Smart people succeed. It’s a mantra that’s been drilled into us from the very earliest moments of our lives by a society that has absorbed it’s doctrine so completely that it has become difficult to believe that there is an alternative, let alone one that could ever hope to be right. And yet…if we were to take a closer look we would find scores of reasons to doubt this hypothesis. Of course, some smart people succeed; certainly intelligence is no hindrance on the road to wealth and happiness. But of course, so too do stupid people succeed. And most importantly of all, often, smart people fail. It would be simple enough to list individual examples of this truth such as the story of the man who at one point tested as having the highest IQ in the world but later dropped out of college to work as a bouncer in the bar. If you’re interested in such things, Malcolm Gladwell has written an entire book on the subject which is both lucid and enjoyable.
But recently it occurred to me that at least one such “intelligent failure” has occurred not at the individual level but at the cultural level. It would be difficult to calculate exactly how much impact this society has had on our world today, but I think it is safe to say that it would be difficult to overestimate it’s importance. We interact with their symbols every day, most of our science is necessarily rooted in their discoveries, and in general their contributions have become such an integral part of our society that we are hardly able to consciously acknowledge them. Yet in spite of their undeniable genius, today they’ve barely made it out of the dark ages technologically speaking, and their culture is mired in the swamp of centuries old customs and clutched in the grip of rigid religiosity.
In case you didn’t know, the symbols for numbers that we use every day (1,2,3…) are referred to as Arabic numerals, and the reason for that, (this one’s going to bowl you out of your chair) is that they were invented by Arabs.
No big deal, you say. I could make up all kinds of symbols and say they were supposed to represent numbers. What’s so great about these guys?
And the answer is this: the Arabs didn’t only invent the symbols we use for our numbers, they also invented nearly everything else in the foundation of modern mathematics. They invented the number zero, they invented algebra (yes, now you know who to thank), and there was a time when anyone who was anyone in the world of mathematics had to know how to read the original Arabic texts laying out these and other concepts.
Let me reiterate: the Arabs invented algebra. As far a book smarts goes they were the smartest guys around. And yet…well do I even need to point it out? Almost the only reason the Arabs have any power in the world stage today is because of their natural resources and even then many of their countries are impoverished and underdeveloped. Why? Why when the intellectual world once lay at their feet nibbling at the crumbs of knowledge they dropped from their table were they not able to rise up and create the new technology that would have enabled them to carve out a place of prominence among the nations? Because, quite simply, smart people don’t always succeed.
The Arabs were knew more about math than any other culture of the day, and yet they failed to apply what they knew, instead leaving their knowledge to be interpreted and applied by other cultures and other generations.
I recently read an account of two men developing similar mathematical theories at the same time. One of the men was a mathematician working the realm of pure number theory. The other was a watchmaker trying to determine how best to split a single gear with a number of teeth that was a large prime number into a smaller gear train without losing too much precision. Both men came to very similar methods of solving the problem, but only one of them truly profited by it: the watchmaker.
The moral of the story is this: It is not enough for us to be intelligent, because intelligence by itself is unavoidably vain. Both as individuals and as a society we must learn to apply our knowledge, to make it work for us. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming it’s slaves.
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