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This is going to be a long rambling rant about a number of interconnected topics:

I would welcome feedback on it, and have provided a comments section at the bottom of the page for you to add your thoughts. (If you are new to Wiki and don't know how to edit the page to add comments, follow the links from the ToothyWiki homepage which explain how.)


First some fact and definitions.

In the early 1900s Charles Spearman noted that tests of mental ability were positively correlated.  Using factor analysis, he picked out and named the highest common factor between these test, G, for General cognitive ability.  The various IQ scales are attempts to measure this.

In genetic terms there is no one single gene that determines IQ.  There is a genetic component, but it is spread over multiple interacting genes that affect inter-related mental abilities such as memory, creativity and concentration, that combine to form G.

There is also an environmental component of IQ, or rather the environment (how someone is raised and educated) can modify how well people score on IQ tests.  Specifically physical damage to the brain, and developmental delay caused by attachment problems and other childhood abuses, modify people's abilities downwards. (See links at borttom of page for more detail.)

Now you might think that, in the standard course of evolution, given a survival advantage provided by IQ, genes promoting intelligence would survive, propagage and become more common, leading to a gradual increase in IQs.  But for a number of rather interesting reasons it turns out that, over the course of recorded human history, this has not measurably been the case.

In fact research shows that the children of people with above average intelligence tend to be less intelligent than their parents, while the children of people with below average intelligence tend to be more intelligent than their parents.  So why should this be?

Well, one reason is brain size.  There is a positive correlation between size of brain and intelligence.  But there is also a correlation between size of head and problematic births.

Secondly, it turns out that some genes which enhance intelligence also have negative side effects, much like resistance to malaria correlating with sickle cell anemia.  For instance Ashkenazi Jews, who historically have been a fairly tight breeding group, and who have often worked in professions like banking where IQ is of value, turn out to have higher than average IQs.  They also have higher than average chances of Tay-Sachs disease.  And these facts have been recently shown to be related.

In other words, humans are more or less as intelligent as they are going to get without major tampering.  Genetic studies have been done on a group of children who are 6 sigma or more out to the right on the standard deviation normal curve of IQ, to see what genes they have in common.  But the chances are that, even if everyone used invitro tampering to put these genes into their children, the next generation would have lots of genetic diseases, autism, schizophrenia etc.

In a way, this is unsurprising.  Evolution is very good at what it does.  Humans are pretty finely optimised, and most obvious combinations will have been tested and balanced 20,000 years ago and more.  The vast majority of the genetic variation and trends you see within mankind over recorded history are fine tuning for changing environmental circumstances.  Each change is a trade off.  For each improvement there is a cost.  The change sticks when due to altered circumstances that particular improvement is now worth the cost.

So beware of miracle cures that do not explain how they fit in with this.  For instance, people have hailed the anti-oxidant properties of Vitamin C, and suggested that is is beneficial for humans to eat more of it than occurs in our current natural diet.  On the face of it, this seems to imply a flaw in evolution's ability to suit us to our circumstances.  But if we tie this in to the fact that primates, unlike most mammals, don't synthesise their own vitamin C, and hypothesise that at some time in the past primates had a sufficiently fruit rich diet that getting rid of the vit C synthesis ability was a good trade off at that time, but that now we no longer swing around in trees eating oranges all day, it is worth artifically supplementing our diet, THEN and only THEN do we have a reason not to be suspicious of the Vit C cheer leaders.

This has quite a few implications for the debate on racial correlations of IQ, and the 'desirability' of getting rid of all persistant genes that correlate with negative effects.  Because in the same way that more than averagely beneficial genes are likely to have a cost, if there are 'negative' genes that keep hanging around, it may be that they are not being elliminated because somewhere there is a hidden benefit.

Society over the last 100 years has changed immensely.  In particular, the ability of doctors and hospitals to keep alive children who in previous centuries would have died, has changed.  I expect to see this alter the cost of tradeoffs.  As a trend we would expect to see because of this more people who are sickly or have a troubled birth, but who are more effective as adults.

But if the base genetic IQ is going to remain more or less stable, what about the non-genetic components of determining how effective a problem solver the resulting adult is?

But what about education?  Intelligence is not the only attribute required to get the most out of an education.  There are obvious social and cultural factors which will affect how much education is offered to a child, and how much importance they are taught to place upon making use of that offer, but there are also specific abilities such as determination and (in most cases) an aptitude for book-learning (as opposed to learning by doing). 

