How intelligent are intelligence tests?: Whitehead responds

Dear readers. Dr. Charles Whitehead wrote a long and thoughtful response to my earlier post on the Flynn Effect, but I worried that comments may not get read as often (or carefully) as the main posts, so I’m taking the liberty of giving Dr. Whitehead his own post. For more about Charles Whitehead’s work and his online activities, see Charles Whitehead: Social Mirrors here at Neuroanthropology.

From an anthropological point of view cognitive scientists are being less than rational when they treat intelligence scales as though they are measuring something fundamental and innate in human beings. No doubt innate abilities are used by people when they tackle IQ tests, but it is unlikely that such abilities evolved under selection pressure for this kind of problem solving.

Intelligence scales are culturally embedded artifacts designed to meet the idiosyncratic needs of postindustrial western societies, and reflect the equally idiosyncratic assumptions found in the west – such as our habit of referring to someone as “brainy” when we mean “intelligent”, and the widely held assumption that brains got bigger during human evolution because of selection pressure for “intelligence” (and/or language: e.g. Deacon 1992). The idea that human intelligence is the ultimate pinnacle of biological evolution may be little more than colonialist propaganda, suggesting that “scientific” societies are the ultimate pinnacle of cultural evolution – and hence morally entitled to dominate others who formerly managed perfectly well without the blessings of “modernity”.

Sir Francis Galton devised the first intelligence test in the late 19th century and this was followed by the scale developed by Alfred Binet and Théophile Simon between 1905 and 1911 (Atkinson et al., 1993: 457-8). As early as 1884 Galton examined more than 9,000 visitors to the London exhibition and found to his chagrin that eminent British scientists could not be distinguished from ordinary citizens on the basis of head size (ibid: 458). From that point on the kind of assumptions made by Galton have continued to pervade scientific thinking with little or no empirical encouragement.

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