04 November 2008

What is Intelligence, Anyway?

As a child I was almost a permanent fixture in the local library. I remember walking along between the narrow shelves, finger aloft and deciding to venture into a section I wouldn't normally read - science fiction. I would come across this name often: Isaac Asimov. I would pull out his books and they always seemed heavy in tone and dark of cover. The illustrations always seemed to suggest something scary inside. I would gingerly open his books and sometimes take a couple home to read but could never get past a few pages. Disappointed. Although I vowed to try and read science fiction I never really did.

Many years later I chanced upon Isaac Asimov again and he seemed different, somehow. This 'new' Asimov was a prolific writer who was addicted to learning and writing about what he had learnt and what interested him. He wrote about the planets and artificial intelligence and human frailties and evolution.

I am now a firm fan of his wonderful writing although still not a fan of science fiction. (Strange, as I am surrounded by people who could be considered 'Trekkies' and science fiction fans to varying degrees.)

I want to share an example of Mr Asimov and his thoughts with an excerpt from his autobiography. I believe this illustrates his writing and thinking skills.

What Is Intelligence, Anyway? By Isaac Asimov

When I was in the army, I received the kind of aptitude test that all soldiers took and, against a normal of 100, scored 160. No one at the base had ever seen a figure like that, and for two hours they made a big fuss over me.

(It didn't mean anything. The next day I was still a buck private with KP - kitchen police - as my highest duty.)

All my life I've been registering scores like that, so that I have the complacent feeling that I'm highly intelligent, and I expect other people to think so too.

Actually, though, don't such scores simply mean that I am very good at answering the type of academic questions that are considered worthy of answers by people who make up the intelligence tests - people with intellectual bents similar to mine?

For instance, I had an auto-repair man once, who, on these intelligence tests, could not possibly have scored more than 80, by my estimate. I always took it for granted that I was far more intelligent than he was.

Yet, when anything went wrong with my car I hastened to him with it, watched him anxiously as he explored its vitals, and listened to his pronouncements as though they were divine oracles - and he always fixed my car.

Well, then, suppose my auto-repair man devised questions for an intelligence test.

Or suppose a carpenter did, or a farmer, or, indeed, almost anyone but an academician. By every one of those tests, I'd prove myself a moron, and I'd be a moron, too.

In a world where I could not use my academic training and my verbal talents but had to do something intricate or hard, working with my hands, I would do poorly.

My intelligence, then, is not absolute but is a function of the society I live in and of the fact that a small subsection of that society has managed to foist itself on the rest as an arbiter of such matters.

Consider my auto-repair man, again. Read the rest of the excerpt HERE.

Let me know what you think.

Related Sites:Move Over, Asimov - bentsocietyblog.blogspot.com


Samuel Skinner said...

He is ike Sagan- he wrote books on everything though. The astronomy ones are sadly dated.

For his fiction, the foundation series is the best. Just don't bother after the first.

Bent Society said...

Asimov is "spot-on". Some people are good at math but little else. Others are excellent verbally and at writing but terrible at maths. Yet our schools and universities will write-off people like this. Only when I decided to completely abandon struggling with maths and to ignore the attempts of my teachers to tell me I was not academic material that I was able to channel ALL my energies into the subjects at which I could have a chance to succeed that I did pass exams and eventually get to university. I got a PhD in Criminology over 20 years ago and have published and presented my research all over the World. Far more than can be said for those teachers who treated me as factory fodder.

Those with dyslexia and dyscalculia can succeed by embracing their strengths - which may be nothing more than the most important gift of all. Namely social intelligence. And where is the test for that?

I wrote a light hearted blog on Asimov's Laws of Robotics a while ago...for a bit of light fun (or perhaps not)See:


Victory in our time: Don't let us down Obama!


Rob said...

I, too, have tested at the high end of genius. And I have shared the experience of Mr. Asimov. I am useless at anything concerning practical knowledge. Had I not stumbled upon the mathematics requirements in a physics program(I aced the lectures, and barely passed the labs) I doubt I would have finished an undergraduate degree.
But I noticed something in those labs. Some of the kids had dads or moms who were engineers, biologists, chemists, etc. Others had dads who were machinists, carpenters and so forth. They tended to excel where I did poorly. And I was too shy to ask the questions I should have. It wasn't until a little later in life, when I turned that shyness around, that I began to enjoy some success. I absolutely had to know every last detail of how things worked. There's a lesson there.

Matt Oxley said...

A Wonderful passage by Mr. Asimov

Jacqueline said...

Excellent! If I had kids, they'd definitely have this information to rely on so they wouldn't lose their self-esteem in the midst of LEARNING.

J. C. said...

This was great, a tremendous pick. What Asimov said here was very unselfish and true.

Matthew S. Urdan said...

There are many different forms of intelligence. I watched a special on humanology on the Science Channel the other night. Did you know that the brain processes 100 trillion instructions every second? Our brains are by far the most sophisticated "computer" ever created, and yet, we can only really tap into at most 10% of the brain's power.

What is absolutely incredible about the human brain is its ability to adapt. If a stroke damages a substantial part of the brain, often other ares of the brain not meant to control the areas of the body that the damaged part of the brain used to control, can adapt and learn to control those areas.

I think that's a great analogy for this discussion. While our brains are specialized to control different aspects or functions of our body, they can adapt and learn. Together, every area of the brain adds up to one unique intelligence that is you or I.

However, there are many forms of intelligence and/or genius. Asimov gives a great example of mechanical intelligence. Others are gifted with words. Others are gifted with empathy. Others are gifted with charisma. Others are gifted with athleticism. And then there are people like me that are blessed with pretty good IQ or test scores. But knowing what might be contained in an encyclopedia is pretty useless unless I'm intelligent enough to leverage that knowledge and use it to make my way in the world we live in.

The really cool thing though is that all of us have a brain that can adapt and make use of our unique brand of intelligence to help us live the lives we want to live in the ways that we wish we to do so. In that regard, intelligence is simply getting what we want out of life.

Great post, Zee!


Zee Harrison said...


I'm nearly there!!- I have been told to read the Foundation Series and I will start with the first. Thanks for that.

Thank you. Your link is so interesting I will link it to the main post - hope you don't mind.

I am similar in that I need to know the minutest details. I have to understand things in a logical sequence or my thinking process goes askew. I ask lots of questions until I understand which can be annoying to some people!

Glad you liked the excerpt.

Hopefully the younger people will be taught just how multi-facted intelligence is - although I suspect that some schools are not always using this information to benefit the children.

Isn't Asimov just great?

Thank you for this information. A reminder of our brains being these powerful machines with great adaptive capabilities. Makes me pause and think for a moment.

Thank you all for contributing as I appreciate that out of all the blogs out there you chose to take your time to comment on this one as well.

Highest regards!

Tom Usher said...

What's my I.Q.? How good am I?

I've been really, really stupid in my days, for which I sincerely apologize. Sometimes, I've been fairly smart.

I'm working on being smart. I'm trying to atone.

Tom Usher
Real Liberal Christian Church