Polymaths - A Dying Breed of Humans
Throughout the ages, we’ve seen many people contribute wonders and achieve greatness. Most of the people that we place on these high pedestals are in fact, polymaths. Derived from the Greek words ‘polu’ meaning many, and ‘manthemein’ meaning ‘learn’, polymaths are people with knowledge spanning diverse fields. These glorious historical figures have shaped the course of the world with their astounding talents - quite literally.
You may have come across these people under an alternate name, ‘The Renaissance Men’. The title became widely used after one of the most famous polymaths of all time who lived during the renaissance period - Leonardo da Vinci. Apart from painting the Mona Lisa, da Vinci is also credited for being an architect, engineer, inventor, sculptor, musician, cartographer, and writer. In fact, he wrote many of his greatest inventions and discoveries in a secret code he made up.
Other famous polymaths include Galileo and Aristotle. The latter laid the foundations of various fields of philosophy, along with discovering scientific theories and being a writer. Galileo has been called the “father of observational astronomy”, the “father of modern physics”, the “father of the scientific method”, and the “father of modern science”. Biologists familiar with Robert Hooke and his discovery of microorganisms often forget that he was also an experimental scientist, architect, natural philosopher, mathematician and surveyor. The Mughal king Akbar has been greatly lauded for being an architect, artist, writer, theologian, carpenter and technologist.
It seems like these so-called generalists have literally charted the course of humanity. The examples above do hint at polymaths being a thing of the past. So what brought in specialization, and how did it stick around? And more importantly, could we still have polymaths amongst us?
One factor to consider is the time period. Aristotle lived in a time period when civilization was young, when kings waged war and conquered lands. Galileo and da Vinci were able to shape the world when it was still filled with mysteries. But fast forward to now - it feels like everything has been discovered. Every invention is constantly being advanced to it’s next best version, and a plethora of research papers and patents come out every day. Due to the vast amounts of knowledge available, an individual becomes saturated before he/she can learn and quantify enough to make an advancement.
Another major shift happened with the advent of industrialization. Machines replaced jobs and left people devoid of the chance to learn. Henry Ford’s division of labour didn’t just specialize in job roles; it also narrowed down knowledge and applied to intellectual labour. Our society leaned on specialization so much, it created a fragmented view of the world. And we have all been subjected to this. “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question we have been tortured with, every family function. The possibility of limited options apart, what we fail to see is that it enforces the idea that we can excel at only one career. So what if we want to be a rocket scientist by day and a scriptwriter by night? Nothing should be deemed impossible.
This cage of specialization is also seen in our educational system. “Why does the moon have holes?”, “Why does coffee keep us awake?”, “Why is fire hot?” - little kids are filled with questions. But as they grow up and are made to focus on a few subjects, they lose that curiosity. Parents tend to encourage children to play one sport or learn one musical instrument, unknowingly furthering this specialist mindset. Many studies have proven that children who dabble in multiple sports or are fluent in more than one instrument tend to handle situations better, learn faster and have more developed interpersonal skills. Even science vouches for a generalist mindset.
This is not to say that specialists haven’t shaped the world. Certainly, were it not for the experts with proficiency in their respective fields, the world would have been deprived of so much. But with the complexity of problems we face today, there is a great demand for people with knowledge in diverse fields. Case in point, the push in bioinformatics since the 1980s, which combines computation and technology into the principles of Biology, furthered studies in pharmaceutical development and genome studies at an exponential rate. Techniques in bioinformatics are greatly simplifying the efforts towards developing a vaccine. Integration is most definitely the key to unlocking the future.
As Ella Saltmarshe put it, the misconception that “expertise was only achieved through exclusivity” has pushed generalists backstage. The key to being a polymath is simple - they are constant learners. The only thing common between a polymath and a “jack of all trades, master of none” is varied interests. Both may have multiple hobbies which teach them different skills, but a polymath is characterized by dedication and an active curiosity to understand, to ask questions, and more importantly, to seek answers.
What most tend to forget is that these intellectual giants from the past weren’t born with a wealth of knowledge. They observed, they heard, and they collaborated with other scholars. Being a polymath does NOT mean having encyclopaedic knowledge; Aristotle learnt from Plato, who was taught by Socrates. If even one of them had held on to their egos and refused to share their ideas, unbeknownst to them, they might have changed the course of humanity.
Simply put, as Ben Vandgrift put it, “There is nothing special about a polymath; it is in fact, the natural state of human learning.” Regardless of whether we conquer the quest for greatness, polymaths teach us a very important lesson - curiosity and dedication will take us far in our pursuits. It is how we can live multiple lives, lead different roles, all in the span of a single lifetime.