Historical Background

While the focus of the discussion of Social Evolution is essentially forward looking, the historical context in which the idea of intelligence has been developed may still be informative. For this history reflects considerable change in social attitudes in respect to what might be inferred from the idea of intelligence in relation to cognitive ability of an individual or wider group. The idea that human intelligence might be measured, and therefore quantified, has been the focus of much research since the 19th century, which we might initially linked to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. While natural selection, encompassing the idea of survival-of-the-fittest was historically grounded in more ‘physical’ attributes, it is being suggested that intelligence, both human and AI, may become an increasingly important factor in the future development of society. By the early part of the 20th century, the work of Charles Spearman and Alfred Binet had started to lay the foundation stones of both a theory of intelligence and its measurement. In 1904, Spearman published a paper on the factor analysis of intelligence, which led to the idea that human intelligence could be correlated to a general [g] factor, which might be quantified by statistical analysis. In the same year, 1904, Binet started work on developing the first practical IQ tests , although the original purpose was only to find a method of evaluating children who required, and would benefit from, special tutoring. However, it was Spearman who noted a correlation between the measurement of IQ that appeared to suggest that people exhibiting higher intelligence tended to do better than those exhibiting low intelligence across a broad spectrum of tasks. Again, highlighting that this was only a statistical correlation, it still suggested that intelligence possibly describes an inherent cognitive ability within the brain that might be linked to the g-factor and estimated in terms of a range of developing IQ tests.

Were Spearman’s observation predicated on accurately measuring IQ?

While Binet’s original IQ tests were relatively simple in that they were only intended to assess the basic learning abilities of children, the idea spread and their scope and sophistication continued to be developed. By 1917, the US army was already using a form of IQ test to evaluate recruits for World War I, although the ‘IQ’ prefix only became a more commonly used term over a number of years. At this stage, there was no contentious debates about the use of IQ tests to assess people or the attempts to explain the process using an underlying theory of intelligence, such that this research was consolidated into a new field of study called psychometrics, which is often associated with psychology. However, over time, the implications of IQ tests did become increasingly controversial as certain groups wanted to use the IQ scores of individuals and wider ethnic groups in order to forward their own eugenics ideas. For the purposes of this discussion, we shall simply characterise the backlash to such ideas in the following quote by Walter Lippmann:

I hate the impudence of a claim that in fifty minutes you can judge and classify a human being’s predestined fitness in life. I hate the pretentiousness of that claim. I hate the abuse of scientific method which it involves. I hate the sense of superiority which it creates, and the sense of inferiority which it imposes.

However, despite Lipmann’s viewpoint, the fact is that IQ tests have not only survived to this day but expanded considerably in scope might suggest that many still believed that they measure something useful, which might then be correlated with an overall cognitive ability. So, after the dark days of WW2 and the eugenics threat of Nazism started to retreat from the public consciousness, the development of a wider range of more sophisticated IQ tests continued. Of course, there were those working in the field of psychometrics who recognised that there could be many social and political implications associated with any form of IQ-based selection. This was especially true in the US, where the civil right movement was fighting the battle of inequality of black people and the perception that this inequality was rooted in a limited access to better education.

Note: In many respects, much of the public debate surrounding the issue of intelligence is often characterised in terms of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. However, within the fields of psychology and psychometrics, this debate is usually perceived in terms of human intelligence; genetically inherited or subsequently learnt. At this point, it is assumed that while most skills have to be learnt, different individuals may have inherited a genetically higher cognitive ability that allows them to learn more quickly.

In 1969, educational psychologist Arthur Jensen was researching the question as to why certain government funded social programs were not yielding the expected results. In his report, Jensen concluded that these programs were failing because a high percentage of the participants had relatively low IQs and the success of most of the programs were dependent on IQ, which he attributed to inherited genetics. However, the compounding factor in the very negative reaction to this report was the suggestion that black communities had a historical record of statistically lower IQ as an ethnic group, although not necessarily as individuals. Needless to say, in the wider context of the time, such a conclusion was not only considered politically incorrect, it was branded as racist.

What effect did the negative reactions trigger?

In 1971, the US supreme court outlawed the use of standardized IQ tests by employers unless they had a proven need for the job in question. In 1972, the US national education association demanded a ban on IQ testing on the grounds that they could traumatised children before even completing elementary school, which was compounded by the inference that all IQ tests were culturally biased. Later, in 1978, a US court ruled that it was unconstitutional to use IQ tests to determine the most appropriate educational placement for certain groups of children, if the results appeared biased against black children.

So was this the end of IQ test?

In a word: no. While the use of IQ test might have become more circumspect, we might realise that all educational systems around the world still directly or indirectly assess the ability of children to learn. Within these educational assessment tests, which may take the form of various examinations, a child then proceeds up an educational ladder, based on a cognitive ability to learn, towards university and finally employment. Again, within this process, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that some children may have genetically inherited more cognitive ability than others, while still accepting that all may benefit in a relative way by having access to better education.

What is the state of research into intelligence today?

Much of the research work in this area is now founded on increasingly sophisticated statistical analysis, which can quantify the correlation of IQ with many other variables – see Introduction to Statistics by way of a basic primer. However, Spearman’s theory of intelligence, based on the idea of general intelligence qualified in terms of a g-factor, is still subject to ongoing research within the field of psychometrics. However, in 1983, Howard Gardner forwarded another idea called The Theory of Multiple Intelligences’ that included eight kinds of intelligences:

1) Visual-spatial intelligence, 2) Verbal-linguistic intelligence,
3) Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, 4) Logical-mathematical intelligence,
5) Interpersonal intelligence, 6) Musical intelligence
7) Intrapersonal intelligence, 8) Naturalistic intelligence

In the same timeframe, Robert Sternberg forwarded an alternative idea called the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence’ . This theory first tries to describe the internal function of intelligence, e.g. mapping sensory inputs into mental representations after which conclusions may be inferred and skill acquired. Second, it considers the process by which tasks can initially be learnt, but then subsequently require less conscious thought. Third, it addresses the relationship between intelligence and how people function in the real world. However, rather than simply listing ever more theories of intelligence, the reader might reference the previous link to a 7 minute Youtube video that summarises some of the pros and cons of a number of theories and raises the issue as to whether we need to make a semantic distinction between an intelligence factor and what might otherwise be called talents.

Note: Physical research of the brain suggests that the notion of intelligence is not located in a specific area, but rather distributed throughout its structure, such that it would be influenced by a combination of thousands of genes. However, while this might appear to support the idea of multiple facets, as per Gardner’s theory, statistical analysis still appears to support a high degree of correlation in all these multiple facets of intelligence, or possibly just specific talents, which may maintain the support for a g-factor that can generally quantify the brain’s overall cognitive ability.

As outlined, there have been many debates on the nature of intelligence and what might be inferred by correlating IQ scores with other factors. However, we might characterise the on-going scope and depth of this debate in terms of two publications, which were both heavily based on the use of statistical analysis but were quickly perceived to have far wider political and economic consequences that many simply dismissed as politically incorrect, if not racist in their conclusions.

The first of these publications argued that variations in general intelligence is a major and growing source of inequality, which is linked to genetics. The second, possibly even more controversially, argued that differences in national income can be correlated with differences in the average national intelligence quotient (IQ). While both of these references are said to be based on statistical analysis, it is possibly worth not losing sight of the adage:

Lies, damn lies and statistics

While the ‘intelligence’ debate continues to this day, one aspect of the debate appears to have been subsumed into the field of psychometrics, which has expanded from being a sub-field of psychology to now being as much a field of mathematics, which focuses on the statistical analysis of data and the correlations that can be quantified. However, other aspects of the intelligence debate still continue in the field of psychology, but possibly subsumed  into the idea of ‘personality’, which is now described in terms of the semantics of the ‘Big-5 Personality Traits shown and outlined below.

 While the scope of this research is not necessarily central to the discussion of social evolution, we might realise that any aspect of the human condition, i.e. personality, might be a factor in determining any future direction, as such we might simply outline the nature of these traits for further cross reference:

  • Openness:
    As a generalisation, people with high openness are characterised as being creative, open to new things and challenges and can deal with abstract concepts. In contrast, people at the other end of the openness spectrum are characterised not liking change or new things, such that they resist new idea and may lack imagination and find abstract concepts difficult. In this context, openness is often assumed to have a high correlation with IQ.

  •  Conscientiousness:
    Is a characteristic defined by thoughtfulness and goal-directed behaviours. As such, high conscientiousness is associated with planning, prioritisation and working to schedule plus a tendency to be organized. On the other side, we might see a dislike structure and schedules, such that things become messy and disordered.

  • Extraversion:
    Is characterized by sociability, assertiveness and possibly heighten emotions. Such people may enjoy being the centre of attention, engage in conversations, meeting new people and, as a result, have a wide social circle. The opposite is essentially introversion characterised by a preference for more solitude, a dislike of small-talk and being the focus of too much attention.

  • Agreeableness:
    This personality includes attributes such as trust, altruism, kindness and affection. Such people will generally be very social and have an empathy with others, such that they are often fulfilled when helping others. This is in stark contrast to the other end of the spectrum, which might suggest little interest or care for others and their problems.

  • Neuroticism:
    The final trait is characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. Such individuals will be prone to stress, worry and anxiety, which can potentially cause dramatic shifts in mood. We might simply describe the other end of this spectrum as well-balanced and generally relaxed about what life might throw at them.

In part, this discussion has simply attempted to outline some the historic developments leading to the present-day understanding human intelligence. How this might develop in the future is a much wider issue that will be explored a little further in the next discussion.