Genius germs?

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I began this series at my other blog before I became a poster here. You could read this on its own, but the first four parts — I here, II here, III here, IV here — provide the necessary background (esp. part I, first 3 paragraphs of part II, and part III, all of which are short). Briefly, the idea was to investigate whether microbes could affect human cognition in ways more subtle than rabies. Now comes the empirical support I’ve uncovered: a strong winter-spring birth seasonality effect on “genius,” which I take to reflect early infection. (Somewhat long read.)

We present evidence that early infection likely contributes to “genius” status — recall from part II our definition of “genius” as anyone who had an Index Score (IS) of at least 50 (from 0-100) in the inventories of Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment. The prediction is that at the highest level — the “giants,” who score in any category’s 10th “decile” (i.e., IS at least 90) — the births will be the most lopsided toward winter-spring (WS = Dec-Feb and Mar-May), when infant infection is most likely; that the top 5 deciles will show less lopsidedeness though still toward WS; and that the bottom 5 deciles will not necessarily show the pattern. More, we predict that the more abstract the field (and thus the more it requires superhuman creativity), the more pronounced the bias. We first examine the giants, then the geniuses of the most abstract fields — Philosophy in the humanities, Music in the arts, and Math in the sciences — and finally the geniuses of the remaining fields. In our research, we found birth month data only for Westerners, which constrains the scope of the argument w.r.t. the arts, though no non-Westerner is among the geniuses of any science category. All lists of births available by email (see my bl*gspot profile).

First, in HA 18 Westerners scored 90 or above in any field, though only 16 figures had known birth months (unknown: Aristotle & Hippocrates). Of these 16 giants, 14 are WS: Galileo, Kepler, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, Euler, Pasteur, Koch, Edison, Watt, Beethoven, Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare. Among these, 10 are winter, 4 spring. Only 2 of 16 are summer-fall (SF): Lavoisier and Lyell. The prediction checks out: 87.5% are WS, and the actual value of winter births is 2.5 times the expected value of 4.

Next, the most abstract art: Music. Homo sapiens’ natural mode of expression is linguistic, and we can grope our way through visual modalities such as gesture, mime, etc. But we are utterly at a loss when it comes to non-linguistic sound. Moreover, Western music emphasizes both complex melodies, which are serial, as well as complex harmonies, where notes are stacked on top of one another. Juggling these elements for various instruments in one’s head, all while attempting expression in the most foreign of artistic languages, is the greatest test of artistic genius. The Western Music inventory is particularly instructive since birth months are known for all figures save a neglible number down in the 2nd decile (2D: we use XD as short-hand for the Xth decile). There are 5 geniuses (people in 6D-10D), all 5 of whom are WS: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Wagner, Haydn. All graphs visible here.

Turning to the most abstract science, Math, there is little role for “inevitable discovery,” and the objects it studies are farther removed from the real world than in other sciences. Moreover, we have less innate / intuitive scaffolding to hoist ourselves up by when it comes to math as compared to physics or biology. There are 8 geniuses, 1 of whose birth months is unknown (Euclid in 9D). Again, the hypothesis checks out, though not as strongly as in Music — of the known 7, 5 are WS: Euler in 10D, Newton & Gauss in 9D, Descartes & Cantor in 6D. The 2 exceptions constitute 8D: Fermat & Leibniz.

As for Philosophy, it is the only humanities field Murray included, presumably because it is (at least for now) the only one demanding genius thought, fields like history being closer to (extremly important) clerical work. Again, we only found data for Westerners. There are 4 geniuses, 1 of whose birth months is unknown — unfortunately, the top-ranked and only figure in 10D: Aristotle. We admit this weakness. Still, the hypothesis checks out — of the known 3, all 3 are WS: Plato in 9D, Kant in 8D, Descartes in 6D.

To sum up so far: there are 17 geniuses in the three most abstract fields, and 15 of their birth months are known. 13 of these 15 (~87%) are WS, and the 2 exceptions show up in 8D in Math. So, the percentage of WS is almost identical to that among giants, though the gross overrepresenation of winter births is gone: of these 15, only 3 (or 4 — Plato was born in either Dec or May) are winter, which, depending on Plato’s birth, is either 0.25 above or 0.75 below the expectation of 3.75.

The link to the graphs begins w/ raw number and percentage of summer-fall births in the three most abstract fields; SF are shown in order to highlight data points that falsify the hypothesis. A dashed line indicates no data points in that decile; a red numeral indicates the number of points in the decile for which data were not found. Depending on the inventory, some of the lower deciles were not examined since 1) they did not bear on the hypothesis, 2) they had larger numbers that would have required more hard labor to collect, and 3) these are the people most likely to fluctuate in and out of the inventory depending on which encyclopedias are consulted (unlike, e.g., Mozart or Newton).

Next is a graph of the other arts, Western Art and Western Literature. In Art, there are 5 geniuses, 1 of whose birth months is unknown (Titian in 6D). Of the known 4, 3 are WS: Michelangelo in 10D, Raphael in 7D, Leonardo in 6D. The 1 exception, in 7D, is one of the few people widely considered by reviewers of HA to be an epochcentric anomaly (see, e.g., this review by Denis Dutton): Picasso, who scores two deciles above Dürer, Rembrandt, Giotto, Bernini, Cezanne, & Rubens (5D). The least abstract art, Lit, we predict to be least lopsided toward WS since Murray explains that creators of Lit encyclopedias strongly consider the role the writer played in social movements, since writing is used not only for expression but for communication and persuasion. (The Art and Music inventories do not show such an effect.) E.g., for his political impact, Rousseau (in 5D) ranks two deciles above inter alia Aeschylus, Ovid, Whitman, & Proust. There are 5 geniuses, 1 of whose birth months is unknown (Homer in 6D). Of the known 4, only 1 is WS: Shakespeare, the lone figure in 10D. As the graph shows, Lit is the most SF-friendly art, as predicted.