[Studies] show a negative correlation between IQ and strength of religious conviction, but how much is that really IQ and how much is it the result of having had and made good use of an education?

And there is also the question of what sort of education will make the most out of native intelligence.  Let's assume that intelligence is the ability to grasp patterns and follow through hypothetical sequences of consequences, whether musical, kinesthetic, linguistic, numeric or other.  And that the skill of thinking is how one uses these abilities to analysing and solve problems.  A skill that can be improved; both by learning specific techniques to scaffold the underlying intelligence, and by the natural accreation of more, better and higher level 'chunks' within particular domains.

If we now consider that there is some trade off between domains (one who concentrates 90% of their time on refining their conceptual chunks within the domain of music is likely to spend fewer hours on other domains) but that on average success in one domain bodes well for success elsewhere (cf research showing a positive correlation between health, good looks, happiness, height, highschool academic success, future income and popularity), then the question arises: on what should education be concentrating improving?

Suppose you were a trillionaire and you'd set up an isolated community somewhere and had attracted a select group of people to live there with money / interesting and worthwhile jobs / what-have-you.  You could hire top school teachers, have fantastic class sizes (even one to one tuition), run parenting classes, expell anyone who didn't fit in with your program or was disruptive.  Suppose your aim were to produce adults who would do well.  In Darwinian terms, adults who would have a competitive advantage in modern society.  What would you put on the curriculum of your community's school?  On what sort of activities would you tell your teachers to have their pupils spend the majority of their time?

Or to put the thought experiment another way: given ideal conditions, how much more could we, as a society, be making of our available underlying thought related abilities?  Would homo sapiens be an order of magnitude more effective, given the same genetics but perfect education and environment, or only 10-50 % (and that with trade offs, like with the genetics)?

This is a big question, but it does have an important purpose.  What the future medium range potential of our species might be limited by (in, say, the next 50-200 years) in terms of the distribution of the solving power of individuals, has large consequences, and on some issues needs to be taken into account in current decision making.  For instance, nano technology, archeology, intelligence augumentation, artificial intelligence, ecological distruction, nuclear power, weapon proliferation, genetic modification and investment in psychology and education.

The Economist ran an editorial [on the evolution of intelligence].  In it, and a preceeding article, they argue that the competitive advantage offered to Homo Sapiens by intelligence, over Neanderthals, was not the ability to plan group hunts, tell stories to pass on learning, use tools like fire safely or to sing in worship.  As The Economist tells it, the main advantage offered was the ability to keep track of who owed favours which, along with the requisite emotional concepts of trustworthiness and gratitude, and the behaviour of punishing cheaters, allowed trade and specialisation to develop.

And, in general, it is certainly true that there are other mental factors besides intelligence that have a large effect on how big and successfull an impact someone has on life.  A willingness to work hard and take measured risks.  A willingness to cooperate, follow or lead as needed.  In other words, character - a mix of people skills, self knowledge and lack of personality flaws.  Originality and creativity.  And, perhaps more fundamentally, a willingness to think.  A propensity to not settle for easy or shallow answers.  A penchant for seeing rather than dismissing the obvious and FOLLOWING THROUGH.

We all have met those who've "got a good brain" but who have then wasted it.  Either by working on the wrong things, working in circles, working on too much or not working at all.  People talk about our only using 5% of the brain.  They also talk about only 1% difference in genetics between a man and a chimp.  Raw percentages miss the underlying structure.  But what is less mentioned is the percentage of our waking life we spend in productive thought.

I would love to know if anyone has studied, via brain scans or any other way, the difference in daily life between a normal programmer and a so called 'super programmer' (who may have 100 times the productivity).  Or between the average tenured university scientist and a double nobel prize winner.  Do they think more frequently?  Do they just use their time more efficiently?  Is this something that could be taught?

What technological tools exist to aid humans scaffold their thought?  What effect would these have if used consistently throughout a child's education?  What impact would that have upon society?  And are the tools and processes needed to best scaffold thought and support effective synergistic collaboration different at higher levels of intelligence?

On that last point, consider how important things are currently done.  If a company or country has a big decision or series of decisions to take, with a lot of money riding upon the outcome, to what sort of person or groups of people do they delegate the making to if the issues are complex, and the decision must consist of plans of action not just a yes or no monitoring choice?

