First, we should ask, “do idiot savants run things?” I’d say so according to the second definition of “idiot savant” in Merriam-Webster Dictionary, i.e., 2: a person who is highly knowledgeable about one subject but knows little about anything else.
Of course, “knowledgeable about one subject” and “knows little about anything else” is relative and varies person to person. Nevertheless, anyone highly knowledgeable in an area is a savant by definition, i.e., 1: a person of learning; especially: one with detailed knowledge in some specialized field. That certainly sounds like the experts, whatever the field, who manage things. Experts in war become generals; experts in politics become presidents; experts in business become CEO’s; experts in religion become preachers and Popes; and so on. Without question, highly knowledgeable experts/savants run things in civilized society. The question is, are they idiots too?
Do our experts also know little about anything else? From a purely biological standpoint, the price of being highly knowledgeable in one area is by necessity knowing little about anything else. Advancing civilization requires the narrower focus of such specialization. The specialist focuses deeply on one area of life, which leaves less time left in life for considering the rest — the ‘big picture’. The old saying ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ increasingly applies. The broad view, the ‘can’t see the trees for the forest’ is increasingly impractical, yet essential for long-term survival. (1)
Clearly, ‘idiot savants’ of a sort do run things. Who do we turn to for answers or for leadership? The expert! As civilization advances it opens up new niches for experts to fill, or is it vice versa? Personally, I think vice versa is more likely. In any case, chapter 16’s warning, Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant becomes much more likely.
A boggled mind seeks answers…
Social instinct invites us to follow leaders who have the expertise we value. In ancestral times, pre civilization, that would usually be a survival advantage. Expertise would focus so narrowly in hunter-gatherer times as to miss much of the ‘big picture’.
On the other hand, I can see it still makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. It is nature’s way of balancing the evolutionary process. The advantage of an expert’s sharp focus counter-balances the handicap of the expert’s narrower vision. Evolutionarily speaking, a species groping its way successfully through such a field of advantages and pitfalls enhances fitness, i.e., those who manage to survive are fit. That means, no matter how expert-ridden, specialist driven, modern civilization becomes, it’s still part of the natural process. Don’t you just love how justly nature deals the cards?
This is a case of the blind leading the blind, or rather, the more blind leading the less blind. So why do the less blind — ‘the silent majority’ generalists — follow the blinder expert ‘idiot savant’? It takes being an ‘idiot savant’ to become a leader, and most of us instinctively need to follow leaders! They may be blinder than we are, but at least they will decide and lead… even if over a cliff at times.
Civilization demands decisive leadership. The only thing worse than blind leadership is no leadership, for then chaos ensues. Chapter 17 describes the range of leadership. Note that the best “ruler is but a shadowy presence“. I assume that leader is one who is aware of his blind spot. From there, it descends down toward chaos when leadership wanes and the people “take liberties”.
(1) They say the leaders in ancient China would have a ‘Taoist world view generalist’ to offer countervailing perspective. I suspect this was the ideal rather than actual practice. History shows that expert higher-ups seldom if ever listen to the generalist enough.