E.O. Wilson on the Upside of Introversion, the Limits of IQ, and Where Ideas Really Come From
E.O. Wilson, also known as the “the father of sociobology”, is one of the world’s most esteemed and controversial scientists.
He is also a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Many of his books have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers.
One of these bestsellers is Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist, which distills 60 years of teaching into a wonderful array of unintuitive and surprising thoughts on creativity, innovation, and scientific progress.
I love books from bold, original thinkers because, in the past, such books are the ones that have changed my life. You never finish a book as quite the same person, and — much like how bacteria inject and transfer fragments of DNA to one another — the best books transfer a part of the author’s philosophy into your own head
In this essay, I explore several ideas from Wilson’s book that stopped me, changed me, challenged me, and — most importantly — made me think.
“He is not inclined to focus.”
In high school, I was taught that, in order to be successful, I had to fit myself into a narrow set of categories that the world deemed “good”. The good student was “good with people”, “a great leader”, “focused”, “action-oriented”, “intelligent”, and so on.
Ugh, I make myself sick just writing that stuff.
Wilson’s sketches a different portrait of success:
“[The successful scientist] is sometimes driven, I will dare to suggest, by a passive-aggressive nature, and sometimes an anger against some part of society or problem in the world. There is also an introversion in the innovator that keeps him from team sports and social events. He dislikes authority, or at least being told what to do. He is not a leader in high school or college, nor is he likely to be pledged by social clubs. From an early age he is a dreamer, not a doer. His attention wanders easily. He likes to probe, to collect, to tinker. He is prone to fantasize. He is not inclined to focus. He will not be voted by his classmates most likely to succeed.”
Anti-social, passive aggressive, and a hyperactive imagination? That’s a lot different from the image most of us hold.
Of course, this is just Wilson’s opinion. But if you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Humans are herd animals. It takes incredible courage — and a peculiar sort of resilience — to go against the common consensus.
Perhaps introversion gives scientists a sort of intellectual resilience? Who knows.
The “Rule of Optimum Medium Brightness”
Wilson also has some interesting thoughts on IQ.
Despite what deniers say, IQ is real and it does matter. In fact, IQ seems to affect how well you do in almost every area of life. However, such research is always based on averages, and it’s not clear how your specific IQ affects you.
Wilson argues that, past a certain point, intelligence can actually be bad for you:
“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.“
Wilson calls this the “rule of optimum medium brightness“. It’s good to be smart, but not too smart.
Wilson himself has an IQ of 123. Richard Feynman — everybody’s favorite theoretical physicist — scored 125. We think Darwin had an IQ of about 130. (Keep in mind that these scores are still pretty high… Anything above 120 puts you above the 90th percentile.)
In contrast, Wilson says people who score too high (say, in the range of 140–180) may end up “working as auditors and tax consultants.” (Note: I did a rough calculation, and an IQ of 180 would put you above 99.9999955% of the world’s population. That’s 355 people out of 7.9 billion. Wow.)
Wilson suggests that too-smart people tend to be lazy:
“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.”
Of course, Wilson admits this is pure speculation. But it’s worth thinking about. After all, people who are too privileged can end up spoiled, and sometimes being too beautiful can end up as a disadvantage.
Maybe being too smart keeps you from doing the hard work a scientist needs to succeed? Who knows.
Where Ideas Really Come From
(Yes, I know John Nash was a mathematician. But this is a cool picture.)
Okay, one last idea. Wilson also challenges our stereotypical image of a genius scientist writing formulas on a blackboard.
This is not how scientists really work. Rather, ideas come from somewhere else:
“Pioneers in science only rarely make discoveries by extracting ideas from pure mathematics. Most of the stereotypical photographs of scientists studying rows of equations written on blackboards are instructors explaining discoveries already made. Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodled paper, in the corridor struggling to explain something to a friend, at lunchtime, eating alone, or in a garden while walking. To have a eureka moment requires hard work. And focus. A distinguished researcher once commented to me that a real scientist is someone who can think about a subject while talking to his or her spouse about something else.”
Theory alone is not enough.
To make discoveries, we need to get our hands dirty. We need to go out into the world, peek under mossy rocks, build machines that we suspect might never work, and get our trousers dirty while wading through muddy waters.
I can’t help but suspect Wilson’s image of the successful scientist is simply a reflection of himself (hard-working, moderately intelligent, introverted and rebellious). But that doesn’t mean he is wrong, either. Many of the history’s most interesting thinkers were a bit strange, after all.
For many more interesting ideas on hard work, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation, check out Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist.