Is Intelligence Innate and Fixed?

iq test, intelligenceGiv­en the recent James Wat­son “race and IQ” con­tro­ver­sy, I took on to read Stephan Jay Gould’s clas­sic book The Mis­mea­sure of Man, in which he debunks IQ (and the under­ly­ing “g”) as mea­sure of defined, innate, “intel­li­gence”. Fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing overall, very tech­ni­cal in some areas.

The key take-away? In the last chap­ter, A Pos­i­tive Con­clu­sion, he writes that

- “Flex­i­bil­i­ty is the hall­mark of human evolution…In oth­er mam­mals, explo­ration, play and flex­i­bil­i­ty of behav­ior are qual­i­ties of juve­niles, only rarely of adults. We retain not only the anatom­i­cal stamp stamp of child­hood, but its men­tal flex­i­bil­i­ty as well…Humans are learn­ing animals”

He then relates this sto­ry from T.H. White’s nov­el The Once and Future King

- God, he recounts, cre­at­ed all ani­mals as embryos and called each before his throne, offer­ing them what­ev­er addi­tions to their anato­my they desired. All opt­ed for spe­cial­ized adult fea­tures-the lion for claws and sharp teeth, the deer for antlers and hoofs. The human embryo stepped forth last and said: Please God, I think that you made me in the shape which I now have for rea­sons best known to Your­selves and that it would be rude to change. If I am to have my choice, I will stay as I am. I will not alter any of the parts which you gave me…I will stay a defence­less embryo all my life, doing my best to make myself a few fee­ble imple­ments out of the wood, iron, and the oth­er mate­ri­als which You have seen fit to put before me..” “Well done”, exclaimed the Cre­ator in delight­ed tone. “Here all you embryos, come here with your beaks and what­nots to look upon Our fist Man. He is the only one who has guessed Our riddle…As for you, Man…You will look like an embryo till they bury you, but all the oth­ers will be embryos before your might. Eter­nal­ly unde­vel­oped, you will always remain poten­tial in Our image, able to see some of Our sor­rows and to feel some of Our joys. We are part­ly sor­ry for you, Man, but part­ly hope­ful. Run along then, and do your best”

For relat­ed posts, you may enjoy

Dar­win’s adult neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, with a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing quotes, including

- “There­fore my suc­cess as a man of sci­ence, what­ev­er this may have amount­ed to, has been deter­mined, as far as I can judge, by com­plex and diver­si­fied men­tal qual­i­ties and con­di­tions. Of these, the most impor­tant have been–the love of sci­ence– unbound­ed patience in long reflect­ing over any subject–industry in observ­ing and col­lect­ing facts–and a fair share of inven­tion as well as of com­mon sense. With such mod­er­ate abil­i­ties as I pos­sess, it is tru­ly sur­pris­ing that I should have influ­enced to a con­sid­er­able extent the belief of sci­en­tif­ic men on some impor­tant points.”

And Richard Dawkins and Alfred Nobel: beyond nature and nurture

- We have at least the men­tal equip­ment to fos­ter our long-term self­ish inter­ests rather than mere­ly our short-term ones…We have the pow­er to defy the self­ish genes of our birth and, if nec­es­sary, the self­ish memes of our indoc­tri­na­tion. We can even dis­cuss ways of delib­er­ate­ly cul­ti­vat­ing and nur­tur­ing pure, dis­in­ter­est­ed altru­ism-some­thing that has no place in nature, some­thing that has nev­er exist­ed before in the whole his­to­ry of the world. We are built as gene machine and cul­tured as meme machines, but we have the pow­er to turn against our cre­ators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyran­ny of the self­ish replicators.”

You guessed right. We are not big fans of the idea of intel­li­gence as a fix, innate char­ac­ter­is­tic we are born with. Genes pre­dis­pose us, but it is the com­bi­na­tion of our envi­ron­ments and our actions that we bet­ter focus on.

We also need to add bet­ter measures of, and train­ing for, Flex­i­bil­i­ty, Adapt­abil­i­ty, and Learn­ing how to Learn, and a num­ber of oth­er cog­ni­tive abilities, to our view of “intel­li­gence”, so we can “evolve” faster in our lifetimes.

