Monday, December 30, 2019

Mental capacities and cultural variation: A comment on a recent post by Tyler Cowen about a new book by Charles Murray [Notes on mind-culture co-evolution 3]

Tyler Cowen has done a recent review of Charles Murray’s forthcoming, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class (January 2020). He finds it “Not as controversial as you might think”, but is disappointed Murray gives so little attention to culture:
Culture is a truly major shaper of our personalities, abilities, and social behavior, and self-evidently so. For my taste the book did not contain nearly enough discussion of culture and in fact there is virtually no discussion of the concept or its power, as a look at the index will verify.
On the general issue of variability in mental capacity across different populations Cowen references an old post from 2007 where he remarked:
I’ve spent much time in one rural Mexican village, San Agustin Oapan, and spent much time chatting with the people there. They are extremely smart, have an excellent sense of humor, and are never boring. And that’s in their second language, Spanish.

I’m also sure they if you gave them an IQ test, they would do miserably. In fact I can’t think of any written test — no matter how simple — they could pass. They simply don’t have experience with that kind of exercise.

When it comes to understanding the properties of different corn varieties, catching fish in the river, mending torn amate paper, sketching a landscape from memory, or gossiping about the neighbors, they are awesome.

Some of us like to think that intelligence is mostly one-dimensional, but at best this is true only within well-defined peer groups of broadly similar people. If you gave Juan Camilo a test on predicting rainfall he would crush me like a bug.

OK, maybe I hang out with a select group within the village. But still, there you have it. Terrible IQ scores (if they could even take the test), real smarts.
That makes sense to me. To be sure, it’s a conclusion one man has drawn from a variety of experiences in one Mexican village – and, given that Cowen travels quite a bit in underdeveloped areas, I would imagine his current thoughts rest on a wider range of personal experience. I certainly have no personal experience that would contradict that. More to the point, I have considered reasons to believe that any written test is unsuited for assessing the intelligence of non-literate peoples.

In the rest of this post I want to repeat and expand upon material I made in two long comments to Cowen’s recent post.

Literacy and the mind

There is more to literacy than the provision of a sharable and long-lasting public record, though that in itself is valuable. Literacy also supports a cognitive architecture, if you will, more attuned to abstract thought and to thinking about thought. Language, after all, is itself a rather direct expression of thought, which implies that when you've got big chunks of it written down, you can examine it in a way that's difficult to impossible without that record.

Consider this passage from an essay David Hays and I published some years ago [1]:
General categories such as "plant" and "animal" are very rare at this level [preliterate cultures] and even categories such as "bird," "beast," and "fish," are not routinely used (Berlin et al. 1973). The commonest categories are at the level of "oak," "eagle," and "trout," with some subcategories, "white oak," "bald eagle," and "rainbow trout." [Preliterate] peoples certainly have a practical knowledge of differences between plants and animals—they don't set snares for plants or expect animals to stay in the same place, but the conceptual basis of that practical knowledge is not made explicit in their systems of categories.

To illustrate this, let's consider an example recorded by the Russian psychologist A. R. Luria. In 1931-32 Luria made observations on the effect which literacy training had on the thought processes of Uzbekistani peasants. The following exchange took place with an illiterate thirty-eight year old adult (Luria 1976: 81-82).
What do a chicken and a dog have in common?
"They're not alike. A chicken has two legs, a dog has four. A chicken has wings but a dog doesn't. A dog has ears and a chicken's are small."
You've told me what is different about them. How are they alike?
"They're not alike at all."
Is there one word you could use for them both?
"No, of course not."
What word fits both a chicken and a dog?
"I don't know."
Would the word "animal" fit?
Immediately after this exchange the subject was asked about fish and crow. When the subject denied that they had anything in common he was asked whether one word could be used for both. He replied, "If you call them animals, that wouldn't be right. A fish isn't an animal and a crow isn't either. A crow can eat a fish but a fish can't eat a bird. A person can eat a fish but not a crow."

While the subject is acquainted with the word "animal," he doesn't thoroughly know its meaning. It took a great deal of prompting for him to agree that chicken and dog were both animals and, having so agreed, he was unable to apply the term to fish and crow. The concept clearly was not one he routinely used. The subject's comments about the difference between chicken and dog suggests that he cannot form a generalization which covers both. That is, there is no easy way to eliminate extraneous detail from his concepts of dog and chicken so that the same conceptual core remains in each case. The similarity between wings and forelimbs is not at all compelling to this peasant, nor would it be to any but a biologist or those whose view of the world has been informed by the biologist's thought.

Notice further that in justifying his account of fish and crow the subject talked about the roles which "fish," "crow," and "person" can take with the verb "eat." This is the sort of consideration which generates ontological categories, but this subject clearly couldn't get to a meta level from which he could explicitly grasp this categorization.
The Luria is a classic in what I suspect is still a small comparative literature [2] and Berlin et al. [3] is paradigmatic work in cognitive anthropology.

Let’s think about this. What’s puzzling is that categories that are self-evident to us, plant and animal, are somewhat problematic in preliterate cultures? How could that be?

