On superheros and polymaths

The Amazing Spider-Man #252 (May 1984): Spider...

This past weekend I watched the Amazing Spiderman, a movie that was overshadowed (at least among comic movie viewers) this past summer by the third Dark Knight movie. What a shame this movie didn’t get the attention it deserved – yes, it broke with at least the traditional origin story, and was yet another restart in the franchise, but it was actually really good. Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a fan of Spidey since I was nine. Stationed overseas and without TV (a concept my daughters cannot fathom no matter how many times I threaten to let them experience it), the care packages from my grandmother always contained the latest issues of both the Spiderman titles of the time (that is, of course, Amazing and Spectacular, though I always preferred Amazing). All of that aside, though, the movie was good. It didn’t try to go too over the top, even if Sally Field is playing Aunt May (is she really old and spinster enough for that?).

Of course, as is often the case after watching a superhero movie, I can’t help but daydream what it would be like to suddenly find yourself a superhero (yes, even at my ripe age and portly stature). Being able to fly or walk through walls is out of reach no matter how much we try, but there is that other class of superhero that is tantalizingly within reach. I speak, of course, of the polymath, an individual that has such a wide breadth of knowledge that they are adept, or at least proficient, at a wide spectrum of tasks. Bruce Wayne would be an archetype of the polymath in comics, if that helps.

And this is where the confluence of chance blogs come together. First up, I came across this article in the SFWA blog by guest blogger Aliette de Bodard (author of the awesome story, Immersion, still up at Clarkesworld for you to read when you get tired of reading this prattle) who, in her first few lines, dismisses the possibility of a polymath in the modern age. Her argument is that due to specialization in the various fields (of science in this case), its just not possible for a single individual to make a contribution any more. She makes a valid and reasonable argument, and I can’t dispute it. Except. Except.

English: Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. R...

I felt the stab wounds. After all, while few of us were born on Krypton and can therefore take advantage of the properties of the yellow sun of Sol, the idea of being a polymath was the attainable super hero goal. With enough dedication and effort, we could at least begin to feel what it was like to be a polymath. This is what inspired us to read Michael Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day in the first place, right?

Cover of "The Final Encyclopedia"And then I stumbled on this post while looking something up related to Moleskine journals, which led me to Project Polymath. I’m not sure what to think, but it definitely has me thinking. And some of those thoughts had me spinning back around to the beginning of it all, one of my first exposures to this debate. I’m speaking of course of Gordon R. Dickson‘s Childe Cycle books (Dorsai! right on through The Final Encyclopedia). The backdrop of these books was the battle between the splintered worlds, worlds where  man had gone off and specialized to such an extreme, and good old Earth and her allies, where you could still find “full spectrum” humans. I’m oversimplifying and highlighting just one aspect of these books (my High School English teachers would be so proud), but what I always took away from this naive argument was that even in an age of over-specialization, there would still be individuals that were natural polymaths.

Tony Stark - Robert Downey Jr

And why not? As a species, we haven’t devolved to have less capable brains. Just because the specifics of a subject have increased in granularity doesn’t mean that someone isn’t capable of understanding both math and science, or art and history, or to be fluent in more than a few languages. I’m not suggesting the philanthropist neurosurgeon playboy who builds fusion reactors for fun is going to be having a showing of his latest collection of oils on canvas at the Louvre next week, but I do think that we as a species, and as individuals, are capable of so much more. But it takes work and effort, more than most are willing to make. Certainly more than I am capable, something I admit with a heavy sense of defeat.

But should that keep us from trying?


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