We continue w/ a graph of the Combined Sciences. Murray only listed the top 20 figures, though his point was only to illustrate the “big fish in a small pond” effect for figures such as Lyell who dominate their small pond but don’t show up in the larger pond. There are 6 geniuses, 1 of whose birth months is unknown (Aristotle in 8D). Of the 5 known, 4 are WS: Newton in 10D, Galileo in 9D, Kepler & Descartes in 6D. The 1 exception is Lavoisier in 6D. So considering the sciences as a whole, the prediction is met.

Considering each scientific pond, we turn next to the three most established sciences after Math: Physics, Chemistry, and Astronomy. In Physics, there are 9 geniuses, of whom only 4 are WS, though these include the two in 10D — Newton & Einstein — along w/ Galileo in 9D and Thomson in 6D. The exceptions are Rutherford & Faraday in 9D and Cavendish, Bohr, & Maxwell in 6D. In Chemistry, there are just 3 geniuses, 1 of whom is WS: Scheele in 6D. The 2 exceptions are Lavoisier in 10D and Berzelius in 7D. In Astronomy, there are 9 geniuses, 1 of whose birth months is unknown (Ptolemy in 8D). Of the 8 known, 5 are WS: Galileo & Kepler in 10D, Laplace & Copernicus in 8D, and Brahe in 6D. The 3 exceptions are Herschel in 9D, and Halley & Cassini in 6D. So, by zooming in closer on each pond, the actual value of WS is 0.5 below expectation (10 of 21 in these three fields), which weakens the hypothesis. Alternatively, sub-giant-level insight in these sciences may not require as much “outside the box” creativity as does giant-level insight in these sciences, or as does sub-giant insight in the arts.

Now we consider the two least abstract sciences (as of 1950, when Murray’s survey ended): Earth Sciences and Biology. In Earth Sciences, there are 4 geniuses, 2 of whom are WS: William Smith & Agricola (Georg Bauer) in 6D. The 2 exceptions are Lyell in 10D and Hutton in 8D. This matches the prediction that the least abstract field will not show lopsidedness toward WS (as w/ Lit). Biology is another case in point, since by 1950 it was barely established as a field and not very abstract at that. There are 7 geniuses, 2 of whose birth months are unknown (Aristotle in 10D and Harvey in 6D). Of the known 5, just 2 are WS: Darwin in 10D and Linnaeus in 6D. The 3 exceptions are Lamarck in 10D, Cuvier in 9D, and Morgan in 8D.

None of the geniuses who developed biology into a mature science during the 20th Century even made it to 4D, again because Murray’s encyclopedias focused on periods before 1950. For example, Darwin the Second — Bill Hamilton — is not included at all, while R.A. Fisher barely shows up in 1D. Though it is too early to provide a ranking of who encyclopedias 200 years from now will consider the equivalents of Newton and Rutherford, we can at least come up w/ an unordered list of newcomers and their birth seasons: Hamilton (sum), Haldane (fall), Fisher (win), Wright (win), Smith (win), Trivers (win). This is not definitive, but on the right track.

Haldane is clearly an exception, and though Hamilton’s data point may appear to falsify the hypothesis of higher likelihood of infant infection among geniuses, the fuller story is revealing. Unlike every other European genius, he was born in Cairo, Egypt’s most crowded, slum-ridden urban area, in Aug 1936 — less than 4 months after Egypt had even established a Ministry of Health! More, his mother was a medical doctor, who would’ve been exposed to god knows what in those days and potentially have brought it home. In this sole case, we consider geographical location to be more informative than WS birth in assessing likelihood of infant infection. The geniuses in other categories show a general bias toward urban birth, but the effect is not as strong as birth month, and it is susceptible to alternative interpretations. We return to this point later.

Finally, we consider the two applied sciences: Technology and Medicine. While Technology is by definition creative and inventive, we are agnostic on whether it requires the genius of Beethoven or Newton; and Medicine is largely discovery, not creative model-building. Nevertheless, next is a graph for these two. In Technology, there are 6 geniuses, 1 of whose birth months is unknown (Archimedes in 6D). All 5 of the known are WS: Edison, Watt Leonardo, Huygens, Marconi. In Medicine, there are 8 geniuses, 3 of whose birth months are unknown (Hippocrates in 9D, Galen in 8D, and Paracelsus in 7D). Of the 5 known, all 5 are WS: Pasteur in 10D, Koch in 9D, and Ehrlich, Laennec, & McCollum in 6D. We interpret these data as not falsifying the hypothesis, though hardly a ringing endorsement of it, given the conceptual nature of the fields, their relative immaturity up to 1950, and the lacunae among the data for Medicine.

So, overall the hypothesis passes the tests for finding lopsided seasonality among genius births in abstract, creative fields, as we believe the Combined Sciences ranking better highlights scientific genius than the rankings in the separate fields which compose it. This was especially so for the mostly-winter “giants.” But how do we interpret this finding? First, imagine we examined another trait w/ 0.5 probability of occuring in the general population — say, male vs female sex. If we observed a similarly lopsided male to female ratio, we would need to account for it somehow: sex discrimination, different distributions in cognitive ability, a mix, etc. We find it implausible that social factors contribute to the seasonality of genius births: there is no evidence that WS children are encouraged more, that SF suffer Zodiac “stereotype threat,” that either of these would make such a difference in magnitude anyway, and so on. In epidemiological studies, seasonality of births is typically taken to reflect the role of infection, as it cannot be easily confounded w/ other variables, unlike the effect of urban birth — the latter could reflect selection bias for higher IQ, class structure, better access to mentors, and so forth. But the only powerful, non-magical explanation for seasonality is infection.

In principle, WS seasonality could also reflect, e.g., lack of sun exposure and thus lack of vitamin D. But unlike vitamins, microbes are alive & evolving, meaning their presence (or absence) can have either positive or negative effects, depending on whether they are mutualist or parasitic. We cannot easily conceive of how lack of vitamin D would help smart people become singular geniuses, so we find subtle microbial influence much more plausible. Indeed, a recent study done to assess seasonality of schizophrenic births also found higher cognitive development among normal WS children, as measured by various psychometric tests, though the data do not report adult IQ, which would be more noteworthy.

