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 +

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Top 100 Living Geniuses 2008

The years seem shorter with every one that passes. Again, The Daily Telegraph in the UK has published a list of the top 100 living geniuses. This list was compiled by Creators Synectics, a global consulting firm. To do so, they mailed 4,000 Britons and asked them to nominate up to 10 geniuses each.

The geniuses are ranked on the basis of their aggregate scores in five characteristics: paradigm shifting; popular acclaim; intellectual power; achievement and cultural importance. They were scored out of 10 in each criteria and their scores totalled. It is interesting to note that, although the highest possible score was 50, that the number one ranking was achieved with a score of only 27. This implies that to be the best living genius, one only needs to score half marks, in this assessment. There is, therefore, a lot of room for a "super genius", at the top - though such a person has yet to be identified. It would be interesting to compare these living geniuses with their dead rivals. I rather think that the dead ones would fare better, in many cases.

As with the first such list, last year, I am surprised at what people understand a genius to be. Some of those included in this popular list do not remotely meet the criteria of genius. JK Rowling, for instance, is a popular writer, but she doesn't produce original works - her work has been frequently criticized for being highly derivative. Thus, no matter how many books she sells, she can never cross the threshold into "genius" until she starts writing works that owe something to true creativity and less to imitation. Others who are most certainly not true geniuses include Damian Hirst, who also suffers from a chronic case of plagiarism. Many of Hirst's works are direct copies of other people's ideas and this has been frequently been brought out by the public complaints of his victims. Sadly, though, less coverage has been given to his complainants, than to his own self-promotion - hence the myth persists that this man is a "creative genius".

Astonishingly, Dolly Parton is accounted a genius by the voters. I find this puzzling since it is not her big brain that she is famous for. It seems that those who vote on this list, are unable to distinguish between "talent" and genius. Parton is a talented singer...but is she truly a genius in the actual sense of the word?

Other miscategorizations are understandable. For instance, Daniel Tammet is listed as a genius...whereas, in fact, he is a savant (which though impressive in some ways, does not qualify him as a genius).

It is interesting to note that some makers of our age are included. Their claim to genius seems more certain in that their works have changed the world. These include Tim Berners-Lee, the "inventor of the internet", Larry Page and Sergey Brin, of Google fame and Steve Wozniak of Apple Computers. These people are each, essentially, noted for one major contribution, a work significant enough in itself to qualify them as "geniuses". I do note, however, that in classical times, geniuses were generally thought to be more abundantly productive than this.

In a way, what this list does is identify what is important to people, more than it identifies true genius. They label as "genius" that which has significance for them, in their lives - even if this is just a gifted boxer, Muhammad Ali, or a singer, like Dolly Parton. (These are both examples of talents, not genius, really.)

The true test of genius, of course, is the passage of time. How many of these "geniuses" on this list will be remembered, referred to and thought of in, say, five hundred years time? Unchallengeable geniuses are those like Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle that are still remembered centuries or even civilizations after their passing. Whom do you think, on this list, will be remembered on the same timescale as the great names I have just mentioned? Will any of them be so revered? Please comment with your views, below, if you have any. Thanks.

