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.”