Why Blind Taste Wine?

WINE is a complex combination of acids, alcohols, sugars, polyphenols, and other biochemicals suspended in an aqueous solution. These biochemicals may be experienced as colour, aromas and flavours, structure or mouthfeel, and by their effects—either pleasant or unpleasant, depending upon the amount consumed—on mind and body. Parameters such as grape variety, soil, climate, wine- making, and ageing express themselves through the ever-changing makeup of the liquid in the glass, which can be analysed and interpreted by the experienced or attentive taster.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias and suggestion are all too easily introduced into this process of identification and appreciation. Ideally, a wine ought to be evaluated objectively, with only an afterthought for such factors as price or prestige, the reputation of the region or producer, the shape of the bottle, the type of closure used, and the design on the label. Even our past experiences (‘I once had a lovely picnic in this vineyard’, ‘I hate Sauvignon Blanc’) and the context and conditions of the tasting (‘This room is cold’, ‘This Empire style Château is amazing’) can influence our appraisal of the wine.

While all these factors can, and inevitably do, play a part in our personal enjoyment of a wine, they can lead us to prejudice one grape variety, region, producer, vintage, etc. over another, and, ultimately, one wine over another. By holding us back from tasting different wines and thinking about wine, they limit our understanding, and so our enjoyment, of those wines and wine in general.

By far the best way to control for biases is to be blinded to everything but the liquid itself, which is served naked in a standard wine glass, preferably in a more or less neutral setting and without flourish or fanfare. The wine may be tasted either on its own or in a flight, in which case it may be usefully compared and contrasted with the other wines in the flight. The wines within a flight may or may not have certain things in common, for instance, grape variety, country or region of origin, and/or vintage. If these commonalities are revealed prior to tasting, the tasting is said to be ‘semi-blind’. The precise identity of a wine is only revealed once it has been thoroughly assessed and, for more advanced tasters, an attempt at identification has been made.

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Aside from setting a standard of objectivity, there is much pleasure to be taken from the process of blind tasting, in:

  • Focusing on nothing else but the wines in our glasses.
  • Testing, stretching, and developing our senses.
  • Applying our judgement.
  • Relying upon and recalling old memories.
  • Comparing our analysis and interpretations with those of our peers.
  • Getting it completely right, more or less right, or ‘wrong for the right reasons’.
  • Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general.
  • Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

In philosophy, phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness. Wine blind tasting is the best phenomenology, phenomenology par excellence, returning us from our heads into the world, and, at the same time, teaching us the methods of the mind.

The more practically-minded among you may rest assured that blind tasting also has some more down-to-earth purposes: winemakers need to taste a wine as they are making it; wine buyers before adding it to their stocks; journalists, critics, and sommeliers before recommending it to their readers and patrons; and imbibers before sharing it with their friends. Especially as a student, you can enter into a growing number of local, national, and international blind tasting competitions. You can also pursue more formal qualifications and give yourself the option of entering into the wine trade, which is no doubt more life affirming than many other trades.

Adapted from the new third edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

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The Two Types of Psychopath

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The hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder is grandiosity. The narcissist harbors a strong sense of entitlement, self-aggrandizing fantasies, and a craving for admiration. In severe cases, she may be envious, lacking in empathy, and ready to exploit others in the pursuit of her lofty ambitions. Although she can be charismatic and charming, she more often seems self-absorbed, controlling, and insensitive. If she feels slighted or ridiculed, she might be provoked into a fit of destructive rage and revenge seeking. Such a paroxysmal reaction is sometimes called ‘narcissistic rage’ and can have disastrous consequences for all those involved, including the narcissist herself.

In the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, both the characters of Lord Henry Wooton and Dorian Gray are strongly narcissistic. Lord Henry’s narcissism is insightful and often quite charming and no doubt similar to that of his creator and alter ego, Oscar Wilde.

I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me.

On the other hand, Dorian Gray’s narcissism is cold and destructive, leading, among other things, to the suicide of actress Sibyl Vane. In Chapter 7, Sibyl tells Dorian that he brought her to “something [higher] of which all art is but a reflection” and made her understand the nature of true love. Instead of feeling flattered or humbled or otherwise moved, Dorian castigates Sibyl for her poor acting, claiming that it has killed off any love that he might ever have had for her.

