So – who’s the smartest person to have ever lived? It’s likely that a handful of names just popped into your head. You’re on a science site, so it’s probable that Einstein cropped up, as well as Feynman, Hawking, Curie, and a few others. Some would vociferously argue for Tesla. Others would suggest Faraday or da Vinci.
Based on his body of work, it’s entirely unsurprising that “Einstein” is synonymous with “genius”, much in the way Newton was back in the day. Their incredible scientific and cultural legacies have led to both of them being described as some of the smartest people in history – but does such a phrase have any inherent meaning? Can anyone ever own that title without equivocation?
Human civilization has been around for many millennia; our species emerged from the tapestry of evolution way before then, perhaps around 350,000 years before the present day. Ever since it’s been a story told in countless chapters, each one often featuring an individual whose unique life opportunities, combined with their ingenuity, has changed everything.
Einstein wouldn’t have made his famous discoveries had it not been for the work of Aristotle and Copernicus, Galileo and the Herschels. Darwin wouldn’t have been prompted to advance his theories if it wasn’t for the work of Charles Lyell, a pioneering professor of geology.
Who’s to claim that Einstein is the smartest of them all when there are brilliant mathematicians like Srinivasa Ramanujan – whose contributions to the field are arguably comparable to that of Newton, the inventor of the game-changing calculus?
Today, these scientific discoveries come as part of a team, and it’s rare a single person has such heft in that way. As the world becomes more global, collaborations become wider and more international – and who are we to say is the smartest among them? As is often paraphrased, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and it’s this stream of genius that drives progress.
Intelligence is also defined somewhat subjectively. Those history-makers were all science-themed examples, but what of the arts and humanities? What about the world of politics or economics? Although it’s perhaps easy to pick a scientist as the “smartest person ever”, you could surely argue that a military general, an artist, a novelist, or a musician could also take that spot.
Additionally, what an entrepreneur, say, considers to be intelligence may overlap a little with what a scientist suggests defines intelligence, but there are discrepancies. These discrepancies, valid or not, make deciding what constitutes intelligence a Sisyphean task.
This confusion is somewhat succinctly summarized by a 1971 paper, which described a “variety of problems arising out of current practices in the measurement of intelligence,” including, rather importantly, “the gross imprecision of definitions of intelligence.”
Saying that, if you really wanted to rank someone based on an objective measure of intelligence, you might be tempted to use IQ. As you’d expect, there’s a problem with that too, apart from the obvious fact that most of the candidates for the smartest people that have ever lived are now dead. Posthumous IQ tests aren’t exactly reliable, but that hasn't stopped people from trying.
There are a wide range of IQ tests, the nuances of which we won’t get into here. Essentially, IQ tests measure the ability of someone to process both pre-existing information and brand-new data. W. Joel Schneider, a particularly eloquent American psychologist, explained back in 2014 that “good IQ tests should measure aspects of visual-spatial processing and auditory processing, as well as short-term memory, and processing speed.”
IQs are scored on a bell curve, so those at the far-left and far-right of the central distribution peak – where most of the population fall into – are exceptions.
A score of 100 is nominally the average, and, depending on the variety of the test you take, the maximum score can be around 161/162 on the text-heavy Cattell III B exam, or 183 on the diagrammatical Cattell Culture Fair III A exam. This doesn’t mean a higher IQ isn’t possible; upper limits are there because, toward the high end of the bell curve, the reliability of gauging IQ drops off.
Nevertheless, some rather unusual (and questionable) methods exist for estimating people’s IQ, including one in which the accomplishments of a person’s life are used to “calculate” a score. Suffice to say, it’s not a great method, but this type of estimation is generally why Shakespeare’s IQ is claimed to be around 210, Newton’s around 190-200, and Goethe – a German polymath – to be as high as 225.
As far as we can tell, America’s Marilyn vos Savant, who took an adult Stanford-Binet IQ test at age 10, has a Guinness World Records-verified IQ score of 228. This is considered to be the world’s highest recorded IQ.
Other living figures, including Hawking, may have IQs attached to their name, but they don’t necessarily know what they are. The theoretical physicist famously told a New York Times reporter in 2004 that he had “no idea” what his IQ was, adding: “People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
Schneider also points out that such values aren’t so valuable in isolation; their true value shines when you see what they often correlate with, such as creativity and general life success. IQ is a sort of gauge of current potential.
The most salient point here, though, is that it’s debatable as to what an IQ test actually measures and what it fails to measure. They’re generally seen as a good measure of reasoning and problem solving, but that’s not the whole story.
Some studies suggest that IQ bumps are linked to how motivated the person taking the test is; raw intelligence alone isn’t enough to guarantee greatness. Intelligence changes over time too, for a whole host of reasons – so IQ tests only measure a person’s cognitive abilities at that point in time.
These examinations also don’t measure the full spectrum of a person’s intelligence. Emotional intelligence, for example, isn’t quantifiable using IQ tests, and neither is your practical intelligence. IQ tests don’t measure curiosity, a key feature of what many refer to as “genius”.
Something else that must be emphasized is that such tests don’t take into account the fact that people’s life circumstances radically differ. Intelligence is less impactful if the means to translate that into discoveries and advancements isn’t around.
From financial restrictions to the coincidental geography and time of their birth, there are likely plenty of geniuses that have, and will, elude the pages of history through no fault of their own. Lest we forget that, with some historical examples, women have been – and still are – suppressed by systemic sexism, which has undoubtedly condemned many to a life lived in the shadows of men.
Don’t get us wrong: IQ tests are a useful measure, but they don’t have a monopoly on intelligence. They’re imperfect in many ways, and you certainly can’t use them as a quick way to rank a person’s smarts, living or dead.
Considering all the above, I’d strongly argue that you cannot say that any one individual person was the smartest person to ever have lived. It’s not just that the question is complex; it’s fairly meaningless. Instead, let’s make sure we do all we can to elevate the disadvantaged, and support each new intellect that arises – in whatever form that takes – so new geniuses don’t slip through the cracks.