aren’t my sister. So, I am not quite sure what you mean. 🙂

  35. Greg

    Defining what the definition of a geinus is, wasn’t the question.
    Thats how I read Joy’s post.

  36. Joy


    No puzzled Egyptians, madmen or siblings intended. Just the five words.
    Response was to the humorous comment.
    Had I thought you mad, I would say nothing.

  37. Were I answering your question, Dr Briggs, I would have gone with the pedestrian definition of ‘genius’ from the IQ tables, assigned and arbitrary number of SD from the mean, looked up what fraction of the population is, say, 6 SD above the mean and multiplied by world population.

    Genius is pretty subjective by other means. Is there another DaVinci walking around today? If so, he or she has yet to make themselves known. Part of the problem is that there are now so very many disciplines in which to delve, there is a silo of knowledge issue for geniuses as well. There are probably some master-class intellects in things we rarely hear about, in part because they either don’t do good PR or because the theories they’re working on don’t have that much impact at present. Reading Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, there are a large number of folks from the Renaissance days who were certainly peers to the acknowledged geniuses of history, but whose tales are rarely told outside of graduate-level classes in specific fields.

    At least one genius I can name isn’t alive but did share the Earth with us for part of our lives: Colonel John Boyd. Apparently his personality was caustic enough to hide his genius to all but the Marines during his lifetime, as well as a few prescient people whose oxen he wasn’t trying to gore. He’s another example of a genius trapped in a somewhat obscure discipline (military studies), who didn’t publish much yet still has made and will continue to make impacts on world events far and above the usual impact of a single person. I enjoyed Roger Coram’s book Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War, so much that I read it in one sitting. Highly recommended.

  38. Francois Ouellette


    You raise the most important point. The question has to do with what are the chances to be “born” a genius. But a genius is not just born, it is also made. It is as much the product of innate capability, and circumstances, of which a great deal involves pure luck. So one should not so much calculate what is the probability to be born a genius, as that of becoming a “recognized” genius at the end of one’s life.

    So you’d have a product of, say, probability to be born with exceptional creative abilities, times probability to be raised and educated in an environment that fosters these abilities, times the probability to encounter problems or situations where those abilities can really make a difference.

    In the end, I suspect that humanity is not lacking potential geniuses. Whenever we need one, one seems to pop out, and fit nicely with the opportunities of the day. In other words, the third term in the equation (probability to encounter situations that require a genius) is the limiting term. For example, would Mozart have been a genius 100 years before, or 100 years after?Would he have composed jazz had he been born in the 20th century? Or would he have been wasted writing “contemporary” music, or stupid pop songs? And why does each epoch have its own musical geniuses, as well as painters, scientists, writers, and the like. And how many unrecognized geniuses were there? I mean people who did outstanding contributions, but whose names were never recorded? Who invented the compass? Some Chinese genius, for all we know.

    So my answer is that the chances of being born a “potential” genius are pretty good , maybe as good as 1/100 or 1/1000. The chances of becoming a “realized” genius depend only on our threshold for calling someone a genius.

    I disagree with the comment that we, as a species, we are smarter because our geniuses are smarter. We have made genius our trademark. Maybe it started with our ancestor apes, but that “gene” of potential genius has definitely found its niche in us as a species. It’s not so much intelligence, in my opinion. It’s creativity. Many people are not creative, or not very much. But then many are. In all likelihood, this is a hereditary trait, and it is prevalent. In conclusion, we have all the geniuses we need, no more, no less. So take how many geniuses we need, divide by the population, and you have your answer.

  39. dearieme

    One of the physicists of the quantum era – perhaps it was Dirac – said that the time permitted good physicists to do great physics.

  40. Doubter

    My first thought was that this is somewhat akin to asking how many angels are there? Not only is there the question of what a workable definition would be, there is the question of whether they actually exist. Seriously, we think of them as different hardware-wise, but perhaps they only have better software, or just better luck. How many geniuses have gone undetected to the world, or even to themselves? Our education system is set up to discourage thinking like this. The school system sure didn’t recognize Einstein as a genius.

    Actually, I think I met a genius the other day, by chance on the street. He had an amazing mind, but if he were any more amazing, he would have been locked up in an asylum. If you think of genius as being creative, it’s a small step from there to noticing how many famous extremely creative people have also had mental issues.
    What is the prevalence of idiot savants? Perhaps the prevalence of geniuses is about the same.

    On second thought, it’s harder to be a genius now because all the easy discoveries that it only a genius could discover have already been discovered. See:

    My best-genius nomination: the guy who invented writing.

  41. George Wilson

    Simply put, going to the numbers of humans the UN states that are aborted (let’s say 54 million, how many have we’ve selectively murdered via abortion since 1973? Then if you wanted to you could calculate it down to just the USA, or EU, or Asia, or Africa, etc., etc., etc!!!) Actually, what difference does a genius make if they can’t turn the entire abortion construct around to sustain life no matter the cause of death. Perhaps the term genius is malignant like cancer because genius has been unable to find the cure for abortion, like many other diseases mankind brings on itself.

  42. Wait wait wait. We can do this. At least, if we delineate the problem space to the USA.
    There are only a few significant racial sets in the USA, with a total population estimated at 325 million.
    White: 61.3% = 199.2 million. 58 births per 1000 women. Mean IQ = 100.
    Black: 12.7% = 41.3 million. 63 births per 1000 women. Mean IQ = 85.
    Latino: 17.8% = 57.8 million. 71 births per 1000 women. Mean IQ = 89.
    Asian: 5.6% = 18.2 million. 62 births per 1000 women. Mean IQ = 100. (East Asian high balanced be South Asian low.)
    Other: 2.6% = 8.5 million. 43 births per 1000 women. Mean IQ = 90 (approx).

    Given that “genius” is defined as an IQ of 145 or above, we can compute the probabilities. Please note that “genius” is different from “creative” is different from “successful” is different from “famous”.

    I’m out of time, so the rest is left as homework for the reader.

  43. Edgewise

    By any chance—might this repost have had *anything* to do with the Feast of the Holy Innocents?

    (Just wondering, is all…)

  44. DAV

    What is a “genius” is important. Someone who far excels others in a particular intellectual field? Someone who is generally much smarter (whatever that means) than the average person?

    If it’s Someone who far excels others in a particular field, would an idiot savant, say someone who can tell you the day of the week of a randomly selected date but otherwise nothing else or someone who can play the piano well with little to no training (assuming piano playing is an intellectual vs. motor skill — Mozart, e.g.) be a genius?

    Would someone who is really good at software but little else (say not a Buckaroo Banzai) qualify? Are nerds de facto geniuses?

    If it’s someone generally much smarter, how would that be measured? There are a number of problems with using IQ as the measure although that might be the closest measure.

    Without a firm definition for “genius”, I don’t see how the question can be answered without additional — and likely tacit — assumptions.

    Leaving that aside, I think it better to use the ratio of #geniuses currently alive : #people currently alive to calculate P(next born = genius | given mumble, mumble). One problem with that, though, is many “geniuses” aren’t recognized as such until long after their deaths.

    Might as well ask what is the probability that the cause of the next death is lightning strike. Would any answer be sensible, or useful?

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