‘Yes,’ he cried, ‘you have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect. I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid. My God! How mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been! You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name. You don’t know what you were to me, once. Why, once… Oh, I can’t bear to think of it! I wish I had never laid eyes upon you! You have spoiled the romance of my life…’

A study carried out by Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey in England found that narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and another personality disorder called anankastic personality disorder are actually more common in high-level executives than in mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high-security Broadmoor Hospital.

This suggests that people commonly benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, driven, and able to exploit people and situations to maximum advantage. People with histrionic personality disorder may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and thus adept at building and exercising business relationships.

In their study, Board and Fritzon described the executives with a personality disorder as ‘successful psychopaths’ and the criminal offenders as ‘unsuccessful psychopaths,’ and it may be that highly successful people and disturbed psychopaths have more in common than first meets the eye. As the psychologist and philosopher William James put it more than a hundred years ago, ‘When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce… in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.’

Over in the United States, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues investigated how successful psychopaths might differ from unsuccessful ones. They asked several members of the psychology and law division of the American Psychological Association, professors of clinical psychology, and criminal attorneys to first identify and then to rate and describe one of their acquaintances (if any) who could be counted as successful and also conformed to psychologist Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath:

…social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life… Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.

From the responses that they collated, the researchers found that successful psychopaths matched unsuccessful ones in all respects but one: conscientiousness. So, it seems that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the former behave impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the latter are able to inhibit or at least restrain destructive tendencies and build on their achievements.

Narcissistic personality disorder is, of course, named for the Greek myth of Narcissus, of which there are several versions. In Ovid’s version, which is the most commonly related, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty. As a child, Narcissus was prophesized by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’.

One day, Echo followed Narcissus through the woods as he hunted for stags. She longed to speak to him but dared not utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, the youth cried out, “Who’s there?” to which she responded, “Who’s there?” When at last she revealed herself, she rushed to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and pushed her away—just, in fact, as Dorian did Sibyl. Echo spent the rest of her life pining for Narcissus and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice.

Some time after his encounter with Echo, Narcissus went to quench his thirst at a pool of water. Seeing his own image in the water, he fell in love with it. But each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear. Narcissus grew ever more thirsty, but would not leave or disturb the pool of water for fear of losing sight of his reflection. In the end, he died of thirst, and there, on that very spot, appeared the narcissus flower, with its bright face and bowed neck.

What does this myth mean? On one level, it is an admonition to treat others as we would ourselves be treated, and in particular to be considerate in responding to the affections of others, which, as with Echo, are often so raw and visceral as to be existential. After being rejected by him, poor Echo had no self and no being outside of Narcissus, and ‘slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice’.

On another level, the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love. Sometimes we get so caught up in ourselves, in our own little egos, that we lose sight of the bigger picture and, as a result, pass over the beauty and bounty that is life. Paradoxically, by being too wrapped up in ourselves, we actually restrict our range of perception and action and, ultimately, our potential as human beings. And so, in some sense, we kill ourselves, like so many ambitious or self-centered people. Treating other people badly is a sure sign that we are still trapped in ourselves.

Teiresias prophesized that Narcissus would ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’, because to truly know oneself is also to know that there is nothing to know. Our self, our ego, is nothing but an illusion, nothing more substantial than the ever-receding reflection that Narcissus was unable to grasp. Ultimately, Narcissus’s ego’s boundaries dissolved in death and he merged back into the world in the form of a flower. In Greek myth, the hero—Theseus, Hercules, Odysseus—has to die and travel through the underworld (the unconscious) before re-emerging as a hero. He has to conquer himself, to die to himself, to become more than merely human.

Echo had not enough ego, and Narcissus far too much. The key is to find the right and dynamic equilibrium, to be secure in oneself and yet to be able to dissociate from the envelope that we happen to have been born into.

References

  • Board BJ and Fritzon KF (2005): Disordered personalities at work. Psychology, Crime and Law 11:17-23.
  • James W (1902): The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 1 ‘Religion and Neurology’, Footnote 6.
  • Mullins-Sweat S et al. (2010): The Search for the Successful Psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality 44:554-558.

Work Hard, Play Hard, Fall Hard

The manic defence and when it fails

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The manic defence is the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings.

