Sui Generis

You may have heard of a man by the name of Christopher Langan. I first learned of him a few years back, when he was profiled on some television show or other. He has, apparently, one of the highest IQs ever measured; it is said to be somewhere in the vicinity of 200. He has had, however, rather a different life than one might have expected: after a boyhood in Montana in which he suffered with a brutally abusive stepfather and a rural educational system that had no idea what to do with him, he drifted through various jobs and ended up as a bouncer in a Long Island bar.

I will confess that I am fascinated by his story. Although I am obviously not in his league — if the numbers are correct, it may well be that nobody is — I was also a precocious boy who didn’t fit in, and had many similar troubles with schooling, including being two grades ahead of my age group. I was utterly disaffected with it all by the time I got to high school, did not follow the academic path that was expected of me, and ended up making my living in a recording studio. (There the similarity ends, however.)

There is an interview with Mr. Langan available on YouTube, in three parts here, here, and here. He makes a difficult impression; we normally expect a certain diffidence from people, a bit of hand-waving dismissal when the conversation comes round to ways in which they exhibit superior traits. Mr. Langan, however, will have none of it. Asked if he is a genius, his answer is yes. Asked if he has ever met anyone as intelligent as he is, the answer is no. You can hardly blame him — if he actually has an IQ of 200, the question for him must be similar to asking Shaquille O’Neal if he is huge, or if he has met people that are as large as he is. (Similar, that is, but not the same: an IQ of 200 would make Mr. Langan a far more exotic specimen in terms of intelligence than Mr. O’Neal is in terms of size.)

Added to what must be the alienating fact of his cognitive uniqueness is the social fact that people tend to resent others who are obviously smarter than they are. Mr. Langan has been on the receiving end of that all his life, and it would be hard to imagine that he doesn’t feel rather alone. His manner is not, shall we say, chummy. Adding to the odd impression he makes is the complete absence, in his speech, of any of the little placeholders that we are used to hearing: the “ums”, “likes”, “you-knows”, and so on. He makes plain assertions in a grainy baritone voice, and then falls silent.

In the linked interview we have glimpses of his vision of the world: that it is a place ruled by dimwits, much in need of governance by an intellectual elite, and with little hope of improvement until the race is improved by eugenics. We are acculturated, these days to have a reflexively negative reaction to such opinions — but if we take an honest look around, it is awfully hard to escape the conclusion that the world is indeed run by dimwits, would benefit from governance by its most intelligent citizens, and that the gene pool could surely use a little chlorine. I am sure that at the very least Mr. Langan would like to feel less alone.

All in all, a most curious and unusual man.

Christoher Langan has published a paper outlining what he calls The Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe: A New Kind of Reality Theory, which I think I will have a look at. You can find it here.

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45 Comments

  1. Kevin Kim says

    His paper has such a modest title.

    Kevin

    Posted January 13, 2009 at 4:28 am | Permalink
  2. I glanced at the paper and found it above my comprehension but within my skepticism. He even — God forbid! — has some positive things to say about Intelligent Design! Well, that actually doesn’t bother me so much (since it’s preferable to creationism), but Malcolm will enjoy being annoyed.

    I watched the man on You Tube. He’s interesting, and clearly intelligent, but I wonder how much intellectual depth (as opposed to brainpower) he actually has. He might suffer from the fatal disease of autodidacticism . . . (wait for it) . . . monomania.

    But I cannot judge, being incapable of comprehending his magnum opus.

    Why, I can’t even understand why I have “been removed” from the internet, and that’s surely a mystery more comprehensible than The Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe: A New Kind of Reality Theory . . . aka the truth about everything.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted January 13, 2009 at 6:40 am | Permalink
  3. Addofio says

    It sounds to me like he contradicts, in his person, his own thesis that “the most intelligent” should run the world. That is, he sounds like he’s probably rather lacking in social (interpersonal) intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence (self-insight), an emotional intelligence. Since I’m speaking just from your description, I could obviously be wrong, but I want to make the larger point that IQ ≠intelligence.

    Me, if we’re going to just turn the world over to “the most intelligent” to run and abdicate all pretense of democracy, I at least want those people to be measured on the kinds of intelligence that matter, not just academic intelligence, which is what IQ is all about. And we don’t know enough as yet to even begin to be able to do that. Perhaps we never will; the kind of “intelligence” we need is better described as wisdom, and we don’t even much talk about that any more, let alone seek it.

