The intelligence of erudition

The intelligence of erudition
Robert Henderson 

There is phenomenon which anyone who has gained a substantial knowledge of a subject may recognise: it is the point at which a qualitative change in understanding appears to occur, where connections are effortlessly made between disparate pieces of data and a general understanding of the whole emerges. This is not a conscious process but an emergent property of the accumulation of information. Is that IQ ability driven? It is clearly different from the type of ability quantified from the exercises which comprise IQ tests, but equally it is not the simple application of learned information to solve a problem. Moreover, the phenomenon arises with all types of data. Einstein could not have developed his theories without his learned knowledge of the way the physical world worked both at the level of his personal experience and through absorbing the scientific discoveries, thoughts and mathematics made and developed by others. Similarly, the mechanic develops an “instinct” for what is wrong with an engine through the experience of tinkering with many engines.

Of course the nature of the intelligence of erudition varies from individual to individual, from the person who ends up with a mass of data and no clear overall understanding of the data (we all know people who display “a ghastly erudition”) to the individual who clearly sees not only the wood from the trees but identifies the important trees within the wood. Nonetheless, even the person who has no clear overall understanding of the data will generally have a better grasp of a subject than someone with a slight understanding, no matter how intelligent that person should be.

There are interesting differences in the way this phenomenon develops and is sustained. Mathematicians, philosophers and physical scientists frequently produce their best work when young, after which they spend the rest of their lives trying to recapture their youthful intellectual zest. Other intellectuals such as historians and sociologists are notorious for producing their best work when in middle age, by which time they have ingested vast amounts of information about both their subject and the way human beings behave generally, and have allowed whatever unconscious process occurs considerable time to organise, connect and elucidate what they have learned. This suggests that erudition is more useful in some areas than others, although it does not necessarily follow that IQ related ability is more important in subjects such as maths and physics than in history or sociology – this would be so even if it could shown that as a matter of contingent fact mathematicians and physicist have higher average IQs than historians and sociologists (they probably do). It could be that once a certain level of intellectual adequacy is reached people are drawn to subjects by their personality rather than IQ related abilities.

To what degree is high ability in subjects such as history, sociology and literary criticism IQ ability dependent? As mentioned above they do not obviously call on the qualities measured by IQ tests. However, looked at more closely it is plain that these disciplines rely on IQ dependent abilities such as the recognition of contradiction or the construction of methods of quantifying social phenomena and, of course, they can involve the mastery of the indisputably high IQ subjects such as maths, physics or philosophy where that is the subject matter to be studied within the context of another subject, for example, the history of science or philosophy. But what do we make of the ability of the historian to concisely interpret a vast amount of data or the literary critic to see within text echoes of other writers and ideas? Are those abilities IQ dependent in the same way as understanding a complicated equation is IQ dependent? There is a good case for saying that they are, because what the historian and the literary critic are doing is sifting material and assigning values to it. That is a form of pattern matching, although a very complex and diffuse one.

Let me take the cases of the chess players Garry Kasparov and the Polgar sisters to illustrate two aspects of the intelligence of erudition. Kasparov has an IQ of 135, good but not outstanding, yet he was able to become world champion at an activity considered exceptionally intellectually taxing. It was not solely or arguably predominantly IQ which made him world champion for there will almost certainly be many topclass chess players with substantially higher IQs. So how did he become world champion? To become a very high performing chess player requires not merely natural talent but the building up of a vast catalogue of games in one’s memory. From that comes the emergent property of the intelligence of erudition to go with the IQ based abilities. Bearing in mind Kasparov’s relatively modest IQ and the many higher IQ players he was competing with, plausibly it was the intelligence of erudition which was probably the prime determinant of his success. Of course, other qualities not obviously IQ dependent come into play with high level chess such as courage and sheer physical stamina (I am assuming that the support staff and technology available to any grandmaster will be much of a muchness) but understanding born of great familiarity with played chess games must have been by far the prime determinant.

