Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Mycroft Holmes and the mark of genius

with 3 comments

Sidney Paget illustration of Mycroft Holmes

“Original discoveries cannot be made casually, not by anyone at any time or anywhere,” the great biologist Edward O. Wilson writes in Letters to a Young Scientist. “The frontier of scientific knowledge, often referred to as the cutting edge, is reached with maps drawn by earlier scientists…Somewhere in these vast unexplored regions you should settle.” This seems like pretty good career advice for scientists and artists alike. But then Wilson makes a striking observation:

But, you may well ask, isn’t the cutting edge a place only for geniuses? No, fortunately. Work accomplished on the frontier defines genius, not just getting there. In fact, both accomplishments along the frontier and the final eureka moment are achieved more by entrepreneurship and hard work than by native intelligence. This is so much the case that in most fields most of the time, extreme brightness may be a detriment. It has occurred to me, after meeting so many successful researchers in so many disciplines, that the ideal scientist is smart only to an intermediate degree: bright enough to see what can be done but not so bright as to become bored doing it.

At first glance, this may not seem all that different from Martin A. Schwartz’s thoughts on the importance of stupidity, which I quoted here last week. In fact, they’re two separate observations—although they turn out to be related in one important respect. Schwartz is talking about “absolute stupidity,” or our collective ignorance in the face of the unknown, and he takes pains to distinguish it from the “relative stupidity” that differentiates students in the same college classes. And while Wilson isn’t talking about relative stupidity here, exactly, he’s certainly discussing relative intelligence, or the idea that the best scientists might be just a little bit less bright than their smartest peers in school. As he goes on to observe:    

What, then, of certified geniuses whose IQs exceed 140, and are as high as 180 or more? Aren’t they the ones who produce the new groundbreaking ideas? I’m sure some do very well in science, but let me suggest that perhaps, instead, many of the IQ-brightest join societies like Mensa and work as auditors and tax consultants. Why should the rule of optimum medium brightness hold? (And I admit this perception of mine is only speculative.) One reason could be that IQ geniuses have it too easy in their early training. They don’t have to sweat the science courses they take in college. They find little reward in the necessarily tedious chores of data-gathering and analysis. They choose not to take the hard roads to the frontier, over which the rest of us, the lesser intellectual toilers, must travel.

Marilyn vos Savant

In other words, the real geniuses are reluctant to take on the voluntary stupidity that science demands, and they’re more likely to find sources of satisfaction that don’t require them to constantly confront their own ignorance. This is a vast generalization, of course, but it seems to square with experience. I’ve met a number of geniuses, and what many of them have in common is a highly pragmatic determination to make life as pleasant for themselves as possible. Any other decision, in fact, would call their genius into doubt. If you can rely unthinkingly on your natural intelligence to succeed in a socially acceptable profession, or to minimize the amount of work you have to do at all, you don’t have to be a genius to see that this is a pretty good deal. The fact that Marilyn vos Savant—who allegedly had the highest tested intelligence ever recorded—became a columnist for Parade might be taken as a knock against her genius, but really, it’s the most convincing proof of it that I can imagine. The world’s smartest person should be more than happy to take a cushy gig at a Sunday supplement magazine. Most of the very bright endure their share of miseries during childhood, and their reward, rather than more misery, might as well be an adult life that provides intellectual stimulation in emotional safety. This is why I’ve always felt that Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s smarter older brother, knew exactly how his genius ought to be used. As Sherlock notes drily in “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”: “Mycroft draws four hundred and fifty pounds a year, remains a subordinate, has no ambitions of any kind, will receive neither honor nor title, but remains the most indispensable man in the country.” 

Yet it’s Sherlock, who was forced to leave the house to find answers to his problems, whom we love more. (He’s also been held up as an exemplar of the perfect scientist.) Mycroft is hampered by both his physical laziness and his mental quickness: when a minister comes to him with a complicated problem involving “the Navy, India, Canada, and the bimetallic question,” Mycroft can provide the answer “offhand,” which doesn’t give him much of an incentive to ever leave his office or the Diogenes Club. As Holmes puts it in “The Greek Interpreter”:

You wonder…why it is that Mycroft does not use his powers for detective work. He is incapable of it…I said that he was my superior in observation and deduction. If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived. But he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solution, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right.

Mycroft wasn’t wrong, either. He seems to have lived a very comfortable life. But it’s revealing that Conan Doyle gave the real adventures to the brother with the slightly less scintillating intelligence. In art, just as in science, technical facility can prevent certain artists from making real discoveries. The ones who have to work at it are more likely to find something real. But we can also raise a glass to Mycroft, Marilyn, and the geniuses who are smart enough not to make it too hard on themselves.

3 Responses

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  1. ‘I’ve met a number of geniuses, and … many … have in commona highly pragmatic determination to make life as pleasant for themselves as possible. Any other decision, in fact, would call their genius into doubt. If you can rely unthinkingly on your natural intelligence to succeed in a socially acceptable profession, or to minimize the amount of work you have to do at all, you don’t have to be a genius to see that this is a pretty good deal.’

    This is of course the Campbellian donnée for a late-1950s ASTOUNDING short. In fact, there’s a Jack Vance novelette, “Dodkin’s Job” in the October 1959 ASF, that even bears some resemblance to it already.

    Though the idea could be something from H.L. Gold’s and Fred Pohl’s GALAXY of the same era, too, now I think about it. The story would be more satirical then: the supermen are already here, and they’re hiding in plain sight as washroom attendants (cf SEARCH THE SKY by Pohl and Kornblurh).

    In any case: yeah, your general thesis has quite a bit of truth. The jazz pianist Bill Evans used to say that he’d had to struggle to work things out as a player compared to other musicians who’d had more obvious talents from the beginning and to whom things came more easily, and yet he was glad he’d had to struggle because he’d developed stronger, more individual ideas about what he was doing because of it.

    Mark Pontin

    November 2, 2016 at 6:54 pm

  2. I’m sorry. I didn’t communicate clearly. What I meant was, simply, that your thinking here much _resembles_ the sort of notion Campbell might give out. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any story that directly recapitulates this idea, though I can think of a couple that come near.

    Mark Pontin

    November 2, 2016 at 8:49 pm

  3. @Mark Pontin: It does seem like something that Campbell would say, doesn’t it? He actually expresses a similar view in one of his editorials, in which he criticizes a child prodigy like John Stuart Mill for not being smart enough to play dumb.

    nevalalee

    November 6, 2016 at 9:38 am


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