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This Blog used to be about the question: What is Science?
Now, it asks: What is Happiness?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Look, think, look again.

Here's a hypothetical situation. One which allows me to explore a question that is buzzing around my head.
First I need a dialogue. Let's have 2 persons, A & B.
If A is fanatical about anything it is to adherence to scientific method.
If A is intolerant of anything it is towards willful ignorance on the part of other human beings.
If A is angry about anything it is the damage that lack of the former and the presence of the latter causes.

A and B are engaged in a debate. B is devoted, entirely devoted, to a belief that any opinion, no matter how substantiated or researched has equal status to any opposing opinion. As long as it is an opinion being expressed there is no matter whether it be right or wrong, factually accurate or wildly imaginative. Now, in the post modern world that we live in this is all old hat. We understand that Truth itself is dubious at best and vacillates from one perceptive being to the next.
But, B does not fit into this world. For him, all is black or white, no cloudy shades of grey.
So it was that B, relaxxxxxxed next to a fire one early summer evening, beer in hand and crinkly feet raised up in defiance, gave the throw away line, "Well, A, you will surely agree that blacks are less intelligent than whites. All you have to do is to look around you."
It turns out from his own admission that this was no mere throwaway line. It was carefully thrust into the party space to see how A would react. And react he did. Vehemently first demanding an explanation as to how on earth B could make so outrageous a claim. The only validation A got was to the tune of "Well, it's obvious isn't it?".

Well, thought A, he does have a point. But this is a political hot potato. So A returned the favour and tested his reaction by emailing B's personal mailing list with a query re B's 'observation that blacks are less intelligent than whites." The rapidity and seriousness of B's response told A that this was an opinion which did in fact matter.....

Loath to abandon a challenge that encompassed both his personal fanaticism and pet hate, A decided to investigate this 'opinion' a little deeper. Is it possible that B's observation has some merit? If so, what does this mean?
In about as fast as A had formulated the question, the answer came. The link between an observed phenomenon and the conclusion made from it holds a wealth of information about the intelligence that made that leap. In B's case, it pointed very strongly to a rather absent intelligence.
How could he not see it? How could he not know that when 2 things happen to occur in synchronicity that the one does not necessarily cause the other?
B had observed black people and simultaneously observed what, from his cultural POV was unintelligent behaviour. Clearly, a lack of intelligence cannot cause skin to turn brown so it must be the other way. Yes?
Actually no, my friend. There is no necessary causal link at all. Well, there must be something that links being black in South Africa and being seen as unintelligent.

Like all good scientific journeys this one starts with a definition.

Oxford Dictionary:


General mental ability due to the integrative and adaptive functions of the brain that permit complex, unstereotyped, purposive responses to novel or changing situations, involving discrimination, generalization, learning, concept formation, inference, mental manipulation of memories, images, words and abstract symbols, eduction of relations and correlates, reasoning, and problem solving.

RIght, so we are dealing with understanding and adapting to a changing and complex environment. Not mere ability to process data, not just being able to learn or recall facts. This is a creative descriptor that achieves its best definition in the observed actions of others.
So, where do we derive our intelligence from? Is it innate? Can it be learnt? Is it culturally determined? Does one size fit all?

To continue on this journey I have to go back in time, several million years to a time when homo-sapiens was becoming the big guy in town, mostly as a result of his bigger brain and hence greater intelligence and ability to adapt to the changing world. One day he picked up a stone and it became a tool and in a flash of centuries we shot through the age of discovery, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Age and now...the post information Age. All this happened in a remarkably short time in the scale of human evolution, definitely not long enough for our brains to change or evolve much from that which gave our ancestors the edge.

The brain that you and I are born with evolved tens of thousands of years before the different races were defined by evolution, resulting in a multitude of racially differentiated humans all with a very similar brain that had the same potential to develop.

In every young child there are a few crucial times when their brain is set up for later life. A 3 year old has a brain that has many more brain cells than an adult brain. The stimulation and attention that the young brain gets, directly determines which brain cells grow and which die. If you don't use them, you lose them.
Thus the love and richness of the child's early years actually shape the physical structure and ability of their brain. We all know how easy it is for a child to learn new languages when young and how hard it is when we are old.
Fortunately for those of us who did not learn to play the violin or speak Spanish at 4 years old, there is another brain growth spurt at about 10 years. At 18 there is another and it all tails off by the mid twenties. During these crucial times, the external influences are so powerful as to be able to suppress or increase the genetic potential inherited from parents. Studies of twins clearly show that different environments make different people of identical twins, down to actual physical differences.

Thus, it is easy to see that South Africa is a place where many, many young people were deprived of a good education and grew up away from the love and attention that we take for granted. Apartheid and poverty are both directly responsible for this and the result is that many black people have grown up to be less intelligent (in terms of the Western definition), directly as a result of being denied the same rich environment that was available to the privileged South Africans. They were then continually faced with their inferiority being reinforced at every turn. This has been shown to actually further change the structure of the brain, making people less confident, less intelligent and less competitive.

To summarize:
Individual intelligence is not something we are born with. We learn it and education and our upbringing teaches us this.
Anybody has the brain potential to be intelligent. In SA many black people have been denied the chance to develop their potential.
Increasingly we will see less differences in mental ability between young black people and those from other race groups, because the differences are learnt, not inbuilt at birth.

Any comments?


  1. Merely that in my view there is no such thing as race. This has been invented by historians anthropologists and scientests.In much the same way modern science is reclasifying birds and plants into new family groups it is time all humans were returned to their original family of Homo Sapiens. The rest is simply cultural differences which are rapidly changing in the modern connected world anyway.

  2. I whole-heartedly agree. By reducing the prominance of racial classification in as many arenas as possible we are able to recondition ourselves to instead engage in the cross energy of differing cultural realities. The new evolutionary force that works directly on changing the physical human brain and hence behaviour is culture. It is an extremely powerful vector of change and it can happen over very short time periods.
    Race will (at least to the sighted) remain a means of differentiating one from another, but increasingly lose most of it pejorative baggage.