Pic: cred­it to Dampfred, via Flickr


  1. Berci Meskó on November 11, 2007 at 12:15

    Very good mes­sage, Alvaro!

    It’s our mis­sion to tell peo­ple that genes cre­ate phe­no­type just with the effect of the environment.

  2. Reason on November 11, 2007 at 8:10

    Gould is almost on the verge of dis­hon­esty with his book. If you are going to read his book, then you should at least read a good defense of Wat­son The link is here.

  3. Alvaro on November 12, 2007 at 11:56

    Thank you, Berci, yes, we need to improve aware­ness of that fact and its implications.

    Hel­lo “Rea­son”:

    1- I think James Wat­son is an incred­i­ble sci­en­tist, and am sor­ry about the recent con­tro­ver­sy. Now, he may ben­e­fit from explain­ing his views in a bet­ter way, and focus­ing on the areas he is no doubt an authority.

    2- Gould wrote his book 26 years ago, so I am unsure about the rel­e­vance on your com­ment. He obvi­ous­ly was­n’t attack­ing Wat­son, but the ideas about IQ as a fixed, innate, entity.

    3- I took a brief look at that link. The author relies on the basic assump­tion that IQ is fixed, innate, real. Which is not correct.

  4. GNZ on November 20, 2007 at 1:52

    Its ter­ri­bly PC to say that genet­ics makes hard­ly any dif­fer­ence to IQ or IQ makes hard­ly any dif­fer­ence to, er any­thing. Great for get­ting read­ers atten­tion and nods of agreement.
    Its also com­plete bollocks.

    Twin stud­ies (and cer­tain­ly any twins I know) as well as a sim­ple glance at any­one I know shows and incred­i­bly strong cor­re­la­tion between genet­ics and intel­li­gence, per­son­al­i­ty and all sorts of oth­er things such as skin colour and eye colour.
    Of course bias and over­gen­er­al­iza­tions are com­mon flaws in such research but that doesn’t mean that they are auto­mat­i­cal­ly flawed in more fun­da­men­tal ways. Nor does the fact that some might mis­in­ter­pret it, make the base research flawed.

    I remem­ber sit­ting in a class being taught about the bell curve while a group from a high­er bell curve snig­gered in front and I thought. Hmm — what curve you asso­ciate your­self with doesn’t change your actu­al intelligence.

  5. GNZ on November 20, 2007 at 2:05

    prob­a­bly worth a read of the
    for the cri­tiques (and prais­es I guess)

  6. Alvaro on November 20, 2007 at 9:32

    Hel­lo GNZ,

    Thanks for the Wikipedia link.

    No one doubts genet­ics has an influ­ence. Even an strong influ­ence. The point is that that fac­tor is way less deter­min­is­tic than the oth­er exam­ples you men­tion, like skin and eye colour. Our point is not that genes have no influ­ence. It is that intel­li­gence is not fixed, innate.

    Have you read about the Fly­nn effect? do you think our genes have changed so much in 50 years to make us all now, on aver­age, 15–20 points more “intel­li­gent” (IQ) than 50 years ago?

  7. GNZ on November 20, 2007 at 10:38

    I accept that intel­li­gence is not 100% deter­mined by genes – any­one who says that is obvi­ous­ly not think­ing since, for one thing, I could drink alco­hol and take drugs until I was brain dam­aged or dead and I def­i­nite­ly wouldn’t have the same IQ after­wards. But sure­ly no one ever pro­pos­es that that would have no impact on my intelligence.

    Clear­ly it is a mix­ture of things. What appears to hap­pen, though, is that some­one will pro­pose that a cer­tain group has a high­er aver­age intel­li­gence (Let us say, ‘philoso­phers’ have a high­er aver­age intel­li­gence than ‘ditch dig­gers’ or ‘peo­ple in Man­hat­tan’ have a high­er aver­age IQ than ‘peo­ple in the mid­dle of Texas’). Those groups that are maligned then kick back and insist that one can’t say that. Rather less an argu­ment that it isn’t true and more one that you “just can’t say it” because then you might try to use it for somthing. And one side debates with log­ic and the oth­er with more of a ‘aren’t they dis­gust­ing and mean” sort of approach.