Generally, the decision seems to get taken by a single individual.  They may have a hierarchy under them which they use to analyse sub-parts of the decision, but by and large  it seems to be a single individual making the choices and taking responsibility, and monitoring ends up being a judgement upon that individual.  Think Presidents, CEOs, commodities traders and investment fund managers.  If team play were allowed in chess, with each team having a private room, access to computers and a day between moves, how do you suppose such a team would be organised?  One top grand-master in charge of it, rather than several taking a vote, yes?

Now I wonder if that isn't due to the nature of thought and communication at different levels of intelligence.  You can simulate the effect yourself:

1. Set yourself a background task. Something that takes up somewhere between 50% and 80% of your concentration, such as writing down the numbers from 1 to 10,000 or playing tetris on a low level.  Do that now, and then once you are doing it move on to step 2.

2. While keeping on going with the background task, think about a problem.  Say, for instance, whether traffic patterns or ancestral relationships are more like the growth of trees.  Give yourself five minutes then state your intermediate conclusions.

3. Once you have stated your conclusions (say it out loud, scribble it down, or do some other way of making a concrete commitment), stop doing your background activity.

4. Now think on it again for another 5 minutes.  This time in whatever situation you find ideal for concentrating (eg quietly with eyes closed in meditation posture, curled up in bed with a glass of wine, taking a bubble bath with a rubber duck, running while listening to classical music - it differs from person to person).

5. Again, state your further thoughts and conclusions on the problem.

Did you feel more limited by language the second time?  Did you feel that while critically evaluating and comparing thoughts and options your mind was touching on and influenced by subtleties or nuances that you did not 'think aloud' but grasped and manipulated without having make them explicit?

If you like, you can think of this effect as being similar to an Ackerman number.  Having a larger working memory is like a computer having an extra register.  It doesn't just allow more thought, it allows more complex thought - more complex operations to be grasped by a single 'handle' without having to access to slower storage to store part of the problem or concept to make it handleable.  Trying to judge with a smaller working memory what someone with a larger working memory is thinking about might be like trying to estimate the size of A(4,4) from A(2,2) and A(3,3).  Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development can be thought of in terms of how much higher up the ladder you can reach if you are allowed to use paper, computers, external advice etc to store and organised parts of your thinking outside your head.

The question about this that I find interesting is whether this is an intrinsic limitation of language.  Will geniuses (for want of a better word) always have to work alone (or surrounded by minions), because their thoughts get degraded too much if they try to share them sufficiently that a decision can be made jointly, rather than just receiving advice?  Or is it the case that there just has not been enough experience with this, and that with practice and research a way of sharing decision making could be discovered that would work for enhancing the effectiveness of choice making at any level?


Your comments please:



< insert comments here >

Philosophers and linguists, management theorists, computer scientists and all kinds of people have spend a great long time working on how people communicate and whether they can be allowed to communicate better. It's part of the human condition that language is an improper and incomplete expression of thought - it's part of the reason people assume there is (or alternatively part of the evidence for the existence of) a soul. As long as we can understand more fully than we can express, each human will have to learn for themselves by observation and experiment. Would one wish to live in a world where this was not the case? A question I do not attempt to answer. Me, I wave my hands and dance about when I'm thinking hard. The movements have very little to do with what I'm thinking, except to me, and any attempt to explain or translate them would be foolish.

One person alone cannot hope to store enough information to solve properly a task of sufficient complexity, but many people all equal cannot hope to communicate with enough clarity to accomplish the task either. True teamwork, where each successive rank layer subdivides and delegates tasks coming down from above and then has merely to further process the processed data coming up from below, is a structure one can find all over the human race. It is a middle ground between the lone genius and the committee. It cannot truly be said that the decision was taken by the one at the top - they chose between a very few simplified alternatives, and that choice is communicated down each rank layer, being translated into schemes of greater and greater complexity and size as it goes, in a natural method of data compression and uncompression. Are you arguing that the system works, that it doesn't work, that it could work better due to technology, that it doesn't exist, that another is better? --Requiem
I think it more or less works, and could probably work better with the right application of technology + language + education + social structures.  The question I'm raising is How much.  Can the decision making process at the top end could be significantly improved by technology + language + education + social structures that are tailored to communication between [prodigies], [double Nobel prize winners], that sort of caliber intelligence/ability.  Or is humanity going to be limited to more or less current levels of intelligence for the forseeable future (I'd categorise human or higher level AI as not being forseeable for these purposes.) --DR

{2016}  Pinker talks about this, a little, when he says that the reasons why humans find it hard to write is because it requires that we reorder our thoughts (which form a net or tree) into a single sequential form.--DR

For everything there is a [webcomic].  --Jumlian



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