Chapter 1 of the Book

Lesson 4 Chapter 1 Module 2

Are We Intelligent?

This chapter explores what intelligence is.

My starting point is to ask the question:

  • Are we intelligent? When I say “we”, I mean you, and me, and people like us.
  • Are we as intelligent as we think we are? It turns out to be a central question.

An accompanying video - a conversation with Chris Thomson. 

Although I know of no surveys on the topic, I think it is safe to assume that, if they were asked about it, most people would say that we human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet. After all, we have sophisticated languages. We have wonderful technologies. We have complex cities. And we have elaborate social and economic systems and institutions, such as healthcare, universities, and parliaments. No other species has these. In this sense, we are different from all other creatures. We are top of the evolutionary tree. End of discussion! 

Or, is this what you believe?

In fact, it is not the end of the discussion. Yes, it is true, we have all these marvellous things. Yet it is also true that we have created things that are not so marvellous. The uncomfortable truth is that “the most intelligent species” is the most stupid species. I say this because it is we, and only we, who have caused all the problems in the world – all of them. The litany is all too familiar. Just ask yourself – who has caused the world’s problems? Is it wolves, or whales, or eagles, or any other species? Just think climate change, destruction of the environment, war, crime, poverty and inequality, pollution, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation…the list just goes on. I am sure you can add to it. The answer, of course, is that all the problems of the world have been caused by only one species, the human species. We have to ask ourselves: is this the behaviour of a truly intelligent species? Surely not. It is worth comparing ourselves to other species. Let’s do this now.

We admire tigers and wolves and falcons and dolphins, and many other creatures. They are graceful and elegant. They are “natural”, and we know what we mean by this, even if we cannot define it exactly. They are able to survive in difficult situations, without any of the comforts and supports that we take for granted, such as electricity and supermarkets. They are invariably ecological, living in balance with each other and the planet. Apart from the relatively few who are injured, or very old, or suffering from lack of food, they are all in perfect health. All this is obvious when we observe them. And it is surely significant that, when we speak of “tiger nature” or “dolphin nature”, or about the nature of any other creature, we have something admirable in mind, possibly a kind of perfection.

In contrast, when we speak about “human nature”, we seem to have imperfection in mind. We believe that it is human nature to be flawed, to make mistakes, to behave less than perfectly. Some people actually think that this is a virtue!  How different it is for all other creatures. If they were flawed, if they made mistakes on the scale that we do, if they behaved as imperfectly as we do, they would soon be in serious trouble. If large numbers of them were not in perfect health, and did not act ecologically, they would soon cease to exist. Why, then, do we make ourselves the sole exceptions? Why are so many of us not in perfect health? How many of us can truly say that we are in good shape, fit, and free from any physical, mental or emotional health problems? Why is truly wise behaviour the exception for us, and not the rule? And why do so few of us live ecologically, in harmony with each other and the planet?

How would you answer these questions?

It would take a long time to answer them fully, because there are so many factors. However, two things spring to mind. First, we have become very dependent on technology. This has had the unintended consequence of making us “soft”, and not as healthy and self-reliant and “natural” as we could be. If you doubt this, then just imagine spending a week or more camping alone in the remote wilderness. Once you adjusted to the change, you would almost certainly become healthier, more self-reliant, more ecological and, in some senses, more intelligent. While I accept that it may not be easy to get away on your own, I do think that this would bring benefits that far outweigh any sense of sacrifice. Above all, you would very quickly learn the importance of behaving intelligently. If you did not, you simply would not survive.

I think a second reason is that we are obsessed with economic growth. This has effectively become the central purpose of most countries and most governments. Economic growth is often assumed to be a universal panacea, the eventual solution to all our problems. While it is true that some growth is needed for those people who do not even have the basics of food, water, shelter and warmth, the fact is that too many of us have too much and consume too much. The last thing this planet needs is more human growth. The damaging effects of endless economic growth on society and the environment hardly need stating. It is putting unsustainable pressures on individuals, communities and the planet. I could say a lot about this, but this is not the place to go into detail. I am sure you get the point.

