Thursday, December 31, 2015

Short Stack

I was intrigued to discover there is now a stack exchange for cognitive science. As a software developer, I make use of the computer programming stack exchange several times each week, and I think many of my colleagues would agree with me it is one of the more valuable tools available to our profession.

I would also argue that the main reason the computer programming stack exchange is so successful is that around 98% of the time, the question actually has an answer. In the case of a cognitive science stack exchange, I would guess the percentages are just about reversed.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


[Edit 02/11/2017: The final version of this essay can be found here.]

There is a widespread misunderstanding, common among laypeople and many academicians too, that genius is the equivalent of great intelligence. This can be seen for instance in the tendency to categorize high IQ scores, such as those above 150, as falling within a genius range, and reciprocally it can be seen in the anachronistic practice of doling out impressive IQ scores—usually in the neighborhood of 200 or so—to well-established geniuses such as Mozart and Newton. To be fair, many researchers recognize that the possession of a high IQ is not sufficient to establish genius, that other factors must also be brought to bear. Creativity frequently gets mentioned as a necessary concomitant to genius, and others have noted the tendency towards aloofness and oddity that many geniuses seem to exude. Still, it is hard not to conceive a direct relationship between genius and greater intelligence—in many respects the relationship seems so blatantly obvious—and in this age of the Flynn effect, where intelligence is everywhere measurably on the rise, it is becoming something of a puzzle as to why genius is not blossoming around every corner, indeed why it has almost entirely disappeared.

The irony here is that there is a direct relationship between genius and greater intelligence—the blatantly obvious turns out in this case to be actually true—and yet this direct relationship remains entirely misapprehended. The trouble lies perhaps not so much with the concept of genius itself, a concept that remains fluid enough to still be amended. The trouble lies more fundamentally with the concept of intelligence, a concept that has now hardened into intransigent dogma. Humanity thoroughly misunderstands what intelligence is, and thus in turn, it thoroughly misunderstands what genius is.

Intelligence is a neural activity, it is what humans produce inside their evolutionarily superior brain—no statement it would seem is in less dispute. When humans applaud a high IQ score (and in the same breath applaud genius), they are paying homage to the activities of someone's brain, they are giving due to an example of neural excellence. People are born smart, everyone surely knows that by now, and if someone has managed to improve their intelligence through education or some other means, it is because they have rewired the intricate workings inside their skull, they have leaned heavily on that marvelous and practically miraculous concept known as neural plasticity. In the same way that weightlifters harvest the strength of their over-sized muscles, intelligent thinkers brandish the power of their super-connected neurons. This has become the unquestioned dogma of the land.

Like other well-entrenched dogmatic mistakes, this one began honestly enough with a grain of truth. That there exist natural intelligence differences from person to person would have been apparent even before the dawn of civilization, and now with the advent of intelligence exams and psychometric analysis, these observable distinctions have not only been experimentally confirmed, they have also been broadly linked to genetic and neurological foundations. So the brain certainly plays an important role in human intelligence, of that there can be no doubt. But that the brain plays the entire role in human intelligence, or even the most significant role—well, that is something that could have been doubted from the very beginning.

The first indication that intelligence cannot be explained by human neurology alone is the Flynn effect, the observation that intelligence scores have been increasing population wide since first being measured (and by logical extension, probably long before that). If intelligence is entirely a brain-based neurological activity, then the Flynn effect strongly implies that human neurology must be rapidly and tangibly changing, becoming physically and substantially more effective with each generation. Scientists of course hesitate before such a notion, because it defies every known characteristic of biology, genetics and evolution. As an alternative, scientists offer up other explanations—a grand plethora of other explanations—designed to bridge the seemingly insurmountable gap between biology and observation. Heterosis, better nutrition, social multipliers, video games, increased schooling, test familiarity, fast and slow life—just about everything except the kitchen sink has been guessed so far, and in one final desperate all-encompassing guess, the suggestion has been put forth that the Flynn effect is in fact caused by all of the above, working in some kind of orgiastic combination. But despite the twisting and turning about, not one of these efforts has proven to be even remotely plausible or the slightest bit convincing, and thus the Flynn effect is now awaiting an inevitability, awaiting that moment when scientists finally tire of banging their heads against a wall. The unavoidable fact is this: the Flynn effect is incompatible with an entirely neurological human intelligence, meaning that ultimately one of those two concepts must go. And the Flynn effect of course is an observation, while an entirely neurological human intelligence is merely a prejudice.

Plus it is more than just the Flynn effect that votes a resounding nay against the notion of a brain-based intelligence. Genius too is utterly incompatible with the concept. Because if intelligence really were exclusively a brain-based neurological activity, then the common wisdom regarding genius would of necessity be true, genius would consistently belong to the domain of those with the most effective neural structures, and in this era of an ever increasing intelligence, genius would now be as plentiful as springtime rain. The continuing allure of this common wisdom speaks volumes about the ongoing and widespread acceptance of a brain-based intelligence, but the observable and obvious inaccuracy of this common wisdom speaks volumes about the blindness of that acceptance. The non-equivalence of genius and high intelligence has always been a puzzle, as puzzling in fact as the Flynn effect, and it is a puzzle that stems from the exact same root. The characteristics of genius simply do not fit to the characteristics of an entirely neurological human intelligence, meaning that ultimately one of those two concepts must go. And the characteristics of genius are derived from observation, while an entirely neurological human intelligence is merely a prejudice.

This author has detailed elsewhere a description of intelligence that rejects any primary reliance upon a brain-based, neurological foundation. In this new description, intelligence is defined quite literally as the amount of pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment. The network of highways, the symmetry of buildings, the repetition of clocks, the arrangement of letters on a page—all this and so much more—these mostly artificial environmental features constitute the material substance of intelligence itself, directly observable, directly measurable, directly defined. Intelligence palpably exists around a human, it does not exist primarily inside his head. Humans of course differ in their ability to absorb and respond to this surrounding intelligence, a difference that shows up quite nicely on the relative scores of an IQ exam, a difference with genetic and neural basis. But the overall level of human intelligence is not determined by individual abilities, the overall level of intelligence has nothing to do with the human brain. Human intelligence grows via the concrete addition of pattern, structure and form into the human environment, and this physical accretion of intelligence is the direct source, the direct driver, the direct cause, of the Flynn effect.

Plus this new description of intelligence provides more than just an accounting of the Flynn effect, it also produces a straightforward and observable definition of genius. Accumulation of intelligence into the human environment does not happen magically; in order for new intelligence to accrue within the human surroundings something must put it there. A large portion of this accretion can be accomplished via replication, by copying the already existent pattern, structure and form from one context into another. Blueprints, books, education, communication, plus a myriad of other means—all these serve to take the intelligence already embodied within the environment and then spread it further around. But replication can only go so far; if intelligence is to continue to grow, then novel pattern, structure and form must eventually be introduced. And while replication can be achieved by almost anyone (it is humanity's greatest shared activity), the introduction of novel intelligence is an activity exceptionally rare. No other animal species has managed to construct new intelligence within its own environment, and humans themselves did not do so for a very long time. What is required for this unusual feat is an individual with an exceptionally unusual eye, an individual with the ability and inclination to perceive the world not as it already is and not as others already perceive it, but to perceive the world quite differently from everyone else, to cast the world into a whole new paradigm. And when these anomalous perceptions have been promulgated far enough, after they have been copied a sufficient enough times, as they significantly increase the overall amount of pattern, structure and form contained within the human environment—that is to say, as they significantly increase the overall level of human intelligence—then the source of these catalyzing perceptions is finally recognized, often very much in retrospect, and the originating individual is given the name he or she most accurately deserves, is given the name of genius.

In short, genius is the unforeseen spark that fires the Flynn effect.

One of the first characteristics to recognize about individual genius is that it does not require superior intellectual ability; genius requires only a sufficient understanding of the domain of interest. A high IQ in fact mostly hinders genius, because superior intelligence implies superior command of the pattern, structure and form already contained within the environment, but this superior command can easily obscure any perception of intelligence as it might possibly be. The individual genius is more apt to possess an uneven or contrarian intelligence profile, as though there is some degree of confusion or dissatisfaction with conventional answers.

An even more telling characteristic of genius is its deep fascination with non-biological pattern, structure and form—the material substance of intelligence itself—a fascination often bordering on the aberrant. This characteristic already establishes the rarity of genius, because for the vast majority of the human population, the primary focus is not on non-biological pattern, structure and form; for the vast majority of the human population, the primary focus is on other people. This is in keeping with the powerful hold that biological perception and conspecific awareness have upon nearly every animal organism, a hold that is entirely essential to survival and procreation but is effectively blinding to the possibilities of new intelligence. The individual genius is one who has been loosened from this conspecific grip and who in compensation has turned hungrily towards the structural details of the external world. This perceptual mismatch between the individual genius and the remainder of humanity explains in large measure the oft-mentioned secondary traits of genius: iconoclastic, abrasive, aloof, a little bit strange. The individual genius simply does not perceive the world as does everyone else—genius and humanity are fundamentally at odds.

The characteristics of genius align closely to the characteristics of the condition known as autism. In each case, these are individuals conspecifically distanced from the remainder of the population. In each case, these are individuals focused primarily on non-biological pattern, structure and form (not focused primarily on other people). In each case, these are individuals often misunderstood and frequently disdained by conventional wisdom. For those who have callously written off the autistic population, including nearly the entire research and scientific community, the alignment of genius and autism must seem nothing short of outrageous. But the observable characteristics speak for themselves, characteristics that align with typicality hardly at all.

The retrospective acclaim that attaches to genius is perhaps its most ironic feature. Although genius truly earns and deserves all its recognition, it is not because there is always something exclusive or essential about the ingenious act. In a context of accruing intelligence, nearly every moment of genius is a discovery destined to be made sooner or later anyway. Take Newton for instance: if Newton had not returned home in his twenty-third year but instead had traveled to London and therein succumbed to the Great Plague, it does not mean that the differential calculus, the laws of motion and the theory of gravitation would have never seen the light of day. Other individuals of eccentric perception would have eventually promoted these notions, and today such individuals would be heralded as genius. As far as is known, there might have been several predecessors to Newton all capable of the exact same feats, but who through unfortunate circumstance never gained the opportunity.

The more authentic reason to celebrate genius is that it is an act of individual defiance and individual courage. All the approbation showered on genius is done so from the safety of retrospective time. At its moment of birth, novel intelligence always cuts against the common grain and gathers no immediate stamp of approval. What novel intelligence usually garners is a heaping dose of neglect, scorn and derision, because humanity is content with what it already knows, feels the safest with what it can perceive in unison—each revision is an unwelcome intruder. To bring pristine pattern, structure and form into the human environment, the individual genius must weather a storm of rebukes from without and a flood of doubts from within; the introduction of new intelligence is one of the loneliest acts imaginable.

This past century has seen a grand scale movement to accommodate genius to a much broader population. Perhaps motivated by the retrospective acclaim, and certainly unaware of the requisite isolation, humanity has been pooling its efforts in an attempt to distill genius's indispensable merits into dispensable recipe. Scientific method and artistic technique have emerged as the templates of choice, and the academic institutions, once home to the most bizarre and misanthropic of creatures, now attract gregarious millions, each eager to play a role in the next great discovery. Optimism is announced daily by press release, pending results form the backbone of nearly every grant proposal, but there is a silence now surrounding the din of these swelling universities, it is the silence of genius having walked away from these overcrowded academic halls.

The ever more tightly prescribed requirements of scientific method have led to all too predictable results, a tidal-wave of bland minutiae, more monotonous and more dogmatic with each publication. The increasingly rote specifications of artistic technique have led to similarly predictable results, an avalanche of trivial art for trivial art's sake, more self-conscious and more self-congratulatory with each debut. Having pooled their efforts to be part of something intelligently grand, today's university denizens find themselves herded along in an increasingly frantic push for more: more requirements, more specifications, more standards, more ethics, more committees, more peers, more reviews, more co-authors, more citations, more statistics, more funding, more methods, more techniques. Everyone must stick together, everyone must follow the routine, and if all just play their role as specified, then the promise of genius can flow forth like manna and honey, flow forth as the combined product of everyone's evolutionarily superior brain.

The grand scale movement has turned into a music hall comedy, full of bathos and farce.

Genius attaches to individuals, it does not arise from groups. Genius appears only in those who have mastered that rarest characteristic of all, the willingness to dare to go it alone. Although scientific method and artistic technique will always have their place, as tools in the massive replication of intelligence—still the honorable work of all mankind—nonetheless, scientific method and artistic technique cannot inspire genius. And as the academic institutions become increasingly shoulder to shoulder, as they sink further into a slavedom of prescribed routine, expect the individual genius to continue to hasten away. Expect the next great discovery to come from someplace unexpected.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

One Kilo-Author Is Only the Tip of the Herd

It has become something of a trend over the past year or so to note the increasing amount of co-authorship on scientific papers (with perhaps a hint of concern this might not be a good thing). Having hundreds or even thousands of authors on a single paper does seem a bit perverse, and of course there is the question of where it all might end. But to be honest, it was not all that long ago that having just five authors on a paper would have seemed perverse, and so in considering limitations might I suggest there is only one obvious place to draw a line. For whether it is five authors or five thousand, the real concern is why no one goes it alone. Have scientists become so utterly unsure of themselves that they now feel obligated to always bring a gang.

