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Posted By Patrick

After my last post outlining the Victorian evolution-theorist Alfred Russel Wallace’s take on the role of intelligence in human evolution, I received an email from my friend Ernie asking about emotional intelligence. Where does that fit into the whole thing, he wondered? Hmmm…

Then, last night I visited another friend, Rob, to eat a fine barbequed pork filet with risotto and wine, and this topic came up again. And it occurred to me (thanks, of course, to pushing from Emailing Ernie and BBQ Bob) that there might be some connection between Wallace’s ideas of those “moral qualities” that helped drive human evolution (along with “mental qualities,” natch) and contemporary ideas of emotional intelligence like those described by American psychologist Daniel Goleman. So here is a hypothesis: that Wallace’s moral qualities perform the same function that Goleman’s emotional intelligence does in that they both supplement more strictly rational definitions of intelligence. Here’s how Wallace described “mental and moral qualities” in the 1860s:

Capacity for acting in concert, for protection and the acquisition of food and shelter; sympathy, which leads all in turn to assist each other; the sense of right, which checks depredations upon our fellows; the decrease of the combative and destructive propensities; self-restraint in present appetites; and that intelligent foresight which prepares for the future

Some of these seem pretty rational “mental qualities,” like “intelligent foresight,” but others, like “sympathy” and “the decrease of combative and destructive propensities” are likely what Wallace was thinking of when he also referred to the importance of “moral qualities,” and could have a connection to contemporary ideas of “emotional intelligence.” Maybe we can draw an evolutionary line between the two, going from Wallace’s idea to Goleman’s. Or maybe they are both adaptations to their cultural environments, slightly different tools to perform similar jobs – Wallace’s “moral qualities” are something that would make sense for himself and his Victorian readers, especially those who were educated upper-middle class folk (as ideas of morality and class in 19th century Britain are pretty difficult to separate). Similarly, Goleman’s “emotional intelligence” is an adaptation formed to express an idea that fits the values of late-20th and early 21st century America. Does this make sense? And are there comparable adaptations elsewhere, in other times and places?

Posted By Patrick

What’s so natural about evolutionary selection when it happens to humans – and where does intelligence fit in the picture, so far as Victorians (at least some of them) thought? As W. R. Greg (see the previous post!) says of humans, “as with [other animals], inferior varieties and individuals succumb and die out in the eternal and universal ‘struggle for existence;’ only, in the case of man, the inferiority which determines their fate is inferiority not of muscle, of stomach, or of skin, but of brain.” Greg quotes a long passage by Alfred Russel Wallace, an intellectual fellow traveler of Darwin’s, who argues that our capacity to think our way through things means that we do not need to adapt physically because we are adapting mentally. Here’s more Wallace, from “On the Origin of Human Races,” published in the Journal of the Anthropological Society:

“In proportion as … physical characteristics become of less importance, mental and moral qualities will have increasing influence on the well-being of the race. Capacity for acting in concert, for protection and the acquisition of food and shelter; sympathy, which leads all in turn to assist each other; the sense of right, which checks depredations upon our fellows; the decrease of the combative and destructive propensities; self-restraint in present appetites; and that intelligent foresight which prepares for the future, are all qualities that from their earliest appearance must have been for the benefit of each community, and would, therefore, have become the subjects of ‘natural selection.’”

Wallace thought that the human intellect enabled people to survive in all sorts of hostile environments: man adapts to his world “by means of his intellect alone; which enables him with an unchanged body still to keep in harmony with the changing universe” (and presumably ‘woman’ follows her man’s example…). The brain is the still point, the thing that keeps us recognizable as humans, rather than having us transform, as other animals do, into a creature more suited to its physical environment. As Wallace says…

“From the time, therefore, when the social and sympathetic feelings came into active operation, and the intellectual and moral faculties became fairly developed, man would cease to be influenced by ‘natural selection’ in his physical form and structure; as an animal he would remain almost stationary; the changes of the surrounding universe would cease to have upon him that powerful modifying effect which they exercise over other parts of the organic world. But from the moment that his body became stationary, his mind would become subject to those very influences from which his body had escaped; every slight variation in his mental and moral nature which should enable him better to guard against adverse circumstances, and combine for mutual comfort and protection, would be preserved and accumulated; the better and higher specimens of our race would therefore increase and spread, the lower and more brutal would give way and successively die out, and that rapid advancement of mental organisation would occur, which has raised the very lowest races of man so far above the brutes (although differing so little from some of them in physical structure), and, in conjunction with scarcely perceptible modifications of form, has developed the wonderful intellect of the Germanic races.”

So when Greg writes about the relative virtues of Celts and Saxons, he is concerned with how an overly sympathetic culture – not quite a cuddly welfare state, but getting there, he worries – has negated this facet of natural selection. The smart folk, by being so generous, are running counter to nature’s inclination to weed out the weakly, and are enabling lesser brains to survive where they should instead wither in competition with the “wonderful intellect of the Germanic races.”

Posted By Patrick

The theory of natural selection made lots of people nervous back in the day for all sorts of different reasons. One was that it looked like humans themselves were no longer being selected naturally, but thanks to social structures were perverting proper selective processes to allow the weak to gain the upper hand. Evolution was being trumped by society! In an article called “On the Failure of Natural Selection in the Case of Man,” published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1868 (less than a decade after The Origin of Species), William Rathbone Greg argued that society seemed to favour the lower classes and the aristocracy, instead of the hard-working middle classes. Here he is:

“It is the middle classes, those who form the energetic, reliable, improving element of the population, those who wish to rise and do not chose to sink, those in a word who are the true strength and wealth and dignity of nations, – it is these who abstain from marriage or postpone it. Thus the imprudent, the desperate – those whose standard is low, those who have no hope, no ambition, no self-denial – on the one side, and the pampered favourites of fortune on the other, take precedence in the race of fatherhood, to the disadvantage or the exclusion of the prudent, the resolute, the striving, and the self-restrained. The very men whom a philosophic statesman, or a guide of some superior race would select as most qualified and deserving to continue the race, are precisely those who do so in the scantiest measure. Those who have no need of exertion, and those who have no opportunities for culture, those whose frames are damaged by indulgence, and those whose frames are weakened by privation, breed ad libitum; while those whose minds and bodies have been hardened, strengthened and purified by temperance and toil, are elbowed quietly aside in the unequal press. Surely, the selection is no longer “natural.” The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman, fed on potatoes, living in a pig-stye, doting on a superstition, multiplies like rabbits or ephemera; – the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts, – and in a dozen generations, five sixths of the population would be Celts, but five sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one sixth of the Saxons that remained. In the eternal “struggle for existence,” it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed, – and prevailed by virtue not of its qualities but because of its faults, by reason not of its stronger vitality but of its weaker reticence and its narrower brain.”

The brains are clearly with the Scots, the Saxons, and the middle classes; and they aren’t with the Irish, the poor and the aristocracy. Intelligence begins to take on a pretty race-and-class-based shape here… so how can you not love this stuff! Of course, as coming from a long line of squalid & unaspiring Irishmen, I find it irresistible. Darwin was into it as well, writing (in The Descent of Man) that he thought Greg had “ably discussed” the topic. Yes, the time was ripe for theories of devolution that forecast the inevitable decline of intelligence, except for the odd outpost of lonely Scots....