Saturday, September 10, 2016

Is Intelligence Inborn?

My IQ—the so-called intelligence quotient—is probably twelve.

(Psst! And I’m proud of it!)

I say “probably” because I have never known my score. One day in junior high school we were all herded into the auditorium to take a standardized test. After about the first page of questions, I decided, “This is stupid,” and stopped answering. Hence, my presumed score. Teachers never told us what the purpose of the test was.

Intelligence, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “understanding as a quality admitting of degree; spec. quickness or superiority of understanding, sagacity.”

There are two usages here. One, “the intelligence” or “understanding” is synonym for rational faculty, which is our capacity to reason and think conceptually that distinguishes us from the lower animals. The other usage, as the OED says, “admits of degree.” Thus, there are supposedly brighter, smarter, more intelligent people and there also are the dull and dumb.

Degree of intelligence is not the same as quantity of knowledge or retained subject matter. I have met many uneducated blue collar workers and unskilled laborers who are more intelligent than college professors!

Intelligence is supposed to be an inborn ability, not an issue of how much knowledge one has accumulated and can spew out to impress those supposedly less endowed.

Ayn Rand has variously defined intelligence as “the ability to deal with a broad range of abstractions” and “the ability to grasp the facts of reality and to deal with them long-range (i.e., conceptually).”

I don’t doubt that this is a component of what we think of as smart, but a genius who has a greater degree of intelligence than the rest of us, to put it in the vernacular and to relate it to the OED’s definition, is a “quick wit,” a person who grasps an insight or makes a connection ahead of everyone else.

By analogy, an entrepreneur is someone who sees and seizes profit-making opportunities ahead of others. Some of us may also see the opportunity but we often do not act on it. The entrepreneur does.

Similarly, the highly intelligent person does not just make an unseen-before connection, but acts on it by conducting an experiment and writing a book. Some of us may have daydreamed about a “what-if” fuzzy linking but never get beyond the fuzziness.

The genius and entrepreneur both must hold in mind a great deal of knowledge related to their field, possess the ability to work with a broad range of abstractions, and think long-range (i.e., conceptually), but it is their “quick wit” that puts them out in front of others. (And contrary to what our Marxist-laden intelligentsia may think, entrepreneurs can be highly intelligent and even geniuses.)

The problem I have with the concept of intelligence, like all the other traits I discussed in last month’s post on the genes/environment debate, is that other variables, such as that unmentionable one, free will, but especially interest, can explain what is supposedly inborn.

Interest is a desire that directs intensive and sustained attention to a particular goal or object. It is interest, when put into action as effort, that drives a five-year-old to become a concert pianist as an adult. It is interest that drives entrepreneurs to think day and night about the next profit-making opportunity. And it is interest that drives geniuses to uncover every stone until they have found that next important discovery.

Interest is a potent motivator that can separate the highly accomplished, whom we would also likely call highly intelligent, from the rest of us. Strong interest—which also has to mean here the absence of psychological inhibitions and presence of choice or free will—could well be the key variable to explain the “degree of understanding” that the highly intelligent possess.

Yes, knowledge, or a context of subject matter, is required to make great accomplishments and to make great discoveries possible, but I am convinced that anyone with a normal brain, a good teacher, and patience can learn that context of knowledge, however abstract it may be. Interest and will power, if present, can take such a student to the next level.

So is “quick wit” inborn?

Those twin studies don’t prove anything. For nearly a hundred years they have attempted to prove that many traits, including intelligence, are inherited. Clinical psychologist Jay Joseph has thoroughly examined the studies of identical and fraternal twins, both reared together and reared apart (1, 2, 3, plus three books, the latest here), and has declared them “one of the great pseudoscientific methods of our time . . . [that] will eventually be added to the list of discarded pseudosciences where we now find alchemy, craniometry, and mesmerism.”

What about IQ tests? Please! Aside from the fact that these tests, along with college entrance examinations, correlate with socioeconomic status and the latter do not predict college success (high school grades are the better predictors), IQ testing is a contrived situation, as is paper and pencil testing of all kinds. Testing seldom corresponds to the reality it is supposed to represent.*

As I wrote in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism (note 19, p. 158), “Supermarket shoppers in one study performed arithmetic calculations far more accurately in the store than on a formal test. And one boy, considered the dumbest in his class, was discovered by his teacher to be a paid scorekeeper in a bowling alley, simultaneously tracking the progress of two teams of four players each. The teacher promptly created word problems, requiring students to calculate scores for games of bowling. The boy could not do the problems.”

I think I’ll go find that dumb kid and have him teach me how to score games of bowling. I never could figure that out.

No wonder my IQ is only twelve!


*And let us not forget that IQ testing originated in the eugenics era, designed to sort out the “dumb” and “feeble-minded” for isolation and perhaps sterilization. Today, IQ testing and college entrance examinations perform a similar function (sterilization excepted), shunting the “dumb” off to the less prestigious colleges and trade schools (and in many countries to a blue collar life that they cannot overcome). The ones who score a little better than the “really dumb” ones and live in government-created slum areas are given special favors and money to attend the prestigious universities. There, many suffer a mismatch with their classmates—and flunk out. The sorting continues. (See 1, 2, 3.)


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