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Language is THE construct of human Intelligence March 13, 2008

Posted by Wilz in Society.

Not just ‘one of the’ constructs, but THE construct.

Wikipedia might disagree with such a statement, considering the number of definitions you can find there. Well let’s see what the contributers there have to say. The summary of common traits associated with intelligence can perhaps be listed as:

  1. using tools
  2. culture
  3. problem solving
  4. abstract thoughts
  5. complex thoughts

All these terms (and the long sentences on Wikipedia) are human attempts at defining the thoughts that dominate our consciousness, something which no other species on earth appears to exhibit. Figuring out the presence of intelligence based on 4 and 5 is a rather daunting task – no one is quite capable of experiencing consciousness from another person’s perspective. It will not be easy to ‘prove’ that another species or even person is actively thinking abstract and complex thoughts. However, due to our ability to communicate our own thoughts to another person, and have them reciprocate with ideas/thoughts of their own, we assume that they possess a similar intelligence (and that they are not a very powerful supercomputer pre-programmed to produce all the right responses to any given input in order to seem intelligent). Since that animals are unable to communicate any similar thoughts to us, we assume they do not.

However, aspects 1 to 3 is considerably easier to test for.

Remember back in school when your science (or biology) teacher said, “Humans are actually a type of animal as well, biologically speaking. It is only our intelligence that separates us.” And you asked, “But what is this intelligence that makes us different?” And he/she answered, “We are the only species on earth that have displayed the capability to use tools.” At least, that was the textbook answer in my country back in around 1995. Apparently the textbook writer(s) didn’t do his/her homework or check in with Jane Goodall, who have discovered tool-using chimpanzees since 1960. In fact, tool-use is not common to all chimpanzees but exclusive to certain communities of them which have apparently discovered it, and these continue passing on that knowledge across the generations. Chimpanzee communities which have not figured out how to, for example, fish termites from their mounds using a stick, leave termites alone despite their abundance as a food source in their territory.

When Louis Leakey received an excited telegram from Jane describing her discoveries he made his now famous response: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

No. 2 (culture) and 3 (problem solving) have never been strong arguments for intelligence since that many animals display some semblance of group behavior and the ability to survive and adapt in different environments, suggesting some ability at problem solving. More thorough research have actually revealed animals to display cultural differences between different communities – exclusive behaviors that is passed on through observational learning. And apart from being observed solving problems in the wild, many animals display and pick up increasingly complex problem solving skills quickly when in captivity. What then is left to differentiate us from them?


Of course, I am aware that dogs are capable of expressing anger by growling, and that romantics may call this language. I don’t. The language I’m referring to here is more like an arbitrary set of learned symbols (usually vocal) organized systematically into a logical grammar consisting of small infinitely combinatorial elements, capable of communicating concrete and abstract meaning, and shared by a group. (Yes, I ripped it off somewhere.)

Try coming up with an abstract or complex thought without the usage of language. Try to explain the word ‘explain’ in pictures, or how binary addition works without 0s and 1s (mathematical language). If you think a little, you will find that most of the activity in your mind is either prompted by your dominant language, or facilitated by it. Which is why I much prefer to ask people what language they think in than what their mother tongue is. The guy who tells you that he thinks mainly only in a pictures is a monkey (trying to be funny) or maybe a donkey (trying to be an ass).

Our tool-use, culture and problem solving capacities are also vastly superior or more complex compared to animals due to language in two ways. The fact that we have been cataloguing the things, experiences, and concepts we’ve seen, heard, felt, experienced or dreamed up for centuries through language, and the fact that we’ve shared all these things with each other in (almost) all it’s complexity and richness. Simply put, language allows us to think, and saves each of us the need to start from scratch.

After writing the bulk of this article, I found out happily that Dan Dennett agrees, and he explains all this in a much more precise way. Here’s an excerpt:

Our human brains, and only human brains, have been armed by habits and methods, mind-tools and information, drawn from millions of other brains to which we are not genetically related. This, amplified by the deliberate use of generate-and-test in science, puts our minds on a different plane from the minds of our nearest relatives among the animals. This species-specific process of enhancement has become so swift and powerful that a single generation of its design improvements can now dwarf the R-and-D efforts of millions of years of evolution by natural selection. […] if we survive our current self-induced environmental crises, our capacity to comprehend will continue to grow by increments that are now incomprehensible to us.

I’ve had long philosophical conversations in the past in which there were differences in opinion. A great many people seemed to be always happy to say, “Yeah, I know what you mean, but I don’t agree. I have my own opinions, and it’s hard/cannot be explained, but it’s there.” I checked – it wasn’t the traditional language barrier – they couldn’t explain it in any other language either. They just disagreed for a reason they could not state. Similarly a lot of people when talking about their world view goes, “I have this perspective, you know. On how the world works and stuff. I just haven’t really figured it out yet in detail yet, so I can’t explain it, but it ‘s there I assure you.” Others are reluctant to air their opinions citing, “I don’t want to say why I think like that, because your language skill is better than mine. Of course your argument will sound better! I don’t explain mine as well. [But mine is just as good.]”

If you are too lazy/can’t be bothered to reason out an ‘opinion’ or ‘perspective’ to yourself in some form of language, you don’t have an intelligent one. Haphazard thought which is not reasoned out and cannot be explained is not intelligent thought. Human intelligence is facilitated by language. Language defines intelligence – and intelligence is what sets us apart as a species on this planet. Understanding the most complex of concepts requires the understanding of the language that describes it. Which is probably why I am still currently hopeless at the kind of maths required for advanced physics.

A monkey may think the world is a banana for whatever reason (if it can even think that), but I doubt it would claim that reason an intelligent one – at least, not by human standards.

I’m glad to have picked up at least one language – relatively well.



1. sulochanosho - March 13, 2008

Good pondering thoughts there. Many times through our LANGUAGE tool we inherit, transmit, generate, regenerate so many things called knowledge, wisdom and so on. A good analysis of human intelligence – rather comparative intelligence is narrated there in this write-up. Thanks.

Some how, I do sense that with our so called accumulated knowledge and wisdom we human species have turned into a sort of ‘perverted’ species, comparatively.

2. Wilz - March 14, 2008

Well, perverted is one way to put it :)

I think of language as more the tool that has let us escape the limits of random generate-and-test to switch to focused generate-and-test, which is basically saying that we switched from evolutionary development/advancement to scientific development/advancement.

3. William - March 14, 2008

Great article, though I am not entirely sold on the idea that language driven intelligence is an exclusive club with a singular member. Bonobo chimps have been found to exhibit an accelerated learning process when it comes to communication and language development, albeit in a limited sense.

I would contend however that the capability to develop language(ie abstract symbols etc) opens the first of many floodgates that enable not only the genesis but also the maintenance of a civilization.

Anyway good one old chap :). Shall we tackle the subject of memetics next? >:D

4. Wilz - March 14, 2008

Yeh. I watched teh Bonobo video. Regardless, they have not developed language the way we would define it (the kind required for that floodgate effect). Neither have dolphins or whales, despite our fascination with their clicks and errr… ocean-crossing moans. This, the language driven intelligence club still have a singular member – as far as we know. Of course, none of us are so arrogant as to believe it impossible for any other species to develop it. In fact, we’re kinda sad not to have discovered (or been discovered by) any’one’ else.

Other than language, the only other thing which I would imagine to produce a similar floodgate effect is probably telepathy, but hmmm… maybe not. You need language to describe complex concepts, and even concepts represented in complex images is a form of language so telepathy probably needs a language as well.

5. William - March 14, 2008

It tis true that they have not developed their own language but they seem to have the capacity to learn and understand abstract concepts. Could perhaps an educated bonobo chimp be considered mildly intelligent? The breakthrough will probably happen when said chimp finds an urge and knowhow to educate its brethen, and realizes how to use the knowledge for the betterment of its limited society.

Initially I perceived telepathy to be just another method of communicating ie wireless vs sound, which undeniably requires language to facilitate exchanges of abstract symbols and ideas. But what if you could see exactly what’s in my mind’s eye? Would you interprete my imagination in your own language? Or store those visuals as visuals in your own head. In other words, would you take a snapshot of my mind, write about what you see(in your own constructed mental language) or both? Do you require a language in all these instances?

Telepathy could perhaps become the second floodgate if and only if it pushes us in the direction of a joined conciousness.

6. Wilz - March 14, 2008

With regards to the bonobos, I wasn’t dealing with maybes in the article. Just what is observable atm. If we wanna speculate, yeh – seems like those monkeys are the closest to us now in terms of intelligence.

With regards to telepathy, read Daniel Dennett’s article. Is it possible to ‘think’ a complex thought without language? We don’t have the definitive answer to that question yet, but for now, it appears the answer is no.

It stands to reason that you can possibly transmit the image of a rabbit through telepathy to another person. It would also make sense that you can transmit feelings – anger, resentment, jealousy, sadness, happiness, lust – in the same way. But the more complex the concept, the harder it is to transfer so simplistically.

If you are thinking of the idea of transparency for example, you may picture glass in your mind, but you understand yourself as thinking of something else. Transmitting the image of glass would cause confusion in the telepathy – do you mean the glass itself, or its transparency? Transmitting the ‘meaning’ of ‘transparent’ would require the word ‘transparent’. Unless in telepathy, the image of a specific shape/color of glass becomes a standard for transparency – then that would be a language as well, since that that specific image would then be a word in the new language.

And if you’re trying to transmit/explain the meaning of differentiation/integration, or the space-time continuum…

In other words, it is within reason that anything you cannot ‘think to yourself’ without language is also impossible to transmit through telepathy without language.

Which would mean that telepathy would not be an enabler of intelligence on a human scale, but it would instead be a catalyst. The benefit of telepathy to intelligence would be to magnify the power of communication through language, apart from magnifying empathy, love and understanding as well.

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