Group think is group mediocrity, and I can think of no phrase that better describes the current realm of science than group mediocrity.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


[Edit 02/11/2017: The final version of this essay can be found here.]

What makes a biological species such an intriguing concept is its stasis. From out of a near maelstrom of biological and evolutionary dynamics—selection, genetics, generation—a species emerges as something obstinately distinct, stable and enduring. Darwin himself was puzzled that nature does not formulate instead into a mish-mash of morphologies and traits, with a more gradual and more frequent variation across space and across time. This puzzlement—an aspect of what is often referred to as Darwin's dilemma—has never been completely resolved. Modern explanations for nature's tendency to coalesce into well delineated and persistent species usually center around the notions of reproductive isolation and costs of rarity, but in many respects these accounts miss a good deal of the point. A species is not only static and conservative in its morphology and reproductive viability, a species is also static and conservative in its overall behavior, to the point of being almost perfectly predictable across the entirety of its existence. If for instance one were to film a documentary on almost any plant or animal species, place it inside a vault for a hundred thousand years, one could then remove the documentary and promote it as still accurate and up-to-date, without the slightest need of an edit. This dogged constancy across the entire reach of the phylogenetic network appears to be the evidence of an underlying biological invariance—a law if you will—a law that has not been adequately determined.

And to make the matter yet more puzzling, there is the one notable exception to the law, the one case of the law having encountered a blatant violator—that is, the human species.

Humanity certainly did not begin as the most obvious counterexample to the notion of species stasis. The genus Homo and its predecessors had for millions of years been unfolding into an entirely standard set of stable and generally durable groupings: afarensis, africanus, habilis, ergaster, erectus, heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis. And for quite some time Homo sapiens too appeared to be slated for the same usual course, its members passing through typical and mostly unvarying animal lives within the more hospitable corners of the African continent. But it was around fifty thousand years ago that an unprecedented behavioral transformation began to take shape within the species, a transformation that has only accelerated throughout the intervening years and today shows no signs of abatement. In the early twenty-first century almost no characteristic of human behavior would be recognizable to anyone who could have observed or recorded man's earlier days on the savanna. And although it is indeed behavior that constitutes the most clearcut difference between the humans of today and the humans of the past, with the advent of everything from dental implants to artificial knees, from Viagra to augmented bosoms, from in vitro fertilization to stem cell technologies, it is evident that much of the morphological and reproductive intransigence still lingering within the human species is now on the verge of disappearing as well.

And so there are two questions to be investigated regarding the concept of a biological species: one, what compels a species, across all its generations, to maintain such consistent and stable behavior, and two, how is it that the human species has managed to escape this compulsion?

To better understand the behavior of a species, perhaps the best place to begin is with Immanuel Kant. Kant was the first to fully confront the challenge of describing how a behaviorally productive biological consciousness can arise from the continuous multitude of sensory impressions that each organism receives, impressions that in their rawest form would be little more than chaotic and overwhelming, would be little more than useless noise. Kant's approach, including its heavy reliance upon syllogistic logic, was perhaps not entirely adequate to the task (C.S. Peirce would later improve the framework greatly). Nonetheless, Kant's groundbreaking effort still manages to capture the essence of what would have to be incorporated into any proposed solution to the problem, namely a recognition that in order for biological consciousness to exist at all, an organism's multitude of sensory impressions would have to be unified under some kind of structure or rule. Or to put it in the parlance of modern data science, each organism's raw sensory input would have to be sorted, filtered, mapped and reduced, resulting finally in the kind of perceptual foregrounding and targeted awareness that could serve as the basis for productive behavior. Kant's depiction is too often taken to be merely philosophical or as applicable to human reasoning alone, but in fact it is most informative when applied biologically: the early pages of the Critique of Pure Reason outline a general framework whereby a manifold of biological stimulus can be transformed into a precise and targeted response, something no lion on the prowl could ever do without.

Kant was also the first to recognize that the means of any sorting, filtering, mapping and reducing would have to be provided (a priori) by the organism itself, and that the general form of these means would be the primary determinant of the organism's perceptual content (and therefore the primary determinant of the organism's resulting behavior). Kant often used the somewhat vague and magical-sounding term faculty to delineate these organism-provided means, but of course it has to be remembered that Kant was writing well before the advent of Darwin, Mendel and an accurate rendition of Earth's biological timeline, so some vagueness and magic are to be excused. Today, post the advent of Darwin, Mendel and an accurate rendition of Earth's biological timeline, the a priori means that underlie sensory unification and perceptual grounding are now richly detailed and more deeply understood, having shed their vagueness upon a wealth of observable information regarding biochemistry and genetics, and having cast off their magical aura behind a well described evolutionary process that has spanned hundreds of millions of years. In the biological kingdom, what drives the means for sorting, filtering, mapping and reducing, what shapes the structure and rule behind stimulus unification and targeted response, are the ongoing requirements of survival and procreation—physically manifested within each organism's biochemical structure and honed into effectiveness through enormously long stretches of selection and generation.

The capstone of Kant's description, his list of conceptual categories—organized under such headings and subheadings as quality, quantity, modality, plurality, negation—was arrived at in an attempt to achieve maximum generality. But in a certain sense all this ardent abstraction overshoots the mark when applied in a biological context, where really only concreteness will do. If one were to search from the treetops of the Amazonian rain forests all the way to the depths of the ocean floor, it would be a frustrating endeavor to find anywhere a biological consciousness unified around such notions as quality, quantity, modality, plurality, negation. And yet it would be little more than child's play to find a biological consciousness unified around such notions as food, water, danger, shelter, family, sex, predators, prey, conspecifics. It is biological need that determines the primary structure of biological perception, and it is the pervasive and unyielding impulse behind these biologically driven categories that provides the first indication of why biological behavior remains so consistent and stable. Survival ceaselessly asserts its decrees, procreation fervently presses its demands, evolution ruthlessly carries out its mandate, and each organism, both outwardly and inwardly, must adhere to these strict regulations or else disappear. And so in broad and inexorable lockstep, the members of the biological community aim their rapt attention towards food, water, danger, shelter, family, sex, predators, prey, conspecifics—and then respond accordingly, and respond mostly the same.

Of the biologically driven categories, conspecific awareness and recognition holds special significance: it is the primary catalyst—at least within the animal kingdom—behind each species developing a strong tendency to coalesce, both territorially and behaviorally. Each organism appears to possess a predisposition to foreground first and foremost those sensory impressions that are directly associated with the other members of its species—lions perceive and attend primarily to other lions, geese perceive and attend predominantly to other geese, ants perceive and attend chiefly to other ants (and of course humans perceive and attend first and foremost to other humans). The principal inducement towards this nearly universal characteristic is that it is the most direct solution to an otherwise haphazard reproductive challenge. Successful mating requires that male and female conjoin at the same time and at the same location, a rendezvous that would be made problematic, if not downright impossible, should each member of the species be unable to distinguish and foreground its own kind from all the remainder—a perceptual blindness that would be practically guaranteed without inherent conspecific awareness, since there is nothing within sensory impressions by themselves that would help promote one class of perceptions over another. Even in those rare cases where organisms live solitary lives and egg-laying and fertilization are separated in time, the species is still bound together by the perceptual foregrounding of the expected location of egg-laying and fertilization, in this instance an effective proxy for conspecific prominence.

And beyond the logistical requirements of procreation itself, many species make heavy use of conspecific foregrounding to advance a broad range of beneficial behaviors. Nurturing of the young for instance necessitates that adults carry a perceptual preference for the offspring of their own kind—lest lions find themselves randomly rearing goslings, geese find themselves indiscriminately raising ants, and so on. Successful foraging, pack hunting and herd defense all depend upon a keen perceptual attention to the other members of the population, even when those members occupy no more than a minuscule portion of the entire sensory field. But perhaps most importantly of all, conspecific awareness and recognition allows tried-and-tested species behaviors to be passed along from generation to generation without the inefficient obligation that each and every behavior be imprinted genetically or made completely instinctual. The maturing members of many species go through a period of time in which their main occupation is to scrutinize parents, siblings, extended family and other models within the population, imitating observed activities and eventually taking on those activities with an increasing faithfulness (and thereby becoming models for the next generation). This recurrent cycle of learned and transmitted behavior is always confined to the species itself—lions do not learn from leopards, geese do not model sparrows, no organism imitates non-biological objects. Each organism is a fully engaged student of its own kind—and is nearly oblivious to everything else.

Thus the trait of conspecific awareness and recognition has both the powerful and the restrictive impact of making a species insular. Conspecific foregrounding encourages the species to cluster, it turns the species' members inwards for mutual protection and predatory assistance, and it promotes generational continuance of the species' more successful behaviors. But the unrelenting narrowness of this characteristic also has the consequence of effectively blinding the species to any alternative information the sensory field might have to offer—whether that information would come from other species or from the non-biological world. Nearly all sensory impressions not directly connected to the species itself or to the immediate requirements of survival and procreation are relegated to the sensory background and never gain perceptual prominence, and thus never influence biological attention or behavior. As a result, the species is provided little opportunity for change, since perceptually speaking nothing ever differs from generation to generation. So powerful and so confining is the impact of conspecific awareness and recognition that it really needs to be considered an essential part of the definition of a species, for a species is determined not only by its morphological similarities and its reproductive sufficiency, it is also determined by the mutual awareness and recognition of all its members, the glue that holds the species together and assures its unvarying continuance.

The inherent perceptual inclination towards conspecifics, along with the corresponding disinclination towards other species, suggests there is a boundary between these two extremes. On one side of the boundary, conspecific awareness and recognition must function within a certain range of tolerance, for despite there being varying levels of genetic and morphological difference among species members, conspecific foregrounding remains active and strong in nearly all population circumstances. But this tolerance clearly has its limits, because it does not extend so far as to include the other species, and thus it can be assumed that as conspecific distance increases between organisms (a function most likely of increased morphological and/or genetic difference), a boundary is eventually reached where the tolerance is fully extended and then finally exceeded, with a corresponding attenuation and loss of conspecific awareness and recognition.

These concepts of conspecific distance, tolerance and boundary play an important role in assessing the expected outcome and impact of an organism that introduces genetic alterations into a species. A new genetic signature carrying differences that are only minor in effect and/or infrequent in number will likely leave the bearer within the conspecific tolerance range, meaning that the bearer will experience typical conspecific foregrounding and typical conspecific perceptions and behaviors, improving the chance for continuation of these minor mutations. This must happen to some extent with nearly all offspring, because each organism possesses a genetic signature that is unique to some degree, and yet in the large majority of cases this uniqueness does not interfere with conspecific awareness. By contrast, a newly introduced genetic signature that carries differences that are major in effect and/or frequent in number increases the likelihood that the conspecific distance between the bearer and the other members of the species will become so large as to strain or even surpass the conspecific tolerance range, thereby weakening or even nullifying conspecific awareness and recognition. To take an extreme example, one might imagine a lion being born with such an exaggerated level of genetic mutation that it is effectively a leopard, meaning that this newborn and its “conspecific” neighbors are destined to become perceptual strangers, with survival and procreative consequences almost certain to turn negative. Even at much lesser extremes of conspecific distance, challenging biological consequences can still be anticipated, and thus conspecific distancing almost certainly plays a role in the thwarting of significant genetic change within a species, another manner in which conspecific awareness and recognition contributes to the ongoing stasis of a species.

Although the odds of continuation are indeed negligible for an organism outside the conspecific tolerance range, the prognosis is more uncertain, and in some ways more intriguing, for an organism approaching the boundary—near enough that conspecific awareness and recognition is weakened to some degree but not so near as to make survival and procreation essentially impossible. There are several distinguishing characteristics that can be predicted for such an organism. Mating for instance, although not precluded, will certainly be more problematic, since the organism's inherent perception for potential mates, as well as their perception in turn for it, will be more hazy than is the case for the rest of the species, leading to coupling behaviors that might seem distant or strange. In species that make heavy use of conspecific foregrounding for mutual defense or combined attack, an organism stretching conspecific tolerance will of necessity be a weaker participant in these group activities and might come to be regarded as an encumbrance by way of result. And perhaps most importantly of all, the maturation process for a conspecifically distanced organism will almost certainly be more difficult and more delayed than for its peers, its relative inability and disinclination to scrutinize others in the population and to imitate their behaviors hampering the typical transmission of species behaviors. Such an organism will not only physically be an outsider to the population, it will also perceptually and behaviorally be an outsider as well.

