Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What's "Intelligence"?

What's in a Word? Analyzing the Meaning of Intelligence

What’s in a word? So often, we use a word secure in the knowledge that we all know what it means, and we don’t really give it much thought. For example, we all know what we mean when we talk about people going on a date. A date is romantic encounter between two people. But, do we really know what a date is? Would it be a date if two people were to meet by chance somewhere, or must a date be planned in advance? Would it be a date if two people met by phone, or in an online chat room, or via some kind of video conference, or must a date always be in person? If there were a large group of people at some gathering, all seated at the same table, could two of them be on a date, or is it only a date when two people are more or less alone? What do we mean when we say something is a date? What’s in a word? Here’s another example. What do we mean we when say that someone is intelligent? For instance, when a person can look at a pile of bricks and boards and imagine them as a building, and then do what needs to be done to build it, isn’t that person intelligent when it comes to building? When someone can play musical instruments and create songs out of nowhere, even though they can’t read a single note of music, aren’t they intelligent when it comes to music? Isn’t a dancer intelligent about dancing, and an artist intelligent about art? A physicist is intelligent about physics, but don’t we all know some people who are “book smart” but lacking in common sense? Isn’t there intelligence in just getting along in the world that some people have while others don’t? What do we mean when we say someone is intelligent? Who are the “someones” who can be intelligent in the first place?

Beavers gather sticks, branches, and other things, and place them deliberately along the banks of rivers, making themselves a home. Beavers are smart when it comes to building dams. Isn’t that intelligence? Whales and dolphins use a kind of sonar to detect objects, such as other whales and dolphins, in the open ocean. They navigate across vast expanses of water, getting where they want to go, and knowing how to go back to where they came from. Whales and dolphins do quite naturally what humans need sophisticated equipment to do. Aren’t whales and dolphins intelligent? Dogs roam the neighborhoods leaving a scented trail. They recognize not only where they have been, but where others have been as well. Dogs can find their way around without the need of maps or street signs and they know each other well without the use of names or nametags. They don’t need a Rolodex to keep track of their associates. Aren’t dogs intelligent when it comes to getting along in the world and with others? Chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas all form complex social bonds in groups organized according to rules and norms. They recognize leaders and act in ways to please them. They do things to hide their own behaviors from others in their groups when it can be to their advantage. We know that various primates can make rational choices about which things would be better for them to have, and which would be worse. Aren’t primates intelligent when it comes to structuring the social world they live in? Consider another example of what it means to be intelligent. Imagine yourself lost at sea, with nothing but a lifesaver and your wits about you. How long would you survive without tools and other equipment to save you? It’s not a very promising prospect. Now, imagine the “lowly” jellyfish. We don’t often think of jellyfish as being intelligent at all, but if one definition of intelligence is the ability to deal with situations, in an effective manner, within an environment, then in the open ocean, jellyfish have an intelligence about them that we would lack. What’s in a word? Often, what is in a word are the preconceptions and prejudices we bring to it. 50 years ago, maybe a date wouldn’t have been a date unless the man asked the woman and he paid the way. Today, most people would probably find that idea of a date rather quaint. Not that long ago, most people, including biologists, neurologists and psychologists, would have thought that intelligence was something unique to the human animal. Today, most people, especially the specialists in the field, understand that intelligence exists throughout the entire kingdom of animals; it isn’t limited to just the human kind. Humans may be very good at measuring the peculiar kind of intelligence that allows us to read books and fill in the blanks. As we learn more about all of the other conscious beings who share the planet with us, we are beginning to understand just how intelligent they are. There’s one more definition of intelligence worth noting: Intelligence is the ability to live and cope with the demands of daily life. Other animals are intelligent enough to do that, all on their own. Let’s hope we are all smart enough to let them.

(Tim Gier, blogger One Green Planet)

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