Intelligence : Oded Zipory

II. A short history of the concept of intelligence

Inequality between individuals and groups, as it is expressed in terms of “quantity” of intelligence, is not the result of culturally biased tests alone, but is inherent in the modern scientific concept of intelligence itself. Already in the first definitions of intelligence from the nineteenth century, the prominence of inequality with respect to intelligence comes to the fore. Until that time, the word “intelligence” had no unique meaning of its own, with the usual sense of being synonymous with intellect. Intelligence was closely related to the transcendent, and it was seen as an ability unique to man because he alone is a spiritual being and a biological creature at the same time. Human intelligence was thus treated as evidence of the fundamental difference between man and the animal kingdom.5

The term “intelligence” as mental or intellectual ability appeared in psychology only at the beginning of the twentieth century, although the first systematic scientific use of the concept was in biology. In 1882, George Romanes’s book Animal Intelligence appeared.6 Romanes was fascinated by the evolution of the mind, and the ability of animals to use logic or reason was highly important for him. Since the word “reasoning” signified an absolute ability for rational thought and action, and not a relative one, Romanes selected the word “intelligence,” as he wanted to play up the fact that mental capacity is not uniform and universal, but comes in various manifestations that can occur at numerous levels.7 The theoretical foundations for this scaling of intellectual capacity can be found in Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and in Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Psychology.8 Evolution, in both, explains the fact that not only man has distinctive mental skills as well as the differences “between a savage who uses hardly any abstract terms, and a Newton or Shakespeare.”9

Viewing the mind as subjected to evolutionary processes reflects a change in the central question about the human ability to think and understand. If until that time, the common question in mental philosophy was “how does one come to a state of understanding?” the new and positivist question became “to what extent does one particular individual understand better or worse than another individual?” The evolutionary scale enabled the positioning of every living thing relative to one another, and it also enabled the ranking of different “types” of people. Differences between individual ways of understanding came to be expressed in hierarchical terms when differences in the ability to understand became the object of scientific research.

Perhaps the clearest example of this change was the emergence of craniology, and although it had lost its popularity towards the end of the nineteenth century, many of its fundamental assumptions and practices have not disappeared. The basic strategy of craniology’s research was that of gathering a group of heads or skulls, measuring them, determining averages of racial groups, grading these racial averages and finally declaring a relation between the grading that the measurements indicated and the quality of the intellectual abilities of the groups, while assuming, as a matter of course, that there is a correlation between different characteristics of the skull and intellectual ability. In order to hierarchically sort individuals and groups according to their intelligence, there was no need to understand what intelligence is, because the endpoints—the white civilized man and the black man—were already known.10

The characteristics of craniology—the anonymity of the examinees, the reliance on numbers as carriers of truth, the notion that the mind is the brain (i.e., the mind is tantamount to another physical organ that appears in countless evolutionary degrees), the primary position of a scale that is based on normal standardization, while disregarding the question of how understanding works—were transferred, almost without alteration, into the study of intelligence.

Even Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who formulated the first intelligence test, was a keen craniometrist, before turning in a new direction. In 1904, Binet was assigned to conduct empirical research for the French Ministry of Education with the purpose of designing clear methods for identifying children in need of special education, and it is here that his scientific breakthrough was achieved. The pressing question was what the education system should do with the students who do not manage or succeed at school. And more specifically, how could educators single-out the children who are in need of special treatment?11

5. Kurt Danziger, Naming the Mind: How Psychology Found its Language (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 70.

6. George Romanes, Animal Intelligence (London: K. Paul, 1887).

7. George Romanes, Animal Intelligence, 69.

8. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871); Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology: System of Synthetic Philosophy (New York: D. Appelton, 1878).

9. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man.

10. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 105-141.

11. The motivation for identifying the students with learning difficulties was not only due to the concern for their own safety or because of the wish to bring them to the best possible scholastic achievements. A very vigorous discussion took place in the French press concerning the damage done to the majority of the students by the “slow” students, and the possible degeneration of the entire population if the situation would remain the same.

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