What is intelligence?

Regarding the topic of abstraction which was of central importance in the last Yurugu essay I would like to point out today some of its greater ramifications. To be precise, this is about intelligence and the difference between humans and animals.

Discussing the latter – what it supposedly is that makes the human species so special among the world’s species – you will always hear someone say that, “(a) Humans got a bigger brain, (b) which makes them more intelligent, (c) and this is the reason why humans are more successful survivors than any other living being.”

None of these three assertions is true.

The human brain has a volume of 1050-1500 ccm and weighs ~1.3 kg, the sperm whale’s has a volume of up to 8000 ccm and weighs up to 9.5 kg.
The assertion that humans have the best relative brain size is also false; our brain-to-body mass ratio is 1:40; mice or songbirds have a much better ratio. Insects seem best equipped, with brain mass measuring up to one seventh of the total body mass.

Among humans, the Neanderthals had a 25-30% bigger brain than modern sapiens, so brain size doesn’t necessarily help with survival.

Whether humans possess the highest intelligence depends on how you define intelligence, and how you measure it. I would hold that we – ie. civilized man – are not performing well in this category either: From a look at the Wikipedia we learn that there are “many ways” how intelligence has been defined, namely “logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving,” most of which belong into the realm of abstract thinking. We’ll come to that in a minute.

Emotional knowledge, also called emotional intelligence or EQ – “the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one's goal(s)” – belongs to a totally different category.
Working with domestic animals, but also through observation of wildlife in India, I perceive animals as being extremely aware of each other’s moods. And while civilized codes of conduct usually expect of us that we suppress the showing, expressing, or reacting to emotions, animals often perfectly mirror, or respond to what the human beings nearby are up to. This is not to be confused with techniques like “Non-violent communication” or “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” (how telling!), by which a person’s needs, or their conscious or subconscious thoughts and emotions may become accessible, and – by civilized mindsets – misused for personal gain.
Like with the loss of much of our potential for sensual perception – we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel way less than our tribal sisters/brothers and ancestors – the loss of EQ results in a reduced ability to react intelligently to challenges.

Regarding the ability to think (abstractly), I came to the following understanding.

  1. If the theory of evolution (or some similar process) holds true, the human capacity to think (abstractly) must be present in other living beings, and certainly among our mammalian ancestry as well. In fact, if you look out for it, you will find it most obviously among corvidae, canidae, felidae, elephantidae, cetaceae and many more.
  2. That animals (or plants) are able to think (abstractly), or to develop consciousness of self, cannot be disproven in general.
  3. So-called “primitive” tribal human cultures often do not apply time measuring, maths, arts, or rational logic, nor do they develop complex societies and languages. Most of the times you will find a lack of most abstract concepts with them, concepts that civilized people completely base their behaviour upon. This does not mean tribal humans were incapable of abstract thinking: Abducted tribal babies raised in civilized societies developed just like any of our children. Thanks to Thomas Wynn (The Evolution of Spatial Competence, 1989) we know that at least a million years ago, our ancestors had an intelligence equalling that of the adult human today.
  4. So (abstract) thinking is a faculty available to a large number of species, it seems, certainly vertebrate species, and the use of abstraction is culturally determined, which means it is a choice made by each creature or culture. Tribal cultures must have deliberately refused to apply most kinds of abstract thinking for two to three million years of the genus homo, and continue to do so – on purpose, according to anthropological records from all over the world.
  5. The use of abstract thinking on the scale that civilizations apply may not be found in non-human species and tribal human cultures because it is counterproductive to the survival of the species / culture... The omnicidal (implicitly suicidal) behaviour of civilized cultures – especially our own, I would say with a side glance to the convergence of existential crises we are witnessing today – is proving this point best. On “falling back into savagery,” as the figure of speech has it, civilized man defaults on his true modus operandi; it is himself who is a real savage, not the tribal humans he continues to dismiss as unintelligent brutes and who declare him a sick person, a madman, because he is destroying himself along with everyone else.
pic: Saksham Choudhary, / pexels

IQ tests check a person’s ability to juggle with symbols, ie. to think abstractly. Despite what the phrase suggests, they do not actually measure intelligence. And neither do book reading, chess playing,  academic careers, or working with computers indicate higher levels of intelligence. 

Intelligence, as Jiddu Krishnamurti, in a public discussion held in Ojai, CA, on April 14, 1977, said, “is the capacity to see the truth that thought is limited. It can only come into being when thought has its right place. When there is no ‘me’, attention is intelligence.” And it is this attention that improves a being’s ability to survive. According to Krishnamurti, it requires an integration of reason and love. Cultures based on love and empathy for other living beings, including “inanimate objects” such as the world as a whole, often times perfectly merge with what civilized people call “environment”. Egocentrism and perceived separation, on the other hand, reduce our perceptions, narrow their processing according to personal interest, twist our understanding through the application of dysfunctional illusory concepts, and thus diminish intelligence.

I don’t know whether you, my dear reader, possess the willingness to consider the nature of intelligence from such a point of view. We may not come to a common understanding of what that thing is, or whether it has any existence outside philosophical pondering at all; so the question which makes up the title of my essay may not have an answer to it. But perhaps we might agree on what intelligence is not. Considering where it has led us it cannot be the kind of abstract thinking which is tearing the world into separate, standardized, measurable, lifeless bits and pieces, reduces them to words and symbols, and assumes that these represent the truth accurately enough to derive predictability of the world’s phenomena.

I also don’t know why or how our ancestors began their path towards civilization – the social manifestation of abstract thinking – but I sure know that it helped us to learn a whole lot about self-deception, violence, disconnection, and virtual reality. If our culture were a book, it’s title might run something like, “Civilization, or, How to Wreck Your Habitat As Fast As Possible.” Mistakes, though, are among the most powerful teachers we have. The things which don’t work can give us valuable hints at what might. Let’s take those ten thousand years of misery as a warning. To end our experiment in abstract, platonic living in favour of the return to an empathic relationship with the world would be the most intelligent decision this culture has ever taken.


Getting the goat (5)

If you got no time,
pic by J. Bariyanga. source: Pixnio (pd)
time got you.