Lost Cities of the Mind: The Pot-Field of K’àak Chi’ and the Myth of Natural Genius

So about a day ago, the social-media news started trending that William Gadoury, a “remarkable teenager” from Canada, had discovered a lost Mayan city that has eluded a world full of experts for centuries. Stranger things have happened, and the teen’s ingenuity is obvious from the article. He’s named the city K’àak Chi’, or “Mouth of Fire,” which is at once exactly the thing a 15-year-old boy would name a lost city, and the most metal name you could possibly give to a lost city. Young amateur or not, he’s obviously more well-informed than a layperson. His knowledge of Yucatec Mayan, a language still spoken by around a million people in Mexico and Belize, is obviously better than mine. Canada’s a wonderfully diverse country, but one does not come by Yucatec Mayan accidentally here: he’s obviously done a degree of self-study, and that alone makes his work admirable.

But of course it’s such a good piece of clickbait that no one on the Internet thought to verify this sensational news with a single expert before it went viral. Now it’s with a mixed sense of sadness and relief that it’s rapidly come out in the archaeological community that this “discovery” is, if not a deliberate hoax, a groundless and dubious speculation of more fancy than fact. Gadoury’s work is not going to stand up to peer review, which does exist for an important reason—and it’s being widely debunked by experts as nothing more than a marijuana field masquerading as an ancient city. This debunking, surprisingly, has taken on some extremely hostile terms: Dr. David Stuart, a renowned Mayan anthropologist, has dismissed this intellectual “mess” as nothing but “junk science” on his Facebook page, which is a little bit like Mike Tyson picking on a 15-year-old boy because he can’t take a punch to the face like a proper heavyweight.

Even so, it’s noteworthy that an untrained 15-year-old is attracting the attention of experts of Stuart’s calibre, even if it’s only to deride his amateurish efforts with what feels like undue harshness. I suppose the equivalent in English Literature would be like a kid single-handedly coming up with the Edward de Vere story of Shakespeare’s authorship—a conspiracy theory widely slammed by a consensus of experts, yet significant enough to draw their attention and comments.

The hostility shown to this poor kid, the sensationalism with which the media has rapidly built him up as some sort of wunderkind, then brought him down as some sort of hoax, has prompted some serious thought from me: he’s probably neither of these things in entirety, just a smart young man with a very keen interest in an interesting and challenging field (and I hope that interest is more kindled than crushed by the response he’s receiving).

So the story is nonsense; the “lost city” is probably a marijuana field, and we can leave it at that. Why, then, are experts motivated to such hostility over this flash-in-the-pan piece of viral clickbait? Why are they so threatened by one youngster’s unsustainable theory when it’s so easily shut down by rigorous work?

That’s the question I’ve set out to dig into in my response. My answer, or at least my working answer, has to do with the way we’ve constructed our myth of natural genius—and it’s a little sad. I’m intuitively sad that this story wasn’t true, and I want to know why that is. The more I think about it, the more I realize I’m actually grateful for an end to this story that doesn’t diminish the value of expertise or the years of rigorous effort it can take to achieve something like the discovery of a whole lost city. Let me explain:

In Western culture, and perhaps in every culture, there’s a wonderful appeal to wunderkind, the prodigy, the teenaged Chosen One stories that have basically become the only hero-myths we tell itself (did anyone else wonder, as I did, why they cast a baby-faced 20-year-old to play 55-year-old Frodo Baggins?). Part of why we like our teenaged heroes is that the myth of natural genius makes for a very tantalizing way of understanding our achievements. It’s very self-satisfying to hear of people who, with no special training or experience, beat the “experts” through their spontaneous genius. These spontaneous epiphanies bring a spiritual dimension back to our understanding of knowledge (especially scientific knowledge) that’s long been absent from the way we think of discovery. It inspires us, and it also reminds us that you and I can achieve great things too—though it does the disservice of implying, quite deceitfully, that the greatest things are achieved without sustained and prolonged effort. It implies those things acquired through serendipity are invariably better than the things acquired through labour, and that is a dangerous message to the lazy.

We love our child prodigies because we like to think that success will come to us without struggle as long as genius does the work for us. We like to think of Mozart as a divinely-inspired talent who was composing music at the age of five—not as a person who studied music and practiced every day; travelled around Europe, under very poor and primitive conditions, to seek out the best training; had the loving support of his composer father, who encouraged his talent and transcribed his first symphonies for him; and who ultimately wrote most of his great works in the last decade of his life.

We would rather not hear about the physical and mental hardship, financial struggle, and career failures that even our most astounding geniuses had to overcome in pursuit of success. We would rather hear a story of divine inspiration (or genetics) about a five-year-old boy who won the intellectual lottery, who “writes music as a sow piddles,” whose achievements come without any effort at all because his musical genius does all the heavy lifting.

