Human Intelligence?

Many of us realize how foolish it is to ask how intelligent an animal is, or to decide what we do to an animal based on how intelligent we believe that animal to be. Few would defend the notion that we can take the life of an animal because we think the animal is stupid. The truth is that none of us knows what it means to say of any particular animal that it is more intelligent than any other. Nor can any of us say what difference it would make even if we did know.

I want to make an even broader point: We don’t really know what it means to be intelligent in our own species. Lately I have been struck by how people who are definitely intelligent when it comes to sheer IQ power or the ability to create something, invent something, make a scientific discovery, or simply set the tone for the culture.

I collect strange lapses. Few would disagree that Stephen Hawking is one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. Yet in his book about his own life, My Brief History, explaining how much he likes doing scientific work, he writes: “Someone once said that scientists and prostitutes get paid for doing what they enjoy.” It obviously does not occur to him that the vast majority of prostitutes do not enjoy what they are coerced (either literally or by circumstances) to do. He thought the remark was funny. It is profoundly offensive. Yet, with all his mighty brainpower, he cannot see this.

James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the structure of DNA, (without crediting the work by Rosalind Franklin that made it possible) famously said that stupidity is a disease. Yet he famously said how nice it would be if women could be genetically engineered to be pretty, and equally stupid, he claimed, in 2007, that he was gloomy about the prospects of Africa, because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really,” displaying in equal measure, arrogance, ignorance, racism, and profound stupidity. (London’s Science Museum rightly cancelled the talk he was supposed to give there).

When Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in 1965, he said that some of his earlier mistakes in theory were “like falling in love with a woman, it is only possible if you do not know much about her.” Lest you feel he was just joking, he ends the acceptance speech by comparing his earlier ideas this way: “But, we can say the best we can for any old woman, that she has been a very good mother and she has given birth to some very good children.” (There is much worse in his wildly popular book “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.”)

Arthur Miller, the playwright, whose work delves into moral and ethical issues, committed his son, born with Down’s syndrome, to a mental institution when he was a week old, and cut him out of his life completely, not even mentioning him in his autobiography Timebends. When he died, the New York Times spoke of his “fierce belief in man’s responsibility to his fellow man.” A remarkably similar thing happened to Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst, who was also responsible for creating a moral crusade around the need to understand our deepest motivations. He too refused to acknowledge the existence of his son with the same condition. Both boys, by the way, went on to become remarkable achievers in their own way, something to make any father deeply proud.

Of course, at its most extreme, this cleavage between intelligence (narrowly defined) and the ability to see deeper truths is nowhere more evident than in the person of a physician and a Ph.D. scientist, Dr. Dr. Josef Mengele.

No animal, by the way, has ever behaved in this manner. Are we really Homo sapiens sapiens?


About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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9 Responses to Human Intelligence?

  1. Lilo Huhle-Poelzl says:

    I agree whole-heartedly.

  2. johnsalmond says:

    I am an admirer of Feynman.

    When he talks about science in many videos available on the internet, he reveals the deep mysteries in seemingly simple things, and then often makes them in a way simple again – difficult to describe, but hunt up some short things from British TV on YouTube.

    They show deep subtlety of thought, I think

    But reading his biography, and, for example, a brief episode from his life in The Age of Entanglement (about quantum physics) he was a shallow and immature man socially

    Einstein, for all his lovable qualities and his intelligence, did not behave well to his son.

    At a time when humanity’s technical and intellectual course over the past couple of hundred years have brought the planet to a critical pass, the lesson from all this is the need for a deep humility in all our actions and opinions

    Humiliity, one of the most distinctive characteristics attributed to the focus of Christianity through the ages, (to mention only the religious tradition I’m familiar with) needs to come back into fashion

    • Lilo Huhle-Poelzl says:

      You are mixing up intelligence with character. High intelligence (however intelligence may be defined) does not have to go hand in hand with good character.

  3. Raquel Medina says:

    It’s great to read your Bloch again. Thank you.
    I think, all humans thinking we are the most intelligent beings of the planet, are totally wrong. But you know a lot more about this than I. I just wonder, a race that destroys their habitat, that kills all life on the planet including yours without any respect for life, who has turned his life into something material, etc.
    Are we the most intelligent?