On the other hand, the challenges faced by an organism near the conspecific border do provide the potential for an ironic compensation. It needs to be remembered that the primary purpose behind an inherent form of biological perception is to unify sensory impressions, impressions that would otherwise remain chaotic, overwhelming and useless. And to the extent that an organism's perceptual mechanisms are diminished by its biological circumstances, the corresponding unification of sensory experience will be diminished as well. Such weakening of sensory unification will likely give rise to an assortment of sensory difficulties—hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, synaesthesia. In order to ameliorate these difficulties, a conspecifically distanced organism, detached in significant degree from one of its primary means of sensory unification, will be driven towards alternative means of sensory unification—which is to say, it will be driven towards alternative means of perception. This effectively opens the door to a wider awareness of alternative features within the sensory field, such as those provided by the other species, and more significantly, those provided by the non-biological world. It is well known that the non-biological world provides a rich framework of organizing principles that can serve as the basis for unification of sensory experience, principles that go under such names as symmetry, repetition, pattern, structure and form. These organizing principles are in theory available to all organisms, but the restrictive effect of biological perception in general, and conspecific awareness and recognition in particular, usually pushes awareness of these non-biological features well into the sensory background. And thus ironically, it is only the organisms that get loosened from the strictures of conspecific awareness and recognition that gain the opportunity to foreground these alternative features from the surrounding environment, and thereby gain the perceptual freedom to achieve a broader and deeper awareness of the entire sensory field.

If there were only one such conspecifically distanced organism or even a few such organisms extant within a population, there would likely be little impact on the species as a whole. But if the population were to possess a significant number of such organisms, and that number were to remain stable for a reasonable period of time, the species dynamic could begin to change. All the necessary conditions for a change would be in place: the broader population would have a conspecific relationship to the population's more distant members (albeit a looser relationship than normal), and the more distant members would have access to a wider array of perceptual experience. The natural workings of conspecific awareness and recognition would prompt the broader population to begin to notice the new behaviors and new perceptions being originated by the more distant members, an awareness that might even encourage imitation. In this manner the enhanced perceptual experience of the population's more distant members would begin to infiltrate the perceptual experience of the species as a whole, and with a change in species perception would come a corresponding change in species behavior. In defiance of the universal expectation of a continual species stasis, this species would be on the verge of a behavioral revolution.

Of course considering the biological fragility that haunts the conspecific boundary, and observing the non-changing behavior of all the species to be found in the natural world, it would seem that any talk of behavioral revolutions being driven by conspecific distancing would have to qualify as little more than academic exercise, some hypothetical musing. And indeed that would be the end of the matter, if it were not for the one piece of unfinished biological business—namely the one species that has emerged suddenly and prominently as a blatant violator of the tenets of species stasis, the same one species (not coincidentally) that has broadly expanded its perceptual experience of the sensory world, the same one species (not coincidentally) of which it can no longer be said that it is to be found in the natural world. The human species.

The behavioral revolution of the human species has been nothing short of stunning in both its scope and its speed. There is little in the way of hard evidence to suggest that prior to around fifty thousand years ago Homo sapiens individuals lived much differently than all the other animals—riding the ebbs and flows of survival and procreation, gazing out upon an entirely natural landscape, confined to the African continent alone. And then suddenly everything began to change. Art, symbolism, categorized tools, sophisticated weaponry—all began appearing in ever increasing numbers and with ever advancing technique. Humans began to spread geographically and did not stop until the entire planet had been covered. They extincted many other species along the way and bred a chosen few into a domesticated abundance. Today, very few humans gaze out upon an entirely natural landscape—artificial environments have become vastly the human norm.

One notable aspect of this human revolution is that has been accompanied by—indeed it has been driven by—a broadened perceptual awareness of the sensory world, including a much broadened perceptual awareness of the non-biological world. Nearly all the changes that have become the hallmark features of modern human existence have been built upon a backbone of non-biological constructs, everything from the grammatical patterns of language all the way to the structured symmetries of towering skyscrapers. Literally everywhere one looks, one finds the profuse application of the organizing principles of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form, principles that never would have reached the surface of human ken not that long ago, but today constitute the proliferating and artificial embodiment of man's ever burgeoning intelligence.

Thus the characteristics of the human behavioral revolution can be seen as matching the description given above for a species change brought about by the influence of conspecific distancing. The enormous human behavioral change has been accompanied by an equally enormous human perceptual change, by an expanded perceptual awareness, one that goes far beyond the restrictions of biological perception alone. Humans still have their conspecific awareness and recognition for one another, and they still possess their sensory instincts for survival and procreation, but humans are no longer confined by these perceptions, the species has been freed entirely from its former perceptual prison.

The predictions of conspecific distancing would suggest that this liberation must have been catalyzed through the influence of a significant and stable sub-population of conspecifically distanced humans, relative outsiders who driven by biological and sensory necessity would have been the first to explore a different means of seeing the world, the species' pathfinders to expanded forms of perception. And so the question needs to be asked: within the human population, is there a recognizable subgroup of members who can be seen as carrying the distinguishing characteristics (including the challenges) of a conspecifically distanced organism and who also possess the compensating trait of an expanded perceptual awareness, an awareness that often shies from typical biological perception but that gravitates more readily to alternative perceptual targets, targets such as the non-biological world and its organizing principles of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form?

Within the human population, there is indeed such a group of people, and over this past century they have begun to be recognized. They are defined most accurately as autistic.

Autism has been giving the scientific community a very difficult time. The condition was first regarded as extremely rare and almost always debilitating, but as evidence has mounted over the years it has become more and more clear that at least one percent of the human population can be described as autistic, and along with such numbers has come the inevitable corollary that in the large majority of circumstances the condition cannot be all that debilitating. Autistic individuals certainly face some challenges, challenges that can vary in degree, but that has never prevented autistic individuals from blending in with the rest of the human population, so much so that they have gone virtually unrecognized for dozens of millennia. Nonetheless, even in the face of these accumulating facts, the scientific community has been unable to let go of its need to medicalize the condition, somehow convinced, without evidence, that autism must be the result of biological defect. And so the research and studies have been growing like weeds, searches for defective genes, searches for defective neural pathways, searches for defective metabolisms—massively funded and massively peopled efforts that have now become laughable in the combined fruitlessness of their results. And more troubling still—and certainly more shameful—has been the scientific community's willingness to heap insult and torture upon its autistic subjects, branding them with an assortment of inaccurate and unsupported labels (burdens, tragedies) and stifling them with an assortment of damaging treatments and so-called cures (applied behavioral analysis, stupefying drugs). The scientific community's present approach to autism is destined to become one of that community's more humiliating hours.

A far more accurate approach to understanding autism is to regard it as a condition of increased conspecific distance. All the core characteristics of autism—what nearly every autistic individual shares in common—are the very same characteristics predicted of an organism that is much nearer to the conspecific border than the majority of its peers. Autistic individuals, although very much a biological part of the human population, show less inclination for and less attention to their conspecific neighbors, a trait which is often taken as evidence of damaged social functioning but upon careful observation is more precisely described as a diminished human awareness, an attenuated human recognition. Autistic children, less inherently prone to the activities of conspecific observation and conspecific imitation, mature more slowly than their non-autistic counterparts, sometimes taking well into adulthood to assume a fuller role within the broader population. Autistic individuals experience an assortment of sensory anomalies—hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, synaesthesia—conditions that seem to have no discernible physical cause and no tangible consistency from individual to individual, evidence that these anomalies stem not from physical defects but instead from a more generalized difficulty with the attainment of sensory unification. Finally, and almost invariably, autistic individuals compensate for their diminished conspecific awareness and recognition by concentrating instead on alternative perceptual targets, including a predominance of targets from the non-biological world. In the youngest autistic individuals this is most often seen in the rapt attention given to such things as spinning objects, symmetrical figures, repeated sounds and scenes, and in older autistic individuals this characteristic often coalesces into specialized and deeply learned interests. Sadly, the term repetitive and restricted behaviors is often used to disparage these concentrations on alternative perceptual targets, betraying a complete misunderstanding of both their necessary purpose and their liberating consequence. For these concentrations on alternative perceptual targets are both the creative antidotes to what might otherwise be an overwhelming sensory chaos, and they are also the opening doors to the organizing and intelligence-producing principles of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form.

The key role that autistic individuals must have played—and are continuing to play—in the sparking of the human behavioral revolution can be seen in the oddly consistent feature that has emerged at each point of human perceptual and behavioral change. These changes are always launched by individuals and their discoveries (never by groups), individuals who are inevitably in possession of a distinguishing and uncommon set of traits. From Socrates to Newton to Beethoven to Einstein—and at each transforming moment of genius in between—the human revolution has been powered by individuals who seem to be mostly detached from the typical concerns of society and species, and who are instead obsessively focused on alternative concerns, often non-biological concerns, concerns that the rest of the population might describe as worthless or strange. It has never been much of a secret that the personal characteristics of genius tend to be rather odd; all that is being noted here is that these personal characteristics tend to be odd in a predictable and recognizable way. One might call these individuals of genius autistic, or one might call them conspecifically distant—there really is no difference—but the true mark of their genius is that they see the world not as it is and as others perceive it, the true mark of their genius is that they see the world exactly not as it is and exactly not as others have already perceived it, the same compensatory and distinguishing characteristic of a conspecifically distanced organism, of an autistic individual.

Any explanation of the human behavioral revolution would need to be an explanation of coincident events, because it was at the exact same moment in Earth's enormous biological/evolutionary timescale that humans quite suddenly underwent an entire host of unprecedented transformations:

  • They began perceiving aspects of their sensory world that went far beyond the elements of survival and procreation alone.
  • They began behaving less and less like the animals they had formerly been, and more and more like the modern humans they were about to become.
  • They began constructing artifacts out of the material structure of the non-biological world.
  • They began displaying the tangible signs of what would become an ever increasing intelligence.
  • They began expanding geographically, conquering climates and other species, and did not stop until they had blanketed the entire planet.

The common explanation for the human revolution, that it is simply a by-product of normal biology and normal evolution, fails to tie together any of these multi-faceted events and fails to address their suddenness and simultaneity. The notion of conspecific distancing, however, has the merit of encompassing nearly all these different aspects of the human revolution: it provides a direct and observable source for the expansion of human perception; it contrasts that new perception with biological perception, providing an explanation for humanity's departure from animal behavior; it clarifies mankind's sudden interest and skill with the elements of the non-biological world; and it describes humanity's ever increasing intelligence as the embodied reliance upon the organizing principles of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form.

Furthermore, conspecific distancing associates directly to yet another event coincident with the human revolution. Concurrent with the other changes taking place within the species, Homo sapiens was undergoing a significant introgression of genetic material from Neanderthals and perhaps other human sub-species, an introgression sizable and pervasive enough that nearly all non-African humans living today possess around a 2 to 3 percent admixture of non Homo sapiens genetic material (Green et al., 2010). There is still much to be learned about the nature and impact of this introgressive event, but it is clear such an occurrence would be exactly the kind of genetic jolt that could loosen the conspecific bonds of a species and potentially give rise to many generations of conspecifically distanced individuals.

All these simultaneous and fast occurring events, along with the nature of the autistic population living today, serve as the strong circumstantial evidence that the human behavioral revolution was not an event of normal biology and normal evolution, but instead was an event driven by the characteristics of conspecific distancing, characteristics that ultimately gave rise to an evolution-shattering and universe-unveiling aberration—the lone counterexample to the law of species stasis.


Green, R.E., et al. (2010). A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. Science 328, 710–722.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Animal Intelligence

[Edit 02/11/2017: The final version of this essay can be found here.]

Chimpanzees communicating with sign language and lexigrams. Rhesus macaques accurately adding Arabic numerals. Dolphins employing sponges as protective gear during foraging. Crows bending wires into food hooks. Octopi transporting and manipulating coconut shells for camouflage and shelter. These and many similar examples are showcased regularly by today's scientists as the evidence that animals—meaning the animal species other than Homo sapiens—possess intelligence, intelligence comparable to and in some cases rivaling that of humans.

But when these examples are examined not for what they are supposed to demonstrate, but instead for what they actually demonstrate, they contradict the scientists' conclusion, and what they reveal instead is a widespread misunderstanding about what intelligence is. For all but one species on this planet the phrase animal intelligence is essentially meaningless, a null set. And for the exception—for the human species—the phrase animal intelligence is more akin to a contradiction in terms, the left-to-right juxtaposition of this species' sudden and surprising turn from the first word of the phrase to the second.

The many offered examples of animal intelligence fall invariably into one of just two categories.

The first category comprises those instances typically originated in the laboratory, such as primates displaying language skills and numeracy, birds employing an assortment of knick-knacks as tools, rodents navigating ever more complex mazes, etc. And more broadly, this category also encompasses the many domesticated animals and their activities that are frequently portrayed as intelligent, such as responding to a called name or consistently unlatching the hook from the pen. Such behaviors, when performed by humans, are taken as instances of human intelligence, and so it is an easy next step to assess such behaviors, when performed by animals, as instances of animal intelligence. Further bolstering this line of reasoning is the widespread agreement that human intelligence is produced via the human brain. Animals clearly have brains too, and so what could be more natural than to characterize their sophisticated laboratory and domestication behaviors as expressions of animal intelligence produced via the animal brain. What arises then from all these seemingly straightforward considerations is the widely held notion that not just humans but the other animals too must possess a neural proclivity for intelligence, and although this intelligence might differ in degree from species to species (for presumably evolutionary reasons), it certainly does not differ in kind.

