Tag Archives: intelligence

Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not all three star reviews are the same. Most of the time, 3 stars means “yeah, it was good. I liked it.” The PB&J experience in book form, if you will. Enjoyable, satisfying, but not something you’re going to recommend to someone to impress them (“oh man, let me make lunch for you, I’ll put together this amazing sandwich!”)

However, every once in a while, you’ll get a book that clocks in at three stars that manages to be full of amazing moments, but is tied up with such tangled problems that the three stars is really more of an average between two metrics: 5 stars for content, 1 star for readability.

I started this book on December 22. Completely coincidentally, I finished it on April 22. It . . . is not a long book.

Science books always have to balance two categories: the level of scientific content and the level of their readability to the layperson (someone like me). In the case of “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are” (henceforth referred to as AWSETKHSAA), the science is good, and interesting, and fun . . . but the readability factor is all over the map.

It’s not that this is a difficult book, either. I’ve tried to read books that are basically trying to explain the physics of black holes to PhD students. AWSETKHSAA is . . . I guess the word I would use is “slippery.” Or “wandering.” I would start in on it, read ten or twenty pages, then my attention would meander off.

The author moves from one experiment to another, talking about this or that, various animals and experiments and results and discussions — and it’s interesting, it really is! — but it’s hard to follow him. If you asked me to briefly summarize each chapter of the book I just finished, I’d have a hard time doing it.

And that’s a shame, because there are great moments throughout. I read several sections aloud, both because they were interesting and fun! “In a recognition test, an octopus was exposed to two different persons, one of whom consistently fed it, whereas the other mildly poked it with a bristle on a stick.” How can you not love the mental image of a scientist poking an octopus with a stick FOR SCIENCE!

Ultimately, the question of recommendation comes down to how curious you are about the premise. There is a lot (a lot!) of great work being done in the field of animal cognition. It’s more complex than I personally had imagined and AWSETKHSAA will give you a great crash course in the work that’s being done across a variety of animal species. That said, this is the kind of book you’d seek out if you’re already interested in the topic. If you’re more of a dilettante with your reading habits (as I tend to be), this one might be too unwieldy.

On the other hand, a scientist does poke an octopus with a stick. So, there’s that.

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The Flynn Effect, Or Why Idiocracy Got It Wrong

Did you ever see Idiocracy? It’s considered a cult classic these days and, although I don’t consider it to be Mike Judge’s best work, it was a good enough satire to earn both a few laughs and also a concerned eyebrow at the perceived rise of anti-intellectualism in pop culture and the potential consequences of the fact that the more education one receives, the less likely that person is to have children.

Dumber society + more dumb people having dumb kids = disaster.

Seems like a pretty solid combination that will guarantee the future is filled with idiots, right? I mean, have you seen kids today? All they think about is their social networking and their (insert appropriate music genre here). They lack an appreciation for fine culture or complex thought, preferring a sound-bite society that’s easier for increasingly short attention spans. The preceding sentence will probably be too much for anybody under the age of 20 to grasp! In other words, people are getting dumber.

Except for the fact that they’re not. People are smarter than ever. On average, each generation is smarter than the previous ones.

WHAT YOU SAY?! How can this be? How can people not be getting dumber? Look at our decrepit culture! It doesn’t make any sense.

We can thank the Flynn Effect:

The Flynn Effect is the observation that each successive generation has a higher IQ than the last. The man who observed this and after whom the term is named, James Flynn, recently gave a fascinating talk at TED on why this might be.

“If you score the people a century ago against modern norms, they would have an average IQ of 70. If you score us against their norms, we would have an average IQ of 130,” James Flynn said in his talk.

Let’s nip one thing in the bud; using IQ as a measure of intelligence. We know there are many kinds of intelligence, some of which are much harder to quantify than others. IQ can’t measure creativity or emotional intelligence. That doesn’t mean an IQ score is devoid of value, however. Even if it tracks intelligence only in the very broadest sense, we can still derive useful information from it.

