February 21, 2019

Why Intelligence Can Never Be a Fixed Concept

January 20, 2019


Intelligence is something that everyone appears to understand, but no-one can agree on a definition. Despite this, people are pretty sure that it can be measured. Although tests that measure IQ have been shown to have a lot of predictive value, a precise definition of term remains elusive. But as this essay will examine, intelligence can never be a fixed concept anyway.

What is intelligence? A common definition of intelligence is “ability to recognise patterns and avoid dangers”. Another is “the ability to apply knowledge and skills”, which assumes that intelligence is an entirely different thing to instinct. Other definitions involve a capacity for learning, logic, reasoning, self-awareness etc. Despite this variety, most people think they know it when they see it.

A previous essay here discussed how there are at least two different spectrums of intelligence, and how both of them might appear to be intelligent in some situations and not in others. Another essay suggested that there is both a masculine and a feminine intelligence and stupidity. What’s apparent from all of these different definitions is that some behaviours are intelligent in some circumstances, and unintelligent in other circumstances, depending on how adaptive they are to the environment.

For example, being able to faithfully repeat what you are told is a sign of intelligence when a student has a good teacher who educates them honestly. When the student is a political cadre being indoctrinated into a dangerous ideology, it’s not a sign of intelligence. However, the underlying neurological and psychological attributes that enable either are roughly the same.

Most people can also accept that intelligence is something that evolved, controversial as that may be when one gets into the specifics of it. The reasons for this evolution are presumably because intelligence provided a selective advantage in either staying alive or finding mates and reproducing.

The first one of these points seems pretty obvious: if you are smart you are better able to avoid the dangers that the natural world has created. Intelligence is highly correlated with pattern recognition, and recognising patterns is the key to recognising dangers. If you notice that the last person who did something died, you are less likely to do it. Therefore, you are more likely to survive to reproductive age yourself.

The second point is more subtle, but equally clear if one thinks about it. The more intelligent a creature is the better shape it will keep itself in, therefore the healthier it will be, and the more attractive a mate it will seem to others of its kind. This greater attractiveness will lead to more mating opportunities, and therefore more offspring (all other things being equal).

However, there’s a hidden paradox in this simple biological definition. If intelligence is biological, then it cannot be a fixed concept, because if it’s an adaptation to the environment it will change along with that environment.

Aside from the odd species like crocodiles, who have found one evolutionary niche and just stayed there, animal species tend to be opportunistic. They tend to range across a number of niches and take food, water and reproductive opportunities when they arise. The most excellent example of this is the human being, who has adapted to many environments and who is capable of anything.

As the environment keeps changing, so too will the optimal behaviours within each environment change.

For instance, much of the behaviour that we currently associate with intelligence has much to do with avoiding impulsive behaviours. Someone who stops and thinks before taking action will be almost universally considered more intelligent than someone who does not. Likewise, someone who saves money will be considered more intelligent than someone who wastes it, and someone who reads books will be considered more intelligent than someone who parties.

This is all well and good in a civilised, industrial society like ours. But if society should break down, then the equilibrium point will shift back from cautious deliberation towards opportunism. If there is no law and order, then there’s no advantage in taking one’s time to consider things. The advantage shifts towards those with the propensity to hit and run before the opportunity is lost. Intelligence would then become a matter of understanding the importance of not hesitating.

Another problem is that the kind of skills and aptitudes that made a person become considered intelligent by their peers in the ancient past are not necessarily the same today. Human survival in the past had a lot to do with astrology, animal husbandry and swordsmanship – all skills that are now only practiced by small minorities. A person might have been considered highly intelligent in the past on account of that their brain made them good at animal husbandry, but the same person might be considered low intelligence today if they can’t find a technological skill.

It might even go the other way. Society might continue to become more and more technological, so that the selective advantage wasn’t in favour of impulsivity but in favour of the kind of semi-autistic gadgetry obsession that distinguishes people who are today considered nerds. Such a society might no longer have any need for social intelligence but would rather operate on computer science aptitude.

In all of these cases, the society that results after massive environmental change will define intelligence as adaptation to it, not as adaptation to some other time and place. Neither will they define intelligence as an adaptation to the natural world in which we evolved, because such a thing no longer exists.

In the end, the concept of intelligence is a biological one, and therefore can only be understood relative to a specific environment, or set of environments. Because the natural world keeps changing – and our social world even faster – the concept of intelligence will keep evolving as humans do. It can therefore never be a fixed and clearly defined concept.


If you enjoyed reading this essay, you can get a compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2018 from Amazon for Kindle or Amazon for CreateSpace (for international readers), or TradeMe (for Kiwis). A compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2017 is also available.

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