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Posted By Patrick

In the 1860s the big name in natural selection was, of course, Charles Darwin, and he weighed in on how intelligence, evolution and civilization were connected in 1871, in his The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. And his verdict: the civilized were evolving beyond the barbarians, thanks to their superior intelligence:

“At the present day civilized nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeed mainly, though not exclusively, through their arts, which are the products of the intellect. It is, therefore, highly probable that with mankind the intellectual faculties have been gradually perfected through natural selection; and this conclusion is sufficient for our purposes” (160).

Darwin deferred to W. R. Greg, Alfred Russel Wallace (the main characters in the previous two posts) and his own cousin Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, in rehashing ideas by these authors (he even quotes Greg’s entire passage about the squalid, unaspiring Irishman!). Then, commenting on 19th century English social strata, he divides the classes & notes that the intelligent must prosper in each one:

“If in each grade of society the members were divided into two equal bodies, the one including the intellectually superior and the other the inferior, there can be little doubt that the former would succeed best in all occupations and rear a greater number of children. Even in the lowest walks of life, skill and ability must be of some advantage…. Hence in civilized nations there will be some tendency to an increase both in the number and in the standard of the intellectually able. But I do not wish to assert that this tendency may not be more than counterbalanced in other ways, as by the multiplication of the reckless and improvident; but even to such as these, ability must be some advantage.” (171)

Darwin’s suggests that the intelligent of different classes rise to the top of their particular place in the social structure, even rearing a greater number of children. But he doesn’t seem convinced by his own words, quickly worrying that the reckless and improvident might still threaten to overwhelm the intelligent, just by sheer numbers and willingness to procreate. And then he veers again, suggesting that there might be some intelligent folk among the reckless and improvident, whose ability will give them some advantage. It’s a bit confusing, and reflects the difficulties of trying to decide how natural selection and intelligence are related. For instance, we might wonder about precisely what advantages are conferred by intelligence (as well as about just how closely reckless improvidence is tied to Victorian ideas about morality). For one thing… is a social advantage (increased wealth, security, status, etc) the same thing as a biological advantage (more efficient food-gathering capabilities, disease resistance, etc) of the sort favoured by natural selection? Or are they entirely distinct? Or is there an overlap between the “natural” and the “social,” and if so, where are these overlaps and how does it all work?

So: what (or where) is intelligence in all of this? It seems to be an abstraction, a quality that Darwin, like Greg and Wallace, believes is shared among clearly successful folk, but then it is also a quality which is demonstrated by social success. Success comes from intelligence; we know someone is intelligent because he or she is successful. But does this tell us what intelligence is itself, or are we left to look at its markers, success and status? And is an intelligent merchant then more intelligent than an intelligent bricklayer? Or an intelligent naturalist? I don’t think Darwin really had an answer to this – I suspect he didn’t think he did either. But it looks like people were edging toward asking this type of question at any rate…
   

 
1 Comment(s):
englishmen said...
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December 22, 2010 09:39:52
 
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