Nicholas Wade and Creativity v. Intelligence


Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance tries to sidestep the controversial subject of intelligence and focus more upon creativity. Clearly, most of the creativity in the world in recent centuries has come out of the west.

To some extent this is an optical illusion because we have the individual names of almost all Western artists and scientists since maybe 1500. Since we don’t have the names of many of the artists involved in Gothic Cathedrals in the Middle Ages, it’s easy for pundits to overlook them. Similarly, we only have a vague notion of who was chief architect of the Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal in the 17th Century.

But, most of the rest of the world was indeed stultifying after 1500, with Japan as an exception that was making steady progress.

The problem with creativity, is that we feel that we know it when we see it, but it’s hard to quantify in the present, much less predict in the future. IQ has been studied intensively for a century, and we now know that it not only works pretty well in the present but as a predictor of future developments (e.g., Ian Deary’s recent work tracking down surviving Scots who took a national IQ tests as 11-year-olds in 1932). And it seems to be fairly heritable, which probably is the chief reason we relatively few radical changes over time in national average IQs.

Creativity remains somewhat difficult to measure in the present and notably hard to predict in the future, with various national golden ages of this or that happening regularly.

Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment art and science creativity metrics work reasonably well in hindsight, leaving a half-century lag. Yes, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Wagner were creative. No question about it.

But looking forward, it’s hard to say. If you asked me on the way to the screening of The Matrix Reloaded if the Wachowski Brothers were the most creative filmmaker of our time, I probably would have said yes. On the way home, maybe not.
And what really matters isn’t the judgment of critics like me, but of future creative artists. All the 19th Century composers were enthralled by or rebelled against Beethoven. It’s the impact of Ludwig van upon  Schumann, Berlioz, Brahms, and Debussy that matters. And it’s hard to predict what creative and thus surprising artists of the future will be influenced by.

Likewise, the bigness of the tent of “creativity” — Michelangelo and Shakespeare, but also Newton and Einstein, and Ford and Wozniak, well, that’s a big tent.

So, because the most creative is the most unexpected, I’ve usually been less eager to opinionize about the future of creativity than of intelligence. Of course, it’s because scientists know more about intelligence than creativity that we aren’t supposed to talk about differences in IQ.