Part III: Establishing a Paleolithic I.Q.
Are Intelligent People Inventive?
I KNEW A MAN who had a small summer cottage with a kind of kitchenette occupying one corner of it. The sink was set in a counter. From the sink to the corner wall, there was about eighteen inches of counter space, perhaps a little less. On the other side of the sink, there was a total of about five feet of counter space. When the dishes had to be done, it invariably happened that in clearing the table everything was piled beside the sink on the five foot section. Consequently, when the dishes were washed, they were always put to drain on the tiny little eighteen-inch section. The suffering (?) male was therefore forced to stand between the lady of the house, who was washing the dishes, and the wall in a space which barely allowed enough room to turn around, let alone dry a large plate or a pitcher or some such thing. After enduring this for probably a couple of years, it was suggested quite casually that it might be better to pile the dirty dishes on the eighteen-inch section so that the drier could do his duty in the wide open spaces on the other side — where he always put the clean dishes in any case. It was quite amazing how much more pleasant it made the whole burdensome operation! One day, when he tried to explain this little programme change to a friend, the friend expressed only incredulity that it could have taken two perfectly intelligent people so long to make such a simple “discovery.” They were two intelligent people, but it still took two whole years. . . . Whereby hangs a moral.
The moral is that all too frequently the most obvious solutions to the simplest of problems stare us in the face, but we quite fail to observe them. After one has the solution, it tends to appear very obvious indeed. Before one has the solution, it is far from obvious. My own experience in a research laboratory has strongly confirmed in my mind the fact that most of us see things pretty much as they are and have little or no power to envision possibilities which are not foreshadowed in the immediate present. We all tend to be great
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critics of what is, and a few are able to act as improvers, but the man who can produce genuine innovations is rare.
The very simplicity of many important new developments, once a technology has reached a point which allows the making of them, tends to deceive us almost wholly into supposing that there is really nothing to them. As a child I used to be tremendously impressed with the engineering achievement which lay behind the construction of what we used to call a Pacific type locomotive. Later on, when I learned that Hero of Alexandria had proposed a steam engine of sorts (working on a steam jet principle) to hoist fuel into the tower of the Pharos Lighthouse at Alexandria in Egypt, (2) around 120 B.C., I was not at all impressed. But history shows that it was Hero’s steam engine which, 17 centuries later, inspired Branca to devise similarly steam-driven toys. As Elliot Smith remarked, (3) “in the course of time Worcester, Savery, Papin, Newcomen, and Watt as the outcome of a century’s intensive research devised a practical steam engine that was of economic value.” I had seen an illustration of Hero’s steam engine and it was unimpressive: it was far too simple. But in point of fact the Pacific locomotive was, strictly speaking, a “child” of Hero’s steam engine.
It is very tempting to hold that the improver is more intelligent than the originator, especially if — as usually happens — the improvement introduces the element of complication. The complication as a rule has the effect of impressing us because it is beyond our immediate comprehension. The original simple invention we can understand at once and hence we unthinkingly suppose that the originator thought it up “at once,” i.e., the moment the need presented itself. The improver so complicates, and thus conceals, the prime element of novelty by the addition of dials, knobs, and switches, which perform functions that we no longer perceive directly, that we imagine much greater intelligence is required by the latter. Much greater knowledge may be required — but not much greater intelligence. Here is where the confusion arises. It is obvious that as we grow older we accumulate knowledge but there is evidence that intelligence per se does not increase much after adolescence is reached. It appears to do so because judgment is improved (hopefully) as a result of experience, so that we expect a man to be wiser and more mature in his judgments than a youth is. But it has yet to be established that this involves any increase in intelligence.
2. Hero, Clive Bell, Civilization, Pelican Series, 1947, p.63.
3. Smith, Sir G. Elliot, In the Beginning, Thinker’s Library, 2nd edition., 1946, p.2.
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Intelligence is rather like a potential: wisdom and knowledge build upon intelligence but do not, probably, determine it. Thus while we stand on the shoulders, technically speaking, of our predecessors, we cannot seriously look upon ourselves as more intelligent than they. For we have to remember that the day will come when others who follow will stand upon our shoulders, and to them our technology may appear to be primitive indeed. And so it will be by comparison, undoubtedly. But we do not judge ourselves on that account to lack intelligence. We have therefore to be very careful to distinguish between the growth of knowledge and an increase in intelligence.