The information is telling us that IQ is rising with every generation. In fact, if you look at the way the IQ score is arranged, the goal post has to be moved constantly specifically because of this inflation. 100 is always the average. If too many people score above 100 and it moves the average up, the parameters of the test are altered to compensate.

Flynn has an explanation for why this upward trend is occurring:

“In 1900, three percent of Americans practiced professions that were cognitively demanding. Only three percent were lawyers or doctors or teachers. Today, 35 percent of Americans practice cognitively demanding professions, not only the professions proper like lawyer or doctor or scientist or lecturer, but many, many sub-professions having to do with being a technician, a computer programmer. A whole range of professions now make cognitive demands. And we can only meet the terms of employment in the modern world by being cognitively far more flexible.

So, there. Suck it, predictions of an idiotic future. We’re all much smarter than we give ourselves credit for. Like XKCD says, “People aren’t going to change, for better or for worse. Technology’s going to be so cool. All in all, the future will be okay! Except climate; we fucked that one up.”

Thoughts On Enhanced Intelligence

I saw this article on IO9 asking if artificially enhanced human intelligence might not be as beneficial as we might imagine. The fact that I saw this on IO9 kept me from dismissing it as typical Luddite fear-mongering; their tagline, after all, is “we come from the future.” If anybody on the Internet is pro-future, it’s these guys.

Well, these guys and countless other trans-humanist blogs, tech sites, and other groups. Technologically interested people on the Internet? You don’t say! Anyway.

My position going into the article was firmly in the “pro-enhancement” camp. Intelligence is the defining characteristic of our species. Technological progress has made life better for most people. It stands to reason that more intelligence will lead to more technology which will lead to better lives.

However, I’m no longer quite as certain about this position as I was before. The article points out a few things that I, like many others, often take for granted:

We value smartness, no doubt about it. No one likes to be called stupid, especially in the sci-tech-saturated world we live in. High intelligence, goes the argument, is what’s needed for success in this society, a trait that trumps physical strength, the conviction to succeed, and even a solid education.

But as Walker told me, this is an intelligence bias, one that’s twofold. There’s the emphasis towards intelligence itself, and then there’s the bias towards certain kinds of intelligence — namely “IQ-type” intelligence, or what Changizi calls chess-and-brain-teaser-like intelligence.

It’s a good point. You don’t often hear discussion of intelligence-enhancement of things like social intelligence or emotional intelligence; it’s always the brain-puzzle stuff, the stereotypical “nerd” stuff.

I really like Changizi’s version of what he views as the optimal vision for an enhanced intelligence in humans:

“Well, there’s my own Human 3.0 view, in which I make the case that any enhancements that truly take off will be ones that closely harness our brains’ natural instincts — that’s the only way to coax the brain to do new things brilliantly — and in this sense I deem even writing, speech and music as “enhancements”.

This is a perspective I’ve never considered before and it’s something that, in retrospect, reveals that I’m fully guilty of falling into the “fetishization” of intelligence, valuing only outcomes like higher IQs and the ability to crunch numbers in one’s head.

This is strange, because in truth, I’m incredibly weak in math and similar disciplines; one of the reasons I focused so heavily on writing throughout my education. You’d think I would be the first to point out that intelligence is more than just IQ. Maybe I focused on those goals hoping there would one day be technology that would help me understand trig.

I’m glad that this is a discussion. I feel that my own perspective has been broadened and I very much agree with the vision of intelligence-enhancement will mirror our own natural biological processes and improve upon them.

Although it’s not mentioned in the article, I believe enhancement with the goal of preventing neurological decay (such as what happens to the brain through natural aging) would be a worthy goal.

Interesting stuff. I’m still very interested in trans-humanism and its goals and I’m glad to see there is nuanced discussion happening about them. That bodes well for the future, in my opinion.