Many of the old theories relating to eugenics were tied deeply to intelligence levels as predicted by IQ tests. As a matter of fact, popular IQ tests that are still in use today have their roots in the eugenics community. But just how well does an IQ test fare as a measure of intelligence?

Before we can measure something, intelligence in this case, we must define it. This presents a challenge on its own. How do we define intelligence? Merriam-Webster defines intelligence as:

  1. the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations. also: the skilled use of reason
  2. the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)

How do these definitions relate to our understanding of the word “intelligence”? Do we associate intelligence with someone who does well academically? Consider the 2005 study (Duckworth & Seligman) which found that self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. How well then is an IQ test at predicting intelligence as measured by academic success? Indeed, three very well-known figures today, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, all individuals who no one would deny are pretty “smart” fellows, are all college dropouts (disclaimer: I do not advocate dropping out of school).

Another flaw in IQ testing for measuring intelligence is culture bias. Consider giving a North American IQ test to a teenager in sub Saharan Africa or Papua New Guinea. It may not be surprising if the young person doesn’t fare as well as their North American counterpart.  But let’s consider the opposite scenario, where a North American teenager is given an “intelligence” test based on cultural norms in sub Saharan Africa or Papua New Guinea. In these parts of the world, intelligence, which may also be considered an evolved strategy for survival (from the definitions above, think “ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations” or “the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment”), may be more closely linked with protecting your wildstock from predators, hunting and fishing using handmade tools only from what’s available, walking 4 km each day to fetch water, etc. How do you think the North American teenager would fare on this intelligence test?

I’m not going to answer this question; the purpose is to get you thinking.

So what do you think? Let us know. Leave your comments below!

Explore the Eugenics Archive for intelligence testing from the eugenicists’ perspective.