Now, are we saying that early infection is all there is to genius? No, because we already know from Behavior Genetics that in adulthood, the broad-sense heritability of g is ~0.7, so genes certainly play a crucial role as well, not to mention access to mentors, etc. Recall that in the lower 5 deciles of the inventories, there was no apparent seasonality, so this infection likely plays a role in a tiny minority of cases indeed — though these are the most impressive of cases — and again we assume the affected individuals already had a high IQ due to additive genetic effects. But since we do not know exactly what the germs are, we cannot tell what effect they would have on an average or below-average intellect; in principle, it could go either way. Therefore if the germs were identified, administering them in the hopes of turning one’s child into the next Mozart would almost certainly fail, since presumably many more individuals were infected in addition to Mozart, Newton, et al. Now, if the parents had good reason to believe their child’s IQ would already be quite high, the prospect would be more promising.

Where, then, does this leave us as far as exploring the cells in the “brain germ” matrix outlined in part III? We are utterly clueless as to the route, aside from knowing that it must begin early after birth, and we are also unsure of its impact of reproductive fitness. We could not easily locate data for average family size in the times and places that produced the “giants,” but here are the numbers of children sired by each of the 14 WS giants: 0 (Newton, Beethoven, Michelangelo), 1 (Koch), 3 (Galileo, Kepler, Einstein, Shakespeare), 5 (Pasteur), 6 (Edison, Watt, Mozart), 10 (Darwin), and 13 for the man whose genetic output was second only to his mathematical (Euler). How these actual values compare to the expected values given the time & place in which they flourished, we leave open for now.

So if early infection is one piece of the puzzle behind Galilean excellence, might better hygiene play a role in the decline of the per capita *rate* of accomplishment that Murray wrestles w/ in HA (Ch. 21), which accelerated downward after 1800? Part of his argument is that the secularization of Europe left each generation after ~1800 w/ less motivation to pursue their calling in life. As in our discussion in Part IV of Judith Rich Harris’ personality model, we don’t discount social influences such as the ones Murray mentions. However, in Murray’s own list of “Significant Events” (Ch. 9) for Medicine, he has boldfaced the entry of 1796 to underscore its importance: “Edward Jenner systematizes vaccination for smallpox, founding immunology” (p.194; original emphasis).

During the 19th Century, the scientists Paul Ewald calls “the microbe hunters” in his book Plague Time began searching out infectious causes for diseases and proposing cures or preventative measures, including Semmelweis’ efforts to introduce rigorous hygiene among doctors who were delivering newborns in order to cut down neonatal mortality rates, not to mention Pasteur’s establishment of the germ theory of disease and Koch’s formulation of Koch’s Postulates to determine infectious origin. Conversely, we interpret the increasing rate of accomplishment up to and shortly after the Renaissance to reflect in part the increasingly frequent exposure to microbes as a result of urbanization. Similar reasoning suggests a partial reason for why advanced civilizations produce more geniuses than hunter-gatherers.

The early immunological efforts and their present-day descendents have surely improved the quality of life for the average person born in Western nations. Yet they might also have contributed to the decline in the rate of genius-level accomplishment. As elsewhere, science can only illuminate a trade-off — if our interpreation is correct, in this case between level of public health and rate of genius-level excellence — and the value judgment of where to resolve the trade-off is ultimately up to the individual or the society, not scientists. More big thinkers are better than fewer, ceteris paribus, but few will accept a larger percentage of geniuses if it requires diminishing the effect of public health on quality of life for the average person. Still, we feel a certain optimism is in order: after all, the Industrial and Information Revolutions took off when the rate of accomplishment was declining, suggesting that what matters on a day-to-day level — e.g., having electricity so you can listen to a Chopin CD — is more a function of the raw number of big thinkers rather than their proportion of the general population.

Epilogue: Psychology. I can hardly drone on about genius cognition w/o mentioning the geniuses of Psychology. Now, the field is far too immature to show up in Murray’s survey, but I came up w/ the tiny handful of psychologists I estimate will compose the top 5 deciles in the 200th anniversary edition of HA. There are two main groups in psychology: those that deal w/ universals and those that deal w/ individual differences. From the former, I’d wager that Francis Galton (win) will make it. From the latter, I’d wager that William James (win) will make it, and perhaps the founders of the two fields of cognitive psychology that are best understood: language pioneer Noam Chomsky (win) and vision pioneer David Marr (win). Just as I assume Cuvier will fall from the top 5 deciles in Biology once Hamilton & Fisher work their way into the encyclopedias, I assume the following will drop from their (even now decreasing) Deity status: Freud (win), Skinner (spr), & Piaget (sum).



  1. Babies who are born in winter and spring are perhaps carried by mothers who eat more and are less active towards the end of their pregnancies, perhaps allowing for more brain growth by the babies. 
    We would do well to see if there are any correlations here before proclaiming that it was microbes wot did it.

  2. Let me assure folks that I’m primarily interested in getting out the data; I won’t hold strongly to my pet interpretation if it’s off the mark. 
    But re: mothers getting more rest & better nutrition, recall the historical trends — per capita rate of genius-level accomplishment declined shortly after the Renaissance, acclerated downward after 1800, and remains low in the 20th C. If the seasonality effect were due to better rest and nutrition cultivating the potential specified by genes, then surely there should’ve been an increasing rate of genius accomplishment during recent history, given 1) the Flynn Effect, 2) maternity leave, and 3) increasingly better sanitary conditions. But paradoxically, these improvements accompanied a decline in the rate of genius-level accomplishment.

  3. It could be just randomness with such a small sample size at the top levels. If the much more numerous lower deciles don’t show it, that seems to me to be evidence against it.

  4. could it be that the microbes are disrupting developmental pathways causing them to go off course; ie creating more randomness and a greater standard deviation? If that’s the case then there should be a greater proportional of criminalls and other low IQ markers for those months as well… might be a lead worth investigating.

