E. O. Wilson

I just noticed that E.O. Wilson says that his IQ was tested at 123.  Having read some of his books & essays, and listened to one of his talks,  I believe it.

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50 Responses to E. O. Wilson

  1. Ben says:

    Biology people as a whole aren’t particularly bright.

    I made the transition from physics to medical school and one of the things that I found striking is just how boring physicians are. What’s surprising though is that this is true even for the ones who I’d guess are respectable in terms of cognitive ability.

    Physics people are often curious about many things (e.g. Greg) and this was certainly true to an extent about my undergrad classmates, there were plenty of people you could have interesting and meaningful conversations about unrelated things (economics, IQ etc). With medical students 99% of unrelated conversation is just chatter – instagram, gossip, Greta Thunberg, ‘inequality’ etc. There are also a much higher number of the chattering class types compared to physics.

    I suspect a significant part of the explanation might be the things vs people dimension – physics probably self-selects for the things side of the spectrum so there’s a higher level of interest in abstract systems (e.g. the economy) than in people oriented professions like medicine.

    • I have found psychiatrists to be an exception to this. Not all, certainly. The few neuropsychiatrists I have known – six, I think – have been uniformly brilliant with varied interests: Jeopardy winner, stand-up comedian, fiction author.

      • Ben says:

        Well, it’s a statistical observation I’ve made and somewhat exaggerated. Anesthesiologists and surgeons are also relative exceptions to the rule, probably for self-selective reasons (working with machines and an unconscious piece of anatomy is more things/systems than people). Psychiatry is interesting because you’re working with people but those people aren’t ‘neurotypical.’

        When I was younger, I thought that IQ was the end and be all when it came to explaining interesting people but these sort of experiences have changed my mind.

        To be really ‘interesting’, you need a combination of high IQ, systems-things orientation and must be free of pathological altruism (extremely high empathy).

        • milx says:

          I disagree with your last statement. I’ve known many people with extremely high empathy and also catholic intellectual tastes. At least speaking anecdotally the former is not an impediment to the latter. I think to be really interesting what you need is to be interested and the more things in which you’re interested the more kinds of people with whom you’ll be able to have interesting conversations. IQ and/or education and/or autodidactic inclination obv can help since many fields require it.

          • Anonfinn says:

            Not many catholic intellectuals in Finland, but many schooled philistines with IQs in the 110-135 range who vehemently demand more enforced tolerance and subsidized nice things, people with strong opinions but zero independent thought.

    • Bert says:

      As career biologist who now trades futures, I offer another explanation for your observation, the validity of which I don’t dispute. The sweep of biodiversity and the many nuances of biological processes are so vast that those details allow careers to be made without any big-picture mechanistic thinking, so folks who don’t enjoy INTJ-thinking gravitate there. Of course good theoretical biologists exist, some of whom migrated from physics or math and some who raised themselves by their bootstraps from within biology to do theory. My brother was a physician who had the same disappointment in medical school as you. After his M.D. he went on to doctorates in virology and public health, and practiced only emergency room medicine. Low threshold for boredom.

    • Philip Neal says:

      There is another side to this. At Oxford University I knew at least three students who claimed to be biblical literalists, and all were studying either the hard sciences or mathematics (I think one was a physicist and another a chemist). They were intellectually curious but their blind spot was that they had never read any other book remotely as old as the Bible and had no idea where you would expect such a book to be right or wrong. They had genuine difficulty in grasping that “forty days and forty nights” is just a figure of speech, and more generally that the people of ancient times were mathematically ignorant and that they would have found expressions such as “90 percent certain” or “30 miles an hour” incomprehensible.

      • avalanche of snowflakes says:

        Bad example.
        If the Bible is what it says it is, it is not like any book that had ever been or ever will be written. It is scripture written by God or inspired by God, an infallible guide for all men of all times and places.
        If the Bible is ordinary book written by ordinary men, why shall we give it more credence that any other piece of ancient writing?
        Do you read Illiad and Odyssey every day? Do you visit a classics lecture every week? Do you see Illiad and Odyssey as your guide for life? Do you ask every day “What would Achilles do?” and “What would Odysseus do?”?

    • AnonFinn says:

      I transitioned from elite high school (number 1 in my country according to test scores, very socially stratified) first to the top business school and then to med school and the med students have been mostly boring achievers with narrow academic and otherwise lowbrow interests.
      But the top1% business types are not much better and mostly less intelligent.

      One of my elementary school friends went to a unselective high school and maybe a majority of my most interesting acquintances have been some of his high school friends and friends of friends.
      A few verified mensa-members with self-made-millionaire or old-money careerist parents: themseoves mostly college dropouts and physics/philosophy/astronomy students, conscientious objectors, not the reserve officers types..

