Thoughts on Intelligence

Compromise (which finds groups or individuals deciding an action that is between two extreme options) is a human activity with an unusual character. In some instances (for example in political discussions) groups see it as a positive outcome as action can proceed despite neither “side” getting everything they desire.

In other instances (for example in design) compromise can lead to ambiguous results. Those who work in education know that labels can be applied to very different types of teaching so that it applies to everything, thus describing nothing. In my career, “student-centered” became a thing and it was originally used to describe methods in which learners contributed to planning their curriculum. Because it became popular (and as it became popular), it was applied to every conceivable approach to teaching, including those that were contrary to the original intent. The result of compromise in this case led to less understanding.

In yet other instances (for example science) compromise is to be avoided. Science is intended to find answers to questions and to use observation to resolve disputes, so practitioners do not compromise; they “let the data decide.” Of course, this is the ideal of science and it rarely works that way. Scientists are human and the statistics that support their conclusions are interpretations of the data, they are not the reality of the data.

I have been listening to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (my second time listening to the book I have also read twice) on my afternoon walks and it has become clear to me that it tells the story of intelligence testing and the dubious science that has been used to support both the construct on general intelligence and the methods of measuring it. Gould makes that point that intelligence testing has been used to justify racist and classist policies in educational and social institutions for more than a century. As the book ends, it become clear to listeners and readers that there have been two extremes in beliefs about intelligence.

On one extreme, there are those who believe there is a single factor that determines one’s cognitive abilities. If one has higher g, then one will score higher on IQ tests than others, and that individual will have greater abilities in every activity requiring one be “smart.” Those who hold this view then to believe g is real and that it can be reliably measured, that it is largely inherited, and that it is unchangeable. In Gould’s book, all of these characteristics are debunked.

The position of those on the opposite extreme from those who posit g is less well developed in Gould’s book but can be described as those who believe children are “blank slates” and all of their cognitive and other abilities arise from cultural experiences. This has been characterized by the “nature versus nurture” debate.

If anyone (including scientists) wants to understand the true basis of human cognitive ability (something that is impossible to do for individuals and can be generally understood for large groups), they will find it in the middle. Those who are parents will verify that individual children do have “natural” abilities and dispositions. These likely arise from the ways their genes interacted with the environment beginning very soon after conception. Those children also have abilities and dispositions that emerge as their bodies and brains interact with the environment (including the social environment) throughout life.

Most of us have little hope of completely documenting the complex interactions between genes and environments; but we have an obligation to support the scientists who are studying this field. Most of us have little hope of influencing genetics (genetic engineering notwithstanding).

We do have hope of affecting environments, however. It seems we have a moral obligation to understand, encourage, and support what we know to be healthy environments for all. Nutritious food, clean water and air, functioning sanitation are required for physical health, but we know that health (and growth to potential) necessitates so much more. Safety, care, loving relationships, absence of toxic stress are all on the (very incomplete) list of what society should be assuring for all individuals to ensure our collective intelligence.