An Inexpert View… On Intelligence
We have the definition:
Noun. Capacity of mind, especially to understand principles, truths, facts or meanings, acquire knowledge, and apply it to practice; the ability to comprehend and learn.
So far, so vague. It is listed as an uncountable noun, yet is widely believed to be quantifiable. The concept is deeply embedded into the Euro-Americo psyche, I for one was brought up on it. That there are clever people and stupid people, those getting by, and brilliant minds. Here is a purported table for your perusal:
Hmmm. So far, so insulting. Nevertheless, the interwebs of today is still permeated by cobbled together IQ tests and ‘intelligent’ blogs (erm) that imply the comparability and thus ordering of humans by some kind of ranking of brain power. The wider world is laced with the pre-judgements and category biases that accompany the idea that this quality is in fact a quantity and can thus be measured.
The academics and scientists who study psychology and neuroscience have come to a different view however. For example that an Intelligence Quotient can be established, calibrated and attached to an individual or even to a group is now entirely abandoned. Why should that be? Are we to suppose that on a given day entrants to the fields listed in the table above could be re-arranged without consequence to their ultimate efficacy and success? Surely that can’t be right?
Well, it is fairly indisputable that there exist pre-conditions that predict future ability in a career, and also many that don’t. Of those that do, some exist at birth, and some don’t. A footballer in the English premier league would be disadvantaged by not having legs, although it is indeed still possible to play the game in a slightly adapted form as a competitive sport, able-bodied or not.
Let us be more precise in pinning down the source of error here. A test for this supposed quantity is necessarily contigent on the prior-knowledge or skill of participants. However, it is simply not possible to create a level playing field beforehand. Famously entrants to the United States in the early modern era were subjected to such tests to determine their fitness as potential citizens. These relied heavily on cultural norms, ideas and know-how that were contemporarily indigenious to the country of landing, but likely not to that of origin. The questions can be improved to be as general as possible, but the fundamental problem cannot be ironed-out.
So if something cannot be accurately measured, can it be precise in any sense at all? What we are left with is that aptitude to a task or job can be loosely predicted on a number of factors that are not directly correlated to the concept of intelligence. In fact, we contest, rarely so. Doctors can be not-too-bright, cleaners insightful, managers dull, labourers astute, philosphers daft and athletes witty.
Which hints at another angle: That our minds are complex and varied, and in the concept we are examining there is an implied value-judgement that certain aptitudes are better, or at the very least there is always a risk of this. But really there is no objective foundation for this. Footballers can think with great speed - milliseconds in reaction times determine match performance. Who is to say thinking slower is more laudable? And no, their reactions and actions aren’t guided by intramuscular reflexes, the co-ordination of a human body within an environment containing other human bodies with differing motives, vectors and predictive aspects, along with physical static and moving objects, requires the engagement of the human mind to a large extent.
And so we are left with an unknowable, time and space dependent variable in multiple dimensions.
So does the word lose all meaning and usefulness? Not at all. A person may have the quality of intelligence, but they cannot have an amount of it. They may also be witty, solemn, urbane, moody, bright, shallow, quick, slow, et cetera, et cetera.
The truth of the matter is that this persistent idea of measuring this aspect originated in the phrenology of an eighteen century European upper-class motivated to justify their abusive treatment of distant peoples and disparage them. And it belongs there, in the distant past. Clever, huh?
Pride and prejudice
Humans are often thought of either directly or by implication as the paragon of animals - of course we are the ones who believe that - but we’re nowhere near as clever as we think we are. We take examples of modernity such as the aeroplane or the nuclear reactor, we point at these and say how marvelous, what other primate, let alone mammal, could display such artifice? And sure, some humans have done some pretty amazing things. For example James Clerk Maxwell predicting the substance that the planet Saturns rings are made of using maths alone, many decades before an interplanetary probe could confirm this. Pretty impressive, the probe too. Or the Ancient Eygptians who built huge pyramidal monuments that we still have no idea to this day of how they did so. Okay, congrats, humans. Well done.
Yet we are still unable to co-ordinate our societies at scale to avoid extreme atrocities and ecological disaster. We force millions to live lives of impoverishment and squalor when it really isn’t necessary. And on top of that we deny any responsibility or even that those things happen.
Maybe these things are understandable on some level - but that is the level of animal drives, where any kind of wisdom is neglected or tortuously distorted. We have not risen above the other animals. We have made tools but we are unsure how to wield them. In a common sense, we treat the rest of the planet and everything on it badly and we treat each other badly too. No, not entirely - but enough to place our pride as arrogance and our great achievements in a sea of bland failings and “quiet desperation.”1
In certain specific ways we can perform miracles - of technology, logistics and co-operation; yet, in the general morass of humanity, all but a few rare individuals live a life that is more than hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, often drudgery, often confused, misled or uncertain. We count ourselves among them.
In leaving a more expansive exploration of this topic for a future post, for now it suffices to say that - although we are not misanthropists (openly, at least) - when it comes to evaluating humans’ successes and capabilities, don’t believe the hype!
Henry David Thoreau - “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. One presumes by men he meant most people living in the United States at that time. ↩︎