The question of intelligence (QI)

We readily identify ourselves as the most intelligent species on the planet and scientists say that they know why – because they know how it happened.  Apparently, we know what intelligence is because we have reliable measurements.  Also, the evidence shows us that it comes in amounts – some people have more of it than others, and more is better.  Furthermore, it has an asset value calculated in terms of its economic benefits; and, as with the supply of money, we believe that the more we have of it, the more we can deploy it to make the world into a better place. To this end, our elite educational institutions specialise in selecting the best to turn out the best – to make the most of what they’ve got – to turn uncluttered and uncultivated minds into intellectual powerhouses.  However, beyond the limits of individual/ comparative and competitive intelligence there is the unquantifiable resourcefulness of social/ collective and collaborative intelligence.  For a start, it is believed that ‘two heads are better than one’ – for instance, some analysts don’t accept that a parochially educated William Shakespeare could have singularly created the works attributed to him.  Then again, our concept of ‘the intellect’ might be a construct of our selective biases, and our myths could remain unexposed because they generate their own facts and self-fulfilling prophecies – especially when we examine the concept through the lens of educational expectation, attainment and opportunity – especially when we presume to know what we are looking for before we begin.

Amidst all the controversies, the scientific evidence has weighed-in with its findings that ‘nurture’ can only partially compensate for ‘nature’ – so inheritance is the ultimate determinant of personal capacity.  Even so, an effective educational system is seen to open up a world of opportunity for the socially and intellectually ‘disadvantaged’.  At the same time, it is widely believed that natural ability can prevail against the odds – that the prodigious talents of a William Shakespeare or a Mozart are irrepressible.  Once again, the scientific evidence points to a physical explanation based on genetic causes – because the presence of genetic variants can be seen to correlate with differences in measured intelligence – the same measures we use to tell us what intelligence is.  Also, it is common knowledge that aptitudes can run in families.  Nevertheless, there is a niggling gap in the physical evidence – for although the genes may be regarded as explanatory units of evolution and inheritance, they are neither intelligent nor alive.  Life and intelligence don’t simply pass on from cause to effect.  And despite the fact that there is a genetic basis to perception, it doesn’t mean that the genes can perceive the world. Therefore, even though we continue to believe that life, perception and intelligence ‘have to come from somewhere’, it doesn’t mean that we have found the answer in the cause or explained it as an effect, or that this gap in explanation is merely a minor detail which a suitable cause will eventually explain for us.

Mike Laidler

 

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