  4. jashasalter says:

    Thank you for this essay. I am grateful for your sharing your insights and regret how you have been treated. Glad to see that you have many admirers.

  5. Lilo Huhle-Poelzl says:

    My husband and I admire and adore you. We have done so ever since we first came across your books about psychology and psychiatry. We have “gobbled up” most of your other books (“My Father’s Guru” and a number of animal psychology books), in the meantime. (What we haven’t read yet is on our TBR-list.) Just as jashasalter we regret deeply how you have been treated by the Association of Psychoanalysts — people who should help other people, but who obviously have nothing else in mind but their own fame, power, and wealth.

    We are glad that, after being treated so badly, you have found your calling writing about animal psychology and have become a very successful writer in this field.

    Your books, and now your blog, help my husband and me in our constant battle with veganism and vegetarianism.

    We are looking forward to future blogs.

    Your books — and now your blog — support our continuous struggle

  6. Lilo Huhle-Poelzl says:

    P.S. The last line in my comment was supposed to be deleted (as redundant), but I cannot see any way to edit a comment after it has been posted. So, please, disregard.

  7. Ashu says:

    [displaying in equal measure, arrogance, ignorance, racism, and profound stupidity.]

    This relates to a contradiction that I’ve become very sensitive to as a result of grappling with the humiliating reality of my own stupidity and my exasperation at the stupidity of others. Do you pity Watson for the stupidity he reveals in this statement? Probably not, any more than any of us pities enemies whom we rail at and dismiss as “stupid”. But aren’t enlightened, decent people supposed to pity, or even respect and romanticize, the mentally retarded because their condition (seemingly imagined to be something fundamentally and essentially different from common stupidity) is “not their fault”? But how is a person with an IQ of ninety-five, or seventy-five, more “responsible” for the things he says and does than a person with an IQ of seventy or sixty-five? Many try to protect their right to mock common stupidity by resorting to a spurious distinction based on “choice”: Watson is to be condemned because he is intelligent enough to know otherwise — he just “chooses” not to; and therefore it is all right for us to get off on mocking and hating him, whereas we are required to pour morally superior scorn on anyone who mocks and hates the mentally retarded. But this really makes no sense: who is really able to choose to be more intelligent than he is? If we could do this, we would all be geniuses. The reality is that the issue of intelligence exposes the emptiness of our concept of responsibility, and the galling implication is that the last people whom enlightened, decent people are allowed to mock and hate — the stupid — are also inevitably put out of bounds. And nobody wants that: hating the enemy is a basic right and pleasure of life.

    [Arthur Miller, the playwright, whose work delves into moral and ethical issues, committed his son, born with Down’s syndrome, to a mental institution when he was a week old, and cut him out of his life completely, not even mentioning him in his autobiography Timebends. When he died, the New York Times spoke of his “fierce belief in man’s responsibility to his fellow man.”]

    I don’t think that any really honest and self-scrutinizing person can feel that superior to such contradictions, or find them that incomprehensible.

    • Lilo Huhle-Poelzl says:

      I agree with you for the most part. However, you overlook one crucial fact. Stupid people (and here I am NOT referring to the retarded), quite often, cause a lot of harm. The problem starts when stupid people deem themselves smart. (You’ll find a lot of them in politics.) Just look at all the Nazis who deemed themselves superior to other races. We all know what came out of this. Mocking the stupid who overestimate themselves is the only way to keep them from doing harm. It doesn’t always work, but it is a chance.

      Of course, we won’t slaughter stupid people. And we shouldn’t slaughter animals, and certainly not on the grounds that we consider them less intelligent than we consider ourselves. I myself have been struggling with vegetarianism for decades. I haven’t won the battle yet, but I, at least, buy no longer factory-farmed meat (or eggs) but only beef from humanely raised and “humanely” slaughtered cows. (I know that there isn’t such a thing as “humane slaughtering”, so let’s say cows that have been slaughtered with as little cruelty as possible.) I don’t buy chicken or pork, even if humanely raised. I buy wild-caught fish. I also still buy factory-farmed dairy products because I have no source for humanely produced ones. I know this isn’t enough, but as I said, I am still struggling.

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