But we must go one step further than this and learn from history the fully documented but little recognized fact that the power of invention belongs to a very few. These very few are people with a peculiar mental bent. They are very often difficult to get on with and may even be positively anti-social. In some respects, they may have only an ordinary intelligence. They just seem to be able quickly to see solutions which are entirely new in conception. Their anti-social behaviour often stems from the fact that their own society, far from being enthusiastic about their inventions, tends to be either hostile towards them or — which is worse — quite indifferent. Until very recent times we have not on the whole been enamoured with novelty as we often suppose, although the influence of a century of evolutionary philosophy has certainly broken down our resistance to change by allowing our thinking to become dominated by the idea that change in itself is progress, thus making a virtue out of novelty. (4) When we have thrust upon us an advertisement stating that something is “new, New, NEW,” what is really meant is “changed, Changed, CHANGED,” and what we almost inevitably interpret it to mean is “better, Better, BETTER.” Again, it is necessary to underscore the fact that neither resistance to change nor enthusiasm for it are necessarily an index of the level of intelligence. The zeitgeist of the times can so envelope us without our knowing it that we may accept change as a good thing, whether it is or not. By contrast, as we shall show, primitive people may refuse change whether it is good or not.
And then there is the matter of “need.” Necessity is in a sense the mother of invention, but history shows that millions of intelligent people can get along without something which later proves to be a necessity. Indeed, Lord Raglan defined the civilizing process as being “the progressive conversion of luxuries into necessities.” This is a
4. Shepard, W., “Our Indigenous Shangri-La,” Scientific Monthly, Feb., 1946, p.163.
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profoundly true observation. But necessity itself does not enable the majority of people to see how the need can be satisfied. This tends to be left to a comparatively small number of individuals, and as a rule their solutions or provisions are, at first, essentially simple in conception. And when they are observed by the rest of us they frequently seem self-evident. The inventor naturally must have intelligence to father his invention, or in rare cases, to recognize the invention he has hit upon accidentally. People often make discoveries but do not recognize their discoveries for what they are. And this, again, is no indication of their intelligence or lack of it: it is just that they lack a certain peculiar turn of mind.
We may safely conclude, therefore, that where there does not appear a need for improvement, improvement is not likely to come, and so long as an existing invention or development serves the purpose for which it was made, it may remain for centuries with little or no elaboration. Indeed, elaboration is not always improvement. Tylor reported that when native people in the tropics first received modern rifles, they found them quite unsuitable for that environment. (5) At that time, cartridges became so damp as to be useless, so the natives then rebuilt their equipment into a flint-lock firing system, carrying their powder in horns where they could keep it dry. Similarly, metal tools, especially copper ones, are better than flint tools in some circumstances but native people soon found that for shaving hair off, the cutting edge of a flint is far superior and more readily renewed. (6) A modern example is the use of a piece of broken glass in the very finest microtomes for cutting sections of muscle tissue 100 to 200 angstrom units in thickness for electron microscope examination. (7) The usual steel blade is not sharp enough. Recent experience has shown that flint weapons can be unexpectedly effective. Whole houses of simple design have been built with them and whole carcasses have been butchered with comparative ease and in a remarkably short time using nothing but flint tools, some of them believed to be thousands of years old. (8)
The Australian aborigines who had been accustomed to stone spearheads, did not take readily to metal ones since they are not as
5. Tylor, E. B., Anthropology, Hill and Co., New York, 1904, pp.14ff.
6. Razors: one such flint razor was found recently in a late Bronze Age interment in Wiltshire, England, which had been used to shave off the eyebrows of the mourners (See Man, Oct., 1950, p.144).
7. Huxley, H. E., “The Contraction of Muscle,” Scientific American, Nov., 1958, p.72.
8. Custance, A. C., “Stone Tools and Woodworking,” Science, vol.160, 1968, p.100, 101. This brief article provides a very useful summary of the present evidence.
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easily worked. Consequently, when the Australian government ran telephone lines across some of their territories, the natives took to knocking down the glass or porcelain insulators out of which, by a technique familiar to them, they were able to make very beautiful spearheads. (9) The government found this so distressing that they came to terms with the natives and agreed to leave at the foot of every pole a certain number of extra insulators on the understanding that the natives would not knock them down from the poles any more.