    Posted January 13, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  4. greg says

    Here’s a really interesting discussion on Langan’s grand theory.

    I think Langan deserves a huge dose of healthy skepticism, but he clearly talks and thinks on a level that provokes all sorts of valuable and fascinating dialogue.

    As for the social/political capabilities of IQ-based intelligentsia, let’s not go there. The links between the two have always been tenuous at best.

    Posted January 13, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  5. greg says

    Also this discussion.

    Posted January 13, 2009 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Addofio,

    Interestingly, all the women I have mentioned Langan to have immediately raised the question of “emotional intelligence”, while the men generally have not.

    I quite agree with you, and with Greg, that there is a lot more to wisdom than a high IQ. That being said, though, a high IQ is still a powerful asset — and a low IQ a serious liability, and hardly a desirable qualification for political office.

    Mr. Langan appears to be so different from ordinary people that it would not be surprising if his exceptional IQ has made it very hard for him to have the kind of social integration that normally fosters the development of the other “intelligences” you mention. His cognitive gift may be, in a social sense, a serious handicap.

    Posted January 13, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    (If you happen to be reading this, Mr. Langan — which is not all that unlikely, given such things as Google Alerts — do forgive us for our psychologizing, and feel free to comment if you like.)

    Posted January 13, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    With the principle of charity in mind, I tried a couple years ago to “make sense” of Langan’s metaphysical ideas. There was a lot that was suggestive but, in the end, inconclusive. Instead, as with every attempt to devise an all-encompassing metaphysical account of this world that I’ve encountered, the story he told required “cognitive jumps” that I don’t think can be replaced by bridges, at least not at this point in our intellectual development.

    For me, Langan is more interesting for his disdain of the intellectual pretense of many academics than for his own positive ideas about reality. I don’t think that disdain should be interpreted as evidence of maladjustment — “adjusting” to phoniness is hardly a virtue.

    Posted January 13, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  9. From the You Tube videos, I found Langan (rhymes with Mangan?) to be personable, even humorous. I wouldn’t say that he lacks “emotional intelligence,” but that perception of mine is possibly due to my own lack of EQ.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted January 13, 2009 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  10. Peter Lupu says

    Malcolm,

    you really got to do something about this system here.

    I wrote a relatively lengthy post; typed the five character code; missed one of them due to the ambiguity between the letter ‘O’ and zero; and the thing wiped out everything I wrote. Could not retrieve it again. Not a good method!

    peter

    Posted January 14, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  11. I fear this site may become an addiction to some, but it is very good brain food-love to all-Pat
    http://freerice.com/

    Posted January 14, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    I’m so sorry (and sorry not to have seen your comment!). I keep the ‘Captcha’ thing in place, though, so as not to be flooded with comment spam. I do recommend that you compose comments in a text editor and paste them in; I do that myself when typing anything lengthy that is destined for any Internet form.

    Even without the Captcha plug-in, I’ve lost many a comment just because the browser hangs or crashing when posting. Always best to compose offline if it’s going to be more than a sentence or two.

    The best thing to do is to register as a user here, and log in. That way you won’t see the filter.

    Posted January 14, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Pat, that is an addictive site. I got to level 50 just now; I’m sure I’ll be back for more.

    Posted January 14, 2009 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  14. I watched the interview and checked out Mr. Langan’s paper. Then, I followed the link supplied by greg.

    As the mother of a kid diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have had plenty of experience with men like Mr. Langan. By “like,” I mean guys with very high IQs who are long-winded on their field of interest, but incapable of carrying on a decent reciprocal conversation.

    Most genuinely gifted people don’t take the Guiness World Records seriously, do they? And they don’t measure their intelligence with a test in a magazine. I can’t imagine Paul Erdos or Richard Feinman taking that crap seriously.

    Mr. Langan seems like a guy with a high IQ and poor social skills, typical of someone with Asperger’s, along with the emotional problems attendant to a history of child abuse.

    He knows a lot of big words, that’s for sure. But he seems clueless about his humanity or anyone else’s.

    Why has he earned so much attention? He seems like a one-trick pony who can’t put all those big words to use, other than arguing with geeks in internet forums.