A general example of the manic defence is the person who spends all of her time rushing around from one task to the next and unable to tolerate even short stretches of inactivity. For such a person, even leisure time consists in a series of discrete programmed activities that she must submit to in order to tick off from an actual or mental list. You need only observe the expression on her face as she ploughs through yet another family outing, cultural event, or grueling exercise routine to understand that her aim in life is not so much to live in the moment as to work down her never-ending list, forever readying for an ever-receding future. If you ask her how she is doing, she is most likely to respond with a robotic smile and something along the lines of, “Fine, thank you—very busy of course!” In many cases, she is not at all fine, but confused, exhausted, and fundamentally unhappy.

Other, more specific, examples of the manic defence include the socialite who attends one event after another, the small and dependent boy who charges around declaiming that he is Superman, and the sexually inadequate adolescent who laughs ‘like a maniac’ at the slightest intimation of sex. In Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, one of several ways in which Clarissa Dalloway prevents herself from thinking about her life is by planning unneeded events and then preoccupying herself with their prerequisites—in the withering words of Woolf, ‘always giving parties to cover the silence’.

The essence of the manic defence is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. This is no doubt why people feel driven not only to mark but also to celebrate such depressing milestones as entering the workforce (graduation), getting ever older (birthdays, New Year), and even, more recently, death and dying (Halloween). And it is no coincidence that Christmas and New Year happen to have been established in mid-winter.

The manic defence may also take on more subtle forms, such as creating a commotion over something trivial; filling every ‘spare moment’ with reading, study, or on the phone to a friend; spending several months preparing for some civic or sporting event; seeking out status or celebrity so as to be a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’; entering into baseless friendships and relationships; and even, sometimes, getting married and having children.

Everyone uses the manic defence, but some people use it to such an extent that they find it difficult to cope with even short periods of unstructured time, such as holidays, weekends, and long-distance travel, which at least explains why airport shops are so profitable. Since the advent of the smartphone, many people find it trying to go even a few hours, let alone a few days, without WIFI.

In sum, it is not that the manically defended person is happy—not at all, in fact—but that she does not know how to be sad, reflective, or undefended. As Oscar Wilde put it in his essay, The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing, ‘To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’

Because our society values ‘busyness’, it is easy enough to pass off the manic defence as some kind of virtue or personal sacrifice. In a country such as Kenya, most people do not share in the Western idea that it is somehow noble or worthwhile to spend all day rushing around from one task to the next. When Westerners go to Kenya and do as they are in the habit of doing, they are met with peels of laughter and cries of Mzungu, which is Swahili for ‘Westerner’. The literal meaning of the word mzunguis ‘one who moves around’, ‘to go round and round’, or ‘to turn around in circles’.

But sometimes a life situation can become so unfulfilling or untenable that the manic defence is no longer able to block out negative feelings, and the person has no choice but to switch and adopt the depressive position. Put differently, a person adopts the depressive position when the gap between her current life situation and her ideal or expected life condition becomes so large that it can no longer be carpeted over. Her goals seem far out of reach and she can no longer envisage a future. As in Psalm 41, abyssus abyssum invocat—‘hell brings forth hell’, or, in an alternative translation, ‘the deep calls onto the deep’.

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

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I’m delighted to announce that the new, third edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting is now in stock and shipping from the UK warehouse.

Just in time for Christmas, phew!

Apart from some light reorganizing, refreshing, and enriching, the third edition includes new chapters on the philosophy of wine, Greece, and Georgia, and new sections on Savoie, Irouléguy, Corsica, and Montilla-Moriles. Following recent research trips, I have reworked the chapters on Austria, Burgundy, Chile, and Hungary, and the sections on Cahors, Madiran, Jurançon, Languedoc- Roussillon, Sicily, and Sherry.

Many thanks to all those who helped me design the striking cover.

Reviews of previous editions

A comprehensive education in wine –The Times Literary Supplement

Splendid, concise, up-to-date, comprehensive and accurate –Clive Coates MW, Author of The Wines of Burgundy

Delightful yet sophisticated –Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, Author of The Wines of Greece

Trustworthy and valuable –Richard Hemming MW for JancisRobinson.com

An indispensable guide –Michael Palij MW, Founder of Winetraders and Winematters

Anyone on a wine course should consider this essential reading –Thomas Parker MW, Purchaser at Farr Vintners