We have reason to believe that folk classification is strongly dependent on the visual appearance of organisms [4]. Dogs, cats, mice, lizards, elephants, horses, kangaroos, giraffes, bison, and so forth, are all alike in that they have a head, neck, torso, tail, and four limbs. They vary greatly in size and body covering and somewhat in shape as well, but they are alike in having those parts. Birds are like that as well, head, neck, torso, two wings, two legs, and a tail. That’s similar to those beasts, but wings are quite different in appearance (and use) from forelegs. Moreover birds are covered in feathers while beasts are not. And we can go through a similar exercise for fish. And yet again for plants, trees, shrubs, grasses, and vines.

The upshot is that a system of classification strongly grounded in visual perception is not going to have much motivation to recognize the categories animal and plant. Preliterate peoples treat plants and animals differently and their languages recognize differences in verb use – e.g. plants don’t run or see. They just don’t have monolexemic designations for those categories and that, in turn, implies that explicit verbal reasoning about them as categories is awkward at best, a difficulty we see with that Uzbekistani peasant (despite the fact that recognizes the word for animal).

Just how and why literacy changes the situation is not entirely clear to me –  and it’s been awhile since I examined the relevant literatures so I don't know the most recent accounts. But I observe that as a writing system develops, people make lists [5]. When you fill a wax tablet or cover a velum scroll with lists of plants and animals you are remote from their visual appearances and more likely to think generally about them. In that situation you notice and a lot of these creatures, for example, have powers of autonomous motion, while others do not, and so on. Those gross similarities and differences will rise in salience and prompt the creation monolexemic designators for those categories. Once that has been done and the terms thoroughly assimilated into the languages, children will learn them – those things are animals, these are plants – and it becomes easier to organize ones thoughts about them. And that’s the problem that Uzbekistani peasant had; he couldn’t organize his thoughts very well. Broader exposure at a younger age will change that.

Seeing photographs, recognizing snakes

One of Cowen’s frequent commenters, Ray Lopez, objected to that comment, but recalled having heard about African tribesmen who had difficulty interpreting three-dimensional shapes in photographs. He may have been thinking of a well-known article by Jan Deregowski that had appeared in Scientific American in 1972 [6]. Lopez went on to observe that hunting is very difficult (he’d recently been hunting in Greece) and suggested that the ‘hunter IQ’ of those tribesmen would be greater than their ‘office IQ’ or ‘math IQ’. My response to that, of course, was to agree. Office environments are very different from dense tropical forests. The skills needed to survive and thrive in one of those environments are almost irrelevant in the other.

Intelligence, whatever that is, may have a large genetic component, but we assess it through written instruments and those instruments simply to do capture a large range of human capability. In particular they don’t capture perceptual skills nor skills that are strongly coupled with moving about in the physical world, such as hunting. It is simply a mistake to think that such tests tell us much of anything about the abilities of people living in the world as our ancient ancestors did. And they, of course, are mothers and fathers of us all.

Consider the experience of Dan Everett, a linguist who spent almost two decades among the Pirahã people in Brazil. He was no tourist or hunter passing through; he had plenty of time to become acclimated to that world. Still, the Pirahã would routinely and casually spot things in the jungle that were invisible to him. On more than one occasion they saved him from injury or even death.

Here's a passage from his recent Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious [7]:
In the rainy season, jungle paths flood. Snakes exit their holes. Caimans come further inland. Sting rays, electric eels, and all manner of creatures can then be found on what in the dry season are wide, dry paths. It is hard to walk down these paths in daylight during the rainy season, covered as they are by knee-deep, even chest-high water (though I have had to walk for hours in such conditions). At night, these paths become intimidating to some of us. As I walk with the Pirahãs, I am usually wearing shoes, whereas they go barefoot. Two memories stand out here. The first was me almost stepping on a small (three feet long) caiman. The second was me almost stepping on a bushmaster (there are many other memories as dangerous). In both cases, my life or at least a limb was saved by Pirahãs who, shocked that I did not or could not see these obvious dangers, pulled me back at the last moment, exhorting me to pay more attention to where I stepped. Such examples were frequent in my decades with Amazonian and Mesoamerican peoples. And each time, they were astonished at my apparent blindness. (141-142)
When you are born, raised, and spend all your life in a certain environment your senses and mind become ‘shrink-wrapped’ around it. That close fit simply cannot be duplicated by someone raised in a very different world no matter how much time they spend in your world.

Of course simply getting about in an environment is only one facet contributing to hunter IQ. You must also be intimately familiar with local animal species, what they look like, how they behave, were they move about, the signs they leave, and so forth. If that interests you, perhaps you should visit the Tracking Science website, hosted by Louis Liebenberg, a Harvard evolutionary biologist who has published The Origin of Science: On the Evolutionary Roots of Science and its Implications for Self-Education and Citizen Science (2013) and The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science (1990)


[1] The essay I'm quoting: William Benzon and David Hays, The Evolution of Cognition, Journal of Social and Biological Structures. 13(4): 297-320, 1990,

[2] Luria, A. R. (1976). Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[3] Berlin, B., Breedlove, D. & Raven P. (1973). General Principles of Classification and Nomenclature in Folk Biology. American Anthropologist 75, 214-242.

[4] Berlin, Brent. 1992. Ethnobiological classification: principles of categorization of plants and animals in traditional societies. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[5] Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman, Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution, Johns Hopkins 1998.

[6] Jan Deregowski, Pictorial Perception and Culture, Scientific American, Vol. 227, 1972: pp. 82-8.

[7] Dan Everett. Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

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