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Progress Makes Genius Routine

Written by Gary North on May 16, 2015

We forget about one of the great advantages of intellectual progress, namely, that people of above-average intelligence can perform better than geniuses did a century earlier.

Think of a graduate of MIT or CalTech today. I do not mean somebody with a Ph.D. I mean somebody with a bachelor’s degree. He is better at physics than Sir Isaac Newton ever was. That is because he stands on the shoulders of those who stood on the shoulders of those who stood on the shoulders of Isaac Newton.

Furthermore, Newton was something of a gadfly. He spent a large percentage of his adult life studying alchemy, which was totally wasted time.

It is not just that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We stand on the shoulders of above-average practitioners, too. And we have better tools.

If someone with the intelligence of Newton were to get a degree out of CalTech or MIT, he would be phenomenal. He would make breakthroughs of all kinds. That is true of geniuses in all periods of time. You never know when they are going to show up. You do not know what they are going to accomplish. They will probably be opposed by conventional scholars. These people show up unexpectedly, and then they disappear, with no one comparable to them appearing for a generation or more.

What I am talking about is the above-average practitioner. Because of intellectual progress, and especially because of the division of intellectual labor, it is possible for above-average performers to perform at levels undreamed of by a genius a century or more in the past. What conventional people do as a matter of routine, some genius probably would have been unable to do a century earlier. In certain fields, such as chemistry and genetics, a practitioner prior to 1865 would not have been able to do the work at all.

This is why intellectual progress is such an extraordinary benefit to us. We live off of the moral capital that has been accumulated for over 20 centuries. Then there is the intellectual capital of the last 550 years: post-Gutenberg. Then there is the technological capital of the last 200 years: machines, highways, metallurgy, chemistry, electronics, and so forth. Technological progress is now increasing exponentially.

With a simple computer program that almost anybody can afford, people of above-average intelligence and a graduate school education can perform certain kinds of research and analyses beyond anything possible to a genius 40 years ago. It does not even take much creativity. All it takes is the ability to make certain kinds of intellectual connections, and then the statistical tools to evaluate these connections.

Basically, what we see today is this: the level of performance keeps increasing, but the level of intelligence does not. Genius is always in short supply. But with the spread of communications technology, the ability of geniuses to identify those areas in which they are geniuses, and in which they could make a significant difference, is getting cheaper all the time. That is why we are seeing this exponentially factor in technological progress. This is going to increase as the cost of access to the web decreases in Asia. This economic law is true: when the price drops, more is demanded. Geniuses will not be hidden in obscurity in rural villages in 20 years. They may stay in their villages; they will not be hidden there. The web will give the world access to their genius. Above-average performers will be able to stand on their shoulders faster than ever before in history.


Consider my book, Christian Economics in One Lesson. If you compare its early chapters with Hazlitt’s early chapters in Economics in One Lesson, mine are better. They are clearer. They get to the point analytically a lot faster. Why should this be? Because Hazlitt in 1946 had not read Human Action, which did not get published until 1949. Hazlitt in 1946 had not read the works of Murray Rothbard, who was 21 years old at the time.

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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