The Wines of Uruguay

In the 19th century, French Basque settlers brought the Tannat grape into Uruguay, a small bucolic nation to the northeast of Buenos Aires. Today, Uruguay is a welcoming, liberal, and forward-looking country with lush grasslands, virgin beaches, and no traffic jams. Cattle, mostly reared on grass, outnumber people by four-to-one, and an invitation to stay for lunch typically takes the form of “Would you like an entrecôte?”Many people assume that Uruguay is a tropical country, but, at 35 degrees South, the capital of Montevideo shares a similar latitude to Colchagua in Chile, Cape Agulhas in South Africa, and McLaren Vale in Australia. Uruguay is at the northern end of the cold Falklands Current, and the Atlantic Ocean exerts a strong moderating influence, as does the immense Plata Estuary at the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná Rivers. Indeed, the climate in and around Montevideo is often compared to that of Bordeaux, although average temperature and average rainfall are both higher. The most common training systems are espaldera alta (VSP) and lyre to mitigate against high humidity and minimize frost damage.

The terrain in Uruguay is mostly flat or gently undulating. The coastal and more populated south of the country accounts for some 90% of production, and the Canelones department around Montevideo accounts for some two-thirds of that. The soils in Canelones are for the most part limestone clay. Other centres of viticulture include Carmelo near the Argentine border, and Garzón to the east in the Maldonado department. Garzón is noted for its rockier granitic soils and slightly cooler climate and has seen some heavy investment especially from Argentina.

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No expenses spared at Bodega Garzón

Uruguay counts around 180 wineries, often run by the third or fourth generation of Italian, Basque, or Catalonian settlers. From the 1970s, these families shifted from bulk to quality wine production, with a focus on Tannat which has come to account for more than a quarter of the ~6,500ha under vine. In my time in Uruguay, I tasted every possible style of Tannat, including a soft, ‘nouveau’ style made by carbonic maceration (at Pizzorno) and even a sparkling style made by traditional method double fermentation (at Pisano). The signature full-bodied style is deep purple with a heady aroma of plum and dark fruit, tobacco, leather, and petrichor. In the mouth, the wine is full-bodied with high tannins, balanced alcohol, and refreshing, multiform acidity. Compared to Madiran or Irouléguy (which are also Tannat or Tannat-dominated), it is likely to be softer, with slightly higher alcohol and more spiciness than minerality.

Other important grape varieties in Uruguay include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, and I also tasted successful examples of Petit Verdot, Riesling, Syrah, Tempranillo, Torrontes, Viognier… Because there are many parallels between Garzón and Galicia, I was very curious to taste the Albariño from Bodega Garzón: compared to its Old World counterpart, it is fuller and riper, with notes of white peach, canteloupe melon, honey, fennel, sage, and cardamom, a bitter and balancing backbone, and a long and salty finish.

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Tasting with Pablo Fallabrino of Viñedo de los Vientos

Because Uruguay has no appellation system, the wineries have a very free hand to experiment and respond to consumer tastes. With some ‘softening’ blends, this can seem as much a curse as a blessing—by which I mean, if you’re going to put 20% Viognier into your Tannat, you might as well be making Merlot.

Unfortunately, Uruguayan wines can be hard to source. Compared to Chile and Argentina, production is small and artisanal, and the silver beaches around Punta del Este are a magnet for well-heeled (and often high-heeled) Argentine and Brazilian tourists. Still, most wineries are keen to export their wines and show the world what they can do.

Favourite producers include Pisano (the RPF range is especially good value), Antigua Bodega Stagnari (try if you can the Osiris), Bouza (pronounced ‘Bow-za’), Familia Deicas, Garzón, de Lucca, Marichal, Pizzorno, and Viñedo de los Vientos. 2018 is an exceptional vintage in Uruguay, while 2014, owing to harvest rains, is the weakest in recent years.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Anger

Anger is a common and potentially destructive emotion that turns many a human life into a living hell. It’s hard to imagine a truly wise person like the Dalai Lama ever losing his temper. By a careful meditation, we can learn to control our anger and maybe even banish it entirely from our lives.

The philosopher Aristotle discusses anger at great length. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he says that a good-tempered person can sometimes get angry, but only as he ought to. Such a person, he continues, might get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praised for being good-tempered. It is only if he deviates more markedly from the mean with respect to anger that he becomes blameworthy, either ‘irascible’ at one extreme or ‘lacking in spirit’ at the other.

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle defines anger as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight that has been directed either at the person himself or at his friends. He adds that the pain of anger can be accompanied by pleasure arising from the expectation of revenge. I’m not so sure. Even if anger does contain a part of pleasure, this a very thin kind of pleasure, akin to whatever ‘pleasure’ I might derive from saying “if you ruin my day, I’ll ruin yours” or “look how big I think I am”.

