I WAS PLAYING Botticelli with my wife and kids. I’d briefly stumped them with my pick and was giving them clues. “He’s one of the smartest people who ever lived,” I said, rattling off his various and impressive accomplishments, a C.V. that included painting the most famous painting of all time. My son guessed it: Leonardo Da Vinci.
“Who are the other smartest people who ever lived?” my son asked. He is eight, and curious about such things, and very good at Botticelli.
I threw out a few names—the usual suspects: Newton, Tesla, Einstein, Mozart, Aristotle. Only after I’d rattled off a good dozen candidates for a Smartest People of All Time list did I realize, to my embarrassment, that every so-called genius I’d come up with had one thing in common: they were all men.
“And Marie Curie,” I sheepishly added.
But the damage was done. If I make a list of the Smartest People Who Ever Lived, and none of them are female, the conclusion at which any thoughtful eight-year-old will arrive, consciously or otherwise, is that men are inherently more intelligent than women, that the wo- prefix means not quite as brainy as.
Obviously that is not true. So why does the notion persist? Why is Pythagoras more renowned than Hypatia? Why is it so much more difficult to make a list of the smartest women than the smartest men?
From the invention of the plow until about 50 years ago, women were widely regarded as intellectually inferior to men and treated like the sacks of manure St. Odo of Cluny claimed they were. (We all know this, women know it especially, but it bears repeating.) While the story of the Synod of Macon voting on whether women were human is probably apocryphal, the underlying misogyny was practiced and disseminated by the Church for thousands of years. This quote, from early Church father Tertullian, pretty much sums it up:
Do you not know that you are Eve? The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.
One of many reasons why I never bring my kids to church.
Back home, I searched for lists of the World’s Smartest People. I found this list of “The Top 50 Geniuses of All Time.” It’s a nice little page, painstakingly arranged, with good information about each genius. The problem is, all 50 of them are men. Every last one!
Checking in at #31 is the chemist Linus Pauling. “He has been awarded more than [one] Nobel Prize,” our listmaker writes, “and is one of only [two] individuals to receive them for different fields.”
The second individual to win two Nobels in two fields is Marie Skłodowska-Curie. Who did not make the list.
Later, I came across a used book by Michael H. Hart called The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. A more appropriate title would have been “A Ranking of the 98 Most Influential Men in History, Plus Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Isabella.”
For most of history, a brilliant woman was a curiosity, like a circus freak, rather than the logical result of the fact that more than half of the people alive are female. To lack a Y chromosome was to be denied. Women could not vote, could not own property, could not retain their names, could not work in many fields, could not pursue education in any meaningful way until…well, basically a week and a half ago. Women could not vote in this country, the supposed Land of the Free, until 1920! That’s less than a century ago. There are some four million Americans living today who were born before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. (We all know this, women know it especially, but it bears repeating).
For a woman before the 1960s to have the opportunity to nurture her intellectual gifts was all too rare. Elizabeth I was a genius, probably one of the smartest women of her era and certainly the best educated. She spoke five languages fluently, fostered a literary culture that produced Shakespeare, held nuanced views of theology, and reigned with remarkable savvy for 44 years. She also made Michael H. Hart’s “Influential Persons” list, no small feat. Had she not been the daughter of a king, however, these opportunities would have been denied her. Similarly, the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene was a genius. A compulsive reader, she was familiar with the great Greek and Latin literary works. She spoke several languages, presided over salons, practiced medicine, ran a hospital, served as an imperial advisor, and composed a history of the reign of her father, Alexios I Komnenos, that remains a compelling literary and historical achievement 1000 years after its publication. But again, Anna was the daughter of the emperor. Few other women would have had such opportunities.
That is the main reason why there are so few women on these lists: lack of opportunity. Similarly, when a woman did exhibit intellectual gifts, she often had to use them to convince the world that females were on equal footing with males. Marie de Gourney, Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi, Olympe de Gouges, Mary Wollstonecraft, Táhirih, the Grimké sisters, Susan B. Anthony, Marguerite Durand, Emmeline Pankhurst, Madeleine Pelletier, Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Betty Friedan, Carol Gilligan, Germaine Greer, Adrienne Rich, Jill Johnston, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem—women of genius, all, and all of them forced to dedicate much of their creative energy and brainpower toward re-educating an ignorant and hidebound patriarchy.
Repressing half the population is not a ringing endorsement of the intellectual superiority of males. Had society not deprived half its population of education, and instead cultivated women of any class or station who showed intellectual promise, how much farther along would we be as a species?