Nonetheless, this line of reasoning masks a crucial omission: it too conveniently forgets the context of all these examples. By definition, every instance of a laboratory- or domestication-based animal intelligence behavior manifests exclusively within an artificial environment, which is to say that it manifests exclusively under human-generated conditions. Chimpanzees do not respond to chimpanzee-invented words and lexigrams, they respond instead to human-invented words and lexigrams. Crows do not manipulate crow-generated artifacts, they manipulate human-generated artifacts. Rats do not navigate rat-engineered mazes, they navigate human-engineered mazes. The inevitable presence and influence of human-originated features within the settings of all these examples calls immediately into question the applicability of the phrase animal intelligence, because it remains highly uncertain that animal has anything to do with these cases. It would be more legitimate to say that the animals in these examples are displaying not a form of animal intelligence so much as they are simply redisplaying well known forms of human intelligence, a kind of intelligence irrevocably tied to human-specific circumstances. This distinction is not merely semantic, because in fact its consequences are both consistent and real. Without exception, when the human-originated features are removed from the setting of any one of these examples, the corresponding intelligence behaviors disappear right along with them. No primate ever employs an abstract symbol or lexigram in the wild, and no cat answers to its given name in the great outdoors.

Perhaps even more tellingly, the presence of human-like animal intelligence behaviors within artificial settings, and the complete absence of such behaviors within natural settings, assails the very notion of an intelligence produced via the brain—be it animal brain or human brain. The fundamental distinction between wild animals and animals under human influence is certainly not genetic or neural, not unless one is prone to believe in biological magic (as some scientists would seem to be). No, and so the question must be asked: if laboratory- and domestication-based animal intelligence behaviors are the evidence of a capacity for intelligence within the animal brain, then why does this capacity not express itself within non-artificial settings? If for instance the primate brain possesses enough intelligence to produce abstract language and arithmetic within the laboratory, then it certainly possesses enough intelligence to produce abstract language and arithmetic within the jungle—and yet it never does so. Thus it is a logical mistake to attribute animal intelligence behaviors to the animal brain, because in fact the animal brain does not differ from setting to setting, and yet animal intelligence behaviors can differ vastly from setting to setting.

The more logical and direct alternative would be to attribute human-like animal intelligence behaviors to what is actually distinct between the circumstances of the laboratory and the circumstances of the wild, namely the presence of human-generated artifacts and influences within the former setting and the complete absence of such artifacts and influences within the latter setting. The human-originated environment—mostly non-biological, highly constructed, and abundantly suffused with underlying elements of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form—this is the only distinguishing feature to which to attribute human-like animal intelligence behaviors, behaviors that manifest within its presence but disappear upon its absence. This human context—this human intelligence context—cannot be overlooked in the description of laboratory- and domestication-based animal intelligence behaviors, because it is this context alone that emerges as the precipitating factor for the induction of such behaviors.

Furthermore, if human-like animal intelligence behaviors are attributable solely to the presence of artificial and structural features within the surrounding environment of such behaviors—and not attributable to the animal brain—then there is little reason to expect the situation is any different for humans themselves. It is of course not possible to observe directly the comparable behaviors of modern humans versus wild humans (even the few remaining humans yet living under the most primitive of conditions are still thoroughly ensconced from birth in artificial features and circumstances—abstract language, weapons, constructed shelters, etc.). Nonetheless, the evidence from anthropological history reveals that for a very long period of time Homo sapiens individuals lived as little more than animals themselves, engaged almost entirely in a struggle for survival and procreation, and if one were to compare the language, arithmetic, tool usage, shelter creation and other intelligence behaviors between those ancient humans and modern humans, one would recognize that here too, just as was the case in the comparison of wild animals versus laboratory- and domestication-based animals, the gulf in intelligence behaviors is vast—a nearly complete absence in the former case and an overwhelming presence in the latter. But again unless one is prone to believe in biological or evolutionary magic (as some scientists would seem to be), one cannot attribute this vast gulf in intelligence behaviors to genetic or neural causes, because in fact the genetic and neural distinction between ancient humans and modern humans is minuscule, a comparison of a species against itself. Instead, the only non-magical, differentiating influence to which to attribute the vast gulf in intelligence behaviors from ancient humans to modern humans is the large and obvious distinction in their environmental circumstances. For ancient humans their immediate surroundings were as natural as natural can be, void of all artificial constructions and features, the equivalent of a wild animal's domain; while for modern humans the natural world has been practically eclipsed from view, crowded out by surroundings mostly non-biological, highly constructed, and abundantly suffused with the underlying characteristics of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form. For modern humans, the source and inspiration of their many and varied intelligence behaviors can be found literally everywhere close at hand, while for ancient humans such sources and inspirations were literally nowhere to be seen, and this vast difference in setting, coupled with a near equivalence in biological underpinning, strongly challenges the notion of an intelligence produced via the brain.

Thus for this first category of examples offered in support of the existence of an animal intelligence—examples originated in the laboratory, the barnyard and the home—it can be seen that the widespread and unquestioned conclusion that such behaviors are the evidence of animal intelligence produced via the animal brain overlooks what these examples actually convey. The presence of such behaviors exclusively in human-originated circumstances means that this form of intelligence is more human-inspired than it is animal-inspired, and means that far from being produced via the animal brain—a brain that is just as functional and just as present in the wild—these intelligence behaviors are more directly attributable to the human-centric features and influences that constitute the behaviors' surrounding environment, the only type of environment in which these behaviors manifest.

The second category of examples offered as evidence for animal intelligence reverses the circumstances of the first category and consists solely of those cases that occur entirely within natural settings, completely removed from any artificial (that is, human) influence. This includes instances such as dolphins and mollusks employing found objects for shelter and tool, migratory birds navigating by landmarks and stars, squirrels employing deception to safeguard their cache of food, and so on. Indeed the enumeration of examples from this second category would appear to be potentially without end, because it could reasonably be argued that any behavior successfully advancing an animal's quest for survival and procreation might be a viable candidate for inclusion in this category. Scientists are of course apt to concentrate only on those behaviors that have a similarity to well known human behaviors—behaviors that are considered by the scientists to be humanly intelligent—but this clearly reflects some anthropocentric bias and effectively reduces the phrase animal intelligence as applied to this category to be little more than a synonym for animal similarity-to-modern-humanness. Yet even under this tilted approach the ambiguity would still remain. For although a human might cleverly apply deception to safeguard his valuables in certain circumstances, he might also smartly employ brute force when different circumstances arise; and so when the squirrel protects its stash of acorns via deception within the tree and the lion preserves its kill via brute force upon the savanna, are both behaviors to be described as intelligent? In this second category of examples, quite in contrast to the first, the phrase animal intelligence is no longer controversial with regard to its first word, but the controversy now rages full tilt around the aptness of the second word. Since all the examples within this second category reflect natural behaviors, behaviors forged through evolution and generally well ingrained into the species, what justifies the application of the word intelligence to particular instances of these behaviors, and how would these particular instances be distinguished (could they be distinguished) from all other natural behaviors that effectively serve the purpose of advancing an animal's quest for survival and procreation?

If the standard use of the word intelligence within scientific discourse is to be given any weight at all, then there is no question it is a definitional mistake to apply the word intelligence to any biologically natural behavior, be it successful or otherwise and be it similar to human behavior or not. This is seen most clearly and directly by inspecting the contents of that preeminent tool for measuring intelligence, the IQ exam. Although this feature is often overlooked, forgotten or ignored, an IQ exam deliberately and categorically excludes many types of behavior from its jurisdiction. For instance, a test-taker's athletic ability never comes into play—one's ability to run, leap or throw neither helps nor hinders one's performance on an IQ exam. And more germane to the discussion at hand, an IQ exam never assesses a test-taker's ability to survive or procreate under primitive conditions—one's ability to vanquish predator or prey, and one's likelihood to foster a prodigious lineage neither helps nor hinders one's performance on an IQ exam. What an IQ exam does measure is a circumscribed and biologically foreign set of capabilities and behaviors, targeting a test-taker's capacity to respond productively to a series of challenges constructed almost entirely out of artificial components, components carrying the underlying characteristics of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form. It is by these circumscribed and biologically foreign means that an IQ exam can capture the type of human-like intelligence behavior that was the focus of attention under the first category of examples offered for animal intelligence, but it is also by these same means that an IQ exam excludes the type of biologically natural behavior that is the focus of attention under this second category of examples offered for animal intelligence. By design and by intent, biologically natural behaviors are to have no influence on intelligence as measured by an IQ exam, and thus any resemblance of natural behaviors to behaviors that are measurable by an IQ exam must be taken as nothing more than an accidental coincidence.

The fluidity of an IQ exam's contents, along with the corresponding fluidity of what those contents measure, provides still more justification for uncoupling entirely all intelligence behaviors, which are quite malleable, from all biologically natural behaviors, which are not malleable at all. For instance, it has been well documented that due to the Flynn effect intelligence exams must be re-engineered on a regular basis, recasting questions to be more sophisticated and challenging as time goes on. Questions assessing a test-taker's general knowledge, which would have been quite localized in the past, today must encompass a global, indeed a universal, scale; and questions covering topics such as mathematics, logic, vocabulary and grammar would have looked quite different if set hundreds of years ago versus how they are set today, and will morph still further when presented in the future (think of the way in which electronic communication is altering the rules of vocabulary and grammar even today). Plus it is not just the shifting nature of the IQ exam that attests to this fluidity of intelligence; in everyday usage and in general application it can be seen that intelligence behaviors have an inherent tendency to change over time. A human of the past who could use his scythe to harvest grain would have been described as reasonably intelligent, but today's farmer who cannot advance beyond the scythe to the mechanisms of the combine will be assessed as far less so, and the engineer of the future who cannot transcend both the scythe and the combine to master the intricacies of the automated process will be seen as intellectually left behind. In short, intelligence behaviors do not stand still, they do not solidify into long-term habit or an enduring nature. Intelligence behaviors are generalizable, they can be quickly advanced. Intelligence behaviors are promulgated rapidly and then widely transformed.

By contrast, biologically natural behaviors are characterized precisely by the fact they have become so deeply ingrained, the predictable and enduring aspects of the species in particular and the animal kingdom in general. Forged through evolution and constrained by biological pressures, natural behaviors transform on only the rarest of occasions and under the most extreme of circumstances. Almost every offered example of animal intelligence that falls within the domain of this second category—dolphins employing sponges as tools, birds navigating by landmarks, intricate nest building, insect communication dances, coordinated pack hunting, etc.—every one of these behaviors would have been observable exactly as it is today a hundred thousand years ago, and will be observable exactly as it is today a hundred thousand years into the future, with no generalization, no advancement, no promulgation, no transformation. If there were exams for measuring the capacity for any of these natural behaviors the exams would never need to be revised but could serve their purpose faithfully millennium after millennium after millennium.

One of the more prominent examples of this tendency to mistake an ingrained natural behavior for an intelligence behavior comes from the history of humans themselves, in their usage of stone tools. Although widely accepted as at least a precursor to intelligence, the ancient employment of edged choppers nonetheless went ungeneralized and unchanged for hundreds of thousand of years and thus was more akin to something like nest building in the birds than to anything artificial or modern. It was not until the human tool set suddenly transformed, transformed in material and categorization (and quite recently in human history and accompanied by dozens of other behavioral changes) that the species found itself rapidly rearranging its environmental circumstances and marching hurriedly towards an intelligence age. If there were a man today who could master no more than the flaking of some flint while at the same time being utterly dumbfounded by hammers, pliers and awls, he would not be regarded as intelligent, and neither would his long line of descendants if they were to somehow become stuck on these same stone choppers generation after generation after generation.

In comparison to biologically natural behaviors, intelligence behaviors are strange, fleeting and foreign, traveling almost exclusively in the company of artificial constructs; intelligence behaviors share essentially none of the enduring evolutionary characteristics that define biologically natural behaviors. Intelligence behaviors are not driven solely by a need for survival and procreation, intelligence behaviors do not become deeply entrenched, and intelligence behaviors were nowhere to be seen on this planet until humans quite recently and quite suddenly and quite prodigiously took them on. The many offered examples of animal intelligence that fall within this second category are in fact contradictions to the word intelligence, their biological and evolutionary underpinning meaning ipso facto they are to be excluded. That these instances are so frequently offered as examples of animal intelligence can be attributed primarily to a cause that is both obvious and quite benign, namely that these examples bear an accidental resemblance to modern human behaviors and scientists are unable to suppress their anthropocentric bias.

Thus for the animal species other than Homo sapiens, the phrase animal intelligence finds no meaningful application, its legitimate instances forming a null set. All the examples that would fall under the first category of animal intelligence—examples originated in artificial settings—fail on the word animal, and all the examples that would fall under the second category of animal intelligence—examples originated in natural settings—fail on the word intelligence. On Earth, the phrase animal intelligence currently attaches to humans and to humans alone.

