Intelligence: a history
Intelligence has always been used as fig-leaf to justify domination and destruction. No wonder we fear super-smart robots
To say that someone is or is not intelligent has never been merely a comment on their mental faculties. It is always also a judgment on what they are permitted to do. Intelligence, in other words, is political.
The problem has taken an interesting 21st-century twist with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
The term ‘intelligence’ itself has never been popular with English-language philosophers. Nor does it have a direct translation into German or ancient Greek, two of the other great languages in the Western philosophical tradition. But that doesn’t mean philosophers weren’t interested in it. Indeed, they were obsessed with it, or more precisely a part of it: reason or rationality. The term ‘intelligence’ managed to eclipse its more old-fashioned relative in popular and political discourse only with the rise of the relatively new-fangled discipline of psychology, which claimed intelligence for itself.
Plato conclude, in The Republic, that the ideal ruler is ‘the philosopher king’, as only a philosopher can work out the proper order of things. This idea was revolutionary at the time. Athens had already experimented with democracy, the rule of the people – but to count as one of those ‘people’ you just had to be a male citizen, not necessarily intelligent. Elsewhere, the governing classes were made up of inherited elites (aristocracy), or by those who believed they had received divine instruction (theocracy), or simply by the strongest (tyranny).
Plato’s novel idea fell on the eager ears of the intellectuals, including those of his pupil Aristotle. Aristotle was always the more practical, taxonomic kind of thinker. He took the notion of the primacy of reason and used it to establish what he believed was a natural social hierarchy.
So at the dawn of Western philosophy, we have intelligence identified with the European, educated, male human. It becomes an argument for his right to dominate women, the lower classes, uncivilised peoples and non-human animals. While Plato argued for the supremacy of reason and placed it within a rather ungainly utopia, only one generation later, Aristotle presents the rule of the thinking man as obvious and natural.
The late Australian philosopher and conservationist Val Plumwood has argued that the giants of Greek philosophy set up a series of linked dualisms that continue to inform our thought. Opposing categories such as intelligent/stupid, rational/emotional and mind/body are linked, implicitly or explicitly, to others such as male/female, civilised/primitive, and human/animal. These dualisms aren’t value-neutral, but fall within a broader dualism, as Aristotle makes clear: that of dominant/subordinate or master/slave. Together, they make relationships of domination, such as patriarchy or slavery, appear to be part of the natural order of things.
Descartes rendered nature literally mindless, and so devoid of intrinsic value – which thereby legitimated the guilt-free oppression of other species.
For Kant, only reasoning creatures had moral standing. Rational beings were to be called ‘persons’ and were ‘ends in themselves’. Beings that were not rational, on the other hand, had ‘only a relative value as means, and are therefore called things’. We could do with them what we liked.
This line of thinking was extended to become a core part of the logic of colonialism. The argument ran like this: non-white peoples were less intelligent; they were therefore unqualified to rule over themselves and their lands. It was therefore perfectly legitimate – even a duty, ‘the white man’s burden’ – to destroy their cultures and take their territory.
The same logic was applied to women, who were considered too flighty and sentimental to enjoy the privileges afforded to the ‘rational man’.
Galton believe that intellectual ability was hereditary and could be enhanced through selective breeding. He decided to find a way to scientifically identify the most able members of society and encourage them to breed – prolifically, and with each other. The less intellectually capable should be discouraged from reproducing, or indeed prevented, for the sake of the species. Thus eugenics and the intelligence test were born together.
From David Hume to Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud through to postmodernism, there are plenty of philosophical traditions that challenge the notion that we’re as intelligent as we’d like to believe, and that intelligence is the highest virtue.
From 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Terminator films, writers have fantasised about machines rising up against us. Now we can see why. If we’re used to believing that the top spots in society should go to the brainiest, then of course we should expect to be made redundant by bigger-brained robots and sent to the bottom of the heap.
Natural stupidity, rather than artificial intelligence, remains the greatest risk.
more on intelligence in this IMS blog