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.