A person, says Aristotle, can be slighted out of one of three things: contempt, spite, and insolence. In either case, the slight betrays the offender’s feelings that the slighted person is obviously of no importance. The slighted person may or may not get angry but is more likely to do so if he is in distress—for example, in poverty or in love—or if he feels insecure about the subject of the slight or about himself in general.

On the other hand, he is less likely to get angry if the slight is involuntary, unintentional, or itself provoked by anger, or if the offender apologies or humbles himself before him and behaves like his inferior. Even dogs, says Aristotle, do not bite sitting people. The slighted person is also less likely to get angry if the offender has done him more kindnesses than he has returned, or obviously respects him, or is feared or admired by him.

Once provoked, anger can be quelled by the feeling that the slight is deserved, by the passage of time, by the exaction of revenge, by the suffering of the offender, or by being redirected onto a third person. Thus, although angrier at Ergophilius than Callisthenes, the people acquitted Ergophilius because they had already condemned Callisthenes to death. Writing two thousand years before the birth of psychoanalysis, Aristotle seems to have put his finger on the ego defence of displacement, with the people’s anger for Ergophilius ‘displaced’ onto Callisthenes.

There is a clear sense in which Aristotle is correct in speaking of such a thing as right or proper anger. Anger can serve a number of useful, even vital, functions. It can put an end to a bodily, emotional, or social threat, or, failing that, it can mobilize mental and physical resources for defensive or restitutive action. If judiciously exercised, it can enable a person to signal high social status, compete for rank and position, ensure that contracts and promises are fulfilled, and even inspire positive feelings such as respect and sympathy. A person who is able to exercise anger judiciously is likely to feel better about himself, more in control, more optimistic, and more prone to the sort of risk taking that promotes successful outcomes.

On the other hand, anger, and especially unconstrained anger, can lead to poor perspective and judgement, impulsive and destructive behaviour, and loss of standing and goodwill. So, it appears that the sort of anger that is justified, strategic, and adaptive ought to be distinguished from a second type of anger (let us call it ‘rage’) that is uncalled for, unprocessed, irrational, indiscriminate, and uncontrolled. The function of rage is simply to protect a threatened ego, replacing or masking one kind of pain with another.

But even right or proportionate anger is unhelpful in so far as it is anger, which is both painful and harmful, and harmful because it involves a loss of perspective and judgement. Here’s an example. Anger, and especially rage, strengthens correspondence bias, that is, the tendency to attribute observed behaviours to dispositional (or personality-related) factors rather than situational factors. For instance, if I forget to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because I have been busy and suddenly felt very tired (situational factors); but if Emma forgets to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because she is lazy or irresponsible or maybe even vindictive (dispositional factors).

More fundamentally, anger reinforces the illusion that people exercise a high degree of free will, whereas in actual fact most of a person’s actions and the brain activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person’s patterns of thinking and behaving. Emma is Emma because she is Emma, and, at least in the short-term, there is precious little that she can do about that. It follows that the only person who can truly deserve our anger is the one who acted freely, that is, the one who spited us freely and therefore probably rightly! Anger is a vicious circle: it arises from poor perspective and makes it much poorer still.

This does not mean that anger is never justified, as a display of anger—even if undeserved—can still serve a benevolent strategic purpose, as when we pretend to get angry at a child for the benefit of shaping his or her character. But if all that is ever required is a calculated display of anger, then true anger that involves real pain is entirely superfluous, its presence serving merely to betray… a certain lack of understanding.

The world is as it is and always has been: raging against it is hardly going to make anything better. And it is by truly and permanently understanding this that we can banish real, painful, and destructive anger from our lives. But this, of course, assumes that we can accept the world for what it is.

What Is Intelligence?

There is no agreed definition or model of intelligence. By the Collins English Dictionary, it is ‘the ability to think, reason, and understand instead of doing things automatically or by instinct’. By the Macmillan Dictionary, it is ‘the ability to understand and think about things, and to gain and use knowledge’.

In seeking to define intelligence, a good place to start might be with dementia. In Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, there is disturbance of multiple higher cortical functions including memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language, and judgement. I think it significant that people with dementia or severe learning difficulties cope very poorly with changes in their environment, such as moving into a care home or even into an adjacent room. Taken together, this suggests that intelligence refers to the functioning of a number of related faculties and abilities that enable us to respond to environmental pressures to avoid danger and distress. Because this is not beyond animals and even plants, they too can be said to be possessed of intelligence.