The two Polgar sisters demonstrate another aspect of the intelligence of erudition. Their father set out from their early days to deliberately produce two chess prodigies. He did this to substantiate his belief that particular abilities, including intellectual abilities, could be instilled by training (shades of J B Watson). He succeeded. The sisters both became grandmasters. That they did not become world chess champions – an objection often made by those opposed to his ideas – is neither here nor there. The fact that he was able to take two babies and turn them into very high performing chess players – a very select band – is persuasive evidence for the power of inducing intelligence in specific areas of expertise. Of course, one cannot draw firm conclusions from a single instance such as the Polgars, but it is food for thought when the question of intelligence is considered.

What happened with the Polgars is really no more than the age old trait of children following their parents into the same work or being put to an apprenticeship at an early age. Some societies have operated on the basis of children following their parents’ occupations by law. Many of those occupations can plausibly be linked to IQ related abilities, especially visio-spatial ones, for example, those required of any craftsman. One could argue that genetic inheritance plays its part, but this is not plausible where many generations are involved, both because the genetic inheritance of someone with an innate ability is diluted rapidly through the generations and also because presumably genetically related abilities generally suffer from reversion to the norm.

What would be interesting is a study of how easy or difficult it is to induce the ability to undertake particular activities which would be considered IQ dependent. I have a sneaking feeling that if those engaged in programmes designed to enhance IQ concentrated instead on programmes designed to enhance the intelligence of erudition they would find it a more fruitful activity.

How valuable is the intelligence of erudition when compared with IQ related ability? Obviously, learned ability is fundamental to all human societies, from the hunter-gatherer upwards. Most of what we consciously do is guided by our own experience or the experience of others, although of course knowledge is only valuable when it can be applied, whereas IQ related problem solving ability in principle can get you through a very large number of possible situations, both novel and familiar. There is also a clear distinction between knowledge which can be applied without the need for any external assistance and that which requires external assistance, for instance, knowing how to use a calculator is useless without a calculator: knowing how to do mental arithmetic is a skill always available. But what of really high level intellectual ability? In its outcomes can erudition compete with innate IQ related ability? Can someone without a startlingly high IQ make as profound a contribution to intellectual history as those with such an IQ simply through intellectual application? Step forward Charles Darwin.

Did Darwin have a high IQ?

The importance iof the intelligencve of erudition can be seen in the case of Charles Darwin, a man widely recognised as one of the most important intellectuals in history. A strong case can be made for his theory of natural selection being the single most influential idea ever, because not only did it profoundly change the intellectual relationship between man and his perception of his place in existence, its influence has stretched far beyond biology. It might even be said to be of universal application because all natural repeatable events, circumstances and ongoing processes are subject to selection. Just as organisms compete to survive so do inanimate objects and processes, whether natural or man-made. A pebble on the seashore made of granite will outlast one made of sandstone; war machines will compete in an arms race; ideas will clash and be selected or not according to their intellectual and emotional power in a particular situation. Today his idea is applied increasingly to design generally using computer programmes which mimic evolution on projects as diverse as discovering the most efficient phone network and the design of new anti-bacterial drugs.

But Darwin’s importance goes far beyond a single idea. He contributed greatly to other parts of evolutionary theory including the descent of Man and the development of emotions in Man and animals. He was also a good guesser. Frequently his hypotheses were untestable in his own lifetime because the knowledge needed to test them were not available but have been given Further credence by later discoveries, for example, his belief that modern Man originated in Africa, an hypothesis which is widely accepted today because of DNA analysis. It is difficult to think of a man who has had a more profound intellectual effect on the world.

Darwin was obviously exceptionally intellectually capable in the sense that he produced very important work, but is there anything in his life and work which is suggestive of a genius level IQ? He did not show any noticeable aptitude for the traditionally high IQ subjects such as maths and philosophy, nor is his life before his voyage on the Beagle suggestive of any great intellectual power. It is true that the young Darwin showed a strong interest in the natural world, both in biology and geology, but this interest was more that of a gentleman dilettante rather than of a serious scientist.

