Book Traces the Meaning of Intelligence from the Early Greeks to Today

Newswise — Arizona State University Professor Paul Michael Privateer says that if you ask a group of expectant mothers what traits they want their babies to possess, intelligence will always be at the top of the list.

Undeniably, the concept of intelligence is rooted as a core value in modern culture, but why is that and how did that happen? Just what is intelligence and what does it mean to possess it? Why is intelligence important to us and what ideological role does in play in our world?

These are questions Privateer, associate professor of English, explores in his new book, Inventing Intelligence: A Social History of Smart (Blackwell, 2006.). By charting the history of intelligence from its earliest forms in Greek culture to postmodern artificial intelligence, he illustrates that intelligence cannot be so easily defined. In fact, it has had diverse social and cultural significance over time.

"Is intelligence measurable, like gravity?" says Privateer, whose research interests include the relationship between culture and biology. "Some scientists think it is, but I believe it's a problematic science. What do intelligence tests show? Do they measure compassion? Do they measure a person's ability to suspend ideas to seek other information? What does the IQ number of 102, for instance, really refer to?"

In his book Privateer traces the evolution of the concept of intelligence for more than 2,800 years in Western culture. Individual chapters recount the spheres of divine celestial intelligence imagined by Plato and Aristotle, and the Medieval/Christian period, when "the astrological became religious" and Christ/God became the measure of divine intelligence.

During the Renaissance the question was raised as to whether or not human beings could be intelligent. Intelligence, in turn, evolved from something "divine" to become something human, measurable and regulatory.

"According to Sir Francis Bacon, a noted philosopher at the time, intelligence is that facility in human beings that makes for a better society," Privateer says. "It divides those who can contribute from those who cannot."

Ideas of intelligence helped substantiate new ideas of capitalism, he says, because those who were intelligent could make more money and control modes of production. The career of an "intelligencer" was even created in the 17th century" these were people who were instructed to "keep their ears to the ground" to uncover scientific innovations capable of generating high profits.

In a chapter on the Enlightenment, after the civil wars of Europe, Privateer writes of how the modern democratic state was devised. "Social arithmetic" was invented to help forge sociopolitical policy. Mathematics, once used to measure the universe, was now used as a social tool to evaluate people and control social class.

"The concept of the " human interior" was also invented in the 17th and 18th centuries, an interior that being measured could help delineate and validate different classes of people. In this way, intelligence helped Europe create stable governments," Privateer says.

Over time, he writes, many new technologies and tests were developed and deployed to measure intelligence with the express purpose of classifying certain people. Notably, during the wave of U.S. immigration from 1870 to 1921, intelligence was used as a measure of entry into the country.

According to Privateer, 18 percent of immigrants were sent back to their home countries due to being diagnosed as "mentally deficient." Untrained civil employees called "eye men" would examine immigrants and rate them as mentally deficient because they had acne or facial scars, laughed inappropriately or spoke incoherently—all under the guise that this was "science."

Privateer's grandfather, an immigrant architect from Sicily, was one who was labeled "defective" due to a "perceived arrogance." He was allowed into the country but destined never to anything other than a New York City street sweeper.

This incident, as well as Privateer's experience interviewing death row inmates, is a factor that drove his interest into the social and cultural implications of intelligence.

"In current legal circles, a person's IQ score is equated with her or his moral intelligence and if the score is high enough—70—then you've earned your right to be executed," Privateer says. "IQ scores have been used to determine women's reproductive rights, as well as who should be slaves in colonial governments. Ideas of intelligence are powerful social regulatory tools and their meanings have significantly changed since the Greeks thought the universe was regulated by a celestial intelligence."

In today's world, the concept of intelligence continues to evolve. It has become a product, a commodity. There are "intelligent" retirement communities, "smart" water, "corporate intelligence" and smart bombs—all buzz words of the 21sth century.

"Intelligence is no longer solely possessed by nature, god, and humans," says Privateer. "Things can be intelligent and intelligence can be artificially created."

Inventing Intelligence is a book that challenges anyone who thinks that the meaning and parameters of intelligence had been negotiated and finalized.