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June 14, 2004

On the fertility of greatness

My previous post praising celibacy seemed to have hit a mild nerve. Unfortunately, no one offered much evidence (including me) on what the average fertility of great scientists and artists have been measured over time. In the spirit of some data collection, I will attempt to find the number of children of the various Fields Medal winners since 1936 and post it later in this week. If someone knows of studies that have for example:


  • Surveyed the average number of children of the typical N.A.S. member.
  • Surveyed the average number of children of a Nobel Winners.
  • Or surveyed the average number of children of "Great Thinkers."

Pass it on. I have only a finite amount of time, so I'm going to concentrate on the Fields Medal since it is given to mathematicians who seem to have attained a level of greatness, and that seems the most "g-loaded" field out there. I want to reiterate that I would be happy to see a positive correlation between intellectual achievement and fecundity. Before I move on, I would like to stipulate a few points:

  • I am speaking on the level of populations, so though I expect the fecundity of great scientists to be mildly depressed, I am not asserting that it will be 0, nor am I denying that there will be internal variance so that many will have a great number of children (in other words, I am speaking statistically, not deterministically, that is, more free time increases the chances for stumbling upon insights, rather than guaranteeing them, or being a necessary condition [see the life of Isaac Newton]).
  • I am not also not denying there might be a positive correlation within the population of "great scientists" between fecundity and eminence if one supposes that perhaps more mediocre scientists have to put in more time into their work to achieve the same level of reknown. Without data, we can spin many theories and offer various propositions.
  • As for how this pattern might have persisted over the generations, I offered the idea of inclusive fitness popularized by W.D. Hamilton, where a great intellectual might help in the careers of his siblings and neices and nephews, so aiding in the spread of his genes indirectly.
  • One idea that came to me when thinking of this in the context of inclusive fitness is that if assortive mating has increased to the point where "great scientists" tend to breed only with each other and their own families, forming their own subpopulation, so their own siblings are also scientists and assorted thinkers, perhaps this process may longer be at work as the fertility of this whole subpopulation is in a downard spiral. In other words, more and more great scientists might have no siblings to aid (ergo, no neices and nephews) or siblings who are less brilliant and spending all their extra time publishing so as to attain tenure (ergo, no neices and nephews).

Addendum: My real point in the previous post was to highlight the importance of a niche for childless celibates in a society to promote those who produce goods & services that 1) glorify their own reptuation 2) and so glorify the society in which they reside. I did not mean to imply that all great scientists or artists had to be childless.

Posted by razib at 07:20 PM