  5. Yes, I’ll go with Richard Sharp. A child born in winter/spring was conceived in spring/summer. 
    It’s either maternal nutrition or something like vitamin D from sunlight affecting the early embryo. Sunlight is at it’s peak at the summer solstice just between spring and summer. 
    We might need to advise mothers to add vitamin D to their folate if they are planning to conceive.

  6. Sorry Richard, that’s Sharpe with an “e”.

  7. I may have missed it through hasty reading, but where is the data on the proportion of *all* children born in the Winter-Spring half of the year?

  8. …for example, see the data and discussion in Wrigley and Schofield’s ‘Population History of England’, pages 288-90. In pre-industrial England births were disproportionately concentrated in the months December to April. This may be a common pattern.

  9. TC: it’s not a random sample — this is the entire population of revolutionary geniuses, as there are no others in the top five deciles in Murray’s survey. That is, if you did the survey 100 times, these figures wouldn’t change. In Music, Bizet would not end up on top and Mozart below the 6th decile, for example. A score of 86 might change to 82 or something, but that’s why I used rougher measures like deciles. For comparison, is it merely a random accident that all the people are male? I.e., if you did the survey again, would the male to female ratio change to 50-50? Murray’s book is very accessible & explains the historiometric methodology. 
    Dan: Again, any account must fit w/ the historical trends. If greater nutrition & vitamin D during conception are the reason for the jump to genius, why has there been a decline in the rate of genius accomplishment when 1) IQ has been going up (Flynn Effect), 2) sanitary conditions are better for mothers, 3) nutrition is superior to before, and 4) recently mothers have had maternity leave so they don’t waste calories toiling, etc.?  
    I think the nutrition part has to do w/ the avg person’s IQ gain from being WS (as mentioned in the McGrath et al study I linked to). But as for the genius’ seasonality, remember, we’re not talking about a few IQ points — it’s the difference b/w Bizet and Mozart or Beethoven. Peano vs Gauss. 
    DavidB — Good point. I did mention that I assume that P(WS) = 0.5. Admittedly, a more senstitive measure would’ve been to find the P(WS) for all the time-places that produced these people. That still doesn’t explain the subtlties, though — why the most abstract fields are more WS than the least, why the giants are more WS while the bottom 5 deciles rarely show a consistent pattern, etc.

  10. Agnostic,  
    There been some recent studies that have suggested that modern populations are vitamin D deficient. They have been recommending supplementation to increase modern D levels. D may also influence some factor that increases variance in IQ or it may itself vary so much between individuals that it increases variance.

  11. Agnostic: I didn’t mean to dismiss the theory, which is very interesting. On looking at the Wrigley and Schofield data, the seasonal variation of birth rates is not large enough to explain the disproportionate numbers of ‘geniuses’ born in the Winter-Spring period. Also, one would have to take account of infant mortality rates, which I guess would be higher in winter and tend to offset a surplus of winter births.

  12. Who said the rate of geniuses is decreasing, and what exactly defines a genius? In what world is Plato a genius of greater magnitude than any other? Have you read Plato, he makes lots of bad arguments with poor logic. Clearly he was smart and extremely influential, but you don’t know where all his ideas came from or how smart he was. I would hardly call him a supergenius of the highest order. 
    Euler is a bigger genius than Gauss? Maybe by the pure volume of math papers published, but Gauss was almost without a doubt “smarter” than Euler. How can bacteria affect historical circumstance? 
    If this is coming from Murray’s book, isn’t genius something that has to do with your influence and historical impact? If so, then that is not a measure of genius. That’s a measure of luck.  
    If you are attempting to say that the number of geniuses per-capita is decreasing, wouldn’t that be a little silly considering that it was easier to be influential a long time ago, a lot easier than it is now?

  13. Agnostic, 
    Good luck convincing most of the readers here of the difference between genius and IQ.

  14. There is a lot of anectdotal evidence that polio survivors are driven overacheivers.

  15. Hmmm, I know of two polio survivors. One is my uncle, the other is a chinese guy who is a doctor. Neither seem to be overachievers. The chinese guy has a brother who is a lawyer, a sister who is a doctor and another brother who is a deadbeat, but he is no overachiever. 
    Anecdotes do not make good evidence.

  16. I agree with Hyperbole. The drastic rise in accomplishment of the average person may provide an illusory impression of a declining rate of genius-level accomplishment. From the Agricultural Revolution until the beginning of the 20th century, the great majority of people even in developed countries were chronically malnourished. Even in 1800′s England, most children had Vitamin D deficiency and a substantial number of those had overt symptoms like rickets. In modern studies where multivitamins are given to inner-city children, one of which my wife worked on, children who experience an IQ benefit from the vitamins typically experience it on the order of 10-15 IQ points, a full standard deviation. 
    All of which leads us to consider the actual accomplishments of these historical “geniuses.” On the side of art, today’s filmmakers and video game designers regularly produce works of awe-inspiring originality and skill, creating de novo worlds and races of beings, without limiting themselves to angels and classic mythology. On the side of science, there is no denying that discoveries in Newton’s day were simply easier to make, when someone studying physics could have learned everything there was to know about that field in at most one or two years. The discoveries that were then made, like splitting and reconstituting light with two glass prisms, pale in comparison to the everyday feats of imagination of today’s computer programmers. 
    Every culture respects its own historical “great men,” but it’s important that we judge their accomplishments on a modern scale. There is a good reason why a graph of technological achievement in modern times shows a geometric increase: in Newton’s day there were dozens of good scientists, but today we have millions.

