The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The mysterious genius of Athens

Consider these names: Socrates, Plato, Pericles, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Xenophon, Thucydides, Anaxagoras, Demosthenes, Alcibiades, Phidias and Simonides. Consider also these lesser known names: Aspasia, Aristippus, Polynotos, Lycurgos, Lysias, Protagoras, and Praxiteles.

What do all these people have in common - apart from being known by but a single name?

The answer is more surprising than at first it seems. They are all Athenians, from Ancient Athens. Does that shock you? It did me. It shocked me because I troubled myself to find out a little more about Ancient Athens and its Golden Age. What I learnt is both humbling and terrible news for the modern era.

The first thing that should be noted is that all of these people lived in the period 440 BC to about 380 BC. This is the Golden Age of Athens. As you will have noted the first of the two lists is unequivocally a list of some of the greatest geniuses who ever lived - accounted by not only their impact and reputation in their own times, but by their subsequent effects on the development of Western civilization and rational thought. Without their impetus, most of what we enjoy today, would not have come to being. The underlying way of thinking would not have evolved. So, we owe a debt of great gratitude to these early rational thinkers and scientific philosophers - and playwrights, too, (for inventing the theatre), among other achievements.

The second list are also regarded as geniuses, but are of lesser reputation - but still, they are all Athenian - and that, in itself, is telling.

You see, I tried to find the population of Athens at the time in question. I saw estimates varying from just 90,000 people to a high of 250,000. The highest estimate, according to one historian, implied that were about 60,000 adult males in Athens at the time. This estimate is not just for Athens but for the city plus the entire surrounding territory of Attica, on which Athens stood. So, it is actually an over-estimate for Athens itself. (Quite a few estimates for Athens' population placed it at around 100,000 - so divide all these calculations by 2.5, if that figure is correct for the city of Athens, proper).

So, the largest estimate of the possible pool from which all these geniuses - and some of them were great geniuses indeed - is drawn - is just 60,000 men.

Think long about that. A significant number of the greatest thinkers in Ancient times were drawn from a pool of just 60,000 men! (At the highest estimate).

How many geniuses are there today in a gathering of 60,000 men in a typical developed country? I mean, true geniuses - people of genuine creative power? I would be surprised if there was even one, really surprised.

How many true geniuses are there alive in the world's 6,000,000,000 plus people, today? Very, very few.

How many should there be? Well, let us use Ancient Athens as our template - and just so you don't accuse me of massaging the figures, let us use a worst case scenario. Let us count the number of major geniuses in Athens in the list above - and forget about the ones of lesser reputation, in the first instance. There are 14 major geniuses in the list above - for a population of no more than 250,000 (including children and slaves - who didn't really have much chance of participating - so this actually dilutes the true impression of Athenians, proper).

How many great geniuses would there be in the world today, for a population of six billion?

Well it is 14 divided by 250,000 multiplied by 6,000,000,000. That gives us a total of: 336,000.

There would be a third of a million geniuses on a par with Plato and Socrates alive today, if modern humans were as the Ancient Athenians had been.

I, for one, do not believe that there are a third of a million such individuals alive today. It may even be that such a number of great geniuses have never, in fact, lived, in the whole history of the human race. (Had they lived, one would expect history to be littered with many more great men and women than seems to be the case).

Now, that calculation only looked at those geniuses of greatest reputation in Ancient Athens. Let us consider the whole list - but remember that these lists may have accidentally excluded other great names, too. So, it will be, if anything, an underestimate of the true situation.

Doing the calculation for the second list of seven names gives another 168,000 geniuses who should be alive today - but most probably aren't.

Now, it doesn't make sense that the lesser names should be half as numerous as the greater ones. Clearly, therefore, my list is incomplete. So this is just a rough guide to the situation. There should be several lesser names for every greater one. Remember though that these lesser names are geniuses too - great enough to be remembered by some two and a half millenia later. So they are not insignificant.

Adding the two estimates gives us at total of 504,000 geniuses for the modern world. That is enough to populate a sizable city. Yet, I doubt the actual number is great enough to fill a sizable hotel.

The conclusion we can draw from this is either something is wrong about modern man - or something was great about Athenian man. It is basically the same, relative, conclusion.

Francis Galton (February 16, 1822 to January 17, 1911) once noted concerning the Athenian situation that, for Ancient Athens to have possessed so many geniuses, that the average intelligence of its population would have had to have been "two grades above the mean for a modern European" (That is a 19th century human, who, I propose, would have been genetically superior to people of today for reasons to be discussed elsewhere). For Francis Galton, a grade equated to about 10 IQ points in the current way of looking at it. So, in Francis Galton's estimate, for there to have been so many geniuses, in such a small place as Ancient Athens, the mean IQ of the Athenian population must have been about an IQ of 120.

No nation, city or race on Earth in the modern world comes remotely close to such a figure. By comparison the mean IQ of our "world leader" - the United States is just 98. The highest is Hong Kong at a mean of 107. As for races and IQ, the highest is for the Ashkenazi Jews at just over 107 mean according to the biggest study I could find (and therefore likely to be the most representative), with a sample size of 1,236 Ashkenazi Jews, by Backman in 1972.

