Leonardo da Vinci, Abu Al-Biruni, René Descartes. Three famous names known for their contributions in very diverse fields. They are polymaths. Not only they know a lot in many disciplines, they also excel in each of them.
As the world evolves, polymathy is a term no longer employed. Is it because there are no more polymaths? Or is it because polymathy is everywhere?
I will discuss in the following why it seems that polymathy is scarce nowadays and why specialization is on the contrary often strongly rewarded. Then I will highlight the benefit of polymathy for the society and how there are many examples of contemporary polymaths. Finally, what to expect in the future?
A specialized modern world
There is hardly any comparison possible between our contemporary world and the world of da Vinci. Several aspects are now strongly favoring specialization. The economical climate after the industrialization area has divided the society not only into classes but also into labor forces, each dedicated to one single task. In some villages, it was usual that the owner of the farm could also build a house, take care of their cows, grow plants, make the bread… Now it is one bakery with a baker, one industry for vegetables, one for cattle.
Also it can be argued that the booming of knowledge during the XIX and XX century renders impossible the acute learning of many different disciplines. Current research is based on collaborative work regrouping experts in different fields. Joint programs, collaborations, and the numbers of names on the publications are concrete examples of this gathering of experts. Being specialized in one field also limits the competition and increases access to funding grants, renown and respect. Who would believe and trust a statement on the TV or radio if not made by someone holding a doctorate, a gold medal or whose artwork is exposed at the Metropolitain?
Finally, the social status of people has drastically changed, with the increase in middle-class citizen, who have first to earn their living, care for their families, travel at international meeting to bridge collaborations… The world is not limited to Europe for Descartes, the House of Wisdom for Al-Biruni or Renaissance western Europe for da Vinci. It now covers the entire planet, with scholars from all the continents. Specialization is thus one way to stand out of the crowd.
There is no denial that the word polymath is no used very often to characterize a person who knows a lot about a lot. Nevertheless, there are many names that can be cited. Only in the very narrow field in which I work, which is bio-inspired materials, many names pop to my mind. Dominique Peysson for her knowledge and expertise in arts and science, Neri Oxman for her knowledge of natural mechanisms and process and arts, or Admir Masic for his expertise in physics and characterization methods but also archeology and natural species. It would be long to list all the other domains that theses few people master and so many names could be added to this beginning of a list.
Particularly with science, cross-fertilization is fundamental to engender innovation. It is not rare that researchers travel from one field to the other to gain new understanding but also a fresh unusual view angles on the problems they are trying to solve.
I would like to point out that the French system, despite being still elitist, is a very good incubator for polymaths. From the very beginning, it emphasizes the need for a healthy brain in a healthy body by the possibility for students to perform arts and sports until a very high level. The Grandes Ecoles are filled with students playing in music bands, orchestras, setting plays, investing in start ups, etc. I would not be surprise that his energy for multiple activities at a very high level is also strongly encouraged in many universities across the world.
Evolution of polymathy
Polymaths are present nowadays, and their number will only increase in the future. Indeed, knowledge is getting more and more accessible as technology is evolving, through Internet and for less privileged people. International travels, multi-culturality and diverse school systems are very likely to form people with broad interest and knowledge.
The increasing number of people and experts in the world will now request multiple expertise to be able to differentiate between excellent candidates. Especially in academia, where the number of professorship positions is limited, researchers with many years of experience can only be selected based on their knowledge in various disciplines.
Finally, society keeps evolving and new types of polymaths will arise, that will embrace men and women from any ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. To depart from the ancient definition of polymath that mostly describes great men from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment periods (according to Wikipedia), the variety of profiles that have now access to knowledge can be anticipated to provide new types of thinking and of polymathy.
It could be true that polymaths were scarce in the XIX century but there is evidence that the XX century will see a renewal of polymathy, which will be international, multi-gender, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.
K. Weins, In defense of polymaths, Harvard Business review (2012).
E. Carr, The last days of the polymath, The Economist (2009).
R. Twigger, Master of many trades, Aeon magazine (2013).