    (hav­ing siad that some­times they are jsut plain racist ofcourse)

    Regard­ing the Fly­nn effect, I guess it depends on what you call intel­li­gence. I read the Fly­nn effect accord­ing Fly­nn was explained by how we orga­nize infor­ma­tion — i.e. it didn’t refer to a change in pro­cess­ing speed — just a change in the way the infor­ma­tion being processed was orga­nized. That’s one the­o­ry anyway.

    It would seem how­ev­er that as IQ tests get bet­ter it gets more con­stant (Of course we would dis­card a IQ method­ol­o­gy that got a less con­stant result!). But if for some rea­son one had to dis­card ‘IQ” and instead use a new mea­sure for ‘g’ I don’t think peo­ple would be very worried.

    I note that I had an IQ test at a very young age and anoth­er rea­son­ably recent­ly both under prop­er test con­di­tions – and got an iden­ti­cal result (yes not a sin­gle point of dif­fer­ence). Appar­ent­ly the vast major­i­ty of my life and all that edu­ca­tion made no dif­fer­ence at all.

    Regard­ing Crick I think that this trig­gers my racist bells “He went on to say that although he hopes all races are equal­ly intel­li­gent, “peo­ple who have to deal with black employ­ees find this is not true.“” But there could be a valu­able piece of truth in “he is “inher­ent­ly gloomy about the prospect of Africa” (although the truth might be dan­ger­ous, and if some­one hon­est­ly says so I can respect that)

    Even if our intel­li­gence hap­pens to be absolute­ly iden­ti­cal across races – it won’t be ‘the same’ on aver­age (ie of exact­ly the same type). One mod­el that seems to have some rela­tion to real­i­ty is that peo­ple are most able to deal with cap­i­tal­ism in places where they have (as a genealog­i­cal line) had the longest expo­sure to mon­ey (again poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous but also implies that changes hap­pen over ‘short’ peri­od of time).

  8. James on November 22, 2007 at 10:06

    For GNZ:

    Regard­ing Crick I think that this trig­gers my racist bells “He went on to say that although he hopes all races are equal­ly intel­li­gent, “peo­ple who have to deal with black employ­ees find this is not true.“”

    You meant Watson.

    (I have the same prob­lem with Abbott and Costello.)

  9. GNZ on December 2, 2007 at 12:17

    woops appolo­gies to Crick.

  10. Big Don on December 14, 2007 at 4:01

    You can talk open­ly about dogs with­out being polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect. You won’t get into trou­ble, lose your career or research grants, as you might if you reveal unpleas­ant truths about humans.

    All domes­tic dogs, from Chi­huahua to Great Dane, are species can­is famil­iaris; breed genet­ic dif­fer­ences result from enforced sep­a­ra­tions by breeders/trainers for the last 800 years. Domes­tic dogs are all one species. Sim­i­lar­ly, all humans are species homo sapi­ens with race dif­fer­ences result­ing from sep­a­ra­tion over thou­sands of years by geo­graph­ic bar­ri­ers. Dog breeds and human races are direct­ly anal­o­gous as sub-groups with­in the respec­tive species.
    Much can be learned from study­ing dogs; med­ical sci­ence does a great deal of this to avoid exper­i­men­ta­tion on humans. The brain is no excep­tion, as dog brain struc­ture and infor­ma­tion flow process­es are quite sim­i­lar to that in humans. Numer­ous dog brain stud­ies to ana­lyze human brain diseases/conditions are in the med­ical literature.

