An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.
That's from Malcolm Gladwell's review of James Flynn's What Is Intelligence?. Here's an interesting finding that illustrates the sentence quoted above:
The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?
And, yes, Gladwell covers the hot button issues of race and IQ, and genes vs. environment. Needless to say, the Flynn effect plays a prominent role in the arguments. Let me just quote from the concluding paragraph:
“The mind is much more like a muscle than we’ve ever realized,” Flynn said. “It needs to get cognitive exercise. It’s not some piece of clay on which you put an indelible mark.” The lesson to be drawn from black and white differences was the same as the lesson from the Netherlands years ago: I.Q. measures not just the quality of a person’s mind but the quality of the world that person lives in.
Gladwell's blog post is here.
In my previous post, I should have linked to Stephen Metcalf's critique of William Saletan's extended expressions of his own gullibility. I have done it there, but let me link to it here too!