What Is Intelligence?

Kevin Langdon

Included with the Langdon Adult Intelligence Test Statistical Report, Norming #2, July 1979

Intelligence is a very big idea, and to be interested in intelligence means far more than merely to make a mathematical study of psychometric tests.

In the broadest sense, any systematically adaptive behavior can be designated as intelligence. Thus we speak of an intelligence of the body, the intelligence of insects, "intelligent terminals," etc.

[Note: The term "intelligent terminal" is ancient computerese. This was written in 1979.]

In the scientific study of human evolution, the rise of man (to the extent that scientists will permit themselves such a value judgement) is seen as the progressive development of the sensitivity to fine distinctions and complexity of response made possible by his developing brain. Man's unique mental capacities appear to be associated with the appearance of the large parietal and  frontal lobes of the cortex, with the function of synthesizing models of the world.

The evolutionary development of life on our planet shows clearly on a grand scale that the emergence of intelligence has been a matter of risk and experimentation and at the same time of avoidance of the dead end of overspecialization. It also illustrates that "survival" in the bioadaptive sense has nothing to do with proliferation of numbers, but concerns the ability of the individual to succeed in finding a niche within which he can control scarce resources in a crunch for the benefit of himself, his progeny, and his community.

The first of these principles is mirrored in the development in the individual of a well-exercised but flexible mind. The second principle, in man, is partly a matter of specifically adapted endowment and vitality, in common with all other creatures, and partly of mental resourcefulness and technological productivity (which is partly the result of resourcefulness and partially a measure of man's ability to cooperate with his fellows).

Thus man has come to possess a sensitive and many-sided responsive capacity which is scarcely taxed by the environment he now lives in, but which represents the adaptive advantages which saw his ancestors through the most extreme mental demands of situations calling for a very wide variety of aspects of intelligence.

It is relevant to distinguish at least four major aspects of intelligence:

  1. abstract intelligence, consisting of numerical, spatial, and verbal abilities, deductive and inductive reasoning, mental agility, and attention span (this is the type of intelligence which is measured by IQ tests);
  2. sophistication, abstract and practical, familiarity with environmental features and processes (including operating methods and the responses of other people);
  3. common sense or judgement, the ability to sense the importance and applicability to situations and processes (including operating methods and the responses of other people);
  4. creativity, the ability to perceive problems and situations from new perspectives and to translate one's vision into original symbolism.

In practical intercourse with others we recognize these abilities in varying degrees and base our judgement of people on them, but it is not usual to apply the term "intelligence" so broadly, due primarily to the reductionistic tendencies in "scientific" psychology.

[Note: Since this was written, reductionism has become less influential but there are more fanciful notions in psychology.]

Intelligence testing has tended to concentrate on abstract intelligence for the very good reason that it is much easier to measure using a relatively objective instrument than the ohter aspects.

Recently a number of tests have been constructed which attempt to measure creativity and intellectual sophistication, but while these attempts are interesting they partake to a great extent of their authors' mental idiosyncrasies. It is clear that, even in principle, creativity cannot be measured by a test with fixed answers.

At this point, attempts at exact measurement of these qualities are probably premature. What appears to be called for is further philosophical investigation of these and other ideas concerning the nature of intelligence.


[Intelligence: Essays and Reviews]

[Consciousness and Mind]

[Polymath Systems Home Page]