Even after returning from his voyage on the Beagle Darwin retained something of the gentleman dilettante, although he was very hardworking and persistent in his interests. He spent more than twenty years toying with the idea of evolution through natural selection and engaging in other work which was largely a matter of observation. When he came to publish his work on evolution he only did so because he is afraid that his ideas would be trumped by the publication of Wallace’s very similar theory. (That he suddenly rushed to publish gives the lie to the commonly retailed idea that he had withheld publication for fear of a hostile public reception, especially from the devout.) The most plausible explanation for the delay is that Darwin simply did not have the motivation to make the intellectual effort to finish his great work until he was threatened with being trumped Wallace. It is only from that point onwards that Darwin begins to produce the work for which he is chiefly remembered today. He was no feverishly intelligent, intellectual personality bursting to put his ideas before the public as soon as possible.

But although Darwin took a long time to get to the point of publication, he undoubtedly spent an immense amount of time and effort assimilating information about the Natural world from his teenage years onwards. By the time he finished the Origin of Species he had developed the intelligence of erudition to a very high degree.

Darwin’s working method was to create a mound of evidence on which he built sustained argument. (Ironically, the critics of The Origin of Species frequently complained that he lacked powers of reasoning when in fact the book is one sustained immense argument). The data he worked upon was not inherently difficult to understand being primarily a question of observation by Darwin or others. Anyone of normal intelligence could master it with sufficient application. Where Darwin differs from the vast majority is in the tenacity with which he assimilated facts and the use he put the data to after he had assimilated it. What Darwin had was an abnormally sustained concentration of thought.

So what are we to make of all this in the context of Darwin’s IQ? Obviously he had to have the mental wherewithal to allow him to handle large amounts of data and construct coherent arguments from the data. He needed to be able to see not only the wood for the trees but to see the important trees in the wood. The question is how he managed to accomplish such tasks. Was it primarily IQ related ability or is it a consequence of learning? The material he dealt with suggests the latter, that he had the intelligence of erudition in spades.

Based on the content of Darwin’s work and his failure to display any aptitude for indubitably high IQ subjects such as maths, there is no reason to believe he had a very high IQ. He needed an IQ high enough to allow him to undertake the tasks of assimilating essentially simple information and engaging in a sophisticated analysis of it. Perhaps an IQ in the 110-120 range would have fitted the bill for those tasks.

7 responses to “The intelligence of erudition

  1. If there is any truth to the Myers-Briggs Personality Type tests, people process information very differently. Some personalty types can intuitively grasp a great understanding of a subject even when presented with only a minimal number of facts.

    Though we should all be aware of the phenomenon “confirmation bias”.

  2. “Various studies have found the heritability of IQ to be between 0.7 and 0.8 in adults and 0.45 in childhood in the United States.”

  3. Julie near Chicago

    The first part of Mr. Henderson’s piece explains precisely what is wrong with the horrible saying that profs or teachers (presumably) dreamed up and college kids repeated gleefully back in the late 60’s IIRC:

    “You don’t have know it, you just have to know how to look it up.”

    How perverse is that! Background and context are all (well, almost all) and they are only formed in our minds as we learn “it”–that is, facts. Only then do you have some idea of where what you looked up fits.

    . . .

    I’ve never really understood what is the point of literary criticism, as distinct from a book review (which presumably describes generally the subject of the book, and notes where, in the reviewer’s opinion, it succeeds or fails). If somebody wants to say that The Chronicles of Narnia is an allegory of the Christ or some such thing, is that literary criticism or is it musing about a theory the muser is considering? Is literary criticism supposed to be consist of examinations to see what makes for writing that “works” aesthetically (which would make the most sense to me)? Or is it really a branch of the history of either ideas or aesthetic sensibilities or traditions, examining the current work to see if it is another link in a chain of these, said chain going back 2 years or 2000? I really would like to know–this is not a swipe at the critics or their field.

    Actually the same applies to music or art criticism. I love to read bethe (ancient!) reviews by Deems Taylor and Olin Downs, but really that’s more because I enjoy their writing style and their obvious enthusiasm (and occasional gibes) than anything else…although it is interesting when they venture into the area of “that work or composer was a forerunner of this one” (or, better, “this work or composer’s work seems to be somewhat a development of such-and-such previous one.”

    . . .

