Born stupid

//Born stupid

If I’ve learned anything over the last year or so it’s that intelligence – whatever we believe that to be[1] – is not innate. Whilst it seems hard to deny that some of our potential for becoming intelligent is genetically endowed, it ought to be obvious that our ability to reason is entirely dependent on our environment.[2] If you doubt this, try to reason about something of which you know absolutely nothing. The impossibility of such an act ought to make it clear that the faculty of reason is dependent on knowledge. Were someone to raise a child in complete isolation and with a complete absence of stimuli, it’s doubtful that such a child would ever possess anything we might think of as intelligence.

It is for this reason I made the following claim in response to a question from some who was under the impression I believed intelligence to be an innate quality:

No, I’ve never argued that. New born babies are universally stupid. Fluid intelligence may be largely genetic but crystallised intelligence is entirely a product of the environment

— David Didau (@DavidDidau) September 11, 2018

Claiming that intelligence is innate is obviously and categorically wrong. It’s the sort of claim which gives comfort to racists, eugenicists and all kinds of other evil. No one is born with intelligence, we each acquire it through the process of interacting with our environment.

Somewhat to my surprise, the word stupid caused something of a stir. If you were offended by my use of the word, then I really think you should get over yourself: it’s just a word, and one in very common colloquial usage at that. On reflection, it wasn’t a particularly good choice of word as it doesn’t really cover what I was trying to convey, but, hey, it was a tweet. I would have thought that the key word in that sentence was “universally”. We were all once, without exception, babies. Most of us are now considerably more able than when we were born. It beggars belief that anyone could have read that statement as meaning that I hate babies or that I somehow believe babies to be unable to learn. Seriously, you’d have to be pretty stupid to believe that.[3] For the record, I love babies, although I couldn’t eat a whole one.

All that said, a better statement to have made would have been that babies are universally born ignorant.  Apparently, I’m not the first to make this connection; it turns out Benjamin Franklin may[4] have said something similar: “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” Because of their shocking levels of ignorance, they’re unable to survive without round the clock adult care. This is pretty unusual. Most other species produce young who become self-sufficient far quicker than we do. The irony is that human babies are so helpless for so long precisely because of our large brains and our enormous capacity to learn. Uniquely, humanity has developed abstract thought, language and the capacity to accurately transmit cultural innovations across the generations.

The accumulation of human cultural knowledge and achievement dwarfs what any one individual could ever know. When compared to what we know collectively, individually we are all pretty stupid. There’s probably not a single product of human knowledge that any single individual could achieve on their own. We may think we know how to make ourselves a cup of coffee, but we certainly do not each possess the knowledge to harvest and prepare coffee beans, install plumbing that produces running water in our kitchen, transport coffee, milk, sugar (and whatever else we add to our coffee) to the shop from which we bought each of these products. We drive cars, use phones, watch television programmes that no one understands enough to produce from scratch.

In the modern world, we support a very small number of people – scientists, artists and the like – that they may spend a fraction of their time adding to our collective store of knowledge. The rest of us spend our lives directly copying those around us or accessing the vast accumulation of human culture through word of mouth, books and the internet. Pretty much every moment of every day is spent engaged in tasks which are directly or indirectly copied. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

If we choose to engage in a brief bout of trial and error experimentation, we do it for fun and because we’re safe enough not to worry about it going too far wrong. Of course, when the zombie apocalypse comes, these tinkerers will be in much demand; those who work out how to survive in the new paradigm fastest will have an enormous advantage over the rest of us. But then, if humanity is to survive, it will be because we copy the new ‘good tricks’ they come up with and begin the fight back against the undead.

Our intelligence is, in all meaningful senses, cultural. You might have a higher IQ score than I do, but we are each utterly dependent on our ability to take part in a conversation which, in the words of the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, “begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries.” It is our ability to join this conversation that gives us the right to call ourselves intelligent.

Babies – for as long as they remain babies – are unable to join in. They watch, listen, learn and slowly, they begin to enjoy the fruits of human culture. As they learn language and share a frame of common cultural references their ability to participate becomes ever greater. For many of us, our participation is never more than a dim ability to see shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. For a determined few, the conversation of mankind becomes the means to leave the cave and step, blinking into the light.

This is our birthright. It is this, I believe, for which we should all strive. But, if some prefer to stay in the safety of the cave, who are we to try to drag them out? The best we can do is to make them aware of their ignorance and offer them a choice. If children are never given a choice, if their education does not permit them to choose, then we have failed them.

So, to be clear, we are all, every one of us, born stupid. If you object to my choice of word that says more about you than me; it’s not a slur. We each overcome our individual ignorance step by plodding step and with a great deal of help. We each owe a debt to everyone who went before us as they created, slowly and painfully, the world we take so much for granted. We can never repay this debt, but we can pay a small portion of it forward.