1= Albert Hoffman (Swiss) Chemist 27
1= Tim Berners-Lee (British) Computer Scientist 27
3 George Soros (American) Investor & Philanthropist 25
4 Matt Groening (American) Satirist & Animator 24
5= Nelson Mandela (South African) Politician & Diplomat 23
5= Frederick Sanger (British) Chemist 23
7= Dario Fo (Italian) Writer & Dramatist 22
7= Steven Hawking (British) Physicist 22
9= Oscar Niemeyer (Brazilian) Architect 21
9= Philip Glass (American) Composer 21
9= Grigory Perelman (Russian) Mathematician 21
12= Andrew Wiles (British) Mathematician 20
12= Li Hongzhi (Chinese) Spiritual Leader 20
12= Ali Javan (Iranian) Engineer 20
15= Brian Eno (British) Composer 19
15= Damian Hirst (British) Artist 19
15= Daniel Tammet (British) Savant & Linguist 19
18 Nicholson Baker (American Writer) 18
19 Daniel Barenboim (N/A) Musician 17
20= Robert Crumb (American) Artist 16
20= Richard Dawkins (British) Biologist and philosopher 16
20= Larry Page & Sergey Brin (American) Publishers 16
20= Rupert Murdoch (American) Publisher 16
20= Geoffrey Hill (British) Poet 16
25 Garry Kasparov (Russian) Chess Player 15
26= The Dalai Lama (Tibetan) Spiritual Leader 14
26= Steven Spielberg (American) Film maker 14
26= Hiroshi Ishiguro (Japanese) Roboticist 14
26= Robert Edwards (British) Pioneer of IVF treatment 14
26= Seamus Heaney (Irish) Poet 14
31 Harold Pinter (British) Writer & Dramatist 13
32= Flossie Wong-Staal (Chinese) Bio-technologist 12
32= Bobby Fischer (American) Chess Player 12
32= Prince (American) Musician 12
32= Henrik Gorecki (Polish) Composer 12
32= Avram Noam Chomski (American) Philosopher & linguist 12
32= Sebastian Thrun (German) Probabilistic roboticist 12
32= Nima Arkani Hamed (Canadian) Physicist 12
32= Margaret Turnbull (American) Astrobiologist 12
40= Elaine Pagels (American) Historian 11
40= Enrique Ostrea (Philippino) Pediatrics & neonatology 11
40= Gary Becker (American) Economist 11
43= Mohammed Ali (American) Boxer 10
43= Osama Bin Laden (Saudi) Islamicist 10
43= Bill Gates (American) Businessman 10
43= Philip Roth (American) Writer 10
43= James West (American) Invented the foil electrical microphone 10
43= Tuan Vo-Dinh (Vietnamese) Bio-Medical Scientist 10
49= Brian Wilson (American) Musician 9
49= Stevie Wonder (American) Singer songwriter 9
49= Vint Cerf (American) Computer scientist 9
49= Henry Kissinger (American) Diplomat and politician 9
49= Richard Branson (British) Publicist 9
49= Pardis Sabeti (Iranian) Biological anthropologist 9
49= Jon de Mol (Dutch) Television producer 9
49= Meryl Streep (American) Actress 9
49= Margaret Attwood (Canadian) Writer 9
58= Placido Domingo (Spanish) Singer 8
58= John Lasseter (American) Digital Animator 8
58= Shunpei Yamazaki (Japanese) Computer scientist & physicist 8
58= Jane Goodall (British) Ethologist & Anthropologist 8
58= Kirti Narayan Chaudhuri (Indian) Historian 8
58= John Goto (British) Photographer 8
58= Paul McCartney (British) Musician 8
58= Stephen King (American) Writer 8
58= Leonard Cohen (American) Poet & musician 8
67= Aretha Franklin (American) Musician 7
67= David Bowie (British) Musician 7
67= Emily Oster (American) Economist 7
67= Steve Wozniak (American) Engineer and co-founder of Apple Computers 7
67= Martin Cooper (American) Inventor of the cell phone 7
72= George Lucas (American) Film maker 6
72= Niles Rogers (American) Musician 6
72= Hans Zimmer (German) Composer 6
72= John Williams (American) Composer 6
72= Annette Baier (New Zealander) Philosopher 6
72= Dorothy Rowe (British) Psychologist 6
72= Ivan Marchuk (Ukrainian) Artist & sculptor 6
72= Robin Escovado (American) Composer 6
72= Mark Dean (American) Inventor & computer scientist 6
72= Rick Rubin (American) Musician & producer 6
72= Stan Lee (American) Publisher 6
83= David Warren (Australian) Engineer 5
83= Jon Fosse (Norwegian) Writer & dramatist
83= Gjertrud Schnackenberg (American) Poet 5
83= Graham Linehan (Irish) Writer & dramatist 5
83= JK Rowling (British) Writer5
83= Ken Russell (British) Film maker 5
83= Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov (Russian) Small arms designer 5
83= Erich Jarvis (American) Neurobiologist 5
91=. Chad Varah (British) Founder of Samaritans 4
91= Nicolas Hayek (Swiss) Businessman and founder of Swatch 4
91= Alastair Hannay (British) Philosopher 4
94= Patricia Bath (American) Ophthalmologist
94= Thomas A. Jackson (American) Aerospace engineer 3
94= Dolly Parton (American) Singer 3
94= Morissey (British) Singer 3
94= Michael Eavis (British) Organiser of Glastonbury 3
94= Ranulph Fiennes (British) Adventurer 3
100=. Quentin Tarantino (American) Filmmaker 2

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 9:07 PM 


Blogger Miao said...

