Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Intelligence in Context

When I question the competency of experts it may seem as if I'm saying something along the lines of "Why do the people in charge seem so dumb?" I have criticized politicians, academics, intellectuals, journalists, artists and writers. However, from a Darwinian point of view intelligence is merely one aspect of the natural selection that gave rise to Homo sapiens and made us a successful species. According to Darwinian theory, multiple characteristics play roles in the evolution of a species, and singling one out because it seems more important than others may be a mistake over longer periods, because natural selection never stops working. Therefore, when people don't seem as smart as they ought to be, it may simply be a matter of characteristics other than intelligence displaying their importance in the evolutionary process. In other words, you don't necessarily have to be smart to succeed in the fields mentioned.

Though mankind hasn't been observing itself scientifically for very long, there is some evidence that natural selection is operating now, and in ways that may have nothing to do with intelligence. An article in Science discusses how the Dutch may have come to be the tallest people in the world, and apparently intelligence is not a factor. In this case natural selection seems to favor tall men, who have more children in the Netherlands than short men for reasons that aren't entirely clear. The researcher behind the article speculates that Dutch women associate male tallness with greater ability to support children. At its root, Darwinism comes down to determining why one type of organism outnumbers a similar type of organism, and the difference can often be explained in terms of simple physical characteristics such as height, or in this instance the social perception of the importance of height. Similarly, if you look closely at people who are successful in various fields, including those fields that require a lot of education, complex characteristics such as intelligence may play a smaller role than you might expect.

I recently came across a 2003 interview with the well-known writer David Foster Wallace who suffered from depression and hung himself in 2008. I have read a couple of his essays but none of his fiction, and I think he considered himself a serious writer. At the time of the interview he was teaching English and said:
I have a lottery-prize-type gig at Pomona: The formal duties are light, the students all have way better SAT scores than I did, and I get to do more or less what I want. I'm doing Intro Fiction right now, which is fun because it's a chance to take kids who are very experienced in literary criticism and paper-writing and to show them there's a totally—in some ways diametrically—different way to read and write.
Although this example doesn't exactly fit what I'm saying here, I find it useful. Wallace was probably a pretty smart guy by any measure. He did well academically at Amherst and studied briefly at Harvard before becoming a literary sensation in the U.S. However, there is no clear connection between whatever intelligence he may or may not have possessed and his subsequent career. The point is that he became a magnet for conventionally intelligent students at Pomona College who perhaps thought that he could impart wisdom upon them which would enhance their careers later in their lives. My theory is that no students who studied with David Foster Wallace will have significant literary careers, because ultimately the skills associated with successful literary careers have almost nothing to do with academic credentials or conventional intelligence. In the case of Wallace's career success it seems as if his mental illness and luck probably played at least as important a role as intelligence and education. Extrapolating from this example specifically to creative writing programs, you typically have faculty with commercial literary success and students who hope to do the same. As in the case of Wallace's students, creative writing students, at least the ones in better-known programs, probably have, on average, excellent academic credentials and high intelligence by conventional measures. I think that very few of these students are likely to have successful literary careers, unless you lower the bar considerably and count low-circulation literary publications that are unlikely to provide the equivalent of a living wage without full-time academic employment. It appears to me that in the academic route to a writing career, intelligence plays little or no role in determining whether or not a student succeeds professionally.

The conclusion that I draw from this is that, while intelligence may be an asset in many fields, it is not essential for success in most fields, and other characteristics may be more important. In the course of my life I have noticed that intellectual capacities do vary, but much of the time intelligent people are merely fast learners, and slow learners often catch up with them and function with equal proficiency. With respect to experts, their intelligence or lack of it may similarly have little relationship to their status within their professions. Truth and falsity, which are more the focus of this blog, operate on a different scale from intelligence, and it is important to keep in mind that the people whom I criticize may or may not be intelligent.


  1. I read Infinite Jest a few summers ago. If your ever in your local bookstore and have a few mins. pg. 795-808 (paperback copy) is an amusing passage.

    1. Thanks, Teresa - will check that out (eventually).