Was Charles Darwin Slow-Witted?

This story went viral: The Darwinian Guide to Overachieving your IQ

Darwin, however, was not a man of pure intellect. He was not Issac Newton, or Richard Feynman, or Albert Einstein — breezing through complex mathematical physics at a young age.

Darwin and the aforementioned names were in totally different fields, Darwin being biology/anthropology and the others in physics. Whether anthropology can be considered less intellectually ‘rigorous’ than physics is subjective, because at the time both fields were quite speculative (more so than they are now). Also, it’s not like Darwin tried physics as a young adult, realized he wasn’t smart enough, and then switched to biology. Although the vast majority of physicists and mathematician have high IQs, not all high-IQ people are physicists or mathematicians. This is below logic 101…it’s just common sense. The author just pulls his reasoning out of his butt, that the intellectual worth of individual is how they measure to Einstein and Newton, disregarding intellectual accomplishments in fields as diverse as philosophy, architecture, classical composition, art, and literature, as well as other sciences and scientists.

Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner to Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, thinks Darwin would have been in the middle of the class. He had notoriously bad health and really only worked a few hours a day in the many years leading up to the Origin of Species.

What does his health have do with IQ? Ramanujan, one of the most brilliant mathematicians who ever lived, had poor health.

Yet Darwin’s “thinking work” outclassed almost everyone, even those who started with a higher IQ.

Darwin was born in 1809, well before IQ tests were invented and widely administered. Same for Newton and Einstein. The only recorded IQ is for Feynman, which was supposedly only 125, although this may be apocryphal. Again, you cannot hold them to the same intellectual ‘yardstick’, as they were different scientists in different fields, living in different times. Even nowadays it’s hard to find IQ records for people – it’s not like people just go around boasting about their IQ. But, again, there are surprisingly many high-IQ people who are not physicists, and many professions that may seem ‘unintelligent’ are actually full of geniuses…look at all those Hollywood ‘high IQ’ lists…it’s almost as if having a high IQ is a prerequisite to being in the entertainment industry.

Even without IQ tests, because of the standardized and factory-style of post-WW1 education (Prussian education system), one can estimate someone’s ‘general intelligence’ by the age they graduate high school and or finish college. The usual age range is 17-18 for the former and 21-22 for the latter. Early graduation may suggest superior intelligence. SAT scores are more accurate, but like IQ scores, can be hard to obtain. High school GPA however is useless due to grade inflation.

But what was Darwin’s IQ? It’s hard to know. Back in the 19th century, such standardization didn’t exist. Environmental factors tended to play a bigger role than they do now because, during the Victorian Era, wealthy parents had access to tutors, and poorer families had far fewer opportunities, whereas nowadays education is available to all socioeconomic levels (although quality may vary).

There is evidence Einstein may have been a child prodigy, and Feynman mastered advanced math at a young ago, too. Assuming math ability is a perfect proxy for IQ (ignoring verbal and all other aspects of intelligence), then, yes, it’s reasonable to assume Darwin was less intelligent than Einstein, Newton, or Feynman. But it doesn’t matter, because we’re comparing different fields of study. It would only matter if someone with a low IQ relative to his or her peers in the same field of study was able to excel, because then it would be worthwhile to learn how this less intelligent person was able to compensate, controlling for all other variables, but otherwise it’s not a valid comparison.

1. Darwin did not think he had a quick intellect or an ability to follow long, complex, or mathematical reasoning. Darwin’s life also proves how little that trait matters if you’re aware of it and counter-weight it with other methods. Primarily, that meant developing extreme objectivity, extreme diligence, and taking time to think through his ideas. He was very intellectually humble and open to being wrong.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t have the ability to grasp complicated stuff. The author is equating humbleness with being less intelligent, when the evidence suggests smarter, more competent people tend to be more humble about their abilities (Dunning-Kruger effect).