Intelligence is NOT One-Dimensional

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“.



Are we over-thinking 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.

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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

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 10.29.34 AMWe 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.

Bucky Fuller, Where are You? (On the Boxiness of Corporate Employment)


“Okay, but…if you had to choose between calling yourself a designer or calling yourself an engineer, which would you choose?”


Specialists and Generalists

I have often needed a specialist to do a specific task for me. This is normal. Specialists have a role in the economy and one could argue (along with Adam Smith) that specialization is the very basis of economy.

But too much specialization comes at a cost to innovative tech companies…and to creative individuals. Especially now, and increasingly – into the future…

Here’s an article in the Harvard Business Review on that topic:

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Nourishing My Inner Bucky

Interviewers have often asked me how I rank myself in terms of software engineering skill. As if there were a one-dimensional yardstick upon which all engineers can place themselves.

When one is evaluated with a one-dimensional yardstick, one usually ends up with a low grade.

For the same reason that there are multiple dimensions to intelligence, why not use more than one yardstick to evaluate an engineer?


The space that lies between all these one-dimensional yardsticks yields great connective knowledge. This is the domain of the COMPREHENSIVIST.

I lament the boxiness of the standard company recruiting process – even within companies that claim to employ people who think outside the box (like Google). Here’s a Google employee admitting to their deplorable interview process); “Pablo writes that his best skill is product design, but that his Google recruiters only showed interest in his ability to code.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 9.17.30 PMWe hear of how generalists and right-brain thinkers are in such demand these days.

Bullshit. When it comes to finding employment in companies, we are still confronted with an array of boxes, and we are still expected to show how well we fit into (one) of them. Consider Linked-In.

linkedinMy Linked-In profile has the following as my “industry”:


Why did I choose Shipbuilding? LinkedIn REQUIRES that I choose ONLY ONE of the industries from its list, and it DOES NOT allow me to choose more than one industry. Shipbuilding was the furthest thing I could find from what I do. Instead of trying to use a single box to characterize myself, I prefer to go in the opposite direction.

Linked-In = Boxed-In

Now I want to say a few things about being an older person who has faced difficulty fitting into the workforce.

We Are All Multi-Dimensional – Increasingly as we Age

Experienced (i.e., older) programmer/innovator/designers should be contributing more of those intangibles to the tech industry that Google is so bad at seeking out.

The tech industry has a fundamental problem: software plays an increasing role in people’s lives. The world’s population is aging. Young engineers who know the latest buzzwords of the last five years are hired quickly and eagerly. An aging population tries to keep up with fast-changing software interfaces. And more and more of this aging population consists of software engineers who have something the young programmers don’t have: wisdom, experience, perspective.

We are exactly what Silicon Valley needs.

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No one in particular is to blame for ageism in high-tech startups. The problem does not stem from any particular favoritism of young people: it is due to the short-sightedness of the tech industry, and the emphasis on the quick-thinking, risk-taking attributes associated with youth.

People who are professionally multi-dimensional should play a key role in human-centered software design. The cultural divide, identified by C. P. Snow in 1959, is still with us. Boxes breed boxes. That’s why we’re in the box we’re in.