[1] For the record, this definition is the best I’ve found and it also has the advantage of being widely accepted within the research community: “A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings— “catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.” (Gottfredson, 1997)

[2] It would be equally true to say that reasoning is entirely dependent on our biology: no sense organs and no brain, no reasoning. The existence of fire is entirely dependent on oxygen, just as it is entirely dependent on fuel and heat. This is a completely different debate to the one about individual differences in reasoning which we know is roughly 50% is attributable to genes and 50% to the environment.

[3] This time I use the word advisedly. 

[4] It’s attributed to Franklin but I suspect he never actually said it. I’ve been unable to find a source. 



  1. Kirt M Landry September 16, 2018 at 10:37 pm - Reply

    I once saw a quote on a professor’s door. It said, “Ignorance can be fixed. Stupid is forever.” I’ve used that many times with many people including students to stress that effort and a desire to become more informed and smarter are very important. Thanks for this discussion. I have learned and will use the phrase better moving forward.

  2. chrismwparsons September 16, 2018 at 10:45 pm - Reply

    I’m with you on being a bit perplexed at the uproar, though I agree that “ignorant” would perhaps have been a more accurate word.

    I also like your explication of distributed intelligence (I seem to recall this from ”’The Knowledge Illusion”). I suppose my only thought is about cats… They are clearly stupid in terms of their ability to think abstractly, but are clever enough to survive as a species. How should we best describe this ‘cleverness’?

    • Martin Robinson September 17, 2018 at 6:31 am - Reply

      Now, I read somewhere that dogs are cleverer than cats because they are more social animals… and, also, the ‘cleverness’ gap between dogs and cats is increasing…

      • chrismwparsons September 17, 2018 at 6:35 am - Reply

        Have there been any calls yet to ‘close the gap’….? 😀

    • David Didau September 21, 2018 at 8:51 am - Reply

      I can’t work out if this is a serious question. Sticklebacks are clever enough to survive. As are microbes. Survival implies adaption to an environmental niche: ‘cleverness’ is irrelevant. That said, it’s been argued that wheat is especially clever as it’s domesticated homo sapiens and got itself planted in every corner of the world becoming the most successful plant on the surface of the earth.

      • chrismwparsons September 22, 2018 at 1:39 pm - Reply

        Thank you David – it was indeed serious! In at least as much as I was wanting to nail down exactly what we mean by ‘cleverness’. Do we mean the ability to problem solve? It seems to me that cats are better/quicker at solving certain problems than I am. Babies are definitely limited here.

        Is the Surface Pro tablet that I’m typing this on ‘clever’? It’s often said that computers are actually stupid because they can only do what a human clearly tells them to do. What about the internet…? Is that clever…? It appears to know an awful lot more than me, and though I’ve not really used Siri, Alexa or Cortana, they seem able to draw on this quite well. Are they ‘clever’? Does it come down to the ability to learn beyond your initial programming? (obviously babies are much cleverer than cats there). Does it come down to the ability to ‘consciously’ deliberate (rather than unconsciously deliberate, which a calculator can do)?

        The internet has knowledge, the Surface Pro has unconscious deliberation ability, and the baby has the capacity to learn novel adaptations. The only thing an adult human brings to this is consciousness.

  3. Allan Katz September 17, 2018 at 11:22 am - Reply

    I agree learning environment is important. Imho schools fail kids when the focus is on mainly academic skills and largely ignoring intellectual skills –

    • David Didau September 21, 2018 at 8:48 am - Reply

      How does one distinguish between an academic skill and an intellectual skill? My contention is that there is just knowledge.

  4. jamesisaylestonebulldogs September 22, 2018 at 9:35 am - Reply

    One cannot distinguish between academic knowledge and intelecintel skills. The one follows from the other.

  5. chrismwparsons September 22, 2018 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    For jamesisaylestonbulldogs and David… I was very happy with your blurring of academic skill and intellectual skills as just ‘knowledge’, and then I spent some time mowing the lawn, and – without any additional knowledge being added – found new ‘ideas’ (whatever they are) automatically coming into my head. So far – so good – I do believe that things like ‘synthesis’ etc. are basically automatic – genetic ally programmed – and can be pointed-out to students, but not ‘taught’ as such. Our brains are just programmed to feed in certain ways on whatever is in them.

    The thing is though… the ideas (whatever they are!), suggested that you were passing-off ‘knowledge’ in the manner of a ‘deepity’ (David will know what I mean). In other words, you were mingling the obviousness of a general sense, with the precision of a specific sense, without really being clear what you were meaning.

    By knowledge do you just mean “stuff that we’ve learned”, or “whatever stuff is in our heads” – in which case it is so banal and trivial as to be worthless making the point. Or do you mean something more precise, such as “justified true belief”, or “true/false propositional signifiers” or something which might actually require more justification and debate.

    Anyway, if your new book is really clear as to what you mean by knowledge and cleverness David, then I really will be interested in reading it!

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