      Maybe I should have studied politics or Law instead of Business and Medicine, but who knows. I did max out the army IQ-test >127, but besides easy A:s in elementary school and junior high school science/math, I was always more interest in other subjects.
      My own family is clearly verbal-dominant and the cool kids in elite schools didn’t study science very seriously either, just enough for Finance/marketing -careers or law.

    • tomxhart says:

      Has it occurred to you that medical schools have been subverted to produce activists instead of doctors, whereas physics departments are only just now being transitioned? Further, medical schools now take more women, probably more women than men, hence there’s more chatter—physics is still dominated by men.

  2. Jokah Macpherson says:

    That’s super high in Alabama though!

    (I’m from Alabama)

  3. karl william liebhardt says:

    I know some people who are quite accomplished in the sciences. For some, their high threshold for boredom is actually their most redeeming professional feature.

  4. Peripatetic Commenter says:

    Whoa. Damning with faint praise!

  5. Anonymous says:


  6. Roffo says:

    High creativity and enthusiasm combined with an IQ not up to the mark, often generates pseudoscience and whacky theories. This is often sufficient for a career in a field where like-minded peers have cleared the way, though.

  7. tyn says:

    Hi Greg, would you share yours?

  8. Paul Oksnee says:

    Richard Feynman’s IQ was 125.

    • gcochran9 says:

      It wouldn’t surprise me if he lied about that. He won the Putnam, cold.

      • Ben says:

        Or that he took a mostly verbal test which is what Steve Hsu believes. As far as I’m aware it’s not uncommon for high IQ people to have significant asymmetry in their specific abilities. Feynman was one of those high math / non-verbal but relatively weak verbal ability people. That seems to be consistent with his ‘cognitive style’ as well, as he disliked the verbose types (philosophers etc).

        • Unladen Swallow says:

          I’ve heard that as well, in letters he often misspelled scientific terms that were common to his fields of study.

          • gcochran9 says:

            I know several people that are bright as anything but can’t spell to save their lives.

            • avalanche of snowflakes says:

              This is because there is no English language – there are two languages, one spoken and one written, that have nothing in common with each other. You will find much fewer cases of dyslexia in more sensible languages (on the other side, they do not have “spelling bees”).

            • tomxhart says:

              Standardised spelling is a new idea, popularised by mass schooling—as with mass schooling, it’s probably a bad idea. Presumably spelling ability correlates with conscientiousness; people of genius tend to have high intelligence combined with low conscientious, hence you’d expect them to be bad spellers.

      • noobynoob says:

        Gwern thinks that Feynman took a particularly bad IQ test:

        […] Given that Feynman was born in 1918, this implies the IQ test was done around 1930 or earlier. Given that it was done by the New York City school district, this implies also that it was one of the ‘ratio’ based IQ tests – utterly outdated and incorrect by modern standards. […]


    • Anonymous says:

      IIRC the source on this is Feynman’s own recollection, and I’ve seen different numbers quoted in different sources. Never seen any documentation from an actual test.

      Regardless, it seems axiomatic that IQ can both under- and over-predict adult achievement, at least when it comes to future high achievers tested early in life. Didn’t William Shockley and Luis Alvarez both miss the cut for being included in Terman’s gifted children study?

      • Polymath says:

        IQ tests given to children are quite variable. When I was in elementary school I topped out almost every test they ever gave me (they had ceilings of 150), and my performance on tests as an adult qualified me for The Four Sigma Society (pro tip: worse than Mensa, clueless litigious underachievers), but there must have been one time in second grade when I was sick or had a bad day or a careless tester because I scored 133 and that particular test was the one whose number was given to my homeroom teachers on the first day of school each September (it was only later that I found this out, it explained why I was given other tests early each school year because the teachers each told the school district to retest me because the result was obviously wrong, but the 133 number never got updated). I was never informed of my scores until a teacher in high school tracked down what had happened and told me. He also had other examples of obvious mismeasurements of students (scores 20+ points above or below where they ought to have been).

        • I remember Four Sigma! Went dark decades ago. Many of those societies did. Kevin Langdon is still up and moving, though, last I heard. You are right about litigious, especially around use of society names and arguing about what the proper criteria for entry are. Browse around the stories of Christopher Langan for entertainment. Legit high IQ but… – just don’t get into any discussions with him on Quora. Just don’t. You’re welcome.

  9. DdR says:

    That’s about where I tested out. Oh well, I guess I’m a dunce.

  10. dearieme says:

    So he’d have been borderline for entry into the top stream of my secondary school. Unlike JFK who would have been borderline for entry to the second top stream.

    “So what?” you might say. So what indeed: IQ is important but not all-important, depending on your other characteristics and on what you choose to do with your life.

  11. Jakub says:

    Now, if we surveyed a random sample of 100 Biologists, would most know of Greg or E.O Wilson?