  17. Hyperbole & Gathercole: Read Human Accomplishment and McNeil’s Plagues and Peoples
    Dan: the rat study examined how lack of V-D affected the newborn’s brain — they deprived some but not others. So, the scenario is V-D deprivation leading to larger brain, larger lateral ventricles, etc., not the mother making more V-D during pregnancy. If lack of V-D accounts for seasonality of genius births, does it fit the historical trend? Did V-D deprivation increase up to & after the Renaissance, but then decrease (i.e., babies get more V-D) during 19th & 20th C? I don’t know, but the Little Ice Age did occur from roughly just pre-Renaissance to mid-19th C. We’d need to look at better records to find out, though. 
    I don’t want to downplay the role of vitamins: they’re more biologically grounded than “parental pressure.” But they’re not alive and thus don’t evolve, limiting the range of powers they have in affecting human behavior. By contrast, microbes are alive, are actively doing things moment to moment, and evolve quickly, allowing them to effect changes both subtle and gross in the human brain in either positive or negative ways. They’re an especially good place to look when someone looks like they’re from outer space, like Newton or Mozart. 
    Case in point: schizophrenia, which was the motivation behind the rat study you linked to. They’re investigating V-D deprivation as a cause of schizophrenia (the enlarged lateral ventricles of schizophrenics are also so in V-D deprived rats). It clearly can’t be sufficient for schizophrenia, so the argument is then that it only triggers the disease in genetically susceptible individuals — but at a prevalence of b/w 0.5% and 1%, it’s way too common to reflect genetic susceptibilities. They would’ve been selected out long ago. The cause must be infection, though V-D deprivation may exacerbate it. 
    As a rule of thumb, when some researcher (who usually hasn’t studied evo bio) mentions (lack of) V-D w.r.t. individual differences, it’s a code for WS seasonality, and in the big scheme of things, that by default implies infection, unless it’s clear (lack of) V-D is the causative agent as in rickets. It’s not that vitamins aren’t critical, it’s just that compared to the world of microbes, they’re wimpy as causal factors.

  18. Agnostic,  
    I only read the abstract.  
    I remembered the two stories from news items I’d read over the more-or-less recent past.  
    I’m sure you’ll sort it all out.

  19. You really seem set on your theory. 
    it’s a code for WS seasonality, and in the big scheme of things, that by default implies infection, unless it’s clear (lack of) V-D is the causative agent as in rickets. 
    So we should use the infection theory as a default, even though a host of other variables also vary by season? I don’t think this is reasonable. 
    You haven’t shown any evidence *other* than the WS genius counts for infection increasing IQ (and there are other explanations for the WS data, as noted). To my mind, the claim that an infection can lead to an increase in mental powers is an extraordinary one. There are many microorganisms that do lead a symbiotic existence with their hosts, but in general we would expect to see a beneficial organism become widespread fairly quickly. 
    You are quick to dismiss the idea of vitamin D in part because being born in winter would of course not result in a lot of vitamin D production in the newborn. However, equally plausible would be that vitamin D production at some other point in development would be a critical factor (e.g. prenatally or else at 3-6 months of age). Since we have both the well-known correlation between birthweight and IQ *and* evidence that first-trimester exposure to increased sunshine increases infant birthweight (

  20. meh, cut off trying to insert link. for abstract of paper showing increased birthweight for mothers exposed to increased sunlight in first trimester. 
    To address another objection: the effects of nutrition are probably fairly small on average, but the question is whether a model that applies that small bonus across the entire bell curve is accurate. We already know that a small advantage will result in ever-increasing overrepresentation at the right side of the tail, but only if our simple statistical model is accurate. 
    Finally, genius seems rare enough that we may all be right. Maybe you need vitamin D and other prenatal nutrition and an infection early in life combined with three other things we haven’t thought of to produce someone like Gauss…

  21. I guess I have the same comment several others do about the distribution of revolutionary geniuses historically–there’s some large part of this that just comes of being in the right place at the right time. You can see this in information theory, where a whole bunch of the real pioneers have died in the last few years. Someone like Shannon was absolutely a genius, but he could have been just as smart, working in some other area, and been an important contributor to physics or evolutionary biology or statistics or whatever, but not someone who will (IMO) appear in the 2100 edition of Murray’s book. The combination of the right set of problems, new technology that made those problems interesting and tractable, and the right person came along, and we got the birth of information theory. Look at all the pioneers of modern cryptography, who are mostly about the same age. You can be Gauss reborn into a new body in 2006, and you just aren’t going to invent public key cryptography, information theory, etc.  
    There’s still great stuff to do, and scope for genius. But I suspect it’s a lot harder to do something now that puts you in competition with Newton or Darwin than it was for them.

  22. Self-nitpick: The pioneers of modern cryptography are mostly about the same age as one another, but not as the information theory guys, who were much earlier.

  23. Bbartlog: other things vary by season, but the most powerful is other living, evolving things. Remember what we’re trying to account for: Mozart and Gauss. If you observed a population of Mozarts, you’d by default assume natural selection rather than drift was at work. On an individual level the powerful cause is genes, yours or those of microbes. Vitamins don’t have as much potential as germs to affect human behavior, so I don’t surely discount them, but I don’t bet on them either. 
    Re: why these germs aren’t more widespread: we’re assuming superhuman genius will get you tons of girls to make babies w/, but we don’t know that. I listed the number of kids each of the 14 WS giants had: mean = 4.2, median = 3. Granted this is collapsed across time-places, and we’d have to look to see, e.g., in Italy in 1600 whether Galileo’s output of 3 kids was above or below mean and by how much.  
    But it doesn’t sound like the Ashkenazi story where they had huge families — my guess it that IQ-fitness is an inverted-U: gains up to 120s or 130s as w/ Ashkenazi professionals result in bigger families in pre-industrial eras, while superhuman genius is likely at or slightly below-avg due to a wider gulf b/w the genius guy (always) and the wife, geniuses having Herculean work ethic, being possessed by their work, and again, appearing to be from another planet. On this view, superhuman genius would be a mild fitness cost — the proverbial “mad genius.”

  24. Albatross: Murray also argues all the early geniuses picked the low-lying fruit, and the 20th C geniuses thus don’t have much to prove themselves w/. I generally sympathize, but before the Renaissance someone could’ve easily said that the Greeks figured out all the important easy stuff, leaving us w/ only the hard details. Before 20th C, someone could’ve said Newton et al figured out all the important easy physics, leaving us to fill in details.  
    And the real place to look is the arts — there, there’s no low-lying inevitable discovery. Beethoven’s symphonies would not have been composed by someone or other; he wasn’t just in the right place at the right time. I look at music most b/c it’s the most abstract art. Murray’s argument is that the culture grew less supportive of artistic genius around the Enlightenment / French Rev, after which people saw less and less purpose to life, thus not feeling compelled to utilize their genius toward their higher “vocation.” 
    Somehow, I don’t buy it, again just a subjective take on it. But if there were another small handful of Mozarts, Beethovens, and Wagners out there, I can’t imagine them doing anything other than dreaming up the next big idea in music and working tirelessly to get the material out there, whether they believe in a “vocation” or not. Same for visual art: most of the recent crap art isn’t due to sub-optimal use of genius brains, it’s that they’re not geniuses to begin w/. Of course they’ll create crap!