One thing is clear. Any species where large numbers are in less than perfect health, and which, as a collective, does not live ecologically, is not going to survive forever, even with the cushion of technology. Our current ways of living and organising our affairs are simply unsustainable. The question is: what are we going to do about it? When faced with this question, my own response has been to ask how we can be more fully human, just as tigers are fully tigers and dolphins are fully dolphins. We can express this question another way: how can we become as intelligent as we are obviously capable of being? For me, this is the central question of our times because, if we fail to become more intelligent, then any human future can only be, at best, a perpetual repair job. We will be continually trying to solve the problems we are constantly creating. If you are still unsure what I mean by the word “intelligent”, what I am about to say may surprise you.  I am going to talk about Forrest Gump.

If you have seen the film, the character portrayed by Tom Hanks - haircut, his slow way of speaking, and his name - were all designed to create the impression that he was not very intelligent. Indeed, early on the film, Forrest mentions the word “stupid”. He said that his mother had told him that “Stupid is as stupid does.” You will also remember that, although he was an unsophisticated man, his simplicity, honesty and directness led him to do noble, intelligent things that helped a lot of people. The thing that most struck me about Forrest was that he never did anything bad. His example shows us that we do not need to be “clever” or “brainy” to be intelligent. We just have to behave well. Being “intelligent”, in the conventional sense, is no guarantee that we will behave well. All of us can think of examples of “intelligent” people, in public life and in our own private circles, who behave badly or stupidly. Forrest’s mother could equally have said that “intelligent is as intelligent does.”

For me, this last phrase captures the essence of intelligence. It is about how we actually behave. It is about our words and actions in practice. There is no point in being intelligent in theory! If you behave wisely and well, you are intelligent. If you do not, you are not. Speaking for myself, I am sometimes intelligent, and sometimes not. I count myself as intelligent only when I behave wisely and well. What is true for me is true for everyone. We should assess people’s intelligence only by their actual behaviour – their words, their actions and their demeanour. 

Do you count yourself intelligent? Do you normally behave wisely and well?

At this point I could give you a few definitions of intelligence. But I am not sure that would help. Intelligence is something you have to feel your way into. If you know yourself well, you will know when you are intelligent and when you are not. I would like to describe a woman I know. 

Although I know her well, I am impressed each time I meet her. There is something compelling about the way she looks, the way she speaks, and even the way she moves. She is economical in her use of energy, just as all other creatures are. They have to be because they do not have supermarkets to provide them with food. They have to go looking for it every single day, so they have to conserve their energy. My friend is so economical with her energy that she seems to be able to get things done without really trying. And it is reassuring to have her around because she always knows what to do when something goes wrong. She knows how to survive! I feel good when I am in her company because she is cheerful and friendly, but also because she seems to understand me at least as much as I understand myself. 

Be honest with yourself. What, if anything, do you have in common with my friend?

If we were able to look inside intelligent people, we would see that they are acutely sensitive to the world around them. They notice a lot and miss very little. We would also see that they are masters of their feelings and are able to empathise with the feelings of others. They have good minds, which enable them to think clearly and see why things are the way they are. They understand things better than most of us. In addition, they have learned to trust and use their intuition, and they have managed to transcend many of the conventions and beliefs that often hold us back. They are very obviously mentally and emotionally intelligent, but it goes far beyond this. Everything about them is intelligent. We have a sense that everything they do and say makes the world a better place. When they walk into a room, it becomes brighter! Perhaps it is significant that they seem to have ascended to a higher order childhood. They are wise, mature adults, but they have lost none of the spontaneity, playfulness and wonder of children.

You may be wondering exactly what I mean by the phrase “behaving wisely and well”.  When I say “behaving well”, I am speaking about doing the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons. There was a time, not that long ago, when everyone knew what this meant. They may not have behaved well, but at least they knew good behaviour when they saw it. I am not sure that this is still true today. Many of us seem to have forgotten our basic sense of right and wrong. As for “behaving wisely”, for me this means being truly effective, in the deepest and widest sense. A wise person is effective in everything he or she says and does. To give just one example, she uses minimum energy and resources to achieve the optimum results, following the principle of “less is better”. Each day she leaves the world a better place than she found it. I leave it to you to think of examples of “behaving wisely and well”. 

The more examples you can think of, the more guides to intelligence you have!

Now that we have established what intelligence is, let us turn our attention in the next chapter to an important aspect of intelligence, the idea that it is about the whole of you.

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