Nonetheless, even with humans, the phrase animal intelligence has the most uneasy and paradoxical application, its two words representing two fundamental and opposing aspects of human nature. Indeed modern humans might be more articulately described by the phrase animal versus intelligence. This conflict arose of course historically, for man was once nothing more than animal himself and like the other species was a complete stranger to intelligence, a complete stranger to any artificial construct composed out of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure or form. In those ancient yet not-so-long-ago days (not so long ago, that is, on any biological or geographical timescale), evolution was still the primary master, and the quest for survival and procreation was still the sole motivator. But today, for modern man, the tables have been nearly turned: nature has been practically eclipsed from view, survival and procreation have been mostly tamed by artificial means, and the evolutionary process has been turned completely on its head. The one great unanswered scientific question of the present day (a question only humans are capable of asking) is how can this sudden and prodigious transformation be described and explained—what are its characteristics, what brought it about, and what are its ultimate consequences?

The popular and conventional solution to the problem of explaining modern man and his burgeoning intelligence is to claim everything must have arisen as an evolutionary event. Some would describe this event as gradual (to meet the requirements of biological and evolutionary principles) and others—Richard Klein, for instance—would describe this event as sudden (to meet the requirements of man's surprisingly rapid turn), but in any case the essential requirement is that human intelligence be depicted primarily as a product of biological evolution, something akin to a genetic mutation producing a cascading neurological effect, because of course all animal transformations are products of evolution, are they not, can there really be such a thing as an exception?

But in fact intelligence is the exception. Not an exception, but the exception. Intelligence contravenes evolution, intelligence is thoroughly anti-evolutionary in its process, cause and effect. On Earth, man with his newfound intelligence has become an anti-evolutionary creature, an anti-evolutionary force, producing astounding environmental impact, observable literally everywhere close at hand.

Most of the grounds for this determination have already been stated. When describing the circumstances in which intelligence behaviors (be they human or animal) exclusively manifest, it was noted that intelligence behaviors always appear within artificial settings and are always attached to constructed circumstances. Intelligence performance is measured primarily by an artificial instrument, its content composed entirely out of artificial components and its domain enjoined from measuring any athletic or instinctive ability. When comparing intelligence behaviors to biologically natural behaviors, it was noted that intelligence behaviors are fluid and accumulative, not conservative and ingrained, and intelligence changes are predictable via generalization and rapid promulgation, not random (as is the case with geological and gene mutative events). These already stated observations can be summarized into one readily apparent fact: the characteristics of intelligence are incompatible with the characteristics of biology and nature, the characteristics of intelligence are diametrically opposed to the characteristics of evolution.

This fact becomes even more apparent when comparing the dynamics underlying intelligence and evolution. Evolutionary dynamics are well known and straightforward to describe. Given a stable environment, organisms (as the genetic representatives of their species) undergo selection for that environment through a striving for survival and procreation. The organisms which are best suited to the environment will more likely emerge as dominant and established, and the organisms which are less suited to the environment will more likely diminish by being dominated and crowded out. Environmental change fosters some transition and churn, as does random genetic mutation, but since significant environmental change tends to be rare in typical circumstances and since random genetic mutation tends to be a long shot for increasing environmental fit, evolution tends to be a conservative and slow moving process, with significant alteration often taking place on the scale of hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.

The dynamics underlying intelligence are composed of these exact same components—environment, selection, mutation, survival and procreation—but these components are arranged in an alternative pattern, producing a fast-moving process that runs in evolution's counter-direction. Intelligence begins with just one species, a species that will not undergo any significant genetic mutation. The organisms of this species, once subject to natural selection as with all the other species, begin to circumvent selection by substituting instead its artificial counterpart, selectively mutating the organisms' environment, mutating it in such a way as to make the surrounding conditions more supportive of the organisms' survival and procreation (and generally less supportive of neighboring species' survival and procreation). The key to this deliberate, non-natural environmental mutation is an awareness of the environment's underlying characteristics, characteristics that are mostly non-biological and abundantly suffused with elements of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form. The organisms of this species make use of these characteristics to mutate their environment in a self-preserving manner—think clothing, shelter, weapons, abstract words—and these mutations also serve as the prominent, long-lasting embodiment of the characteristics themselves, spreading knowledge and awareness to the other members of the species. And since these non-biological environmental mutations are not subject to any genetic or geological constraint, they can be attempted with accumulating impact and with increasing speed, a fact currently being demonstrated by humankind on a nearly daily basis.

Thus to make use of intelligence is to defy evolution; a species acquiring intelligence is turning evolution on its head. Or to make the comparison more direct, with evolution, the environment selects among mutating organisms for the best environmental fit, while with intelligence (anti-evolution), the organism selects among mutable environments for the best organism fit. Evolution and intelligence are opposing forces, they run in counter directions.

The recent history of Homo sapiens might tempt one to think that in the conflict between evolutionary animal and anti-evolutionary intelligence, intelligence must be emerging as the victor. Humans have been moving farther and farther away from their former animal circumstances and now live in settings where the artificial features outnumber the natural features on a scale of perhaps a hundred to one, maybe even a thousand to one. Intelligence has been measurably increasing population-wide year after year (the Flynn effect), and intelligence has grown so copious that a good portion of its augmentation is no longer directed to survival and procreation (understanding of the Big Bang for instance, intriguing though it might be, is not likely to impact human continuance anytime soon). The human transformation has been charting what seems to be a direct course, straight from all animal and no intelligence to all intelligence and no animal.

But the temptation to think in this way is merely an illusion. The abundant increase in human intelligence, admittedly quite real, masks a reality that is just as important and just as essential, namely that the animal in man has gone nowhere at all, man's animal nature has diminished not one bit. The primary justification for this conclusion is of course the fact that the requirements of survival and procreation remain in full effect. Although intelligence and its many constructions have certainly eased the immediate challenges of survival and procreation for most people, and have sheltered the human species from a broad array of biological contingencies, these protections are nonetheless fragile and increasingly complex, and therefore not guaranteed to last. Nuclear arsenals, the profligate destruction of climate, eradication of supporting species, plus hundreds of other unseen vicissitudes—ruinous catastrophe seems to lurk around nearly every bend and along with it a return (at best) to an ancient and bestial existence. But even discounting this potential for civilization collapse, even assuming circumstances will continue as is, man's animal heritage must still insist on having its say. Greed, lust, rivalries, nepotism, revenge—these easily traceable holdovers from man's primate beginnings serve not only as the most captivating plot devices in popular forms of modern entertainment, they serve also as the most compelling motivators of day-to-day action in a modern human society. So resilient has been the primitive impulse within human temperament that the efforts of intelligence have often been the most successful not when confronting the lingering animal within man but instead when assimilating it, even sublimating it, and thereby channeling and dissipating much of its pent-up energy. Anyone who has ever witnessed up close the inner workings of a modern corporation, and has experienced first hand the often devious and sometimes brutal scramble towards executive office and boardroom key, will have a perfect acquaintance with the vestigial features of a hierarchical clan. Anyone who has ever attended the clamorous and furious taking up of sides in the giant arenas of battle—the home warriors clashing against the invading marauders—will have an intimate familiarity with the fears accompanying territorial battle and will have rediscovered a hunger for the spoils of conquest. Even when intelligence has been at its most powerful and progressive, even when building sophisticated constructions capable of advancing the entirety of the human species, intelligence has been nonetheless helpless against the visceral traits of that species permeating the final results. Witness one of the more recent triumphs of intelligence, witness the development of widespread electronic communication, capable of spreading advancement to literally all, and then witness the most popular and frequent use of that instrument, as the preferred and efficient conduit of gossip, fraud and pornography.

Some humans will no doubt feel an urge to pull back towards man's more familiar animal past, not comprehending that such a retreat means a return to the exigencies and stasis of a primordial existence. Other humans will desire that the forces of intelligence eventually conquer the animal within man, not recognizing that such an outcome puts an end to all vitality. What remains elusive is what might be the purpose behind the introduction of intelligence into an animal species—what could be the ultimate goal—but whatever that purpose or goal may be, the fundamental conflict so engendered appears to be at its most productive only while it is being waged, or perhaps while it is being transcended, and not when it is being won. The fate of modern humans is tied to this ongoing struggle between animal and intelligence, between evolution and anti-evolution, and it is in this way (and in this way only) that the phrase animal intelligence acquires legitimate and substantive meaning.

A remaining challenge regarding the human transformation from animal to intelligent being is to pinpoint exactly what was it that set this transformation in motion, and what continues to sustain its energy through the present day. One of the more logical answers to this challenge turns out to be both unexpected and provocative—far too unexpected and provocative to be taken up here—but one of the characteristics of this answer can be anticipated from the present discussion, anticipated from what has been said about the enormous opposing gulf that lies between animal and intelligence. Any species transitioning from animal to intelligence is performing a gigantic about-face, a turn from evolution towards anti-evolution, and is performing this turn against what must be an overwhelming inertia. There have been thousands and thousands of species come and go on this planet over millions and millions of years, and yet the human acquisition of intelligence has been an unprecedented occurrence, the rarest of biological happenings, the most atypical event since life began. So if one were to go in search of a cause for this atypical event, the places that one need not bother to look, the places almost guaranteed to supply essentially nothing in the way of meaningful information, would be the usual locations (the places where today's scientists are most likely to gather): normal biology, normal neurology, normal genetics, these are almost certain to be normal dead ends. And if one were to go in search of a cause for this atypical event within humans themselves, within the actual members of the population, then the one type of person one need not bother to consider, the one type of person almost guaranteed to supply essentially nothing in the way of meaningful information, would be the typical person (the type of person today's scientists are most likely to examine): the average primate neighbor, the average representative of the species, these are almost certain to be average dead ends. The atypical human transformation, the unexpected and provocative turn from animal to intelligence, the abnormal about-face from evolution to anti-evolution—if all this is to be explained, it will be explained not by what is usual but by what is unusual. If all this is to be explained by reference to humans themselves, it will be explained not by those who are normal but by those who are abnormal, explained by reference to those who are the most atypical members of the population.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Flynn Effect's Unseen Hand, Revised

[Three years ago I wrote an essay summarizing my ideas regarding human intelligence and the Flynn effect. I would describe that effort as less than successful. There are several reasons for this—laziness, too much excitement, too little time, trying to fit to an academic form. And unfortunately I have had little opportunity in recent years to make the necessary revisions. Recently however I have managed to revisit the work and insert some improvements—mostly changes in terminology, expansions of explanations, and a simpler tone. I won't suggest that the new version will prove any more influential than its predecessor, but it does set my mind at ease to know that when I had something I thought worthy to say, I at least made the attempt to say it well.]

[Edit 02/11/2017: The final version of this essay can be found here.]

The Flynn Effect's Unseen Hand

Introduction. The Flynn effect is a well known but insufficiently explained phenomenon. Many different causes have been suggested for the population-wide generational increases in raw intelligence scores—including heterosis, better nutrition, more abundant education, environmental complexity and various combinations of the above—but no explanation offered so far has proven to be scientifically or logically compelling. This lack of progress might be indicative of a misunderstanding of human intelligence itself, which is depicted these days almost entirely in terms of brain-based functioning alone. That brain-based focus however has often been the bedevilment in the many offered explanations of the Flynn effect, for it has been difficult to reconcile purported neural mechanisms producing individual intelligence differences with purported neural mechanisms producing widespread intelligence gains.

Accordingly, this essay will propose an alternative model of human intelligence, one decidedly not centered on the human brain. This model will highlight two complementary aspects of human intelligence: 1. environmental intelligence, defined as the total amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment, and 2. neuronal intelligence, defined as an individual's capacity to absorb and respond to environmental intelligence. It can be shown that it is environmental intelligence that serves as the sole driver of the Flynn effect, independently of neuronal intelligence. It will also be demonstrated how environmental intelligence is similar to but far more comprehensive than the concept known as environmental complexity. Finally, it will be shown that this dual-aspect model of human intelligence can effectively answer many of the Flynn effect paradoxes enumerated by James Flynn himself.

Background. Generational gains in raw intelligence scores were first noticed by several individuals—including Reed Tuddenham and Richard Lynn—but it was James Flynn in the 1980s who most clearly demonstrated the ubiquitous nature of what has come to be known as the Flynn effect. In the thirty years since, the Flynn effect has attracted a good deal of study and ink—in part because the phenomenon has been regarded as surprising, and in part because the phenomenon has continued to defy adequate explanation.

This situation stands in contrast to many other areas of intelligence research, including investigations into the source and impact of individual and group intelligence differences. Using factor analysis, identical twin studies and many other tools of modern cognitive science, researchers have been able to demonstrate consistently that individual intelligence differences produce significant impact in such areas as academics and career, and that these individual differences are driven mostly by genetics and are almost certainly neuronally based. These discoveries and achievements have led to a nearly unanimous consensus that intelligence is to be regarded exclusively as a brain-produced activity—in short, greater intelligence is spawned by a more effective brain.

The Flynn effect, however, throws something of a monkey wrench into this widely held view. To accept the conclusion that intelligence is exclusively a brain-produced activity—an activity determined primarily by genetics—one must anticipate that overall human intelligence will remain relatively stable across time, in accordance with all standard biological and evolutionary principles. That is why the Flynn effect has been regarded as so surprising: the sizable and widespread raw intelligence gains recorded across the entire twentieth century far outstrip any brain-based improvements that might be anticipated under a biological/neuronal/evolutionary framework.