    Oh well. My own claim to fame is that I scored off the chart on a test for female brain traits, and near zero on the male brain traits (i.e., the autistic end of the scale.) So I can recognize a jerk when I see one, but I can’t use mathematics to prove it.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Hi Sister Wolf,

    I think there is little question that Mr. Langan is way off the bell curve as regards IQ; he has been amply measured and tested by this point. We hear a lot of criticism of IQ – often with an underlying political agenda (not that I am suggesting this is your purpose here). But whatever IQ is measuring, it is something real, and being above or below average is strongly correlated with how well one does in life in all manner of ways (Dennis Mangan has collected a lot of information about this). You are right, though, of course, that there is more to getting along than raw processing power

    In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell devotes some space to Mr. Langan’s case, and makes two interesting points.

    First, he makes the case, as do you, that Mr. Langan’s youth of poverty and rural isolation, with a weak mother and abusive father, meant that during the critical formative years he never learned the social skills needed to make his way in the world without conflict and confrontation. I have no doubt that this has held him back. Feynman (who is very high in my pantheon of intellectual heroes) was the product of a very different environment.

    The other suggestion Mr. Gladwell makes is that as far as success in life is concerned, intelligence confers its benefits non-linearly: that once a certain level of IQ is reached, further increases do not translate into correspondingly greater success. In other words, an IQ of 200 is not all that much more useful in the real world than an IQ of 140.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  16. Jesse Kaplan says

    Hah! I made it to 80, with at least the last three words being beyond anything I saw in Mr. Langan’s little homework paper.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Congratulations, Jess. I confess I haven’t tried it since my initial glimpse.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Hey, wait just a minute there, Jess. The darn thing only goes up to 60!

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  19. Jesse Kaplan says

    Maybe for you. It went to 80 for me. Probably I used up most of the words. Sorry to have spoiled it for the rest of you, but when you’re hot you’re hot, and probably most of starving India is feasting on my 80 grains of rice by now. There’s your proof, I guess.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  20. Jesse Kaplan says

    … and it was my first try. Obviously I have no incentive to do it again.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    Oh you meant 80 grains of rice?? Pfffft. Pathetic. I was talking about level 50. I had many hundreds of grains in the bowl.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  22. Hahahahaha! I used to do that freerice game with my son. I’m going back right now to show you suckers…

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  23. Jesse Kaplan says

    Okay. You’re right. I didn’t understand the game. I thought you were out as soon as you missed one. I’ve now donated “hundreds of grains,” or anyway nearly 300, before getting bored. I got to level 51, but then I could never get back there, no matter how many I got right. I guess I used up all the hard words, as I said.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  24. Malcolm says

    Well, I certainly won’t be the one to floccipaucinihilipilificate your renewed effort.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  25. Jesse Kaplan says

    Sheesh! I still didn’t understand. You mean you can pick your level? I just picked 53 and got the first two right.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  26. Malcolm says

    You can pick your level? I had no idea. I’ll have to have a look after work.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  27. Jesse Kaplan says

    I held 58 for two words, but one of them was “kyphosis,” which seems easier than the last three I got correct way back the first time around. The issue is what level you can hold indefinitely, I think.

    Posted January 16, 2009 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  28. Wait until you try it with geography! I just realized that you can pick another subject (instead of vocabulary.)

    Posted January 17, 2009 at 12:02 am | Permalink
  29. I reached 48, then began declining, so my interest declined accordingly. That was a humbling experience, certainly nothing to floccipaucinihilipilificate about.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted January 17, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  30. JW says

    Awesome video. Thank you. But I still think he’s crazy if he honestly thinks he has little choice but to work at a bar just standing around.

    Posted January 18, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  31. Malcolm says

    Hi JW,

    Yes, one would have to imagine that Mr. Langan could be trained to do quite a variety of things.

    Posted January 18, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  32. Wikipedia says that he has a different job these days:

    “In 2004, Langan moved with his wife Gina (née LoSasso), a clinical neuropsychologist, to northern Missouri, where he owns and operates a horse ranch.”

    I watched some of all three parts of a three-part video hosted at You Tube. To me, Langan seems normal in his social skills. He has humor and a subtle smile. I rather liked him.

    I suspect that he’s simply got motives that differ from most of us. I might enjoy listening to him explain something, but I doubt that I’d have much of interest to say to him.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted January 18, 2009 at 9:14 pm | Permalink
  33. Kevin Kim says

    I found Langan direct but not too off-putting, perhaps because my circle of friends includes people who tend to be just as blunt (and often rude). It was interesting, however, to compare the length of the Langan interview with that of another 200 IQer on Youtube, Rick Rosner, whose interview is at least twice as long and concentrates mainly on his second failed appearance on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” According to Rosner, the crucial question was vaguely phrased and the most likely answer wasn’t even one of the available choices.

