Why are westerners obsessed with IQ

What is intelligence

[Article updated June 17, 2019.]

There is no agreed definition or model of intelligence. According to the Collins English Dictionary, intelligence is "the ability to think, reason and understand rather than doing things automatically or instinctively". According to the Macmillan Dictionary, it is "the ability to understand and think about things, and to acquire and use knowledge".

If you're trying to define intelligence, this may be a good place to start with dementia. Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, disrupts several higher cortical functions, including memory, thinking, orienting, understanding, calculating, learning, language and judgment. I think it is significant that people with dementia or severe learning disabilities deal very poorly with changes in their environment, such as moving to a nursing home or even to an adjoining room. Taken together, this suggests that intelligence, in its broadest sense, refers to the functioning of a set of related abilities and skills that enable us to adapt and respond to environmental pressures. Since this is not beyond animals and even plants, it can also be said that they are obsessed with intelligence.

We Westerners tend to think intelligence in terms of analytical skills. In a close-knit hunter-gatherer society, however, intelligence can be defined more in terms of foraging or hunting skills, or social skills and responsibilities. Even within a single society, the skills that are most valued change over time.

In the West, the emphasis has gradually shifted from language proficiency to purely analytical skills, and it was not until 1960 that Oxford and Cambridge Universities removed Latin as an entry requirement.

In 1990, Peter Salovey and John Mayer published the seminal paper on Emotional Intelligence and E.I. everything quickly turned to anger. In the same year Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser. Today we can't go very far without a substantial I.T. Skills (certainly by 1990 standards) and computer scientists are among the highest paid professionals.

All of this to say that what constitutes intelligence can vary greatly depending on our values ​​and priorities.

Society today values ​​analytical skills so much that some of our political leaders cite their "high I.Q." to defend their more egregious actions. This Western emphasis on reason and intelligence has its roots in ancient Greece with Socrates, his disciple Plato and Plato's disciple Aristotle.

Socrates was of the opinion that "the untested life is not worth living". He typically taught using the dialectical or Socratic method, that is, by asking one or more people about a particular concept, such as courage or justice, in order to uncover a contradiction in their original assumptions and to provoke a reassessment of the concept.

For Plato, reason could lead us far beyond the limits of common sense and everyday experience into a "hyper heaven" [Greek, Hyperouranos] of ideal forms. He famously dreamed of blaming a geniocracy of philosopher kings for his utopian republic.

Finally, Aristotle argued that our particular function as humans is our unique ability to reason, and therefore our greatest good and happiness is to live a life of rational contemplation. To paraphrase Aristotle in Book X des Nicomachean ethics"Man is reason more than anything else, and the life of reason is the most self-sufficient, pleasant, happiest, best and most divine of all."

In later centuries, reason became a divine property found in man because it was created in God's image. If you didn't get along with your SATs, now you know who is to blame.

As I argue in my new book Hypersanity: thinking beyond thinkingThe West's obsession with analytical intelligence has had dire political, social, and above all moral consequences.

Remarkably, Immanuel Kant made the connection between reasoning and moral standing, arguing (in simple terms) that because of their capacity for reason, people should always be treated as an end rather than a means to an end - themselves. From here it becomes all too easy to infer that the better you can argue, the more valuable you are to the personality and its rights and privileges.

For centuries women were considered "emotional", that is, irrational or less rational, which justified treating them as citizens or, at best, second class citizens. The same applies to non-white people, over whom not only the right but also the duty of the white ruled.

Rudyard Kipling's poem The White Man's Burden (1902) begins with the lines:Take up the White Man's burden - / Send out the best race - / Bind your sons into exile / To serve the needs of your prisoners; / To wait in heavy dishes / For fluttering people and wild - / Your newly captured, sullen peoples, / Half devil and half child.

While that sounds appalling today, at the time most of Kipling's compatriots would have approved of the sentiment.

People who were seen as less rational - women, non-whites, the lower classes, the frail, the "deviant" - were not only disenfranchised, but dominated, colonized, enslaved, murdered and sterilized with impunity. It was only in 2015 that the US Senate voted to compensate living victims of state-sponsored sterilization programs for what I quote "idiots".

Today of all days it is the white man (i.e., the white man) who is most afraid of artificial intelligence, imagining that it will usurp his status and privilege.

According to a recent article, I.Q. is the best predictor of job performance. However, this is not entirely surprising as “Performance” and I.Q. have been defined in similar and overlapping terms, and both depend, at least in part, on third factors such as: Motivation and level of education.

Genius, on the other hand, is more a matter of drive, vision, creativity, and luck or opportunity, and it is noteworthy that the I.Q. because the genius - probably around 125 - is not that high at all.

William Shockley and Luis Walter Alvarez, who both won the Nobel Prize in Physics, were honored for ... their inconspicuous I.Q. Scores.

For the story, Shockley developed controversial views on race and eugenics in later life, and sparked a debate about the uses and applicability of I.Q. Testing.

Related articles by the same author: The Problem of Knowledge, The Problems of Science, What is Truth?


Salovey P & Mayer JD (1990): Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Knowledge, and Personality 9 (3): 185–211.

Rees MJ & Earles JA (1992): Intelligence is the best predictor of job performance. Current directions in psychology 1 (3): 86-89.

Saxon W (1989): Obituary William B. Shockley, 79, creator of the transistor and the theory of race. New York Times, August 14, 1989.