  25. Crap, I know I’m commenting too much, but I forgot another quibble w/ vitamins. (Honestly, I appreciate criticism and am not defensive. :) ) The reason is that vitamins, hormones in utero, etc. fall under the shared environment in Behavior Genetics, which doesn’t seem to greatly affect how individuals w/in a given population turn out w.r.t intelligence & personality. In roughly equal proportions, the causes are additive genetic effects and unique environment. Genius germs would go under the latter, which makes the theory dovetail better w/ findings in Behavior Genetics. I wrote about this in parts III and IV over at my other blog.

  26. Someone may already have made this point, but in pre-industrial times the quantity and quality of nutrition generally would vary with the seasons. Not just vitamins but basic proteins, carbohydrates and fats. It is therefore possible that the quantity/quality of nutrition at some crucial point in the development of the fetus (especially the brain) might also vary with the seasons.

  27. Just a few questions about this: is there any eveidence at all for “resident bacteria” in the brain? I am sure more than a few have been thrown into the waring over the years. 
    2. I suppose Murray’s book is fun and all, but can we really take this sort of data collection as truly measuring “genius?” After all, think about all the (probably variant) contingencies that lie between the appearance of genius and Mr. Murray counting an appearance of that genius’s name. 1) The genius would have to live long enough to do something worthy of notice; 2) That thing would have to get noticed, in spite of, say, the perosn in question being, say, a Polish serf; 3) This person would have ot be oriented toward creating an impression among his or her peers; 4) his or her peers would have to find this person’s genius worth extensive written discussion; 5) the media in which that discussion took place would have to survive long enough in order to get collected in a place where Murray will later find it; 6) The genius would have to be of a sort that pleased later collators; the genius in question’s actual work would have to survive that long as well, because w e are reluctant to call someone a genius if we haven’t directly experienced their work; 7) because we are a modern, literate, culture, and the accomplishments of past geniuses are largely known, we have to take into account the fact that the field on which genius may play may be getting smaller and the opportunity to display genius diminishing; 8) we also have to take into account the degree to which “genius christening” is a force unto iteself, and that MANY geniuses are known and talked about primarily as exemplary geniuses, not because the folks who cite them actually think the “genius work” is really all that; etc. etc. etc. 
    When all these contingencies are accounted for, what’s left? 

  28. One interesting point made in the _Bell Curve_ is that the US (and presumably most other advanced industrial economies) does a very good job of getting the people with a lot of potential into college. This would make you expect *more* genius now than in earlier times.  
    I recall reading something years ago about correlation of season of birth to whether you’d be a scientist. It was in _Psychology Today_ about 20 years ago, but other than that, I can’t give a reference.  
    Might this be an effect of SAD on parents or children at some critical time in their development? (Time to look for twin studies where the twins end up at very different latitudes!) Or an effect of whether the kid gets to go outside or is stuck inside during some span of months during some critical developmental point?

  29. Since film is an art form mostly confined to the 20th century, it would be interesting to look at the greatest directors or the greatest screenwriters and check when they were born.

  30. Here are some directors (all dates are from 
    Kubrick 26 July 1928 
    Scorsese 17 November 1942 
    Hitchcock 13 August 1899 
    Carl Dreyer 3 February 1889 
    Spielberg 18 December 1946 
    PT Anderson 26 June 1970 
    Jean Renoir 15 September 1894 
    David Lynch 20 January 1946 
    Steven Soderbergh 14 January 1963 
    Francis Ford Coppola 7 April 1939 
    Joel 29 November 1954 and Ethan Coen 21 September 1957 
    Terrence Malick 30 November 1943 
    Errol Morris 5 February 1948 
    Victor Fleming 23 February 1889 
    Walt Disney 5 December 1901 
    Hayao Miyazaki 5 January 1941 
    Ang Lee 23 October 1954 
    Akira KurosaWA 23 March 1910 
    Wes Anderson 1 May 1969 
    Orson Welles 6 May 1915 
    Michael Mann 5 February 1943 
    Godard 3 December 1930 
    Truffaut 6 February 1932 
    Tarantino 27 March 1963 
    Werner Herzog 5 September 1942 
    Frank Capra 18 May 1897 
    Some of these, like Wes Anderson and PT Anderson, the jury is still out on imo because their body of work is not large enough yet. I couldn’t find a date for Wong Kar Wai. 
    There does seem to be a clustering toward winter but there are incredible exceptions like Welles, Hitchcock and Kubrick. It doesn’t look too good for you if you’re born in the summer. Either it won’t happen or you’ll be one of the greatest filmmakers ever, no in between. I wonder what would happen if you researched the birth dates of almost all directors to see if there’s a bias away from summer though. Are more crappy directors born in summer? Of course, Ed Wood was born in October (10 October 1924). hehe What directors am I missing? I feel like I’m missing a lot of Golden Age directors.