    Rosner comes off as pleasant, humorous, and confessional: he’s willing to talk about his hemorrhoids and readily admits he may be beating a dead horse by constantly writing the makers of the game show to contest his ouster from it. The length of Langan’s interview, so brief in comparison to Rosner’s, seems to imply that Langan felt he had better things to do.

    Kevin

    Posted January 19, 2009 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  34. JW says

    It’s just awesomely unfair. Before he is given powers to remake society by employing eugenics, I want my brain exchanged with his. Let’s see how he feels about eugenics *then*.

    Posted January 19, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  35. Malcolm says

    Hi JW,

    Well, eugenics is, in a sense, inherently unfair. Also, once you’ve switched brains, regardless of how he might feel about it, we should assume that you would feel about it just the way he does now, no?

    The question is: does fairness trump whatever benefits eugenics might confer on society?

    Posted January 19, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  36. JW says

    I wouldn’t dream of actually arguing against the guy, at least not face to face, but since you asked, Yes, I think it is completely rational to believe that in an ideal society, fairness would trump the benefits to be had in a random allotment of vasty different levels of ability. And of course I do believe it is worth talking about ideal societies.

    Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  37. JW says

    Err, sorry I think I got eugenics confused with state of nature, but I think I would still say the same thing.

    Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  38. Malcolm says

    Hi JW,

    Well, no, actually the question was: what is more important — being “fair”, in the sense that even the most congenitally deficient imbeciles are allowed to have as many kids as they like, or improving the society, and the species, by allowing only the best to breed?

    (This assumes that we can agree on some standard for ranking genomes for desirability, which is obviously a contentious notion — but for the sake of argument let us imagine at one extreme a stunted, violent cretin with no talent for anything and a bouquet of heritable genetic disorders, and at the other a gifted and intelligent exemplar of every enviable characteristic.)

    Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:37 pm | Permalink
  39. JW says

    Ok, if I’m not completely jumbling everything you said in my head, I think you can still charaterize eugenics as a “random allotment” of who gets to live with what kind of ability. So if the initial allotment is unfair, we do everything we can to make it as fair as possible after the fact of being born. I believe that was the crux of John Rawls’s idea in his “A Theory of Justice”.

    Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink
  40. bob koepp says

    Well, suppose those “favored” with exceptional abilities actually do have a proportionately greater burden of responsibilities. (I think this was actually Rawls’ view — he was a Kantian after all). The only gripe that we lesser endowed specimens have is that we don’t have the opportunity to contribute as much in absolute terms. I’ll forego that gripe and go fishing while the ubermenschen support me. And if I’m allowed to procreate (or are we talking positive eugenics?), I’ll do everything in my limited power to make sure my offspring aren’t burdened with great talents — so they can live a slovenly life of liesure like me.

    Posted January 19, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  41. Malcolm says

    Ah, the sweet, simple life of the Epsilon Minus. I think there’d still be work for you to do, though, Bob; there are plenty of occupations that the Alphas won’t want to do.

    I do think that in an increasingly crowded world there is a coherent case to be made that breeding is a privilege, not a right (although readers who recall my screed about the soda tax may be surprised to hear me say so). And I have wondered aloud in these pages why sterilization is never considered an option when punishing criminals.

    Posted January 19, 2009 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  42. I believe sterilization is an option for sex crimes -at least in some places…

    But I have also read a study that pretty well shows a high IQ has little to do with finding happiness.

    & I enjoy the art-works section of the freerice site- I’ve built a small pyramid of rice over the past week – I trust it shall be delivered and enjoyed-

    Posted January 20, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  43. JW says

    I’ve been thinking however I can about this issue for a bit, and my best case but not necessarily a defensible scenario for a eugenics like policy would be something like a restriction on breeding to couples who are in a legal state of union for at least a significant number of years. Steven Levitt that famous economist of Freakonomics fame, if you remember, did some eye popping research that plausibly linked decrease in crime to the rise in use of contraception. (see below link)

    http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/DonohueLevittTheImpactOfLegalized2001.pdf

    Posted January 23, 2009 at 7:17 pm | Permalink
  44. Malcolm says

    Thanks, JW; we’ll have a look.

    Posted January 24, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Permalink
  45. JW says

    Oops, not contraception, but abortion…

    Posted January 25, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink