Language is THE construct of human Intelligence March 13, 2008Posted 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:
- using tools
- problem solving
- abstract thoughts
- 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.