What Stephen Hawking missed about the nature of human intelligence in PBS’s “Genius”

Back in 2012, Stephen Hawking visited Seattle and I had the privilege of attending a lecture he gave titled “Brane New World.” Now, I know from a statistical standpoint that I’m above average in intelligence, and I’ve read widely and deeply in physics and cosmology — I read Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory when I was 15. And yet, I struggled to follow pretty much anything Hawking talked about. On my own in the darkened auditorium, being a statistical “genius”[1] did not alone enable me to understand the concepts of M-theory in his lecture.

This week, PBS launched a new, six-part series titled “Genius with Stephen Hawking.” Hawking narrates, and the show follows a trio it describes as “ordinary people”[2] through a sequence of exercises and experiments in which they uncover key concepts in physics and cosmology.

Stephen Hawking

At the beginning of the first show, Hawking addresses the team as “my budding geniuses.” Over the course of the show, they successfully conclude that backwards time travel is impossible due to the fundamental laws of physics, while the rather counterintuitive forwards “time travel” (beyond our prosaic movement through the fourth dimension as we live our lives) is a very real possibility thanks to the effects of gravity on space-time. Because time itself travels more slowly the closer one is to a major gravitational source, traveling relative to such a source — toward or away — causes a desynchronization of how the traveler experiences time from the “absolute” time at the traveler’s point of origin. For example, orbiting the supermassive black hole likely at the center of our galaxy for a while without falling into the event horizon and then somehow managing to escape back out would give us the experience of leaping “forward” in time when we return. Finally, having proven that even “ordinary people” can reach the conclusions of the great scientific minds of history, Hawking ends the show with the imperative “Think like a genius.”

But there is a fundamental flaw in Stephen Hawking’s logic (well, at least the logic of the show’s writers — Hawking himself is not actually credited as a writer). Unlike my poor solitary brain in that dark theater here in Seattle, each of the teams on the shows that aired this week benefited from two of the evolutionary advantages that have enabled our species to walk, row, sail, and ultimately fly out of the confines of our ancestral homelands.

What the show fails to highlight, focused as it is on physics and cosmology rather than paleoanthropology or evolutionary biology, is that the participants are benefiting from distributed cognition and altruism — attributes innate to how the human mind works. By operating as a cooperative team, with access to the information and technology humans have built up over the past 200,000 years, they are able to arrive at the same innovative breakthroughs that individual geniuses have over the last 400 years of unbounded scientific discovery. Each team of “ordinary people” is also a diverse group, and they complement each other as they explore concepts in relativity, cosmic scale, and the probability of the existence of intelligent life beyond our solar system.

But even those singular geniuses of the past have acknowledged their debt to the work of previous thinkers. Isaac Newton famously said in 1676, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Today, Hawking stands on Einstein’s shoulders, who stood on Newton’s shoulders, who stood on Copernicus’s shoulders. It’s geniuses all the way down!

Through education and technology, each of us benefits from the giants whose shoulders we stand on. This is no less true with my college degree and iPhone today than it was 43,000 years ago when our ancestors taught their children how to carve musical instruments from animal bones. Because we all benefit from the accumulated culture of our species, we are indeed able to be geniuses.

So Stephen Hawking tells us, “Think like a genius.”

Due to the ambiguity of plurality in the second person in English grammar, Hawking leaves it open to us to interpret whether he is speaking to each of us individually, or all of us collectively. I prefer to believe that he means the latter. We are all stronger, better, and ultimately smarter together. Human intelligence exists not merely at an individual level, but as a result of the tools, artifacts, information, and meaning that we carry with us from one generation to the next.

Yes, Professor Hawking, thanks to the brilliance of all those who’ve gone before, we will indeed think like one monumental, collective genius.

[1] What this means is that there are about 700 million people smarter than me in the world today. That’s a lot of people. I find the concept of individual genius essentially meaningless.

[2] C’mon, PBS, you just mean “non-scientists.”


Paleolithic archaeology, software design, and the social brain

Over the past 18 months, I’ve immersed myself deeper and deeper in the Paleolithic, reading scores of books and journal articles. Why?

Ever since my first visit at about age four to the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, with its mammoth skeletons and Paleolithic dioramas, I’ve been fascinating by the archaeology of deep human history (as Clive Gamble puts it in the subtitle of his exceptional book Settling the Earth). I wandered by chance onto the Tategahana Paleolithic Site at Lake Nojiri in Nagano during an excavation, walked carrot fields in Yokohama looking for Jomon potsherds, and when I traveled to Jordan during college for an Iron Age dig, I spent my evenings surface-collecting Middle Paleolithic tools from a nearby barley field. The vast, mostly unknown and seemingly unrelatable world of the Stone Age seems so much more interesting than the thoroughly modern world of Archimedes, Hadrian, and Augustine of Hippo.


Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition reading list

The Human Revolution

The period of the Paleolithic that fascinates me most, as I know it does many archaeologists, is the transition between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic. I’m particularly fascinated by archaeological work in parts of the world where anatomically modern humans (AMH) and Neanderthals met, potentially interacted, and certainly interbred. The two most likely areas where this happened, based on archaeogenetic and archaeological evidence, are the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Europe.

While the genetics are at this point incontrovertible — all non-African modern humans carry Neanderthal DNA, and recent research has proved that gene flow also occurred in the other direction — what intrigues me most are the cultural markers of interaction between AMH and Neanderthals. Similarly, what constitutes behavioral rather than merely anatomical modernity? Thus, the Mode 3 technologies associated with AMH at several sites in the Levant and Mode 4 technologies (and potentially symbolic behavior such as personal adornment) associated with Neanderthals at Châtelperronian sites like Saint-Cesaire and Les Cottés in France represent amazing opportunities to answer these questions.

The Shape of Content to Come

Or, Information Architecture, Minimalist music, LEGO bricks, and a visit from the President of the People’s Republic of China

As I sat stuck on the bus yesterday for an hour and a half, crawling through traffic delayed and re-routed by an impending visit from President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China, I listened for the first time to John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China.

I grew up listening both to the masters of “traditional” classical music and to revolutionary 20th-century composers like Copeland and Stravinsky — the first CD I ever bought for myself, back in 1983 (the year CDs were released in Japan), was the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Later, I learned to love opera when I sang in the chorus for Carmen with the oldest active symphony west of the Mississippi (a fun fact about the Walla Walla Symphony). But despite passionate recommendations from Music Major friends in college, I’d never really dug particularly deeply into Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Terry Riley, or John Adams. Hearing The Chairman Dances on the radio over the weekend, I realized I’d been missing something.

Whether writing software documentation earlier in my career as a technical writer, specifications and user stories more recently as a product manager, or poetry and fiction whenever I can find the creative and emotional space to write it, music has always played a significant part in my writing process. From Bach and Beethoven to Johnny Cash and Sigur Rós, just about any music helps me focus and concentrate, while the right music can help me maintain the emotional state I want to explore when writing poetry in particular.