What is Intelligence?

If you want a good summary of how W.E.I.R.D. Science thinks about intelligence, you can’t go wrong with watching Jordan Peterson’s video on the topic.

Just to be clear, I personally like Jordan. He’s taught me a lot. So, what’s coming next is not an affront to Jordan Peterson. It’s not even a critique of W.E.I.R.D. Science because they’re not responsive to critiques from the outside. They rely heavily on intuitions of authority about who has what PhD and who is qualified to say what. By their standards, no one is qualified to say what I am about to say. That was the exact problem Katie O’Brien and I faced when we wrote The Straight-A Conspiracy. Literally, no human was qualified to say what we were saying and nor could they be. We combined seven different fields of neuroscience and psychology. If we were going to get PhDs and publication records, we would need seven of each. All to then break down the science so we could write the book we already wrote. Was the issue our actions? Or was that the culture of W.E.I.R.D. Science has picked up cultural biases that make it impossible to solve the problems of humanity? And that’s where Jordan Peterson’s comment about intelligence being what helps you move forward in the world is very interesting. W.E.I.R.D. Science isn’t very intelligent because it doesn’t help humanity move forward. It overcomplicates with jargon. It atomizes into different fields. It talks about interdisciplinary work but it also reinvents the wheel without even realizing it.

Take, for example, the way the Romans defined intelligence. The word itself is made of two parts “inter” (between) and “legere” (to choose). Intelligence is the ability to choose between two things. It’s the wisdom to know the difference.

In a Biblical context, this was the ability to know the difference between wheat and chaff and sheep from goats. Or the difference between shit and shinola (shoe polish).

Think about if Navin P. Johnson (Steve Martin in The Jerk) went out into the world not knowing the difference between shit and shinola. Would he be able to make the kind of choices that would help him move forward in life? Nope. He’d be throwing shinola down the toilet bowl and rubbing shit on his shoes. He’d be dumb. Until someone taught him the wisdom to know the difference between shit and shinola.

So, why have academics divided up intelligence into all these categories? Because they practice W.E.I.R.D. Science and W.E.I.R.D. Science is atomistic.

In practice, The Straight-A Conspiracy taught students how to know shit from shinola in many of those categories. And now, you can learn those same things here at MixedMentalArts.co.

How should you feeeeeeeeeel about your mistakes? Should you feeeeeeeel stupid? Nope. Shame around mistakes makes you bury them when you should learn from them through fix-it-focused practice. Should you be afraid of math? Nope. Fear is the emotion that makes you stop thinking which is why it’s the WORST reaction to have to math. But aren’t some people geniuses? Nope. That’s a genius myth. This clarity allows you to make better decisions. And better decisions lead to a better life. That’s what intelligence is.

But what is a decision? Well, the Romans had that figured out too. Decision from decidere (to cut off). You’re cutting off the option where you waste your time feeling bad about your mistakes. You’re just going to do fix-it-focused practice and fix them. You cut off the option where math is a thing to be afraid of. You’re just going to get stuck in. And you’re not going to waste your time doubting your intelligence. You’re just going to get stuck into making whatever progress you can. To make a decision, you need clarity. And that’s what W.E.I.R.D. Science doesn’t provide. That’s what Mixed Mental Arts is here to provide more and more of. We want to raise humanity’s I.Q. faster than ever. You can help us.

Choose wisely, friend. After all, that’s all intelligence is. 🙂

Love to all humanity – Toto



Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

One Comment

  1. Adam Green Reply

    Hunter, I applaud you for sparking a conversation about these contentious issues. I think you’re right: you can have a high IQ and still not know shit from Shinola. You’re also right that I.Q. tests are just that: a test (which reliably predicts another psychological construct, g, general intelligence.)

    However, we need to be honest about the importance of IQ in the W.E.I.R.D cognitive meritocracy we live in.
    • Current IQ tests—such as Raven Progressive Matrices—are not heavily culturally loaded, meaning that you can’t attribute differences in scores to cultural bias (3).
    • General intelligence—and by extension, IQ—is hugely predictive of measures of life success such as educational attainment and socio-economic status (1, 3). This effect will only become more pronounced as automation takes away jobs.
    • Current evidence suggests that the heritability of IQ is within the range of 0.5-0.75. This means that IQ variation within a population is largely due to genetics, not the environment (2, 3).
    • IQ stays relatively stable over one’s lifespan and we haven’t yet found effective ways to increase it beyond one’s set-point (3, 5).

    Now, this doesn’t mean that people with low IQ should be fatalistic or feel stupid about their mistakes; nor does it mean that a high IQ guarantees a great life. Other dimensions of personality are quite important for life success, such as industriousness, which is a subcomponent of conscientiousness (one of the Big Five traits) and is predictive of one’s work ethic.

    More importantly, as you and Anders Ericson both highlight in your respective work, you’ve got to put in deliberate practice to be successful. We should encourage people to adopt a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset so that they can maximize their cognitive and personal potential.
    However, whether we like it or not, people differ. As a stocky, 6 ft. (ok, more like 5’11”) white guy, I quickly realized that despite my love for basketball I’m not cut out for the NBA. Similarly, if your IQ is 100, sorry, but the likelihood of you becoming a successful theoretical physicist is slim to none.

    Granted, most personality differences are intra-group, not intergroup; you can’t know someone’s IQ or personality profile based on their group identity. Nonetheless, substantial intergroup differences do exist and the intelligence literature shows this. Whether these differences can be chalked up to genetics, environment, or some combination thereof remains to be seen. Furthermore, it’s not clear what benefit we get from researching intergroup differences in IQ.

    I’d encourage you to look at this critical analysis of Richard Nisbett’s book (3). It’s not completely objective, but I think it quite nicely sums up some of the major controversies in the last 40 years of intelligence research. It covers a lot of the things which you (perhaps mistakenly) believe Derek Zoolander forgot to cover in his podcast with Charles Murray, such as the Flynn Effect and its relation to Black-White differences in IQ.

    As we begin to better understand the etiology of intelligence, from the level of genes to the brain to psychology, I think these debates about IQ will be quickly settled. In that vein, here’s an interesting recent GWAS done on the genetics of intelligence (4).

    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4499872/
    2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25985137
    3. http://laplab.ucsd.edu/articles2/Lee2010.pdf
    4. http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ng.3869.html (Sorry about paywall)
    5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beautiful-minds/201110/intelligence-is-still-not-fixed-birth

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