  31. I can’t believe I forgot these two: 
    John Ford: 1 February 1894 
    Sergio Leone: 3 January 1929

  32. who says that musical genius has declined? I am pretty sure that musical creativity has reached a historical high in this day and age.  
    Jazz,Blues,Rock,Metal,Prog Rock,Punk,Electronic,New Wave… 
    Electronic/Techno, Hardcore…  
    Seriously, I think the treatment of classical music is the greatest instance of cultural ignorance in this discussion. If you want to be scientific about things, then you can’t just go “classical music is the pinnacle of music”. 
    What have been the cultural effect of the beatles, the doors, etc? 
    I think the musical mastery of the band Radiohead is comparable to any classical composer. I think the musical complexity of Dream Theater songs surpasses most classical music. 
    Come on…

  33. Oran: microbes that affect the brain — Part I and Part III
    Lindenen: We’d need to rank-order those people in order to better tell how seasonality affects excellence, but here’s the number crunch of the unordered list: Sum = 2/28, Fall = 7/28, Win = 13/28, Spr = 6/28. So SF = 9/28, WS = 19/28; WS to SF = 2.1 to 1. 
    Oran, Hyperbole, et al: The point was not to debate the meaning of “genius” — I defined it strictly as a shorthand for “someone showing up in the top 5 deciles of Murray’s lists.” The lists don’t capture every genius in the broader sense, but the unknowns are tied to the knowns — for every known Mozart, there are X unknown Mozarts. So, this doesn’t affect the rate of increase or decrease. There will always be people in the top 5 deciles since they’re relative, but that’s why I say genius-level accomplishment — something on the level of Mozart or Gauss. 
    Re: the Doors, New Wave — dude, we’re talking genius-level excellence, not what you find most agreeable to your personal tastes. I know more and listen to more of those types of music than I do classical, but I also recognize that the former don’t require the same level of intelligence & creativity to compose. For one thing, the harmonies are baby-simple. Try composing a fugue to rival Bach’s sometime — not easy. Throat-singing is the mirror-image: complex harmonies but simple melodies. The giants & geniuses of classical music devised insanely complex melodies and harmonies for multiple instruments in their head, often churning out works daily. Putting subject tastes aside, New Wavers don’t come close.

  34. Hyperbole: remember we’re talking about the rate of genius-level accomplishment, or their proportion of the general population, not absolute numbers. Since the population of the West exploded over the last 200 years, there should be even more Beethovens and Gausses if the rate were equal or increasing. Quite the opposite is true.

  35. I know there are brain diseases, but most of the ones I know about are serious bad news. The analogy that you make at the start (with resident bacteria in the gut) makes me wonder whether there really is anything like that in the brain. A fair number of viruses can go into long-term and relatively benign remission, I suppose. That might be one possibility for something similar to gut flora in the brain. 
    On the genius question: I think the assumption that I would want to question is that the ratio of recognized Mozarts to overloioked Mozarts remains relatively constant. I suspect that ratio probably fluctuates quite a bit over time and across cultures. 

  36. On hyperbole’s point about music: 
    I can see both sides of this. The question I’d put to you is: Is the point of music for it to be complex? Does the most intelligent or most ingenius musician necessarily make the most complex music? 
    I’d say not. I think complexity may be a poor measure of musical accomplishment. So you’ve listed the complex geniuses. Who are the geniuses who employ relatively simple means?

  37. agnostic:  
    I’m going to have to go point by point and it’s going to be a little long… 
    You argue that your theory is supported by the supposed fact that the rate of geniuses as defined by Murray, has decreased substantially. This is supposed to correlate with the general decrease in bacterial infection-rates experienced by people. Thus your theory is consistent. This is highly counterintuitive as avg IQ has been INCREASING, while infections usually make babies DUMBER etc. 
    I think you are wrong when it comes to rates of genius and your source is flawed. This is why: 
    Genius as you define it depends on historical circumstance, whereas bacteria can only affect a person’s physical brain, right? Yet your method of identifying geniuses is consulting a book written by an old pompous man who is obsessed with western decline. In that book, a genius is determined by how influential a person has been.  
    It follows almost necessarily that people earlier in history will have more of a chance to be influential. It takes 4 years of undergrad to reach the pinnacle of mathematics as it stood at the end of the 19th century. It takes highschool to learn it up to the beginning of the 18th century. It takes 9th grade to learn it up to the beginning of the 16th century to the time of the greeks.  
    It takes 4 years of grad school to be able to meaningfully contribute to mathematics. 
    How can you compare mathematicians today to those of the past based on your rubric and then use that to claim that there are fewer geniuses now than before? The complexity, depth, and abstraction in mathematics has increased so much that any comparison along those lines is absurd.  
    Now, you try and evade this criticism by turning to music which you claim is completely free from this effect. BUT, music is a subjective thing, and this is causing issues. More and more diverse forms of music have been invented in the past 100 years than the previous 500 or 1000 probably.  
    You defend the exclusive focus on classical music because it’s somehow “harder” and requires more “intelligence”. Besides disagreeing completely (how many prog-rock kids are there at berklee school of music? ALOT) I will point out that this was precisely my argument for dismissing people who were not unusually intelligent but whose impact happened to be deep because of timing. 
    Either way… 
    The popularity and importance of classical music has waned. I would guess that very few of the most musicically talented individuals in modern times become classical composers. It’s a dead artform. 
    Bands like Radiohead and Dream Theater and many others come from musically sophisticated backgrounds including prestigious music schools and CLASSICAL backgrounds. 
    “The giants & geniuses of classical music devised insanely complex melodies and harmonies for multiple instruments in their head, often churning out works daily. Putting subject tastes aside, New Wavers don’t come close.” 
    But wait, what about jazz musicians, rap freestyles, math rock… you’re simply wrong here. Jazz musicians often demonstrate amazing abilities, and musican skill. They improvise on the spot, etc. Come on. Jazz gets pretty crazy. Rappers write songs as they sing them when they freestyle. When done well, even making clever puns and maintaining clear meaning, carrying a theme, all while rhyming and keeping a rhythm. Math-rock bands like Meshuggah maintain complex polyrhythms and use weird time signatures that are very difficult to play.  
    You are limiting your data in a way that supports your pet theory by necessity. That’s not very objective. 
    As far as music goes, I think you are wrong, and you are definitely wrong when it comes to historical trends in other fields. 
    I believe that the per capita rate of genius has INCREASED, and you can clearly see it by looking around. I would contend that almost every single fields medal winner ever, is on the level of any of the 8 decile or higher mathematicians. I would contend that Richard Feynmann, Murray Gellman, Stephen Hawking, Paul Dirac, heisenberg, bohr, etc are all up there, and it is a known fact that chess players are getting better and better, younger and younger. 
    So, I think your theory has a hole in it, since genius has not changed. And you cannot fall back on the “influence” definition of genius, because that clearly is dependent on time period. All you have is a statistical anomaly (maybe, if birthrates by season in those time periods weren’t as skewed as we think) that has a dozen or so possible explanations, one of which is really cool and counterintuitive, but which is contradicted by evidence from the 20th century. 
    Finally, I have wasted far too much time already, but parts of the world still experience much in the way of child mortality and infection. Why aren’t those places churning out geniuses? It would only make sense. 
    On the contrary, most geniuses seem to be popping up in college towns where college professors are having children with other professors, or at random from here or there.

