Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Is Genius Dumb?

Many of us are intrigued to hear about certain quirks people have in their brains. Some of us, like Blumenfeld, are geniuses, and have some of these traits, be it photographic memory, perfect pitch, or, I guess I'll throw in synesthesia after today's conversation in class. I am talking about things that are associated with being smart. If these really do generally correlate with being smarter than average, what is advantageous about them? It seems natural to assume that they would have evolved at times when human beings were not civilized, observing the very little time on an evolutionary scale that we have had civilization. Assuming that "smarter" implies forward evolutionary progress, what makes it more advantageous to be able to instantly memorize entire pictures rather than tiny bits of information? Shouldn't this involve the use of a large amount of energy that, at the time, we wouldn't really have needed to use? What could have been advantageous about perfect pitch? Why would it matter for someone to be able to remember the exact pitch of a sound? A huge amount of the sounds we make with our vocal chords are not even what one would call "notes," anyway. And especially synesthesia: Wouldn't it be better to completely separate our senses, so as not to cause confusion?


  1. I would say that none of these things would have been beneficial to early humans. Many people would then use this to question evolution, but I would also say that traits attributed to "genius" have not been selected for else they would be prevalent in society.

    Firstly as to being beneficial it is true that it is beneficial to be smart and I wouldn't count intelligence as one of the traits mentioned above. I would say that traits like perfect pitch or photographic memories would not be evolutionary adaptations. The brain already consumes the most energy in the body of any human. While most humans use their brain for storing information such as the meaning of a book or picture, people with photographic memory must use more energy to store specific details. Eidetic memory (the technical term for photographic memory) seems beneficial now, but when looked at in the context of a time before humans were able to provide unlimited food it uses more resources for a benefit not necessarily useful. Why would someone living before the advent of society need a photographic memory? It would serve them no purpose to be able to recall events or images with great accuracy or detail. Instead it would be more important to understand what helps the human survive and memorize that for a benefit. Additionally there is no record proving or disproving that early humans had this ability or any clue as to when it developed (in fact many people still doubt it exists).

    Things like perfect pitch and some cases of synesthesia would have no benefit and in fact not exist. Mrs. Erdmann for example would not be able to see the colors of letters till letters existed and so there would be relatively little difference between her and most people before the advent of written language. Similarly perfect pitch is of no use to people unless there is a significance to the noises they can remember. It is instead more beneficial to be able to remember the sound of predators (something we can all do relatively easily), or a predators scent (something which has evolved). In fact scent is one of the most closely related senses to memory.

    Lastly I'd like to point out that these adaptations have not been selected for which is proof of their evolutionary worthlessness. If perfect pitch helped early humans survive it would most likely be a commonality to all humans; instead, these adaptations are fairly rare in our society.

  2. I think I’m going to have to agree with Mehul on this one. Evolution is, per definition, descent with modification and a trait must be prevalent within a species in order for one to say that it has been selected for. Now, like Mehul said, it is important to distinguish between intelligence and the rare adaptations mentioned in the post. The evolution of Intelligence in terms of cognitive ability, perception and learning has been important to human evolution as evidenced by the evolution of our enlarged brain compared to our primate ancestors. In fact, Through cognition, hominids developed sophisticated tools that markedly increased hunting and foraging success in the wild.

    Now, it is true that synesthesia and photographic memory often correlates with above-average intelligence or even “genius” as you call it. Yet these traits are by no means a commonality and thus we can presume that they do not offer much of a selective advantage to our species. Now, I would like to discuss the degree to which these traits may be disadvantageous to an individual in terms of survival and fitness. For example, studies have demonstrated that eidetic memory often correlates with autism and savant skills that “may include a photographic memory, the ability to play a melody after hearing it only once or perfect pitch”. (“Autism”)
    Such individuals will nevertheless display other social, cognitive and language deficiencies thus hampering their ability to survive in the wild. An individual who can not communicate or relate with others would therefore not be able to contribute or function within the social community and it is conceivable that it would also reduce the possibility of reproduction and, hence, fitness.

    Even if synesthesia and photographic memory may arise in socially adapted and otherwise well-functioning individuals, the advantages would probably be few and negligible. Although some may claim that photographic memory is more “efficient” it seems that it would in no way enhance cognitive ability or problem solving skills which are truly important to an individual’s survival in the wild. This is not to say that such “genius” is not valued in today’s society, it’s simply isn’t in the context of natural selection.


  3. Well, I would just like to start off point out that Zach, as much as we all look up to him for his intelligence, is not a genius by definition. This is with all due respect Zach, but it would be an incorrect statement to use you in an example. Genius is defined in many ways but it is commonly associated with an achievement that has changed society. Numerically, it is defined as an IQ of over 150. Geniuses have the ability to understand concepts that would otherwise require teaching. This intelligence has produced both technological and philological advancements that shape how society lives. Essentially, a genius could cause a jump in intelligence for the entire population. This could be extremely advantageous in uncivilized times through the creation of new tools that allow the species to survive. However, we must also point out that advanced intelligence is not genetic. It is more probable that a child with intelligent parents would be smarter than a child without, but that is not due to genetic factors. Instead, that intelligence is due to the learning abilities of the child in mimicking the patterns of their parents.

    People with photographic memories are not necessarily more intelligent than others. However, since they have the ability to notice and remember specific details, it is more probable that they could understand concepts still untaught to them. Their time is also not spent learning some of the basics because their photographic memory has the capacity to recall the information from the first event. This extra time allows the person to move forward intellectually.

    As far as perfect pitch goes, again, I would question whether or not it is genetic. Being completely unrelated to the skills required to survive, I would argue that it neither helps nor hinders the organism in its survival. Like synestesia, it is a greater a product of greater connections in the brain due to the lack of separation in the early stages of development. Many scientists believe this ability can arise after training during the critical stage of development early on in life. Under the "Use it or Loose it" theory, stimulating the connections during this critical period of development could prevent the connections from being pruned. However, the ability to make connections in the brain common have creative outcomes. Creativity and intelligence are arguably one in the same since both entail making the unreal real. In its own ways, the people that have perfect pitch or synesthesia have added to the society such as Tesla.

    As Mehul pointed out, if any of these were selective advantages, they would have been selected for over time. Even though the exact cause of these abilities are unknown, the same process that creates this advanced intelligence creates diseases such as autism. Not that autism is a detriment on society, but it is known for impaired social interactions and communication, which is less beneficial in the advancement of society. Humans were able to survive early on in our history through the cooperation of individuals, therefore, it is more beneficial to avoid the risks of messing around with the connections in the brain.