One response to this dilemma has been to search for an orthogonal influence underlying the Flynn effect, and James Flynn himself (1999) has uttered that very reaction in almost those exact same terms ("it is as if some unseen hand is propelling scores upward"). Richard Lewontin (1976) has already provided a convincing description for how such an orthogonal influence would work [Flynn's description of Lewontin's idea: "(Lewontin) distinguished the role of genes within groups from the role of genes between groups. He imagined a sack of seedcorn with plenty of genetic variation randomly divided into two batches, each of which would therefore be equal for overall genetic quality. Batch A is grown in a uniform and optimal environment, so within that group all height differences at maturity are due to genetic variation; batch B is grown in a uniform environment which lacks enough nitrates, so within that group all height differences are also genetic. However, the difference in average height between the two groups will, of course, be due entirely to the unequal quality of their two environments....genes (could) explain 100 percent of IQ differences within generations, and yet, environment might explain 100 percent of the average IQ difference between generations."]. But no one has ever pursued this line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusion, in part because what paralyzes the pursuit is the widespread certainty—a dogma really—that intelligence is strictly a brain-produced phenomenon. Any offered explanation for the Flynn effect—be it heterosis, better nutrition, improved education, environmental complexity, or any combination or alternative to the above—any explanation it seems has to be brought back ultimately to human neurology, has to induce a material impact upon the human brain. Vigor, nutrients, schooling, video games—whatever is driving intelligence gains, it must somehow change the human brain, must make it more effective, make it more intelligent. Unfortunately, this circling back to neurology serves only to heighten the original tension of the problem: if there are neural mechanisms explaining individual intelligence differences, and there are different neural mechanisms driving population-wide intelligence gains, how are these mechanisms supposed to co-exist within the same human brain and not interfere with the intelligence-producing impact of the other. If Lewontin's suggestion has been offered as the pathway to a more straightforward explanation of human intelligence, its application to human neurology has proven to be anything but.

A decisive alternative would be to drop the dogma altogether. Nothing actually compels acceptance of the idea that intelligence is strictly a brain-produced phenomenon. Despite the widespread consensus, no one has yet to demonstrate an actual neural mechanism producing an actual intelligence effect. Neural activity certainly accompanies intelligence behavior—there is plenty of evidence for that—but the correlation does not go so far as to prove causation. Furthermore, with the Flynn effect still a puzzle and a mystery, bumping against many fundamental assumptions regarding biology, evolution and intelligence, it would seem there is reasonable motivation for casting the cognitive net a little wider.

This essay describes a model of human intelligence that removes the location of intelligence away from the human brain and places it more squarely within the human environment, a concept that will be dubbed environmental intelligence. Thus freed from the constraints of biology, neurology and evolution (that is, freed from the constraints of the human brain), human intelligence can be seen as able to change and accumulate at a significant pace, which indeed it must if it is going to produce the phenomenon known as the Flynn effect. The human brain still gets to play an important role within this new model—under a concept defined as neuronal intelligence—but this role will be seen as necessarily secondary. Instead of producing human intelligence, the human brain will be depicted as responding to the intelligence contained within the surrounding environment, an idea not as radical as it might at first appear, since responsiveness of course has always been the activity traditionally reserved for neural systems.

Environmental intelligence and neuronal intelligence. A fresh perspective can be gained on human intelligence by considering it as the product of two orthogonal components—environmental intelligence and neuronal intelligence.

Environmental intelligence is defined as the total amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment. Every artifact a human encounters, every synthesized product that crosses his path, every constructed invention helping to mark his way—all the way from the simplest spoken hello to the intricacies of the latest and greatest microchip—each formulated element enveloping a modern man's existence, an envelopment now so thorough it practically eclipses the natural world from view, all of this, every last patterned piece of it, forms the sum total of environmental intelligence. Even the human body, still the most biological, non-artificial entity to be found within a modern human's sensory world, even the human body comes these days invariably clothed, manicured, bespectacled, bejeweled and perfumed, which is to say the human body comes these days abundantly encased in many of the diverse varieties of environmental intelligence. Everywhere a man looks, every moment he listens, every texture he brushes against, he finds himself inundated with a constructed cornucopia built up out of order, shape, number, rule; and this cornucopia in turn incessantly broadcasts back into his neural system the elements of its underlying characteristics—symmetry, repetition, pattern, structure, form. Environmental intelligence is the influence so easily overlooked because it is the influence so invariably right there, right before one's very eyes. These days environmental intelligence is utterly ubiquitous, composing the very fabric of modern human existence, thoroughly embodied in the furniture, the transportation, the words, the games, the weapons, the gifts, the gardens, the laboratories, the music—thoroughly embodied in quite literally, or at least quite literally once the few remaining biological elements have been removed, quite literally the everything.

One advantage of this definition of environmental intelligence is that it directly and observably connects human intelligence to the sudden advancement of the human species. Prior to the human great leap forward, there would have been essentially no environmental intelligence to be found anywhere within the human surroundings. No written words. No constructed buildings. No artifacts of even the simplest kind. Prior to the human great leap forward, man would have been surrounded by only the most natural of settings, all the way from his skin to the farthest horizon, exactly as would have been the case for all the other animals; and not coincidentally it would have been perfectly correct to assess man's overall, absolute level of intelligence at that time as essentially zero. (Ancient homo sapiens certainly were not capable of taking an IQ exam, let alone answering its questions correctly, let alone constructing such an exam in the first place.) But beginning with ostrich shell beads, bone awls, rudimentary clothing and cave paintings, and proceeding straight through to domesticated crops, mud-plastered abodes and towering pyramids, and crescendoing today in highways, skyscrapers, televisions and rockets to the moon, the one indisputable observation that can be made throughout that entire course of recent human progress is that no matter in what environs man suddenly found himself, he found himself always surrounded by an ever growing totality of non-biological pattern, structure, symmetry, repetition and form. For the last fifty thousand years, man has been increasingly enveloping himself in the many and diverse material artifacts that ultimately compose the sum total of environmental intelligence, and not coincidentally, man has been displaying throughout that entire fifty thousand year interval the ever more abundant signs of intelligence.

To actually measure environmental intelligence would be admittedly a pragmatic nightmare. The sheer enormity of pattern, structure and form contained within the modern world would alone overwhelm any genuine effort to size it, and furthermore, there could be no easy agreement on how best to quantify the structure contained within for instance an automobile or a library book. But these practical difficulties do not nullify the material certainty of measurement—environmental intelligence tangibly exists, one can touch it, hear it, talk about it, it is there right before one's very eyes. Plus there is no need to actually measure environmental intelligence in order to attest to its ever increasing presence and influence. Think of the North American continent alone. Only a few hundred years ago, man dwelled there in but a handful of places, and outside of a few isolated civilizations the amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form to be found within the Western Hemisphere would have been extremely modest. But by one hundred years ago, man had taken up residence from nearly coast to coast and had augmented his New World surroundings with an entire patchwork of fields, houses, roads, signs and machines. Today just one glance at the skylines of such cities as Chicago and Toronto would be more than sufficient to convince even the most dire skeptic that by almost any reasonable means of measurement, it would have to be calculated that the total amount of human environmental intelligence has been persistently, indeed rapidly, on the rise.

The second component of human intelligence, neuronal intelligence, is in nearly every respect nothing at all like the first. Neuronal intelligence is defined as an individual's capacity to absorb and respond to environmental intelligence, making it clear that neuronal intelligence is considered here to be a secondary (a responding) construct. This of course runs counter to the prevailing wisdom. The prevailing wisdom would claim that all the many material artifacts forming the sum total of environmental intelligence are not so much the embodiment of intelligence as they are the results of intelligence, the results of the wondrous if still somewhat mysterious mechanisms of the human brain (where indeed all the intelligence must reside). This presumed equivalence between intelligence and human neurology has arisen in large measure—and quite understandably enough—from the many successful results and findings of modern intelligence research. With the employment of IQ exams now widespread, and with the correlation of their results against twin and other family studies, against career and academic outcomes, against neuroimaging and other laboratory techniques, intelligence researchers have been able to formulate a great deal of predictive insight into what drives individual and group intelligence differences and have been able to demonstrate with a high degree of confidence that such differences are for the most part genetically derived and are almost entirely neuronally based. Neuronal intelligence has become the component of intelligence with which everyone is most familiar, because it is the component of intelligence that has been the most accurately and thoroughly measured, and the most successfully understood.

The one pitfall in these many informative findings of modern intelligence research is that they have been so successful in tying individual and group intelligence differences to genetics and neurology that they have managed to convince researchers—to the point of near unanimity and to the point of dogma—that all intelligence differences must be tied to genetics and/or neurology, including intelligence differences that manifest across time (the Flynn effect). Invariably these days, when an explanation for the Flynn effect is offered—whatever that explanation may be—it is offered first and foremost as a temporal and population-wide influence on the human brain. But in point of fact, all the evidence backing the neuronal, genetic basis for individual and group intelligence differences is evidence both gathered at and applicable for only a particular moment in time; the evidence remains utterly silent when applied across time. All the illuminating findings of statistical analysis, including the resultant concept of a general intelligence (Spearman's g), arise strictly from comparisons made against one's contemporaries, and not against one's ancestors or descendants. Indeed most intelligence researchers recognize this distinction well enough to realize that any neural mechanisms that might explain individual intelligence differences would likely be very poor candidates as neural mechanisms underlying the Flynn effect; and yet no researcher is able to carry this distinction to its most logical conclusion, namely that there might not be any neural mechanisms to be associated with the Flynn effect, not in any way whatsoever. Having been witness to so much present-moment evidence for the neural/genetic causation of individual intelligence differences—causation that is perfectly plausible applied across the range of biological diversity within the human population—researchers then cannot let the idea go, even when considering intelligence differences that span an entirely separate domain. And thus nearly every explanation for the Flynn effect continues to be offered with its seemingly mandatory tie back to human neurology, and thus nearly every explanation for the Flynn effect continues to fail, and fail for nearly the same reason—the seemingly mandatory tie back to human neurology becomes downright implausible applied across just a handful of generations.

The way past this predicament begins first with a more thorough examination of that preeminent tool for measuring neuronal intelligence—the IQ test. It is the comparative, normed results of IQ tests that provide nearly all the basis for the present understanding regarding individual and group intelligence differences, and so naturally it is the results that get most of the attention. But an IQ test is more than just its normed results; an IQ test has content—and not just any content. An IQ test does not assess for instance an individual's capacity to scavenge food, ward off predators or procreate, and an IQ test does not measure one's ability to run, leap or throw. The challenges that one faces on an IQ test are challenges composed almost entirely out of a particular set of material artifacts—language, arithmetic, geometrical puzzles, and so on—artifacts which are in turn built up out of a basic set of underlying characteristics—symmetry, pattern, structure, repetition, form. These underlying characteristics are of course the very same characteristics already encountered under the description of environmental intelligence. When examined carefully, an IQ test reveals its content as made up out of miniaturized, formalized versions of the types of structural material artifacts one encounters nearly everywhere in the everyday world; which is to say, the content of an IQ test stands as a proxy for environmental intelligence. When an individual takes an IQ test, what he demonstrates is his relative capacity for absorbing and responding to these proxies for environmental intelligence, which in turn points to his relative capacity for absorbing and responding to the environmental intelligence he will encounter in his everyday world. Therefore it is not in the least bit surprising that those individuals who demonstrate greater ability in mastering the complexities of an IQ test are also the individuals who tend to demonstrate greater ability when navigating the complexities of the real world. This analysis of the content and challenge of an IQ test leads directly back to the stated definition of neuronal intelligence: neuronal intelligence is an individual's capacity to absorb and respond to environmental intelligence, with a strong emphasis to be placed on both a. capacity, and b. response to environmental intelligence. By itself, neuronal intelligence cannot explain human intelligence, because by itself, neuronal intelligence is merely a capacity in need of a target. That target is environmental intelligence—the total amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment, the other essential component in any comprehensive description of human intelligence.

It is important to emphasize one more time the orthogonal relationship of environmental intelligence and neuronal intelligence. Neuronal intelligence is a biological capacity, a human behavioral ability, and thus there is no objection to associating neuronal intelligence with neural and genetic causes. But environmental intelligence is not biological at all; it is instead a collection of characteristics from physical, mostly man-made artifacts, quantifiable, changeable and accumulative within the material world, and thus environmental intelligence stands completely independent of any neurological or evolutionary constraint.

Environmental intelligence and neuronal intelligence are each an essential component of human intelligence, but each delivers its influence in an entirely separate domain.

The Model. With the path now prepared by these definitions and descriptions of environmental intelligence and neuronal intelligence, an example can be developed illustrating how these two components, working simultaneously and yet independently, combine to explain the known and observable characteristics of intelligence as a whole, including the characteristic known as the Flynn effect. All that is required further are two straightforward assumptions: 1. the practical difficulties in measuring environmental intelligence can be theoretically overcome; and 2. consistent with observations from human history, environmental intelligence can be assumed to increase over any significant interval of time.

