Intelligence has been the site of an ongoing and very vocal battle of ideas and ideals for a very long time with well respected proponents on both sides of the conversation. It is a debate that interests me deeply. However, as I explore the topic in this post, I shan’t be doing much quoting, neither of statistics nor people, but rather, I shall proceed with just rhetoric.
One thing that makes conversations about intelligence challenging — and there are many things that do this — is that there are perhaps as many definitions for intelligence as there are people talking about it. I’m not going to attempt to pick one of those definitions as a starting place. Instead, I’ll start by trying to find an acceptable working definition- — one that hopefully, readers can cosign on. One thing I will say up front though is that this working definition will not be one based on numbers or scores. That’s a topic we’ll come back to later.
What do I mean by Intelligence.
Let’s begin then by seeing if we can agree on the basic concept. Whatever your position on Intelligence so far, walk with me through this process. Let us agree that in various ways, a human is more competent than a rat. Certainly, we would probably all agree that in matters of cognition, this is the quite clear case. Humans can solve problems better. Humans can gather and interpret information from a wider variety of sources, such as through language, symbolism and more refined observation skills.
There are a great many more factors that we could refer to, and I’m not going to attempt to list them all here. Needless to say that if we did, we’d have a strong picture of all the ways a human can use its brain more effectively than a mouse can. Let’s loosely label that premise Intelligence. It’s very complex in its make-up, but at the same it’s a rather simple concept.
With this concept, we could make some attempt at comparing other creatures. The mouse and the human would each fall somewhere on a scale, and monkeys would probably fall somewhere between, maybe dogs would be placed higher than mice but lower than monkeys and so on. Again, I’m not going to attempt to put all available species on this scale, but I presume we could do so with enough time and effort.
So far, I think this should seem fairly uncontroversial. By most metrics that we care about in this context, we surely all agree that dogs perform better than mice and humans better than dogs. This gives us a sale of intelligence, then. It might be worth wondering for a moment what occupies the lower end of this scale: fish, beetles, molluscs? We might want to ask where intelligence begins. We certainly would ascribe it to a rock; nor, I confidently suggest, a tree. How about an amoeba, then? Without drawing too fine a line anywhere, it’s probably safe to say that the level of development of the brain in a species would be an important factor, and if there is no brain, there is no intelligence.
Where Things Get Murky
So, without being precise, we now have the beginnings of a model of intelligence. I trust that my readers are with me so far in saying that a brain is required, and also that beyond that point, some creatures display more intelligence than others.
What about zooming in on a particular species, though? If we agree that, on average, dogs appear more intelligent than birds, could we expand the scale and compare one dog to the next? Could we draw a comparison, for example, between the cocker spaniel and the border collie? It seems fairly reasonable to say that we could. Certainly, humans make distinctions between breeds when putting dogs to work.
Then what about one border collie and another or one mouse to the next? It seems reasonable to think that we could describe one mouse or indeed one population of mice as more intelligent than another. What, then, about comparing one human to another? You can see that we have reached this point without any controversy whatsoever, but as soon as this question is asked, I am certain that a number of readers will balk at the idea.
However, if we apply our working definition of intelligence to people, then it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that some individuals would perform more competently than others. Some people are better than others at solving problems, better at identifying patterns, better at interpreting symbols, and so on. Again, the picture is complex one, and certainly a person might excel in one of those areas and not so much in others. However, on the whole, it certainly seems possible that we could describe one person as more or less intelligent than another based on this definition.
To reject this idea is ultimately unscientific. If we accept that the premise works when we’re describing species, and if we have no problem comparing mouse candidates, but suddenly we want to dismiss the idea when it comes to other humans, it seems that politics and emotions are quite clearly getting in the way. What’s good for the goose, I suggest, is good for the human.
I am certainly not saying that because we can compare on the grounds of this definition that we should. Even if we had a precise enough definition such that we could rank all of the human population from number one most intelligent to number 7 billion and whatever, I certainly am not saying that to do so would be a good idea. But not liking something is no grounds for refusing to believe it. If we allow such an attitude on this topic or on any other, then we open the door for people to do the same with global warming and other tremendously important scientific findings.
Accepting that Intelligence is a real thing does not automatically have to mean accepting a new class system. While I fully appreciate that certain people will use any ammunition they have to rank people and look down on people, that is not inherent in the theory itself. It might be good reason to stop doing work on the theory, but it cannot be reason to invalidate the theory entirely.
Further more, I do not think that we should stop researching the concept of intelligence. I think that the more we come to understand about human intelligence, the better we can design schools and curricula to maximise effectiveness in learning; the better we can understand our intelligence, the better we can harness it and exercise it to discover more about the world we live in.
Intelligence and IQ
None of this is an endorsement for IQ tests, and I should state clearly here that Intelligence and IQ are not the same thing. The definition of Intelligence that we have come up with in this article and the testing and scoring mechanisms used to demonstrate IQ are of course related, but they are not one and the same.
If you want to decry IQ testing, then go ahead. Even the creator of the first IQ tests has done so. Alfred Binet wrote the first IQ tests with his colleague Theodore Simon as a way of identifying students who needed extra attention in school. Say what you will about IQ, this was a fairly noble goal. Binet himself has since said that IQ was never supposed to be used the way it is now, to rank individuals and to seek out the supposedly excellent.
Entering the arena more recently are terms like EQ, Emotional Quotient. From what I have seen of this so far, it seems that EQ is more popular buzz word than established field of study. Nevertheless, there is something important to be said about it. It suggests that Intelligence, as we have described it so far, is not the only thing that matters when it comes to excellence or success amongst the human race. If we do accept that people can be ranked based on intelligence, we should still not assume that this is the only metric worth looking at.
Somebody demonstrating low intelligence, as we have defined it here, might well show aptitude in other areas. Again, the more we know about the range of human ability the better. The more we recognise different ways of thriving, the better equipped we will be to develop and maximise them and to recognise their worth amongst individuals. If we accept that Intelligence is real but we also recognise that it has competition in the domain of human thriving, then we will be able to identify our own strengths and weaknesses much better and apply our abilities more effectively.
Of course, this should not be mistaken as an assumption that one can have Cognitive Intelligence OR Emotional Intelligence but cannot have both. Certainly, I expect them to be entirely independent so that one can develop each of them separately, and at the same time I expect there to be interplays and grey areas between them such that one will impact on the other and such that an individual might need to employ both in order to achieve certain goals.
Finally, I expect that the range of intelligence types has yet to be discovered fully. Howard Gardener posited nine different intelligences, and while much of his research has been discredited, the underlying notion is an important one to revisit. Just ask yourself, what are you better at than the next person, and what abilities do you see in others that you wish you had? The lists here could be endless and range from the cognitive to the emotional to the physical.
Humans have countless ways of being brilliant, and the more we accept and understand this, the better it will be for everyone.