  38. Oran: most brain infections likely screw it up rather than help, but then so do most gut infections. Still allows mutualism. But I’m doubtful that Michelangelo-level genius is really the brain “functioning better” — we only care about how well brain function generates babies or helps raise nieces / nephews. Looking at how many kids the giants had, it’s not clear that their superhuman genius got them tons more babies than expectation. Again, “mad genius” vs “bright professional.” 
    The rates of known to unknown could fluctuate, but the point was that over time, it’s easier to become known if you’ve got the gift, so the only scenario that would contradict the decline in the rate would be if there were increasingly more unknowns per known — despite currently much greater ease of being discovered, mentored, and given a job doing math or composing. 
    Hyperbole: our intuition is rarely useful in complex matters. And from a biological point of view, our intuition should not ask “how likely is it that infection made a person smarter” but rather “how likely is it that it increased their reproductive fitness?” Again, superhuman genius doesn’t appear to get you tons of babies. We have to step out of “cultural mode” where Newton & Beethoven are deities and into “biological mode” where they’re freaks and genetic dead-ends. 
    It may seem strange if IQ has been going up, but not necessarily — mean IQ may be going up slightly while variance may be decreasing quickly. Infection is a likely cause of folks w/ freakishly low IQ, but then it could be so as well for high IQ. Less infections means the tail-ends shrink and the curve bunches more around the mean which meagerly increases. 
    Another thing: we’re only talking up to 1950 w/ any certainty. Also, I’ll put it plainly: unlike Murray, you don’t have any hard data or quantitative analyses on recent geniuses and their proportion of the population (the rate). The reason is simple: it’s too early to tell who will be the next Mozart — some currently influential people may drop out as future critics more soberly evaluate their oeuvre, while others may make the encyclopedias from out of the blue (posthumous recognition of excellence).  
    Moreover, everyone everywhere is biased to exaggerate the importance of the recent past (“epochcentrism”), so we really will have to wait 200 years to see how many people still think Radiohead are geniuses — we don’t know cuz we’re biased by their recent influence. How many Nobel Lit winners will folks still read 700 years from now, as we still read Boccaccio? 
    Re: music forms. Not a single example you named has complex harmonies. That doesn’t make Jazz unlistenable; it just means Bach had to be more intelligent & creative to do both complex melodies (as w/ Jazz) and harmonies. Harmony is like a de facto test of digit span on an IQ test — how many complex thoughts can you juggle w/o dropping any? Beethoven did this while deaf
    As for decline in rate, again, I didn’t propose that infection was the sole cause — only someone who didn’t read my post would think that. I explicitly said I didn’t discount Murray’s views — he agrees w/ you that scientific genius is harder to see now since all the low-lying fruit’s been picked. I agree but somewhat disagree — statistics and genetics were invented recently, so I’m healthily skeptical about the low-lying fruit account. 
    You disagree the rate of the arts is in decline — not really debatable up to 1950 (read Human Accomplishment), and only anecdotal after 1950 (and also biased by epochcentrism). 
    Why few third world geniuses? Again, read my post: I said the infection is necessary, not sufficient; another obvious necessary condition is high IQ due to additive genetic effects. And mean IQ ain’t too high in s-S Africa, for example. More, genius germs don’t a priori have to inhabit every corner of the globe, just as malaria is confined in space. 
    So what I presented is not a statistical anomaly — if anything, WS kids are less than 50% since more will die due to infection, extreme weather, sparse food, etc. Seasonality does not have “a dozen or so” explanations, and even among the existing ones, one can discriminate which are more powerful and thus capable of producing what to us looks like a space alien. I welcome the vitamin D input, but I personally don’t think it’s as powerful as germs. 
    20th C data cannot possibly contradict either my or Murray’s account, as you have no data sets, and as you’re biased by epochcentrism.

  39. What’s your standard for “hard data?” If it’s incomplete, skewed, or non-applicable, I’d say it wasn’t very “hard.” I’d say it’s “shaky” at best, and that interpretations that rely on such data are “highly dubious.” 
    Just because Murray has some data doesn’t mean we’ve know anything applicable to the questions you are trying to answer here. Murray has counted some stuff and compiled tables, what remains to be determined is what has he counted?  
    Lastly on the hypothesized change over time in genius rate (it should go up): I think, as both hyberbole and I have written, I think there are good reasons to expect genius as Murray measures it to go down as science advances, not up.

  40. Out of curiosity, couldn’t the rate of geniuses have gone down because more people are involved in cultural matters? 
    i.e. if you have ten Newtons, they can only get a tenth as much attention each. 
    I’ve never seen this addressed in discussions of Murray’s book…

  41. Hyperbole said: 
    “I think the musical mastery of the band Radiohead is comparable to any classical composer.” 
    I’ve liked what I’ve heard of Radiohead, and it is a lot more harmonically complex than the average non-classical music. But they are nowhere near as complex as the higher level classical composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms.  
    Oran said: 
    “So you’ve listed the complex geniuses. Who are the geniuses who employ relatively simple means?” 
    Mozart. A lot of his work is very simple. Some Bach, Haydn, and Handel (though I don’t know where Haydn and Handel rank). 
    agnostic said: 
    “Re: music forms. Not a single example you named has complex harmonies. That doesn’t make Jazz unlistenable;” 

  42. 15c024 12dc6a3497