So, Athenian man (and woman) stood far above modern people in mean intelligence. Such a huge disparity in mean intelligence, would have led to a situation in which gifted people - by modern reckoning of that term, were super-abundant. A significant proportion of the population would have tested as "gifted or above". If the mean IQ was, in fact, 120 for Ancient Athens, then assuming a standard deviation of 15 about that mean (as it is today in the West), then fully 25 % of the population would have tested at the gifted range of 130 or above. One in four Athenians would have been considered gifted by modern standards, by this reckoning.

Let us look a little deeper. One in four would have been moderately gifted (IQ 130); One in twenty-one would have been highly gifted (IQ 145 and above); one in two hundred and sixty one would have been exceptionally gifted (IQ 160 and above) and one in thirty-one thousand five hundred and sixty would have been profoundly gifted (IQ 180 and above). By the way, this suggests one Athenian had an IQ of 187 (one in a quarter of a million).

Now even these figures will be an underestimate of the true situation because they use a normal curve to derive the probabilities - whereas the true, observed curve is trimodal, with higher than expected upper and lower occurrences of IQ.

By comparison, for the modern world, using the rarity expected in a normal distribution of standard deviation 15, gives 1 in 44, moderately gifted, 1 in 741 highly gifted, 1 in 31,560 exceptionally gifted, 1 in 20,696,000 will be profoundly gifted (or say fifteen people in the United states, today).

These figures can only, therefore, give you a feel for the situation - but an incredible one it is. Were modern men as gifted as Ancient Athenians, genius would be more common than footballers. Such a world would be far different from the one we actually have. Presumably, we would be far more advanced culturally, scientifically and technologically.

Yet, we are not as the Athenians were. Neither are the modern Greeks. Their mean IQ is a saddening 92.

What happened, then, to the great Athens and their superhuman Athenians? Well, plague took a lot of them (including Pericles) - one third in one bite. Then Sparta took a lot more of them, by defeating them. The sterility (and military discipline) of Sparta triumphed over the genius of Athens. In 338 B.C Philip II of Macedon (Alexander the Great's dad) conquered Athens ending its independence. Athens never shone again, as once it had.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and nine months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and two months, and Tiarnan, nineteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:19 AM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't the small number of people 60,000 suggests they were close in proximity and more than likely shared information readily and freely. Today, one must pay for information beyond a rudimentary level. So shared information is at a mininum.

1:05 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Interesting... perhaps in a less advanced society, a moderately high IQ would be sufficient to found radical new streams of thought. Athens had greater freedom of thought than most of its contemporaries. Thus, not all of these Athenians would be considered geniuses by modern standards.

However, there is a more disturbing second possibility...

Historically, societies have been known to eliminate their most intelligent people, those who dare to question authority or challenge prevailing ideas. Perhaps our mean IQ has decreased as a result.

From an evolutionary standpoint, I find the rarity of genius rather suspicious. It is not a simple matter of brains with different specializations (as I once believed), for some people have seemingly superhuman abilities in all cognitive domains. I can only think of a few explanations:
1. Intelligent brains may cost more energy to maintain than they were worth in primitive times.
2. Civilization may have emerged before human intelligence reached its peak equilibrium. Thus, our brain evolution is incomplete.
3. Intelligent people are becoming less successful at surviving and passing on their genes, for some reason or other.

5:23 AM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Yes. I have considered all of your points before. I rather think, however, that it is the third one that is prevailing here: differential breeding of the bright. For at least the last one hundred and fifty years we have been suffering from a paucity of children of the most intelligent - and a surfeit of the children of the least intelligent. The result is that modern man is considerably less intelligent than man, say, two hundred years ago. We are in decline - and that decline is still continuing. I shudder to think what the future holds, for us.

All of the Greeks mentioned were creative in a significant way. Certainly, were they alive today, they would be noted people. So, I think that they could be termed "geniuses", in the sense of being independent, creative thinkers with something to add to the world. Something of them were geniuses of the first order - others less so. However, I echo your "suspiciousness" and find it very suspicious indeed that a modern town of 60,000 male adults would not, in all likelihood, produce a single creative person of even the calibre of the least of these Greek names. Something has GONE from modern man. We are a lesser breed than once we were, I rather think.

Thanks for your thought.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me help you out here...

These people were not all "true geniuses". They were just early adopters.

It's the same with the history of Rock'n'Roll. If you look at the number of famous rock bands around 1960, you'll find that a very high percentage of the existing rock bands at the time became famous.

Because they were vastly better musicians than the thousands of garage bands today who don't become famous? Not so much.

They became famous because they were at the right place at the right time.

Like i said... it's the same with the philosophers from Athens. They were not all true geniuses. But, because they were there when the philosophical raptus happened, they are remembered.

So... there you go.

Sometimes "being first" is all it takes to be remembered... :)

7:03 AM  

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