In the example to be developed, intelligence characteristics will be assessed at two different moments in time, call them Time 1 and Time 2, with an interval of several generations passing between these moments. The intelligence characteristics of the individuals living at Time 1 and Time 2 will be described in the usual way, via results on intelligence exams, and at these two moments the intelligence characteristics of the environment will also need to be detailed. Drawing upon the assumption that the practical difficulties in measuring environmental intelligence can be theoretically overcome, a system of measurement will be assumed that is able to accurately assess the total amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment, quantifying this amount in something called environmental intelligence units (EIU). At Time 1, the total amount of pattern, structure and form within the human environment will be assumed to be measured at 200 EIU. Then several generations later, at Time 2, the total amount of pattern, structure and form within the human environment will be measured at double the previous amount, at 400 EIU. Such a sizable increase across several generations might seem too large at first but is actually quite reasonable by recent human standards (consider for instance the enormous amount of environmental change from the late 1800s to the late 1900s). And at any rate, the hypothesized numbers are not critical in and of themselves: any significant increase in environmental intelligence across the interval of time being considered will be sufficient to demonstrate the principles pertinent to the example.

At Time 1, with the amount of environmental intelligence having been measured at 200 EIU, a standard battery of intelligence tests is administered to a broad sampling from the population, and as is done with real world intelligence exams, the raw scores are then normed and delineated into ranked categories. The essential outcome of this process can be summarized through the exam results of just three individuals—call them A1, B1 and C1—individuals who represent respectively results consistent with high intelligence, medium intelligence, and low intelligence. Their raw scores might be stated in a variety of ways: a) as the actual number of questions answered correctly, or b) as the percentage of questions answered correctly, or c) as the percentage of environmental intelligence successfully absorbed and mastered. This last approach is derived from the discussion above, where the content of an IQ exam has been described as a proxy for environmental intelligence. If the battery of tests administered to A1, B1 and C1 is in fact a perfect proxy for environmental intelligence, then the percentage of questions answered correctly can stand as a percentage measure of the amount of environmental intelligence successfully mastered. For instance, when it is discovered that A1 can correctly answer 80% of the test questions, the result could be stated as follows: A1 has demonstrated the capacity to master roughly 80% of the environmental intelligence contained in the IQ exam, which indicates a capacity to master roughly 80% of the environmental intelligence to be found in his everyday world. In a similar vein, when B1 and C1 respectively answer 70% and 60% of the test questions correctly, it can be said they are demonstrating the capacity to master corresponding percentages of environmental intelligence.

The results of both the environmental and individual intelligence measures at Time 1 are summarized in the following chart:

Time 1 (Environmental Intelligence: 200 EIU)

Test Scores
Population Rank

High Intelligence

Medium Intelligence

Low Intelligence

At this point, all the standard types of analysis regarding individual intelligence differences can be performed quite adequately, leading to the type of informative findings that fall under the heading of neuronal intelligence. Using relative intelligence rankings, and employing factor analysis and incorporating an assortment of statistical and biological information gathered from the population at large, scientists will be able to show with considerable confidence that, all other things being equal, A1 can expect greater success than his B1 and C1 peers in such areas as academics and career, and that the individual intelligence differences between A1, B1 and C1 can be attributed in large degree to biological and genetic causes. The comparative, normed intelligence scores at Time 1 (or at any given time) are sufficient to provide a wealth of information regarding the characteristics of neuronal intelligence.

An absolute measure of intelligence for A1, B1 and C1 has not yet been determined, but it would be a simple matter to do so. With a measurement of 200 EIU having been assigned to Time 1's environmental intelligence, and with the raw test results able to be stated as a percentage of environmental intelligence effectively mastered, a quick calculation reveals that A1's absolute level of intelligence is 160 EIU (200 EIU x 80%), B1's is 140 EIU, and C1's is 120 EIU. The chart can be updated to reflect these figures:

Time 1 (Environmental Intelligence: 200 EIU)

Test Scores
Population Rank
Absolute Intelligence
High Intelligence
160 EIU
Medium Intelligence
140 EIU
Low Intelligence
120 EIU

It should be noted that this additional calculation of an absolute intelligence score does not aid at all in the understanding of neuronal intelligence. As far as individual and group intelligence differences are concerned, the inclusion of an absolute intelligence score is nothing but a superfluous addendum—the normed, relative intelligence rankings are more than sufficient by themselves to make present-moment findings regarding neuronal intelligence. However, the inclusion of an absolute intelligence score will nonetheless prove to be invaluable, for it will turn out to be an essential feature in the comparison of intelligence characteristics between Time 1 and Time 2.

As a reminder, environmental intelligence is assumed to increase over time, and at Time 2 the total amount of pattern, structure and form contained within the human environment is assessed to have increased to 400 EIU. Since Time 2 occurs several generations after Time 1, A1, B1 and C1 are no longer alive. But since A1, B1 and C1 were only representative individuals culled from the overall Time 1 test results, it is perfectly reasonable at Time 2 to call upon their equivalent descendants—call them A2, B2 and C2—all of whom can be taken as biologically and genetically similar to their Time 1 ancestors. Indeed, when the standard battery of intelligence tests is administered to the Time 2 population, A2, B2 and C2 score in a familiar pattern: A2 answers 80% of the test questions correctly, which is interpreted as reflecting an 80% mastery of Time 2's environmental intelligence, and B2 and C2, to no surprise, score 70% and 60% respectively. Once again the population results are normed and delineated into ranked categories, and just as was the case with their ancestors, A2 falls within the range of high intelligence, B2 falls within the range of medium intelligence, and C2 falls within the range of low intelligence. These Time 2 results can be summarized as follows:

Time 2 (Environmental Intelligence: 400 EIU)

Test Scores
Population Rank

High Intelligence

Medium Intelligence

Low Intelligence

Once again, all the standard types of analysis regarding individual and group intelligence differences can now be performed quite adequately, and at Time 2 the findings regarding neuronal intelligence will look almost identical to the findings from Time 1. Using factor analysis and population statistics, scientists will once again be able to state that A2 can anticipate greater success than his B2 and C2 peers, and that the individual intelligence differences between A2, B2 and C2 are to be attributed in large degree to biological and genetic influences. If the scientists were to look at just the pattern of individual and group intelligence differences from Time 1 to Time 2, they would be led to believe that the overall intelligence characteristics are quite stable within this population, just as might be anticipated for a capacity strongly under the influence of biological/evolutionary forces.

And yet at Time 2, the scientists will decidedly not be talking about the stability of intelligence. Instead they will be talking about a significant anomaly that has taken place.

There are several ways to characterize this anomaly. The first is to begin by examining what has taken place as the IQ tests have been administered to the general population. The first intelligence tests offered to the Time 2 population were the exact same tests given to the Time 1 population, but as it turns out, those tests are now laughably easy, to the point that nearly everyone scores in the uppermost ranges. This prevents a meaningful comparison of results, since no one is being challenged anymore and nearly everyone is scoring the same. In order to restore the tests to their former condition of being able to provide meaningful comparisons, the test producers find they must beef up the exams, make the questions more difficult, after which the relative rankings reemerge. It is only after such modifications have been made that the tests can be effectively administered to the population, with the resulting scores as shown.

In one sense, the reason that the IQ tests have to be modified at Time 2 is clear from the parameters of the example itself. Since the content of an IQ test stands as a proxy for environmental intelligence, and since environmental intelligence has significantly increased from Time 1 to Time 2, the tests must be reconstituted in order to reflect this fact; that is, the additional amount of pattern, structure and form to be found within the Time 2 environment must be incorporated into the Time 2 exams in order to assess the population's relative dexterity with this new structural material. But in an entirely different sense, another reason emerges for explaining why the Time 2 exams have to be modified—namely, that this is precisely what has been taking place in the real world throughout the entire last century. Ever since IQ exams were first administered, each successive generation has been scoring progressively better on the existing exams, to the point that test makers find they must modify the exams in order to keep them challenging, in order to maintain their usefulness for comparative purposes. These modifications generally take the shape of more difficult questions, questions that incorporate a greater amount of pattern, structure and form. Thus by virtue of the parameters of the example itself and by virtue of the evidence from the real world, it can be seen that intelligence tests must be strengthened in order to counteract the persistent influence of the increasing amount of complexity within the human environment.

And it is not just the tests that need to be reconsidered. The intelligence characteristics of A2, B2 and C2 must also be reexamined, because they are now evincing two seemingly contradictory facts:
  1. The neuronal intelligence characteristics of A2, B2 and C2 are essentially identical to the neuronal intelligence characteristics of their A1, B1 and C1 ancestors.
  2. The overall amount of intelligence being displayed by A2, B2 and C2 is essentially double the amount of intelligence that was displayed by their A1, B1 and C1 ancestors.
The second fact arises from recognizing that A2, B2 and C2 are correctly answering the same percentage of questions as did their Time 1 ancestors but are doing so while taking a far more difficult test. This comes out also through the calculation of absolute intelligence scores for A2, B2 and C2. With Time 2 environmental intelligence assessed at 400 EIU, A2's test results reflect an absolute intelligence score of 320 EIU (400 EIU x 80%). B2 scores at 280 EIU, and C2 scores at 240 EIU—in each case a doubling over A1, B1 and C1:

Time 2 (Environmental Intelligence: 400 EIU)

Test Scores
Population Rank
Absolute Intelligence
High Intelligence
320 EIU
Medium Intelligence
280 EIU
Low Intelligence
240 EIU

As contradictory as these results might at first appear, this example reflects exactly what has been happening in the real world. The only difference is that the example also includes an assessment of environmental intelligence, as well as an analysis of the impact of environmental intelligence on individual intelligence differences, differences that in this instance manifest over an interval of time. And what arises from this example is a clear indication of exactly what produces the population-wide generational increases in raw intelligence scores. The sole driver of raw intelligence gains is the increasing amount of environmental intelligence, the increasing amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment.

And by corollary, neuronal intelligence—including any mention at all of neurology or genetics—has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence gains over time. Neuronal intelligence, the biological capacity to absorb and respond to environmental intelligence, that capacity will remain nearly constant over time, but that capacity will encounter an ever expanding target.

Flynn's Paradoxes. In his book What is Intelligence?, Flynn (2007) describes four paradoxes he associates with the Flynn effect. To someone not obsessed with the brain's monopoly on human intelligence, however, these paradoxes are not paradoxical at all—each can be answered simply and directly using this essay's dual-component model of human intelligence.

Two of the paradoxes, labeled as the intelligence paradox and the mental retardation paradox, state the apparent incongruity that if the Flynn effect were literally true, then humans from one generation would be too implausibly dumb or too implausibly smart compared to humans from a different generation. In Flynn's words:
"If huge IQ gains are intelligence gains, why are we not struck by the extraordinary subtlety of our children's conversation? Why do we not have to make allowances for the limitations of our parents? A difference of some 18 points in Full Scale IQ over two generations ought to be highly visible.

"If we project IQ gains back to 1900, the average IQ scored against current norms was somewhere between 50 and 70. If IQ gains are in any sense real, we are driven to the absurd conclusion that a majority of our ancestors were mentally retarded."
The resolution to these two paradoxes is to recognize that Flynn is confusing the two different aspects of intelligence; he is confusing environmental intelligence with neuronal intelligence. In particular, he is using the changed levels in one aspect (environmental intelligence) to infer a corresponding change in the other aspect (neuronal intelligence). That inference is entirely unwarranted.

Consider the individual named A1 in the model. At Time 1, A1 is assessed to be highly intelligent. He demonstrates an above-average ability to absorb and respond to environmental intelligence by correctly answering 80% of the test questions presented to him, and as A1 navigates through his Time 1 world, it can be anticipated he will experience relatively greater achievement in such areas as academics and career compared for instance to his B1 and C1 peers. But when A1's absolute (raw) intelligence score of 160 EIU is compared to the population of Time 2, A1 suddenly appears much less smart. 160 EIU scores far below the 240 EIU of C2, a person assessed to be of low intelligence at Time 2. If 240 EIU is considered to be of low intelligence at Time 2, then A1's score of 160 EIU seems to mark him as a borderline imbecile.

So which is it? Is A1 highly intelligent or is he an imbecile? This paradox is resolved by recognizing that A1's neuronal intelligence is not subject to change. A1's absolute intelligence score of 160 EIU has as much to do with the time period during which it was registered as it has to do with A1's biological capacity. If A1 could be magically transported forward in time and raised in the Time 2 world, he would absorb and respond to about 80% of the Time 2 environmental intelligence and would score correspondingly on a Time 2 intelligence exam, making it clear once again that he is a highly intelligent individual. A1's apparently low score of 160 EIU has nothing to do with A1's intelligence abilities; it has everything to do with the change in environmental intelligence from Time 1 to Time 2.

This works exactly the same way going backwards in time. Consider C2, who is assessed at Time 2 to be of low intelligence. But when C2's absolute (raw) intelligence score of 240 EIU is compared to the Time 1 population, where a score of 160 EIU is considered to be highly intelligent, C2 suddenly comes across as a Mensa candidate, and one wonders if C2 simply had the misfortune of being born too late.