This list is rather depressing. It completely eludes me how Paul McCartney, as well as many others who are on the list, can even be considered geniuses. Honestly I think that Creators Synetics should have excluded popular acclaim from its scope of consideration - taking into account critical acclaim would have been far more appropriate. There are also several important names missing from the list - e.g., J. Craig Venter, who successfully mapped the human genome; Michael Green, a pioneer of string theory; E.O. Wilson, who established sociobiology as a scientific field, etc. I recall that Time magazine included Miley Cyrus in its latest list of the Top 100 Influential People in the World. It seems like there's a gross misunderstanding the words 'genius' and 'influential' these days.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

I think the list should include Terrence Tao.

3:05 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Miao, I agree that their criteria appear to be distorting matters somewhat. The matter of genius should not be a popularity contest, but should, instead, be a measure of the SIGNIFICANCE of someone's work.

Thanks for your nominations.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

As for Miley Cyrus being in the world Top 100 most influential...that is just sad. Is the world to be ruled by the fame of pop. culture kids? That is a weird situation.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Terrence Tao...I agree. Perhaps he will appear in later lists, when he becomes more famous.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

I also agree that Terrence Tao should be included. Maybe one day Ainan's name will appear on the list as well. :)

3:56 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You can imagine, Miao, how proud a Daddy I would be, then.

Yes, it may happen one day...but these things take time. To come to note in a field can take this blog will be rather old by the time that happens!

Best wishes to you. The thought is appreciated.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous meep said...

why do you believe that a savant can't be a genius? Surely, many of those you list as geniuses are also savant-like. Many of them had severe deficits in some areas like social-functioning, dealing with daily living tasks, etc...I hope you do not believe that savants are incapable of creativity or innovation

8:05 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Meep, savant and genius are two distinct categories - that is why we have two words to describe them.

Genius is primarily characterized by the capacity to create; savant is primarily characterized by the capacity to REPLICATE.

Geniuses show abundant creativity; a few savants have shown limited creativity, as they got older and understood their domains better. They have, to my knowledge, never shown genius like creativity, in any case, whatsoever.

Geniuses may be distracted by their thoughts or disinterested in convention and so not terribly up on "tasks of daily living". (Some may be dishevelled for instance.) This is NOT the same as the developmental disabilities common in savants, who are simply unable to perform these tasks without help. There is a difference: one is distraction, the other is inability.

You make your assertions without examples to support them. Who, for instance, of the geniuses on this list, shows difficulty with tasks of daily living? Name me some "creative" savants? What works have they accomplished?

Savants excel, initially, in replication...some are good at copying a musical performance, or recalling the contents of a book. They are not good at writing symphonies, or producing new theories, ideas and works.

These differences between savant and genius are quite clear cut - that is why two words are necessary to describe them.

Genius is not "savant-like"...genius is not replicative nor accompanied by any disability. Savant is almost always entirely replicative and accompanied by disability, to varying degrees. These are not the same phenomena.

Thanks for your comment.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi mr. cawley,

i watched an episode of 60 minutes recently, in which the musical savant rex lewis-clack was featured.

you may be interested to know that one of his music teachers alluded to his ability to compose original pieces.

the write-up on the internet ( does not make mention of this, but i am sure you can find the above-mentioned feature on youtube.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. I had a look at Rex Lewis-Clack's video. It shows him improvising to a suggested theme (often in response to a tune played, playing with its possibilities). His music teacher invites him to improvise and then helps guide him to tidy up the pieces into something polished.

I would say, that for a savant he is developing well, and has managed to move beyond simple replication (in which he still excels) into improvisation. I would say that the creativity shown is mild, at present...but who knows, perhaps he will develop more?

The primary skill he showed in the interview was, however, replication - as with other savants. His replicative skills were very good. His musical creativity is, from the evidence shown, a much weaker thing, as yet. I do not see Rex as a genius. For a genius, creativity is very strong - and comes quite fluidly - it is replication that a genius is disinclined to do. In this way, savants and geniuses are, in some way, opposite kinds of people, I think.

Thanks for pointing the interview with Rex Lewis-Clack out to me.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

osama bin laden!!??

cant believe it.

10:41 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think the voters were impressed by Osama's proven ability to strike at the USA. That seems to have qualified him as a genius.

7:49 AM  

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