    Pattern-matching as IQ? My own theory, based on quite a few decades of self-observation, is that what I’m really good at is discerning patterns, patterns in music, in math, in logic, in computer programs, in writing, and of course visual patterns, and then extending them or correcting deviations, as in editing one’s writing or debugging a program.

    When writing…once one has managed to get SOMETHING down on paper (or enpixelated), one has the germ of a pattern going, that one can then work up to a complete (verbal) pattern, correcting the inconsistencies in the process.

    Which, naturally enough, brings to mind Amy Lowell’s poem “Patterns.”

    I wonder what Mr. Blake thinks of all this musing on the process of writing.

    • Julie – That is a modified version of what I tell my Law students. There are certain things in the Law that you must know, without which you cannot be said to understand the subject. But you cannot hope to know every Act and precedent. For example, one question I recently set involves a young woman’s chances of winning a private action again a man who has infected her with HIV. Its intention is to provoke a precedent hunt, starting with an Irish case in 1878, and then to make the students consider the relative binding force in the English courts of decisions from Ireland, Australia, India and America. They must also work out the relevance of CPS practice directions to the law of torts. Some of what my students learn will stay with them till they go senile. Much else will be forgotten within days of handing the essays in.

      Any structure of knowledge will include things that are directly known, plus the ability to find and evaluate knowledge of other things. The worst that can be said about some kinds of teaching is that the balance is disordered.

  4. Julie near Chicago

    Thanks, Sean. Yes, of course one must know how to hunt up information. But my point was that for some years at least, the prevailing wisdom was that ALL you had to know was “to look it up”–as OPPOSED to learning the facts themselves. If that’s ALL you need to know, you needn’t even trouble to remember the facts you Looked Up, let alone figure out how fit them into your mental map of the world.

    It’s only teaching “you only need to know how to look it up” as the necessary and sufficient aim of education in general (or in any particular field) that I see as truly a perversion of the process and aims of education: You DON’T only need to know “how to look it up”; you ALSO need to acquire enough knowledge of facts (and their relationships, which in themselves constitute facts of course) to know where to place what you just Looked Up within your mental map. Imagine if Mr. Blake had to look up each and every fact about Constantinople and the Eastern Empire–including where and when and what Constantinople was, let alone the Eastern Empire–every time he wanted to write a new Aelric novel. –Especially since, having somehow figured out what facts to Look Up for the first novel, he saw no need to remember any of them for use in extending and refining his mental map for the second novel–so he needed to Look Them Up all over again!

    There is a point at which the disordering of the educational process amounts to professional malpractice. Sure, people need to know generally whether to consult a dictionary or a DIY book (i.e., where to look it up) in order to find out how to fix the toilet…but neither will tell them how to spell ‘toilet,’ and if they haven’t got some idea of the spelling, how are they going to look up ‘toilet, how to fix’ in either reference tome?

    This sort of drivel is part of what enables the deliberate teaching that there is no such thing as clear thought, valid conclusions, and indeed generally valid representations of reality (or some subset of it) at all.

    Anyway, I don’t think there’s any real argument between us, and thanks again for your reply. Happy Easter! :)

    • Point taken. Undoubtedly, there are some facts that must be known before others can be looked up. At the moment, Mr Blake is starting a novel set in London in 1696. Some things he’s having to look up, such as whether St Giles had a clock tower at this time, or what women did when having a period (this is a Blake novel!) On the other hand, he knows the political and legal and financial history of the period very well.

      On a slightly different point, he will be hitting Wikipedia very hard for this one. There is much more he needs to know that can be known. For example, did coffee mugs have handles? Did the Speaker of the House of Commons have the legal authority to impound hanged bodies from Tyburn? How much was a pint of laudanum? So many questions, all demanding answers….

  5. Julie near Chicago

    It sounds like a treasure hunt, searching for all this little gems of data, and a lot of fun actually.

    It would never have occurred to me that there WERE coffee mugs in 1696.

    Oh–I should have thought that a pint of laudanum would be 2 cups (American measure). On the other hand, perhaps it’s more than a pound of lead but less than a pound of feathers?

    (Teasing, if it’s not obvious. *g*)