The Myth Of General Intelligence

And how it makes us dumb

Even Einstein needed to call a plumber sometimes

I began seriously questioning my intelligence when I had plumbing problems. I can fill out forms, read and understand things, but the toilet didn't care. It just wouldn't flush. At that point I needed someone with plumbing intelligence. Intelligence, like any evolutionary trait, is an adaptation. It's relative to environment, to a problem, to a task. No one is generally 'just smart'. You always have to ask, smart for what?

Intelligence Is Relative

There are not 'general' traits in evolution, they're all relative. Take speed. We say Cheetahs are the fastest animals, but that's actually not true. They're slow (and miserable) underwater. An ibex is faster up a cliff. Even a human is faster over long distances. A cheetah is well-adapted to a particular environment, but they do not have generalized speed. Adaptation is always relative to whatever you need to do.

Adaptation is also highly dependent on where and when you are. You could probably outrun a Jurassic Park T-Rex in high heels because they're used to an atmosphere with much more oxygen. The T-Rex was well-adapted for a particular environment. There is no 'general' strength because there is no 'general' environment. You can see the illusion of evolutionary progress here. Change the environment and all your adaptation disappears. Evolution is always relative to a particular time and place.

We think we're so smart, but for when, for where? We're adapted for a particular Earth, and we're fucking that all up. We've lived in a period of climate stability, and we've destroyed that for our grandchildren. And we have the gall to call this 'higher' intelligence. If you really think human intelligence is some magical trait that the universe gives a fuck about, go ask a cat. They are not impressed.

Humans Have Different Types Of Intelligence

Even within our narrow realm of human culture, intelligence is still not a 'general'. Take speed again. The Olympics has dozens of different speed events (short, long, fast, over stuff, through the air, through water) and no one person wins them all. What makes us think that mental activity can be generalized any more than speed?

You could say that someone good at math is intelligent, but what if you need to write a poem? Maybe an English major is the best for that, but what if it's a rap battle? You can see how the intelligence required keeps changing depending on circumstances.

And yet we structure our entire economy, AKA people's ability to eat, based on these illusory ideas of some work being better, ie more 'skilled', than others. We've confused class distinctions with natural classes. Picking stocks is no better than picking tomatoes, but we somehow value to vocation that feed us less.

What we call general intelligence is really a very specific intelligence that our culture values. Basically filling out forms, solving abstract problems, and taking exams. I am good at this and I am smart enough to know that I'm dumb. I'm the one that can't flush the toilet. Whenever I have a real, pressing problem I often need someone from a lower 'unskilled' class to help me and I can see that my intelligence is a value and class judgement, not something that makes me better than anyone.

What we call general intelligence also pushes out the value of experience. News agencies send educated people to cover countries where they do not speak the language. CEOs hire consultants fresh out of college, but won't consult their own workers. We limit many jobs based on whether a person got an abstract degree and not whether they know the subject or come from the community they're going to be working with.

We have lost sight of the relativity of intelligence, and the fact one cultural trait doesn't predict every outcome. We think we one random class of person is smarter than everyone else (and every other creature on Earth) and this isn't intelligent at all. Hubris has made us dumb.

Western Rationality Is Not Adaptive

This hubris has been elevated by the West to a value, some sort of generalized 'rationality'. One big thrust of the Enlightenment is that everything is knowable through one sort of intelligence, even if it leads to completely irrational results. As Noah Yuval Hariri says in the execrable book Sapiens: "the European conquerors knew their empires very well. Far better, indeed, than any previous conquerors, or even than the native population itself."

This is like saying the Mafia knows the most about waste management. Taking over something is not the same as knowing it. Destruction is not the same as understanding. People like Hariri privilege one type of knowledge to the point that other cultures just disappear. They don't even know themselves. To Enwhitenment thinkers like this, there is only one type of intelligence, the intelligence of power. This is folly. You can see the results.

The civilizations European colonizers destroyed had been living in relative balance for thousands of years. European civilization is wrecking the entire environment in a few hundred years. If intelligence is an adaptive trait, western 'rationality' is the least adaptive behavior of all. It's like lighting your pants on fire and calling yourself bright.

Back To The Toilet

If you want to understand this in a very real way, break your toilet (or anything you don't understand). Suddenly all of the general intelligence in the world goes down the drain. You need help, you need skill, and if you're not humbled by this, you're not being very smart.

And don't tell me anyone can be a plumber. I've had terrible plumbers that blew the taps off the wall and a brilliant old guy who just sat there like Yoda and made me do everything (and it worked).

Nor can you say intelligence is the general ability to learn. Learn what? Dancing, plumbing, writing, and math are all very different skills, learned in very different ways. There simply isn't one cognitive function that does everything, and even if there was, it would be completely redundant. We live in society with division of labor. If you need math you don't need to be a polymath, just call someone that knows better.

General Intelligence Is Dumb

The entire idea of one general intelligence to rule them all is a myth. It's just rule of racists and classists, dressed up in exams. Our culture takes a very specific type of intelligence and calls it general, but this is a statement of power, not fact.

In truth everything is relative. Space and time, yin and yang. If there's any general intelligence at all, it's realizing that we're dumb.

The Daodejing of Laozi (Hackett Classics)

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