We Westerners tend to think of intelligence primarily in terms of analytical skills. But in a close-knit hunter-gatherer society, intelligence might be defined more in terms of foraging skills, or social skills or responsibilities. Even within a single society, the skills that are most valued change over time. In the West, the emphasis has gradually shifted from language skills to analytical skills, and it is only in 1960, well within living memory, that the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge dropped Latin as an entry requirement. In 1990, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer published the seminal paper on emotional intelligence, and E.I. soon became all the rage. In that same year, 1990, Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser. Today, we cannot go very far without having some considerable I.T. skills (certainly by the standards of 1990), and computer scientists are among some of the most highly paid professionals. All this to say that what constitutes intelligence varies according to the needs and values of our culture and society.

Our society holds analytical skills in such high regard that some of our leaders repeatedly mention their ‘high I.Q.’ to lend themselves credibility. This Western emphasis on reason and intelligence has its roots in Ancient Greece with Socrates, his pupil Plato, and Plato’s pupil Aristotle. Socrates held that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. He typically proceeded by questioning one or more people about a certain concept such as courage or justice, eventually exposing a contradiction in their initial assumptions and provoking a reappraisal of the concept. For Plato, reason could carry us far beyond the confines of common sense and everyday experience into a ‘hyper-heaven’ of ideal forms. He famously fantasized about putting a geniocracy of philosopher-kings in charge of his utopic Republic. Finally, Aristotle argued that our distinctive function as human beings is our unique capacity to reason, and therefore that our supreme good and happiness consists in leading a life of rational contemplation. To paraphrase Aristotle in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, ‘man more than anything is reason, and the life of reason is the most self-sufficient, the most pleasant, the happiest, the best, and the most divine of all.’ In later centuries, reason became a divine property, found in man because made in God’s image. If you struggled with your SATs, or thought they were pants, you now know who to blame.

Unfortunately, the West’s obsession with analytical intelligence has had, and continues to have, dire moral and political consequences. Immanuel Kant most memorably made the connection between reasoning and moral standing, arguing (in simple terms) that by virtue of their ability to reason human beings ought to be treated, not as means to an end, but as ends-in-themselves. From here, it is all too easy to conclude that, the better you are at reasoning, the worthier you are of personhood and its rights and privileges. For centuries, women were deemed to be ’emotional’, that is, less rational, which justified treating them as chattel or, at best, second-class citizens. The same could be said of non-white people, over whom it was not just the right but the duty of the white man to rule. Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden (1902) begins with the lines: Take up the White Man’s burden/ Send forth the best ye breed/ Go bind your sons to exile/ To serve your captives’ need/ To wait in heavy harness/ On fluttered folk and wild/ Your new-caught, sullen peoples/ Half-devil and half-child. People deemed to be less rational—women, non-white people, the lower classes, the infirm—were not just disenfranchised but dominated, colonized, enslaved, murdered, in all impunity. Only in 2015 did the U.S. Senate vote to compensate living victims of government-sponsored sterilization programs for the ‘feeble-minded’. Today, it is the white man who most fears artificial intelligence, imagining that it will usurp his status and privilege.

According to one recent paper, I.Q. is the best predictor of job performance. But this is not entirely surprising given that ‘performance’ and I.Q. have been defined in similar terms, and that both depend, to some extent, on third factors such as compliance, motivation, and educational attainment. Rather than intelligence per se, genius is defined more by drive, vision, creativity, and opportunity, and it is notable that the minimum I.Q. necessary for genius—probably around 125—is not all that high.

William Shockley and Luis Walter Alvarez, who both went on to win the Nobel Prize for physics, were excluded from the Terman Study of the Gifted on account of… their modest I.Q. scores.

For the story, in later life Shockley developed controversial views on race and eugenics, setting off a national debate over the use and applicability of I.Q. tests.

References

  • Salovey P & Mayer JD (1990): Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality 9(3):185–211.
  • Rees MJ &  Earles JA (1992): Intelligence is the Best Predictor of Job Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science 1(3): 86-89.
  • Saxon W (1989): Obituary William B. Shockley, 79, Creator of Transistor and Theory on Race. New York Times, August 14, 1989.

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