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06 Feb Nature vs Nurture in Intelligence

The three deep roots of intelligence are biological (built into the flesh), cognitive (based on our unique mental responses to stimuli), and psychosocial (learned through culture-laden experiences). Language springs from the same roots, and becomes inseparably intertwined with intelligence.

Nature vs Nurture in Intelligence

I came across this article in The Creativity Post that corroborated ideas I have been working on for awhile. We see statistical evidence that environment may be a stronger determinant of intelligence than DNA. As an intelligent systems designer, I really like the sound of this. If intelligence is bound to something in the DNA and inherited, then it may be much more difficult to program artificially intelligent systems.

On the other hand, if much of intelligence is acquired from phenomena in the environment, home, culture and other external things, perhaps we can harness the characteristics and behaviors of those things and deliver smarter systems. I’m encouraged by this research because it leads me to suspect that we can teach computers what humans learn and get similar results. On the other hand, the lives of many twins separated at birth, including  Jim Lewis and Jim Springer provides significant evidence to the contrary. I don’t think it’s one or the other, but some combination of nature and nurture.

Understanding Context Cross-Reference
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Section 5 #2

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Table of Context


Kaufman differentiates “fluid” and “crystalized” intelligence. He states:”traditional theory assumes that fluid intelligence is heavily influenced by genes and relatively fixed, whereas crystallized intelligence is more heavily dependent on acquired skills and learning opportunities” (Kaufman 2013). One conclusion of Kaufman’s review of large samples of test data is that “The bigger the difference in cognitive ability … the more the difference is determined by cultural influences.”

Besides innatism  and behaviorism we see other schools of thought such as “interactionism” propounded by Piaget and Vgotsky. Evidence is mounting that, given the basic human endowment of neurons and inherited physical and mental characteristics, much depends on the environment of learning that stretches throughout each person’s lifetime. Erik Erikson (1902 -1994), a German-born American psychoanalyst proposed an empiricist psychosocial theory of development. His observations recognize the impact of external experiences, including learning in the home and society, on life-long intellectual and personality development. Based on Erikson’s theory, we pass through a series of eight interrelated stages:

  1. Infant (Hope) – Basic Trust vs. Mistrust
  2. Toddler (Will) – Autonomy vs. Shame
  3. Preschooler (Purpose) – Initiative vs. Guilt
  4. School-Age Child (Competence) – Industry vs. Inferiority
  5. Adolescent (Fidelity) – Identity vs. Identity Diffusion
  6. Young Adult (Love) – Intimacy vs. Isolation
  7. Middle-aged Adult (Care) – Generativity vs. Self-absorption
  8. Older Adult (Wisdom) – Integrity vs. Despair

Mipus Head Though “Fidelity” and “Adolescent” may not go together perfectly, I think the point is well made: as we progress biologically we go through rapid development and as we stabilize biologically, intelligence stabilizes as well. Does this mean teaching computers to learn must be done in stages? How do you teach computers about integrity and despair? Or is it possible that brain tasks may be automated without regard to psychosocial programming? The MIPUS I have come to know and love is kind of stuck in the Preschooler stage (please don’t tell him I said that). And perhaps the third or fourth stages are as far as computers ever need to develop to be of use.

The debate continues about the relative roles of nature vs. nurture in intelligence as well as language, with much new evidence supporting both the genetic and environmental theories. though the voices for the predominant role of biological inheritance are waning as more is discovered about the power of environment. Whence cometh language, and to what extent is language preprogrammed into the human brain? Many nativist philosophers, including Plato and Descartes suggested that intelligence is part of our biological heritage, or that they occur naturally independent of environmental influences. Alternative empiricist possibilities were championed by philosophers, such as John Locke, who believed the mind starts out life as a tabula rasa: a blank slate ready to be shaped by family, culture, academia and, especially, life experiences. 

If, as is becoming more clear all the time, the fabric of our intelligence, and our self, is woven from a combination of genetic predisposition and life experience, how do we weave automated systems that have the basic capabilities (if not the infinite variety) of human intelligence?

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