Thus, in these three cases, conservatism was not because of lack of intelligence but resulted from experience. The continued use of flint-lock guns, of stone razors, and of glass or glass-like weapon heads, was simply because the more advanced substitutes were not suitable. As a matter of fact, it could be said that, in the circumstances, the behaviour of the users was perhaps more intelligent than ours would have been with our tremendous urge always to change to something different and more “modern.”
This is not to imply that primitive people automatically refused innovations. The revival of Zuni pottery by Maria Marinez is a case where one individual began something new and persuaded her own people to support her. (10) There are a number of recent cases where individual native people have undertaken to introduce entirely new things into their own culture. We are apt to suppose that these natives would never have thought of departing from traditional ways and introducing new elements into their own culture if the inventive White Man had not provided the stimulus in the first place. But as we have demonstrated elsewhere (11) at some length and over a very wide range of items, it has not been the Indo-Europeans who were the originators of a large part of our technological heritage but the non-Indo-European peoples, the people of Africa, the American Indians, the natives of South America, the Mongols generally (especially the Chinese), and many others. Yet these same people are apt to be thought of, and indeed are on the whole, highly conservative and resistant to change. To this extent, they are like Early Man apparently, who may have been equally inventive therefore.
Thus it may fairly safely be said, and the point needs underscoring heavily because it is so easily forgotten, that intelligence is
9. The Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto, Canada) has several beautiful specimens of recently worked glass weapons in the “Pacific Gallery.”
10. Zuni pottery: described by A. Goldenweiser, Anthropology, Crofts, New York, 1945, pp.199ff. There are other excellent examples from the Solomon Islands given by J. M. Mello, in a paper titled, “Primitive Man: Neolithic Man,” Transactions of the Victoria Institute, London, vol.30, 1896, p.292; also R. Linton, Study of Man, Appleton, New York, 1936, p.313.
11. “The Technology of the Hamitic People”, Part IV in Noah’s Three Sons, vol.1 in The Doorway Papers Series.
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not necessarily to be equated with inventiveness, the majority of intelligent people never inventing anything. This is the first important fact to bear in mind. And there is a second equally important fact that needs underscoring: that the complexity of a device or technique is, per se, no measure of the intelligence required to develop it. As a matter of fact, it is quite generally agreed that the essence of genius is simplicity of design. This applies to much creative activity. It applies in music, in art, in architecture, in engineering, in literature, perhaps in most things. What could be simpler than the basic theme of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” or some of the profound observations put into the mouths of Shakespeare’s characters, or such a formula as E = MC squared?
And having said all this, it may be asked, What has it to do with the subject of this essay? My purpose has been to underscore the fact that when we look back into prehistoric times, we should not be deceived by the simplicity of their cultural possessions into supposing that they were any less intelligent than we are today. Where we do have their artifacts, we almost always find that they were designed not merely with utility in mind, but also with a marked sense of formal beauty and symmetry. Many of them are as much works of art as any of the highly engraved revolvers and rifles of more recent times. And, of course, their powers of observation, at least among those who were artists in the community, were equal to the best artists of today. Moreover, the Portuguese and other early traders, when they first met their counterparts among native Africans and elsewhere, were both surprised and, to be truthful, chagrined to discover that the natives were a match for them in business acumen. (12)
We conclude, therefore, that if we follow the strictly scientific principle of being guided in our estimates regarding events in the past which we cannot know directly, by observing the evidence of the present which we can observe directly, we must conclude that as soon as true man appeared on the scene he was probably no different from ourselves in intelligence and the potential for the development of culture. He was, in fact, intelligent enough to know that the simple necessities of life were best obtained by simple devices, the needless elaboration of which was not in the interests of survival until a sufficient mastery of the environment had been achieved and a large enough population was present to allow for specialization in the arts and, with specialization, leisure. Archaeology shows that as soon as this occurred, civilization developed with extraordinary rapidity, thus demonstrating that the capability was there once the total situation
12. Davidson, Basil, African Kingdoms, Time Inc., New York, 1966, p.102.
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permitted it to find expression. Man had not become suddenly more intelligent with the appearance of the early high cultures of the Middle East: it was merely that his potential was being realized.
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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
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