It’s a seductive myth—especially to those of us who carry a modicum of genius or natural talent. The most common difference between the geniuses we all seem to know in real life and the well-known celebrities from all walks of life we think of as geniuses (Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Prince, Steven Spielberg, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bruce Lee, Stephen Fry) has nothing to do with the disproportionately high number of them who are named Steve. It has everything to do with the fact that the talented people whose achievements have made them celebrities are those whose natural genius is accompanied invariably with long-term dedication and a lifetime of rigorous effort to achieve excellence in whatever-it-is-they’re-geniuses-at.

The unsuccessful geniuses on our Facebook friendslist bristle at this, because at some point in their development, most geniuses have had the opportunity to acquire and internalize an incredible laziness, and most of them jump at the opportunity. These are the people, let’s remember, who have found success at some point in their life with less-than-normal effort, whether it’s learning to read at age two, or winning the school talent show with an identifiable painting of a tiger while one’s classmates are still eating the glue.

It’s an incredible rush, the rush of being a greater talent than everybody else in something. Grownups praise us for something that’s not our conscious doing, and not even our fault. Where other children in their formative years are learning the joy of working hard to achieve something, we are learning the joy of getting gold stickers handed to us like candy, just because we have figured out how fractions work more intuitively than the other kids. We didn’t do any extra homework; the numbers just spoke to us, and now we’re the star Mathletes of our school at the local Mathlympics, or whatever language of achievement they put on these tests to make math sound cool.

It’s a great feeling to do better than other people with less effort. It’s a feeling that we can easily go on chasing for the rest of our lives. And therein lies the problem, because it’s completely unsustainable. As we get older, we find that this kind of automatic genius is a myth—and not the kind of myth that is true deep in our bones even if it’s unfactual, like Scriptural parables or creation-stories. I mean the kind of myth that governs the way we go about our lives, even though we know, or should know, that on some level an inherent falseness permeates the story.

When you learn to read at two, you are outperforming the illiterate. Literacy at that age is just a binary switch: if you can see a word and make the noise of the word, and they can’t, that’s all it takes to put you are in the camp of excellence. But by the age of six, most kids can do that. Now you have to read at a fourth or fifth-grade reading level to look and feel markedly superior. If you are smart enough, you can manage this even if you are lazy. But by fourth grade, you now need to be reading at a high school level to appear superior—and worse yet, your peers have discovered Harry Potter, and are now reading YA books for pleasure, and even the ones who are not particularly gifted are keeping up with you simply because they love reading and have dedicated themselves to it.

Fast-forward to adult academia. You are surrounded by people with PhDs whose passion, curiosity, drive, and sheer determination are worth a thousand times more than your natural genius. These people are not, by and large, any smarter than the rest of the population. An Ivy League university faculty is not de facto in possession of any greater mental horsepower than the night crew at your local Burger King; and don’t let intellectual snobs tell you differently. What they do have, however, is the advantage of an extensive professional life devoting themselves to the study of their particular passion: people who can’t seem to do basic math, who can’t find their own deleted e-mails or fold their own shirts, without the help of a grumbling Department secretary, are nevertheless the most accomplished and skilled human beings in the world.

This is a function of effort, which is worth more than genius by the time we hit high school, and outpaces it by a wider and wider margin the farther we go in life. And then, of course, there are those people with genius and effort. Against them, lazy genius has no hope.

Shouldn’t this story be inspiring too? Is it not to our advantage that our dreams are achievable even without winning the child-prodigy lottery? If we did away with the myth of genius, it would unlock a lot of potential for a lot of people: more working-class people with average high-school marks would come out knowing that they could be doctors or lawyers or business leaders if they worked hard enough. More people who have a story in them would know that they could become bestselling novelists—and they could, because they would recognize that they need to work on punctuation and sentence structure, read Strunk and White, challenge their literacy, write bad novels, write mediocre novels, then write good ones. They would not treat being a good writer the way we presently do, as a thing you somehow figure out early on, and then either have or don’t.

And yet we’re not inspired by this. We’re not inspired by the long-winded biographies of passionate lifelong students of the world, who strive over time for their accomplishments. We’re much more inspired by the teenager tooling around on Google Maps who literally trips over an ancient city. We’re inspired by the story of Doc Brown from Back to the Future, who falls off his toilet and hits his head, and wakes up with the idea for the Flux Capacitor. We’d be utterly bored to think of him testing thousands of filament alloys, one after another, the way Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park sweatshop had to do in order to hand him a light bulb that worked.