  12. Just A Thought says:

    I dont have a strong opinion on this topic, but as a general principle: if you are going to deride the IQ of other folks, maybe it is only fair to publish your own for comparison?

  13. guest says:

    So what made E.O Wilson special? Other mental characteristics? Right field at the right time?

  14. Smithie says:

    My knowledge of EO Wilson is pretty limited.

    On the one hand, from hearing him speak, he seems kind of folksy. Maybe, only a reflection of his birthplace and birth cohort? Still, I wouldn’t presume he has a ultra high IQ.

    On the other hand, I am pretty suspicious of sequential numbers, like one-two-three, whatever their source, including when it is EO Wilson himself. Though, if that last number had been a “four”, I wouldn’t doubt it in the slightest.

  15. E O Wilson has an impressive record of scientific accomplishment. Some of the factors contributing to this: He has a prodigious knowledge of natural history, both deep (social insects especially) and broad, deriving from both reading and the field. He is ambitious and has a strong sense of question, able to recognize and willing to tackle Big Questions. And he is aware of his own strengths and limitations. In particular, he knows he’s not a whiz at math, and has been willing to team up with guys who are. One of the successes of his early career is his work on island biogeography with Robert MacArthur (a powerhouse in mathematical ecology who died tragically young). Their book “The Theory of Island Biogeography” is a classic. Before MacArthur and Wilson, biogeography was largely atheoretical and particularist (“stamp collecting” if you want to be derogatory), piling up cases of “how did species X get to island A.?” MacArthur and Wilson turned it into a predictive science, with models of equilibria set by a balance between rates of introduction and extinction. Wilson went ahead and tested and confirmed the predictions by “defaunating” mangrove islets (with the help of a professional exterminator), and showing they returned to predicted equilibria. MacArthur and Wilson pretty much founded a significant area of science, or at least turned it into a quantitative, predictive science. (The distinction between “r-selection” and “K-selection” comes from their work.) And that’s only one thing he’s done.

    Wilson’s record on human sociobiology is different. He’s important as an advocate for the field, but his venture into model building with Charles Lumsden was pretty much a flop; Boyd and Richerson are your go-to guys for gene-culture coevolution. He didn’t really found a distinctive theoretical or methodological school. People doing work in human behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology aren’t mostly “Wilsonian” in any particular way. I think partly what’s going on is Wilson doesn’t have the kind of knowledge of anthropology and human history that he does of natural history: compare Peter Turchin, for example, who’s not only good with math, but also has a strong sense of history that helps keep his model building on track. By comparison, a lot of Wilson’s later stuff on the human condition is not dreadfully wrong, but fairly generic, and not really pushing the science ahead. But still a pretty amazing guy.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I read two or three of his later books, after Sociobiology, and there didn’t seem to be any “there” there. And I’ve heard him give a talk at one of those Sackler-sponsored ( hillbilly heroin) : I was seriously unimpressed.
      His stuff about group selection strikes me as subtracting from the sum total of human knowledge.

      On the other hand, he never struck me as a liar.

      But, I will listen to what you say about his work on island biogeography. Maybe I should read that book.

    • ghazisiz says:

      Like a lot of social science students in the 70s and early 80s, I thought Sociobiology was pure evil — I even had one professor who was fired for disrupting a talk about the topic. In the late 80s I took Eric Pianka’s evolutionary ecology class, made a friend there, and realized how amazingly cool the subject was — deductive reasoning could take you to all kinds of unexpected conclusions. Imre Lakatos would surely have approved of the productivity of this particular scientific research programme.

      Wilson’s “Sociobiology” was a beautifully produced book — almost a “coffee table book”, as we used to call them. It probably recruited a lot of young people. Recruited them away from Marxism toward something much more sane. So I’m not about to dis Wilson — he was on the side of the righteous.

      • gcochran9 says:

        I thought it was a good book, but it led me to reading Hamilton and Maynard Smith And Price, who were the real originators of this stuff.

        To me, seemed pretty obvious. Why evil?

  16. Say What says:

    This puts me in mind of Frost’s lines “Except as a fellow handled an ax /They had no way of knowing a fool.” The “mathematical” side of IQ is essential for some fields, useful for many more, and largely irrelevant for other fields. Darwin lamented his mathematical ineptitude, and yet was the most significant scientist since Newton. It’s not hard to believe that his IQ might have been in the same range as Wilson’s.

  17. Spencer Galton says:

    E.O. had a helluva work ethic and Mayr-like natural history reading breadth. Even if his IQ was middling relative to his academic standing, his ambition and doggedness made up for it. I believe he put in a career of 80-100 hour work weeks. Terrific popularizer of neodarwinism if not original theoretician. I think bio peeps pretty uniformly unmoved by his late group selection stuff.

  18. Toddy Cat says:

    Of course, having an IQ of “only” 123 still puts you in the top 6% or so of the population. Not exactly stupid, if not a genius.

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