    Any expe­ri­enced dog breed­er will acknowl­edge the pro­found influ­ence of genet­ics on intel­li­gence and behav­ior. Traits such as train­abil­i­ty, aggres­sion, prey dri­ve, docil­i­ty, bite inhi­bi­tion are high­ly her­i­ta­ble and dif­fi­cult to mod­i­fy. Exten­sive eval­u­a­tions of dog intel­li­gence have devel­oped breed rank­ings accord­ing to ease of train­ing (num­ber of rep­e­ti­tions need­ed to learn a com­mand) and reli­a­bil­i­ty (per­cent of time) of cor­rect response to learned com­mands. Instinc­tive abil­i­ty to to take cor­rect action in com­plex sit­u­a­tions is also rec­og­nized to vary with breed (there is a valid rea­son police K‑9 units use Ger­man Shep­herds instead of Pit Bulls). Among dog breeds, there is a huge Achievement_Gap, and it is GENETIC. This is all eas­i­ly Googled…

    Humans are not exempt from the fun­da­men­tal rules of biol­o­gy. Rushton’s pub­li­ca­tions (and James Watson’s recent com­ments) are heav­i­ly-sup­port­ed with moun­tains of peer-reviewed research by well-cre­den­tialed schol­ars; numer­ous key cita­tions are avail­able in two recent books: Hart “Under­stand­ing Human His­to­ry” and Lynn “Race Dif­fer­ences in Intelligence.”

  11. Alvaro on December 15, 2007 at 8:31


    Thanks for adding that angle, but I think it con­fus­es things more than clar­i­fies them.

    1) No one is doubt­ing the influ­ence of genes. I agree with “Humans are not exempt from the fun­da­men­tal rules of biology”

    2) What you seem to be doubt­ing is the influ­ence of the envi­ron­ment. Why?

    3) The state­ment “Dog breeds and human races are direct­ly anal­o­gous as sub-groups with­in the respec­tive species.” is high­ly suspicious

    4) Even if it were, humans and dogs are dif­fer­ent species, cor­rect? and it is humans who domes­ti­cate dogs, not the oth­er way, right? so per­haps, no mat­ter what you say about dogs, that is not the most rel­e­vant in our debate regard­ing the human species

    5) Can you please explain the Fly­nn effect?

    6) Mal­colm Glad­well just pub­lished a great arti­cle on this,

  12. Sideways on June 9, 2008 at 9:19

    1) No one is doubt­ing the influ­ence of genes. I agree with “Humans are not exempt from the fun­da­men­tal rules of biology”

    2) What you seem to be doubt­ing is the influ­ence of the envi­ron­ment. Why?”

    I know I’m real­ly late to this, but you’ve got it back­wards: there are lit­er­al­ly no sci­en­tists who think/argue/hypothesize that intel­li­gence is 100% genet­ic or hered­i­tary. Being a “genet­ic deter­min­ist” in prac­tice means that you think that some­where between 1% and 99% (and, on aver­age, more like 40% and 80%) of intel­li­gence is hereditary.

    There are, on the oth­er hand, quite a few who argue that intel­li­gence is 0% genetic. 

    As for Crick, it seems he was saved from being burnt at the stake by going off the scene ear­ly. ” In brief I think it like­ly that more than half the dif­fer­ence between the aver­age I.Q. of Amer­i­can whites and Negroes is due to genet­ic rea­sons, and will not be elim­i­nat­ed by any fore­see­able change in the envi­ron­ment” would have got­ten him the Wat­son treat­ment in 2007, to be sure.

    Any­way, it’s rather amus­ing to read this and real­ize that, by Gould’s def­i­n­i­tion, Alvaro is a genet­ic determinist.

    All that aside, we’d be bet­ter off if peo­ple stopped read­ing a 28 year old book by a pale­on­tol­o­gist who want­ed to advance the blank slate the­o­ry, cre­at­ing a book that essen­tial­ly every­one in the rel­e­vant field thinks is a pile of garbage.

    Go argue about twins stud­ies, trans-racial adop­tion stud­ies, etc, but leave Mr. “IQ tests 80 years ago were biased, so the entire field is junk!” out of it.

  13. Alvaro on June 9, 2008 at 5:27

    Side­ways: you are answer­ing your­self… when you don’t con­tra­dict yourself.

    May I sug­gest you spend less time on word gym­nas­tics (i.e. set­ting up your own def­i­n­i­tions of genet­ic deter­min­ism) and more on com­pre­hend­ing oth­er’s per­spec­tives with a research, not ide­o­log­i­cal, hat (and, yes, that includes Gould’s book), and focus­ing on implications.

    Per­haps, by hav­ing a more mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion, we would both be clos­er to reach­ing the 100% of our potential.

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