Why do so many people, including science writers, talk about intelligence as if it could be measured on a one-dimensional yardstick?
In “How We Evolve” Benjamin Phelan discusses the work of Bruce Lahn, who did controversial research on genetic differences among human populations that are correlated with brain size and brain function. At one point, discussing natural selection in contemporary humans, Phelan states, “…if intelligence is still under selection, that could mean that some populations at this very moment are slightly smarter than others – that, perhaps, some ethnicities are slightly smarter than others.”
Phelan is wise to be cautious and skeptical in how he reports on this subject. Basically I think this is a great article. But, like so many other writers, he makes an error in his choice of words. The use of the term “smarter”, is misguided…it is moot. The very notion that any group of humans could be “smarter” than another group is unfounded.
I would bet that this kind of misguided language has caused further aggravation to an already controversial subject.
I made the image above to express my understanding of intelligence as having several components, or modalities, with interpersonal included at the left. This shows just three modes, plotted in a cube – but there are many others (see below). We could see certain disorders, such as autism, dyslexia, and Williams Syndrome as examples of extreme imbalances in the mix of intelligences. An autistic savant might be plotted at the lower right, while a Williams might be plotted at the far left. Most of us have relatively normal balances, with plenty of mild variation. And NOBODY has super-powers in all modalities, as indicated by the absence of people in the upper-right corner.
There’s Really No Such Thing as “Smarter”
The term “smarter” is even less applicable when used in relation to technology. In the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, Nicholas Carr quotes Larry Page in a speech, as saying:
“The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people – or smarter”.
I applaud the goal of making better search engines. But software cannot and should not be measured against humans in terms of intelligence. I will repeat what I have said in other blog posts: intelligence (both human and artificial) is
Changing our language to reflect this fact would alleviate so many of the conflicted debates we are hearing about the “dangers of AI“.
Artificial Intelligence comes in many forms – just as natural intelligence comes in many forms within the animal kingdom and among human populations. The diversity of intelligence in technology is what keeps us safe from a runaway AI monster.
Diversity is healthy.
Now, why am I making such a big deal about a little bit of language? I am making a big deal because this little bit of language is the tip of an ugly iceberg: it is the cause of discrimination in the tech industry; it is the cause of discrimination in general; it is the reason people still use the IQ test, which falsely reduces one’s intelligence to a single number, so that person A can be called “smarter” than person B. And person B can be called “smarter” than person C.
IQ is not just a flawed concept: it is counter-productive.
The notion of IQ is MISLEADING.
Howard Gardner proposed several kinds of intelligences. Among the intelligence modalities associated with Gardner’s theories are:
Musical–rhythmic and harmonic
We could easily add more, or combine some of these. We might also include “emotional”, “symbolic”, and “narrative“.
I would even add “dyslexic” (usually considered a disorder but increasingly recognized as associated with certain skills that are advantageous in many situations).
Maybe I’m just playing with semantics – maybe I’m just being a language wonk. But I don’t think so. I think the language we use to describe ourselves and others has a major effect on how we think and how we act. Changing the way we talk about intelligence could have a positive trickle-own effect on things as widespread as public policy, education, racism, scientific research, and…gosh, just about everything else.
We’re all SMART.
SMART is multidimensional.