What is intelligence?

This has been among the most longstanding, fiercely debated questions across a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy and psychology, to sociology and education, to anthropology and comparative biology. The practical consequences of this debate touch every one of us. Intelligence tests mark us, route us, and shape the expectations of our teachers, parents, peers and ourselves, which have a profound effect on who we are, who we think we are, and who we become. IQ score: A single figure, so much power.

Intelligence Tests

The choice of how we measure intelligence reveals what we think intelligence is, and the history of this testing exposes assumptions that underlie the testing. Knowing these assumptions allows us to critically examine what is typically understood to be intelligence.

The first tests of mental abilities were initiated at the end of the 19th century in the newly established scientific field of psychology. Unlike the philosophical speculation about the nature of mind that dominated Western thought for millennia, scientific psychology is rooted in laboratory experimentation. Psychophysics, the measurement of the physical properties of mental activity, was the predominant approach to the measurement of mind, which assessed reaction time, memory, and various measures of sensory acuity and discrimination (e.g. visual, auditory, touch).

A revolutionary study by Wissler in 1901 overturned this entire approach to measuring intelligence. He used the newly developed statistical measure, the correlation coefficient, to demonstrate that these tests were not correlated with school performance. This is very telling. The skills necessary for success in school are presumed to be essential to intelligence. This seems so transparently obvious that we fail to see the far reaching implications.

This is understandable, as success in school is critically important in today’s modern world. Intelligence tests arose hand-in-glove with the emergence of industrialization, which required mandatory schooling to provide workers with the skills necessary for this new form of society.

The first practical intelligence test, the Binet-Simon, was first published in 1905 and became the standard for assessing school children, and a revised form is still used today. Binet’s aim was to help teachers identify children who struggled in traditional school settings and could profit from alternative settings. Binet thought that intelligence is flexible, influenced by motivational issues and personal circumstances, and that the test failed to assess other important traits, such as creativity and emotional intelligence. The measurement of intelligence quickly became swept into the eugenics movement and engulfed in raging controversies about nature-nurture, race, cultural fairness, treatment of those who score low, and a host of other emotionally charged issues; contentious issues that remain with us.

Environmental Fit

We think that we are measuring and debating a universal capacity measured by these tests, but it is an intelligence that “fits” today’s techno-industrial world. Ours is a human-made environment; a very narrow, artificial environmental niche. Humans have adapted to the most diverse environments on the planet: deserts, jungles, Arctic regions, mountain tops, tropical islands, caves, savannas. Almost everywhere. Homo sapiens evolved approximately 300,000 years ago. Written language emerged about 5000 years ago and the first educational system was created about 4000 years ago. Schools have been absent for 99% of humans’ time on the planet.1

If we think of intelligence as the ability of a species to adapt to its environment, and failure on this test has mortal consequences, then there must be much more to intelligence that school-related abilities. Consider, for example, the skills required for early Pacific Islanders who, in small canoes, navigated the vast Pacific using stars, sun, moon, wind, clouds, ocean currents, fish, birds, waves, etc., etc., to reach a destination thousands of miles away (e.g., Hawaii). What kind of “intelligence test” would they develop?2 Certainly nothing like ours. And what would Eskimo, or Pigmy “intelligence tests” consist of? Very different again.

Much speculation has been given to the abilities that underly human capacity to survive across these varied environments, and include bipedalism, opposing thumbs, a complex brain, language, tool-use, genetic changes (e.g., genetic protection against malaria; capacity to digest a variety of foods) which take generations, and non-genetic capacities to flexibly adjust to environmental changes (e.g., culture practices, individual learning, transmission of skills across individuals). None of these require literacy or schooling.

Species’ Intelligence

Human intelligence has long been considered the pinnacle of a hierarchy of intelligence among species. More than a century of research has sought to examine the comparative intelligence of other species using, of course, human abilities as the yardstick. These abilities include tool use, language skills (those species able to learn analogues to human communication ranked as the smartest) and self-reflective consciousness, which encompasses the ability to consider the mental state of others and evidenced in deception, empathy, grief, envy and cooperative action with others.

The species that we have long considered to occupy the next rung below human intelligence are primates; species that look like us. More recently, this has changed, as many other species have been identified that possess these capacities, including dolphins, whales, elephants, birds and dogs. What has also changed, dramatically, is that species’ intelligence is no longer considered a totem pole but a bush. Each species possesses an intelligence, an ensemble of capacities that enable it to adapt and survive, often involving capacities humans do not possess, such as flight, echolocation, and the ability to perceive sensations invisible to humans (e.g., infra-red light; high and low sound frequencies, etc., etc.). If a fly were to construct an intelligence test, how well do you think we would do?

Our Species Intelligence Test

Ironically, the type of intelligence that “fits” our human-made techo-industrial niche supersizes our ability to survive and thrive almost anywhere on the planet. And also, to dramatically alter the entire biosphere—so much so that it threatens our very existence.3 Is this a measure of our superior intelligence or proof that it is very limited? Have we out-smarted ourselves?

The scope of the climate catastrophe will require more that individual intelligence. Our techno-industrial world is the product of a collective, collaborative intelligence that can solve problems beyond what individuals could not even dream possible on their own. We each may be very smart, but alone we are incapable of providing the many essentials required for living in the modern world, from producing a simple screw that holds things together, to electricity that makes everything run. We are part of a “Hive Mind”.4

The products of this Mind are the source of our imperiled biosphere, as well as the wellspring of the cornucopia of riches enjoyed in our modern society. And, perhaps, it may be our salvation. Each of us is but a single “neuron” in this vast Mind. But we are in networks with other “neurons”, and by influencing them, and they in turn influencing their connections, which then influence other networks, a cascade of changes can result that alters the workings of the Mind. Individually, we can recognize threats to our species survival and adaptively respond, but our actions must be a part of a larger systemic response of the Mind if we are to survive.

How intelligent are we? Individually? Collectively? We will soon find out. We cannot afford to fail this intelligence test.



  1. See “Songs from the Crib”, https://decembersongs.com/songs-from-the-crib/
  2. The very concept of a test consisting of questions that receive a score is a school-based practice that is alien to indigenous peoples in non-literate societies. Also, cultural practices influence cognitive processes. For example, when people from non-literate societies are asked to classify the pictures of an axe, a hammer, and tree they group the axe and tree—after all, that is what an axe is used for. However, this response would receive a lower score on an intelligence test than an axe-hammer grouping of “tools”, as this is considered a higher level of abstraction and hence worthy of greater credit. By other lights, this “abstraction” is quite bizarre. Another example: An anthropologist friend was in a tribal village with a group of women engaged in converting shorn wool to yarn for garments. She asked what the steps were for doing this. They replied, incredulously, “Haven’t you been watching?” The idea that there would be a decontextualized, step-by-step “owner’s manual” for doing tasks, which are learned through observing and doing, was incomprehensible.
  3. See Life Expectancy in Our Apocalyptic Age, https://decembersongs.com/life-expectancy-in-our-apocalyptic-age/ . The evidence for our dire situation is so overwhelming and becoming increasingly felt that I don’t think a reference is really needed.
  4. See Robots, Hives and Heroes, https://decembersongs.com/robots-hives-and-heroes/