So which is it? Is C2 of low intelligence or a Mensa candidate? Once again, the resolution is to recognize that C2's neuronal intelligence is not subject to change. If C2 could be magically transported back in time and raised in the Time 1 world, he would absorb only about 60% of the Time 1 environmental intelligence and would score relatively poorly on the Time 1 intelligence exam. The timing of one's birth does not alter one's personal intellectual ability.

In addition to these hypothetical examples from the model, Flynn provides a real world scenario that brings out both the paradox and its resolution in the most enlightening of ways. After noting that the average raw intelligence score from around the year 1900 would translate to an IQ of about 50 to 70 on today's scale, Flynn raises the specter of the following tableau:
"Jensen relates an interview with a young man with a Wechsler IQ of 75. Despite the fact that he attended baseball games frequently, he was vague about the rules, did not know how many players were on a team, could not name the teams his home team played, and could not name any of the most famous players.

"When Americans attended baseball games a century ago, were almost half of them too dull to follow the game or use a scorecard? My father who was born in 1885 taught me to keep score and spoke as if this was something virtually everyone did when he was a boy. How did Englishmen play cricket in 1900? Taking their mean IQ at face value, most of them would need a minder to position them in the field, tell them when to bat, and tell them when the innings was over."
This is a quintessential example of mistaking a change in raw intelligence scores as evidence for a change in neuronal intelligence, when in fact it is evidence for a change in environmental intelligence. Think about incorporating questions dealing with baseball rules into an intelligence test. If such questions had appeared on an exam in say the year 1800, no one at all, including the smartest people who then lived, would have been able to answer such questions correctly (other than by random luck). By contrast, if such questions were to appear on today's intelligence exams, many individuals, including those of low-to-average intelligence, would be able to answer the questions correctly—baseball and its rules have become an established part of the human environment, their widespread presence and influence are now thoroughly absorbed by a large percentage of the human population. As Flynn indicates, it would be only those with an IQ of around 75 or under who would have limited potential to answer such questions correctly.

So does this imply that the smartest people from the year 1800 must have had the same intellectual capacity as Jensen's young man? It of course does not imply that at all.

The critical moment in time would have been around the year 1900. If intelligence questions regarding baseball rules had appeared on intelligence exams at that time, the results would have been decidedly mixed. Some people would have been able to answer such questions correctly, but many others would not, including those of otherwise average-to-high intelligence, and this only because baseball had not yet become widely entrenched within the human environment (it was just then catching on). But after the exam was finished, if one of those baseball-ignorant, question-misanswering persons of average-to-high intelligence had been taken to the ballpark, bought a ticket, sat with in the grandstands, explained the rules, given a scorecard and pencil, a perfectly capable set of behaviors would have swiftly emerged. After all, this is a person of average-to-high intelligence, he can absorb and respond to baseball rules just fine, they will give him not the slightest bit of trouble. And around the year 1900, this scene would have actually been taking place, again and again and again, not just a hypothetical example but instead a real world, fully surveyable experience—an experience of human intelligence observably on the rise.

The increase in raw intelligence scores from 1900 to 2000 has everything to do with the increasing amount of environmental intelligence (including the addition of baseball rules). It has nothing to do with individual intellectual abilities. It has nothing to do with neuronal intelligence.

Another Flynn paradox is called the identical twins paradox. Flynn's words again:
"There is no doubt that twins separated at birth, and raised apart, have very similar IQs, presumably because of their identical genes. Indeed a wide range of studies show that genes dominate individual differences in IQ and that environment is feeble. And yet, IQ gains are so great as to signal the existence of environmental factors of enormous potency. How can environment be both so feeble and so potent?"
The short answer to this paradox is to say that environment, despite Flynn's doubts, is indeed both feeble and potent. It is feeble when considering individual and group intelligence differences that manifest at a particular moment in time—the domain in which neurology and genetics hold full sway. And environment is potent when considering intelligence differences that manifest across time—the domain in which neurology and genetics remain utterly silent. But although the short answer resolves the paradox precisely, it does not address what is actually the problem here, namely why does Flynn think this is a paradox.

There could be several ways one might analogize this essay's model of human intelligence. For instance, Lewontin's example of the seed corn would do fine. Also, one might consider the height of ships floating in a harbor, which differ from one another because of each ship's inherent characteristics (individual differences at a moment in time) and yet might change overall because of the rising and falling tide (environmental influence across time). Flynn would not find either Lewontin's seed corn or the rising and falling ships to be paradoxical, and yet the exact same mechanism applied to human intelligence seems to leave him utterly baffled. The question is why.

Flynn's bafflement arises from the ingrained assumption common to all intelligence researchers: each has become completely convinced that all intelligence differences and characteristics must ultimately be described as neural differences and characteristics. In other words, if an influence has no direct or indirect impact upon the human brain, then it cannot be an influence related to human intelligence. And so when Flynn considers environmental forces, which he can see have the perfect potential for explaining the Flynn effect, he stops short when he cannot find a plausible, straightforward way to tie those forces back to the supposedly requisite change in human genetics and/or neurology. This would be equivalent to not seeing how the nitrates in the soil can impact the seed corn's genetic structure, or not seeing how the water in the harbor can alter the ships' physical characteristics. But Flynn does not fall for this false dilemma with the seed corn or with the ships because he understands that the actions of the nitrates are orthogonal to the seed corn's genetics, and he understands that the water level in the harbor is independent of each ship's physical characteristics. It is only in the field of human intelligence that he finds himself unable to countenance this orthogonality and independence.

And yet that is all it takes. When one accepts the orthogonal relationship between neuronal intelligence and environmental intelligence, when one finally drops the the unnecessary and unsupported requirement that all intelligence characteristics are essentially neural characteristics, then the bafflement of the identical twins paradox swiftly disappears.

The remaining Flynn paradox is called the factor analysis paradox:
"How can intelligence be both one and many at the same time or how can IQ gains be so contemptuous of g loadings? How can people get more intelligent and have no larger vocabularies, no larger stores of general information, no greater ability to solve arithmetical problems?"
The first part of Flynn's statement is handled with ease: IQ gains across time can be so contemptuous of g loadings because IQ gains across time have absolutely nothing to do with neuronal intelligence, and therefore have absolutely nothing to do with Spearman's g. In fact, contemptuous is not the right word; utter indifference would more precisely capture the relationship.

The second part of the statement—why are intelligence gains differential across the many aspects of intelligence—that question is more intriguing and brings out additional features of environmental intelligence. In this essay so far, environmental intelligence has always been taken as a whole, with an emphasis on the principle that as a whole, environmental intelligence will be inexorably increasing. But when environmental intelligence is broken down into its component pieces and aspects, differing rates of increase can emerge. This will be seen for instance geographically, where around this planet's surface the rate of increase in environmental intelligence can vary from place to place. In the late 1900s through today, for example, the largest gains in environmental intelligence, and therefore the largest gains in IQ scores, most likely occurred in locales such as India and China, where there was a sudden and tangible surge of the overall amount of pattern, structure and form being added into the surroundings. Flynn's subcategories of vocabulary, arithmetic and general knowledge too, although more stable now, must have passed through epics where rapid increases undoubtedly occurred. Words, both spoken and written, obviously infiltrated the human environment at some point, as did numbers and their practical uses, and although no one was recording the surge in corresponding intelligence at that time, the surge clearly had to have taken place. That fewer common words and numerical techniques are being added into the environment today is compensated for by the palpable expansions in such areas as electronic logic, transportation networks, and so on. Plus none of these variable rates within the components of environmental intelligence should cause one to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that the total amount of environmental intelligence will tend to increase persistently, and will do so without any influence upon, or any influence from, neuronal intelligence. These several features of environmental intelligence can be summarized as follows:
  1. Over time, the total amount of environmental intelligence will increase.
  2. Different aspects of environmental intelligence will increase at different rates at different times.
  3. Increases in environmental intelligence are independent of neuronal intelligence.
These principles of environmental intelligence (in particular, principle 2) are adequate to address the questions raised by the factor analysis paradox, and can do so without any unnecessary reliance upon the characteristics of the human brain.

Environmental Complexity. Of the many offered explanations for the Flynn effect, the one most similar to the model proposed here is the notion of environmental complexity. Schooler (1998) and Greenfield (1998) offer introductions to the idea, and it is not uncommon in general discussion to hear someone suggest that the modern usage of such things as puzzles, graphics and games might have something to do with the increasing levels of tested intelligence. Such suggestions are certainly on the right track, but when they are examined carefully and thoroughly, it can be seen that in many crucial respects their overall ability to explain the Flynn effect falls a good deal short.

The first problem with the notion of environmental complexity is that its proponents focus on certain things within the human environment, and ignore the impact of the environment as a whole. For instance, two commonly cited examples of the type of environmental complexity that can increase intelligence are the widespread use of video games, and the growing complexity and multivariate plot lines in television shows and movies. Others might highlight the expanded presence of visual imagery and puzzles within everyday life. But no matter what thing or set of things is being considered, it becomes immediately clear that by itself it cannot account for the ubiquitous and relentless nature of the Flynn effect. The Flynn effect was working its magic long before there even were video games and television sets, and the Flynn effect remains prominent in locations where video games and sophisticated dramas have yet to take much hold. Alternative candidates for environment complexity might be offered instead, but inevitably all must fall victim to the same problem of limited temporal and spatial impact. The Flynn effect is a population-wide, time-persistent phenomenon, and so any explanation for the Flynn effect has to have population-wide, time-persistent effect. Specific instances of environmental complexity are almost guaranteed to never fit the bill.

The second problem with the notion of environmental complexity is that its proponents—like nearly everyone else—insist on tying their explanation back to human neurology. Playing video games, for instance, is seen as expanding the capacity of working memory. Modern movie plots are described as forming a larger number of simultaneous connections within the logical neural circuitry. It would seem that environmental complexity by itself is rather useless, that its only real purpose is to prompt a major restructuring within the neurons, a massive rewiring between the ears. Such ideas now run amok within modern science, but they lack biological parsimoniousness and plausibility, they beg plasticity miracles within the human head. In truth, the human brain does not need to be changed by instances of environmental complexity, the human brain needs merely to respond to the stimulus of environmental complexity, a mechanism conforming quite nicely—and quite plausibly—to the traditional description of a neural system.

This essay's model of environmental intelligence, while similar to the notion of environmental complexity, avoids the shortcomings of environmental complexity by incorporating two significant improvements. One, environmental intelligence embraces a far more comprehensive context than does the notion of environmental complexity—comprehensive enough to have population-wide, time-persistent impact. Environmental intelligence achieves this comprehensiveness by eschewing the focus on particular things within the human environment and incorporating instead nothing short of the total amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment. Two, environmental intelligence, unlike the notion of environmental complexity, severs the unnecessary tie back to human neurology, allowing environmental intelligence to accumulate and change without biological restriction and without resort to any biological miracle. Environmental intelligence takes the seed offered by the notion of environmental complexity and expands it to its full logical limit, expands it into a fully functioning component of human intelligence, one capable of serving as the embodiment of human intelligence, and one capable of serving as the orthogonal partner to the workings of the human brain.

Conclusion. A consequence that becomes readily apparent from this essay's dual-component model of human intelligence is that the Flynn effect cannot be regarded—as it too often is—as merely a twentieth-century anomaly. Tracking the historical increase in environmental intelligence, the Flynn effect must have begun near the time of the human great leap forward and will have been shadowing human existence ever since. And there is no reason to expect the Flynn effect will end anytime soon.

The unseen hand propelling intelligence scores upward is environmental intelligence, the total amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment. It has remained unseen for so long because it has become so inextricably right there, right before one's very eyes, the very fabric of modern human existence, the map by which humans now navigate their world. If there is something worthy of being called a miracle in human intelligence, it would have to be this, environmental intelligence, for no other species on this planet has built its own version of environmental intelligence, and humans did not build theirs for a very long time.

The human brain—or at least researchers' obsessive focus on the human brain—has been given a thorough chastening within this essay, but that does not nullify the importance of the brain to human intelligence. The human neural system is still a necessary component of human intelligence; all that has been demonstrated here is that the human neural system is not a sufficient component of human intelligence. Any comprehensive description of intelligence, one capable of explaining individual and group intelligence differences as well as explaining the Flynn effect, will incorporate both neuronal intelligence and environmental intelligence, two components working simultaneously and orthogonally, producing an overall human intelligence that varies throughout the population and that increases year after year after year.

Flynn, J. R. (1999). Searching for justice: The discovery of IQ gains over time. American Psychologist, 54, 5–20.
Flynn, J. R. (2007). What is intelligence? Beyond the Flynn effect. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Greenfield, P. (1998). The cultural evolution of IQ. In U. Neisser (Ed.), The rising curve. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Lewontin, R. C. (1976). Further remarks on race and the genetics of intelligence; Race and intelligence. In N. J. Block & G. Dworkin (eds.), The IQ controversy. New York: Pantheon Books.
Schooler, C. (1998). Environmental complexity and the Flynn effect. In U. Neisser (Ed.), The rising curve. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.