Other psychologists and even geneticists have argued that modern society is short on astoundingly intelligent members. Pick your reason, from genetic mutations to lack of education access to politics. But Simonton is talking about more than just smarts. A true genius, that rare member of society, is a real paradigm-shatterer, a Renaissance human who can completely alter the way we understand the world. Geniuses are people who come up with “surprising ideas that are not a mere extension of what is already known,” Simonton said in an email interview with PopSci. “There are personality and cognitive traits associated with the ability to do that, but that’s another issue.”
A historical tour through the scientific revolution contains many people who fit this definition. In a new commentary in the journal Nature, Simonton calls out Albert Einstein, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, among others who really only need be referenced by one name. Each man (and woman–he includes Marie Curie, too) totally upended entire fields of research, or created entirely new ones. That doesn’t really happen anymore, Simonton argues.
“When was the last time that someone forced us to rewrite the textbooks in some domain? Or even create an entirely new domain from scratch? Can you think of anybody since DNA?” he said.