Is intelligence overrated?

This strange subject gets loads of Google hits. I was drawn in its general direction by this WSJ piece, linked by venerable Arts & Letters Daily. The article looks at a new book If Nietzsche were a Narwal by Justin Greggs who’s an expert in psychology and animals:

Not surprisingly, the author strongly suggests that we reconsider our “unshakable belief” that intelligence, however we define it, is a good thing, “a magic ingredient that you can sprinkle onto a boring old monkey, or a robot, . . . and create something better.” Should we really be so confident as to the added value?

His answer is a resounding No. “We can, and often do, use our human intellect to divine the secrets of the universe and generate philosophical theories predicated on the fragility and transience of life.

But we also can, and often do, harness those secrets to wreak death and destruction, and twist those philosophies to justify our savagery. With an understanding of how the world has been built comes the knowledge to break it. Humans have both the capacity to rationalize genocide and the technological competence to carry it out.”

… Our braininess has enabled us to cure diseases, to write symphonies and books, to invent science and develop complex ideas and societies. But it has also—especially by way of our vaunted linguistic capacities—enabled us to deceive ourselves and others.

To be sure, animals sometimes lie (see the broken-wing display of a piping plover), but when people do it, it’s a different story. Literally. We’re smart and have language that allows us to misrepresent the truth, all the time knowing full well that we’re lying.

And so glumly on:

It is startling to consider that our very intelligence may have made humans no better morally, even no better off physically, than other species. Indeed, by many measures of evolutionary success (number of individuals, persistence over time, likelihood of persisting into the future), Homo sapiens is doing poorly compared to many other species. And not benefiting the Earth, either.

Mr. Gregg concludes, glumly but effectively, that “there’s good reason to tone down our smugness. Because, depending on where we go from here, human intelligence may just be the stupidest thing that has ever happened.”

Lumpen soundbite time!

What to make of this broad argument?

One of the key things I learned on my doomed attempt to study philosophy was a new way to think about grammar.

There’s the usual grammatical rues that I’ve used to write everything on this blog. Sentences, paragraphs, subject-object-verb, punctuation and all that.

But then there’s what Wittgenstein (perhaps confusingly) also called ‘grammar’: the ways that words combine to make sense, or not.


My headache is green with yellow spots.

The petulant North Pole is jealous of the selfish Equator.

Gravity is illogical and frequently useless.

There’s nothing wrong with these sentences in formal grammar terms. But it makes no sense to link these words together like that:

A headache does not ‘have’ colours, or anything else.

The North Pole and Equator are not phenomena that can be usefully described in adjectives that we use for people.

Gravity is just there – it doesn’t mean anything to talk about it as if it has anything to do with logic or utility, frequent or otherwise.

Anyone emitting such sentences is not saying anything, but rather making a silly noise.

Another way of looking at this is to think what it might take to disprove those sentences. What is the test for knowing that a headache has yellow spots, as opposed to purple splodges? What would stop the North Pole envying the Equator, and how would we know if that had happened? How in fact to make gravity logical and useful, and to know that it was?

In short, each of the words in those three sentences (including such supposedly modest words like the and is) has its own very specific ‘grammar’ rules that must apply to link them meaningfully to any other words if the propositions thereby expressed are to make sense.

We’re never taught these deeper word-grammar rules at school. Rather we more or less pick them up by using language as we go through life.

The problem, of course, is that confusion comes from not thinking carefully enough about how we use words. Hence what looks to me like a trite mistake in both the thesis advanced by this book and the review of it.

Is ‘intelligence’ a word that makes sense to be described by other words such as overrated or a good thing? Or is it more like gravity – something that is just there, outside such homely characterisations? What is the test for claiming that an intelligent ant would be ‘better’ (or ‘worse’) than an ordinary ant?

It is startling to consider that our very intelligence may have made humans no better morally, even no better off physically, than other species.


Once you grasp that it makes no sense in the grammar of the words used to claim that intelligence may have made us ‘better’ than other species as there is no test for any one species being ‘better’ than any other, the bestartlement just gently dissolves away.