Could we really stumble across an ancient city from the comfort of our computer chairs without leaving Google Maps? Sure we could, I suppose. One of the most exciting things technology gives us as world-curious people is the tools to overcome boundaries—the boundaries of our finances, the boundaries of our five senses, the boundaries of space and time—in ways that were once impossible. The opportunity to do intellectual work, to those who want it, is available to an unprecedented degree. This is an incredible and good thing. A homeless man with no job, no money, and even marginal literacy can spend six afternoons on a public library computer, and through the magic of YouTube come away with a variety of saleable general labour skills that can transform his life. That’s a huge change in our intellectual existence as a species. Comparatively small things, like being able to spot lost cities from the sky through our monitors, are certainly feasible. In this case, it turned out not to be true. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

So sure, a teen could feasibly find a lost Mayan city on the Internet. But it’s a disservice to the archaeologist with ten years of post-secondary school, crouched over her string-bounded 10-foot square of dirt in 100-degree weather, brushing the cow shit off a half-inch fragment of pottery with a soft-bristled toothbrush, to imply (as this round of news stories did) that the Eureka moments of lay folk are the way most important discoveries are made.

This is as disingenuous as that popular clickbait line, “The lifesaving secret doctors don’t want you to see!” Doctors save lives; that’s what they do. They train and labour, sometimes for decades, to find better ways of saving lives. If there’s a “lifesaving secret” they don’t want you to see, that’s probably because it’s bullshit that does more harm than good. It’s often pointed out that homeopathic medicine doesn’t work. When it does work, and is proven to work, it just becomes regular medicine. That’s pretty much how the long history of disinfection went.

Why, then, are we so eager to believe that experts are our enemy, keeping secrets from us, and genius only exists among the lay folk who challenge them?

It’s not because this is somehow a history of intellectual progress. The people who challenge the established misconceptions of experts are—when they’re right—experts themselves. Sir Isaac Newton was one of the most accomplished physicists and mathematicians of the early Enlightenment. If there’s any truth to the famous “apple incident,” it’s still the twenty years of grappling with physics that followed, not the half-second drop time of a piece of fruit, that turned idea into execution.

Perhaps genius is the source of good ideas, but ideas are cheap. It’s one of the most common and insufferable questions we ask our writers: “where do you get your ideas?” (The grammarian points out, we ought to be saying “whence.”)

Ideas are cheap; Ideas are a dime a dozen. Suppose you want to write like Neil Gaiman, and tell fantastic magical stories that cross boundaries with the real world. Here: check out “The Magic Realism Bot,” a lovely little piece of programming on Twitter that auto-generates a new magic realism story-seed every two hours. Some of them are nonsense; some require a little tweaking; but others, straight out of the box, are brilliant:

  • “A Mongolian butler sells a golden city.”
  • “A duchess marries moonlight. They have one child: a daughter who is made of philosophy.”
  • “A carnation made of silence grows in a Texan garden. A congressman plots to steal it.”
  • “A queen hears of a castle inside a mountain, and wants to visit it.”

These are all from the last twenty-four hours. It’s generated 8,400 other beautiful seeds.

But these are just ideas. Ideas are so cheap that computers can make them for us. We shouldn’t be asking where the Neil Gaimans of the world get their ideas (hint: it’s from genius). We should be asking them where they get their execution (hint: it’s from labour).

What Canadian prodigy William Gadoury has accomplished here is a decently worthy thing: it’s an idea. Specifically, it’s the idea that Maya constellations (which are still unidentified, and ripe for future discoveries) have a lot to tell us about what these people did in the ground, even if it was far from the only factor in determining the location of their cities, when primitive technology and extremely difficult terrain were the prime deciding factors. This is an idea, and it’s important to keep encouraging people to have ideas. Dr. Stuart’s hostile dismissal of this “junk science” is not helpful even if it’s pretty much truthful. Ideas are important.

But equally or more important is the truth that ideas are cheap, and made whole only in the execution. Genius is cheap, and made whole only in the disciplined labour. Is E. L. James of Fifty Shades of Grey a literary genius? Absolutely not. No, no, no, ugh, God, no. But there is no better nail in the coffin of the idea-vs.-execution argument than to juxtapose her next to those geniuses—you and I both know them—who are forever “working on a masterpiece” they never seem to finish.

The most encouraging debunking has come from professor Geoffrey Braswell, who “encouraged Gadoury to keep trying, and hopes to see the young man apply to USC-San Diego.

There is no clearer sign of the presence of natural genius, if such a thing exists, than a florid abundance of ideas in the absence of execution—and it’s our responsibility as intellectually curious people to welcome and invite the holders of ideas onto the long, hard road of execution. Genius never did much good without significant strife—that is, the act of striving—behind it. As a marker of potential, as the seed of greatness, genius is a thing to be cultivated, and of no more value than any other seed if left unsown.

In this world of quick fame, child prodigies, fast-calorie miracles cheaply bought and too quickly consumed, we need to do more to channel our bright people into the lasting and valuable pursuit of expertise—a pursuit that comes with rigor, struggle, setback, and triumph that is more than ephemeral Internet celebrity.  The most we can do, when confronted with genius, is to encourage people to follow their dreams—but to drop the illusion that “following” anything can be done without lots, and lots, and lots of walking. There are lost cities to be discovered, and treasures to be had; but if we would have them, we must get out of our intellectual armchairs and walk there, one step, one mile at a time.

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