thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Evolutionary, my dear Watson

with 5 comments

What connects all these together?

For the answer (and yet another meander on that eternal mix of ethics, evolution and religious belief) see: and and







James D Watson

James D Watson

Jared Diamond: Guns Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond: Guns Germs and Steel

South African Dutch Reformed Church

South African Dutch Reformed Church


Written by Chris Lawrence

21 November 2009 at 8:12 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Chris,

    For some reason I have just come across this particular sequence in your blog, and read the exchange between you and George on The whole question of intelligence, of intelligence testing, and of the alleged racial differences that IQ tests are supposed to demonstrate has been one of the major foci of my professional life.

    I have found that most people find the issues too difficult to grasp without great effort and motivation, and reading your comments was a breath of reinvigorating air.

    It has given a wonderful hiatus to my day.

    Thank you.


    14 June 2010 at 4:02 pm

    • At the risk of changing the subject, I would like to suggest that if, as Chris argues, the ethics of valuing people in terms of their intelligence are highly dubious, the limitations of seriously trying to establish intelligence as a scientifically-verified norm of value are, in my view, overwhelming. It is bad enough that popular culture seems to link celebrity, status, and wealth with value.

      What’s so bad about intelligence? nothing, except that we really don’t know what it is. We tend to think we do, or that in any case, we know it when we see it, but we don’t. On one extreme, scientists have seriously argued that we can only say that intelligence is what is measured by the IQ test itself. The folly of deciding to value anything on the basis of a test which measures an unidentified variable is obvious.

      On the other extreme is the view that intelligence is the ability to adapt to the environment in which one finds oneself. This at least has the benefit of fitting into the larger body of scientific theory. But in fact, it is very very vague, and its manifestation varies dramatically depending on the demands of the particular environment.

      But let’s run with that definition a bit.

      First is the question of those behaviors that enable us to adapt to the environment in which we find ourselves. Intelligence as it has traditionally been tested provides measurements of numerical/spatial and verbal abilities. It does not provide any information about a person’s creativity, musical, artistic or athletic abilities, their interpersonal skills, motivation, ethical principles, or mental stability. It is possible to have a very high IQ and have some pretty serious limitations at the same time.

      In fact, it’s worse. We now know that certain kinds of extremely high IQ’s are associated with some kinds of serious mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. Sometimes they exist in the same person, sometimes in their relatives. In either case, it is in the same gene pool, and the current state of research suggests that if we tried to eliminate the genes associated with one, we would also eliminate the other.

      Then there is the problem of predicting intelligence. Almost everyone agrees that the development of intelligence depends on a multiplicity of both genetic and environmental factors, all of which have not yet been identified. And when and if they are, the interaction among them is immensely complex. Understanding and predicting the weather or climate change is simple compared to the variables involved in intelligence. Weather, at least, involves only environmental factors, not genetic ones.

      Current research shows that IQ tests within a fairly homogeneous group can predict grades in school. Insofar as school grades open up doors to better jobs, they also predict the amount of money a person will make. If the information provided by grades, however, is factored out, IQ tests add a good deal less additional information. Once IQ tests are used among heterogeneous cultures, the error rate increases further.

      So even if we wanted to reward the higher value of intelligence, we do not have the scientific information we need to do so.

      I suspect we never will. I hope I don’t live long enough to see someone try.


      18 June 2010 at 5:41 pm

  2. Diamond’s book is a little out of date on genetics. Recent studies have shown that there was an increase in genetic change with the development of agriculture and population expansion in eurasia. Some of these changes appear to relate to neurological function (see papers by Benjamin Voight, Bruce Lahn or Scott Williams).

    New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade’s book ‘Before the Dawn’ covers some of this, as does the more recent ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’.


    12 June 2010 at 3:42 am

  3. Perfect ingredients for a great conversation!


    22 November 2009 at 7:53 pm

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