How much brain power does it take to invent the wheel? It’s a question that I often pondered about in my youth. It doesn’t seem to take much observational power to notice that round things roll and if you put an axle in the center of a round object, you have a modern day wheel and axle. Modern humans have been around for 160,000 years and the earliest wheel and axle dates to about 3600BC. It took us more than a hundred thousand years to invent what a lot of kids today can probably easily discover in their playtime.
There’s this curious phenomenon called the Flynn effect. It’s the consistent increase in the average IQ of a population over generations. Is it possible that the intelligence of homo sapiens back then was just so far behind that what we consider simple cognitive tasks now, required advanced feats of mental gymnastics?
I remember looking at Leonardo Da Vinci’s mechanical designs when I was prepubescent teen and thinking to myself “I could’ve designed these” I had a pretty high regard my capabilities back then :) But while Da Vinci was no doubt a genius and his engineering designs were advanced for his time, I do think that a lot of people living today would be capable of coming up with similar designs, even without the benefit of formal mentoring or passed down technical knowledge.
Not that that would matter. The days of the single inventor working in their basement changing history may be past us. Most major advances in technology are developed by companies or organizations with several brains working together and more than a couple of thousand dollars in funds. Technology is at the point where collective intelligence, as well as funds, are required for it to advance
a.) at the left, Davinci's design for a crossbow b.) at the right, my design for a slightly different type of 2 stroke engine when i was in gradeschool. I didn't think that i was lagging too far behind compared to Da vinci back then.(I invented my own alphabet when i was young so i could write in private)
I remember when I was much younger, we were given regular IQ tests by the school guidance counselor. Some questions in the tests were significantly more difficult than others. I would answer the tricky questions first thinking that maybe they would matter more. Maybe they would be worth more points. I thought that I’d impress the person who’s checking the test more if I answered the more difficult questions correctly. And then I found out later on that you’d get the same points for correctly answering the easiest question as you would the most difficult questions. That just didn’t make sense to me and I think I continued doing what I was doing for a while.
And then later on, we were taught a strategy on how to score well on these exams. “Answer the easiest questions first and then progressively go to the more difficult ones. If you run out of time, answer the remaining questions using guesswork.” I asked myself how could this be a reliable measure of intelligence when, on top of being a multiple choice test, you were also taught strategies on how to game it.
Perhaps the tests that we were given weren’t up to international standards but you can train people to do better on these tests. Which begs the question: Are we really getting smarter or are we just getting better at answering this specific test. What exactly does this test measure?
Savants are individuals who excel on one specific task but have difficulties in other cognitive tasks. Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie Rain Man, for example, could read 2 different pages of a book at the same time with each eye scanning a different page. He could remember everything that he read. His brain has absorbed so much information that he wasn’t just a walking encyclopedia, he was practically a walking Google. He could also do complex calendar calculations which no normal human being would be able to do even with extensive training. Like other savants though, Kim peek was disabled in other areas of his life.
A lot of people with Savant syndrome have damage to certain parts of their brains. Savant syndrome has also been replicated artificially using magnetic stimulation that temporally disables parts of the brain. It’s interesting that rather than requiring more brain tissue, you actually have to disable parts of your brain in order to do tasks that require “intelligence”. Kim peek’s brain actually is missing its corpus callosum or the bundle of nerves that link that the two brain hemispheres together. Our brains filter out a lot of information which it considers unnecessary otherwise we’d be overloaded with information. The theory is that this filtering process is what’s missing in a lot of savants.
Kim peek’s brain could do mental feats that none of us would be able to do but he couldn’t understand metaphors, his father had to take care of him until his death because he couldn’t survive on his own. He couldn’t even dress himself without assistance. His IQ was measured to be below average but does that mean that he wasn’t intelligent? If someone with Kim Peek’s exceptional memory and computational skills scores low on an IQ test then what is the IQ test not measuring?
There is no scientific consensus on what the definition of intelligence is aside from that which IQ measures, which is in itself is controversial. One interesting fact about IQ test results is that it can be affected by the motivation of the person taking the test. When given financial incentives to score high on an IQ test, subjects can score up to 10-15 IQ points higher which is a pretty significant increase.
IQ is significantly affected by the person's motivation to think and the motivation to solve a problem
Perhaps ancient human beings didn’t find a strong enough motivation to invent the wheel until the Bronze Age when society became complex enough that they could profit from it in some way. We could see a similar trend in today’s technological developments. We could advance our understanding of the universe so much faster if the US would increase NASA’s budget. Currently though, NASA’s budget is only about 2.8% that of the US military budget. Back in the 70s, people thought that we’d have colonies on other planets by now. We haven’t even been back to the moon since 1972. We’re more motivated to spend brain power on problems that we can profit from in the near future.
Most people have their own barometers for intelligence. A lot of psychologists would agree that there are many types of intelligence. There’s mathematical intelligence, linguistic, musical etc. As we’ve seen in the case of savants, excelling in one particular area doesn’t always translate to functional intelligence. I think intelligence lies in the valleys in between. It’s in the motivation to think and the capability to use these different types of intelligence as tools to achieve a certain goal. It’s not just to absorb information but to create something with what has been absorbed.
I think that as a society advances, the value of individual intelligence becomes less and less important. Computers are getting better at solving problems that involve logic, statistics, group behavior etc. Eventually we will realize that even intelligent people can be flawed decision makers and we will rely more and more on data crunching machines. Gifted individuals will do well in their respective fields but the capability to singlehandedly advance humanity may be beyond the individual unless he bands together with other equally capable individuals. From a societal standpoint, more important than individual intelligence is collective intelligence –the average intelligence of a population. It directly correlates with a nation’s GDP, with its technological advancements, with its standards of living. It also affects how far an individual can push his intellect. Even if we do produce a man of Da Vinci’s intellect, if he doesn’t get the funding (which is related to GDP), if he doesn’t get the intellectual manpower that he needs to advance his ideas, he won’t get very far.