We are taught, from a young age, that men are smarter than women. This cultural bias is everywhere—in the VIDA statistics, in the male-to-female ratio in Congress, in a Walmart placemat of presidential portraits, in the anchor’s chair on the evening news, in the scales of pay, in Barbie’s protests that math is hard, in society’s relentless insistence that female beauty is of greater value than female brains.
I am hardly immune to this. My innocent game of Botticelli reinforced that idea upon my son and daughter.
A third factor to consider: methodology. Lists of the world’s smartest people—and especially lists of the smartest living people—tend to rely heavily on IQ. This is probably to give the lists the appearance of scientific objectivity, as if true genius were something quantifiable. I’ll concede that there is an intelligence threshold required to make significant contributions to quantum physics, compose enduring music, become a chess grand master, or invent a new programming language. But once that base level is achieved, anything can happen.
Conversely, it is possible to attain a ridiculously high IQ score, and not much else. A feminine name one will usually encounter when searching for lists of the Smartest Living People belongs to Marilyn vos Savant. After breaking the Guinness World Record for “Highest IQ (Women)” in 1985, with a whopping 190, vos Savant parlayed her sudden notoriety into a columnist gig at Parade magazine the following year. “Ask Marilyn” has run ever since.
When vos Savant landed said column, she was 40 years old. Prior to her apotheosis by the editors of the Guinness Book of World Records, her 190 IQ was put to use writing a puzzle-quiz column for Omni magazine. An engaging read, I’m sure, but hardly a groundbreaking contribution. Her decision to use her fame as a big brain to kick off an advice-style column is also curious. From Ann Landers to Xaviera to Dear Sugar, advice columns are, with few exceptions, the provenance of women. I happen to enjoy these features—Captain Awkward in particular is awesome—but I think it’s self-evident that “Dear Abby” is not to be confused with, say, Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. Intelligence and wisdom, as anyone who played Dungeons & Dragons well knows, are not the same thing.
One last point about vos Savant. Her (third) husband is Robert Jarvik, a developer of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart, and she sits on the board of Jarvik Heart, Inc. Marrying the guy who invented the artificial heart and sitting on the board for the company that sells the artificial heart is not the same thing as inventing the artificial heart. So what if her IQ is 190? vos Savant isn’t even the smartest person in her apartment.
“In the past when IQ tests did not exist or were not popular no one really cared about child prodigies or IQ scores,” writes a blogger known as Mr. Nobody in a post called “IQ and Child Prodigy vs. Contributions.” “When someone would say ‘he’s a genius’ in the past they would refer to their contributions that displayed their genius. In modern times when people say ‘he’s a genius’ they refer to child prodigy and high IQ alone.”
Mr. Nobody argues, correctly in my view, that contributions are more important than scores on a phantom test. “When people look up a list of the smartest people of all time today they will usually find estimated IQs of the people from the past or actual tested IQs of people in modern times, and the list will talk rarely about contributions,” he points out. “But why? What’s so special about being able to answer IQ-style questions well and not contribute anything significant?”
According to the lists I found, the actor James Woods has a higher IQ than did Albert Einstein (180-160), which high IQ he’s used to determine how to date beautiful women a third his age. Woods, we’re told, gave up a scholarship to MIT to pursue acting. This career choice has worked out well for him—I like James Woods—but acting and doing whatever geniusy things he might have done at MIT are not mutually exclusive. Look at Hedy Lamarr, who was a bigger movie star than Woods ever was. Decades ago, she invented a frequency-hopping spread spectrum device, a technology which forms the basis for the ubiquitous Wi-Fi and cordless telephones. She did that in her down time. Pierre de Fermat, who wrote, and probably proved, a math problem so difficult it took the rest of the world some 350 years to solve, was not a professional mathematician, but a lawyer at the Parlement in Toulouse. He did math in his free time. So until Woods finds the Higgs Boson at the commissary at Paramount Studios, I propose that we eighty-six him from this discussion.
Unless I have to use italics to express just how freakishly brilliant something you did was, you don’t belong on a list of the world’s smartest all-time people. Examples:
Helen Keller was a prolific writer and lecturer, a co-founder of the ACLU, a champion of the rights of the handicapped, of women, of workers, a Wobbly, a political radical in the days when that meant something. All of this she did despite being blind and deaf.
Newton left London for an estate in the country in order to avoid the plague. To while away the long hours, he invented calculus. Most people don’t fully grasp calculus even when it’s patiently explained to them. Newton came up with it on his own because he was bored.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie won a Nobel Prize in two different fields (physics and chemistry), one of only two individuals to do so, as discussed. Although she was clearly the more brilliant of the two Curies, she was not given the chair of the Physics Department at the Sorbonne until after her husband Pierre died in a freak accident—and even then, somewhat reluctantly. Her research was conducted not in a formal lab subsidized at the school where she taught, but in a converted shed, leaky and badly ventilated, on the school grounds, and it was done in her spare time.
Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony when he was completely deaf.
The Byzantine Empress Theodora began her career as an actress—essentially a burlesque performer. She managed to win the heart of the Emperor Justinian, who, against the social mores of the time, married her. A gifted politician and dazzling intellect, she proceeded to run the empire, convincing Justinian to pass laws granting women more freedoms. This was in the mid-sixth century, as the Synod of Macon may or may not have been debating whether women were human. Theodora was a burlesque performer! And she became the most powerful woman in the world!
I could write similar italics-ridden passages about Jane Austen, Catherine the Great, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Florence Nightingale, Henrietta Leavitt, Elizabeth Blackwell, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Rachel Carson, Shirley Ann Jackson, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Susan and Judit Polgár, Jane Goodall, Hillary Clinton, and many others.
It’s important to keep in mind that every advance made by women was made by swimming against the powerful tide of patriarchal bias. (We all know this, women know it especially, but it bears repeating.) Like Ginger Rogers, they had to do what the men did, but, proverbially, backwards and in heels. When Caroline Herschel became the first woman awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828, it was a very big deal—especially considering a woman would not win another until 1996. Herschel suffered from typhoid as a child and never grew taller than four foot three; her mother, fearing that she’d never attract a suitor, encouraged her to pursue a career in housekeeping. Fortunately, she did not listen.
Not listening to the directives of the patriarchy, of course, is what got women in trouble in the first place, at least as far as the Bible’s concerned. But take another gander at what happens in Genesis:
God installs Adam in Eden to tend the garden. Then He creates Eve as a companion for Adam. God prohibits them from tasting of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Adam is totally fine with being an ignoramus, not unlike a modern-day guy who just wants his beer and his ballgame, but Eve longs to know more. Her thirst for knowledge is greater than her fear of retribution. She eats the forbidden fruit. When God discovers their transgression, He punishes Eve thus: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow [pain] thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gen 3:16).
Her sentence is being subservient to a cowardly dolt, a company man, an obedient drone, a guy with no imagination. Her sin—the “Original Sin” Tertullian and the rest of his misogynistic ilk consistently cite—is no sin at all, but a healthy thirst for knowledge.
Whatever her flaws, the Book of Genesis makes one thing abundantly clear:
Eve was smarter than Adam.
Excelent essay sir! BIG Hedy Lamarr fan!
This blog does make some useful points. I am a guide and writer based in Oxford. Most of my tours are in the centre where all of the older colleges are located. I mostly talk about famous men and that’s no surprise since women did not enter Oxford Uni until 1879.
Now I do a tour on North Oxford which is where the women’s colleges began. There I can mention Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Dorothy Hodgkin and so on. It’s refreshing.
By the way, I wrote the first book on Hedy Lamarr and her invention (Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone) and would be the last to deny her fame and beauty. However, parading Hedy as some sort of mathematical genius, as some do, is quite wrong and often misleading. She was undoubtedly clever, but the idea for her patent came from other minds.
Thanks for reading, Rob, and leaving the comment. I knew Hedy had help, but it seemed too tangential to go into the specifics, having made the case for her over Woods. I’m sure it was a lot of fun researching your book! — Greg
I am SO glad my friend recommended this piece to me. I loved it. Absolutely loved it.
My new go-to standard for determining genius? This.
“Unless I have to use italics to express just how freakishly brilliant something you did was, you don’t belong on a list of the world’s smartest all-time people.”
Thank you for being a smart guy, a crafty writer, and clearly, a good parent. Finally, thank you for being such a strong advocate for women, especially since you are a man.
Thanks so much, Aliza, for reading and leaving such a generous comment. I’m so glad you liked the piece (and that Cheri sent it your way). — Greg
Linus Pauling is the only person to win two UNSHARED Noble Prizes (chemsitry and peace).
Hedy Lammarr shared patent used a method of synchonising radio frequencies on torpedoes and ships using ticker tapes. It was clever but not brilliant.
Anyone (including Fermat) can design a mathematical theorem (or faster than light space ship) the hard part is proving it correct.
The “James Wood has an IQ of 190” is an urban legend. No recognised IQ test is graded beyond 160 (Stanford-Binet). Most other IQ tests don’t measure IQs over 130.
Linus Pauling is the only person to win two UNSHARED Nobel prizes (Chemistry and Peace).
Marie Curie’s Nobel Prizes were not really in different fields. Both the chemistry and physics prizes were based on the study of radioactivity. The physics prize was shared with Pierre Curie and Jacques Becquerel.
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