Influences on intelligence: Cultural and Biological

Tyler Cowen interviewed Joseph Henrich in his Talks with Cowen talk show.

Henrich says the following on the cultural influence on intelligence.
we have this tendency to think that our intelligence is about raw brain processing power. But I make the case that a lot of our intelligence comes from our culturally downloaded tools. 
A simple example is all of you have a numbering system that you can count without bound. But the smallest-scale human societies will count one, two, three, many. They can’t differentiate 36 from 37. You can see the full variation of numbering systems by looking at these body-part counting systems.
Some groups in New Guinea will have a body-part counting system that goes up to 27. Another one will have one that goes up to 17. Somewhere in cultural evolution, we developed this ability to count without bound. Once we do that, we actually get new cognitive ability. When you grow up with this new kind of system, you get abilities you didn’t have before.
Then there’s also a relative one. Between me and the door — I could say she’s to the left of the door. That’s by drawing a line between myself and the doorway, and then using that as a reference point.The same thing is true of our spatial cognitive abilities. In English, there’s three different spatial reference systems. There’s absolute: north, south, east, and west. There’s body-centered — left, right, front, back.
But in some languages, they just have north, south, east, and west. They can’t tell you to drive on the left or drive on the right because it’s not one of the systems that’s built in there. Once you have those, you can redeploy them in all kinds of fancy ways to do new stuff. 
Cultural evolution is making us smarter by giving us all these new cognitive tricks.
In summary, Henrich seems to argue that if intelligence is the ability to analyse, then culture provides us some cognitive tools, that helps us in deciphering the problems.

I am inclined to support this argument although I am not sure if the following interpretation is correct. One of the ways to get good at Maths, sport or any other activity is to get a database of enough examples ingrained in your brain. If faced with a new problem, these can be tweaked to solve the problem. Such practice helps us identify patterns. Vishwanathan Anand argues the same about Chess, where I think it's more applicable.

Henrich makes another important point, the distinction between biological and genetic differences.
People often conflate biological differences with genetic differences. Culture changes our biology even when it doesn’t change our genetics.
culture’s been shaping our genetic evolution, but it also shapes our biology. A simple example is everyone in this room — I would say with . . . I can’t be 100 percent sure — but you have a specialization in your left hemisphere, and you have a thicker corpus callosum than you would otherwise.
You’ve acquired a particular cultural skill, literacy, that changes your brain and makes you biologically different and actually thickens that information highway between your two hemispheres. When you hear spoken speech, you get greater full-brain activation patterns than you would if you’d still been illiterate. Culture changes our biology and causes us to think differently. 
A simple example is everyone in this room…[has] a specialization in your left hemisphere, and you have a thicker corpus callosum than you would otherwise.
You’ve acquired a particular cultural skill, literacy, that changes your brain and makes you biologically different and actually thickens that information highway between your two hemispheres. When you hear spoken speech, you get greater full-brain activation patterns than you would if you’d still been illiterate. Culture changes our biology and causes us to think differently.
Read or listen to the interview. Henrich shares good insights on relevance of psychology research based on western subjects, religion, society and so on.

No comments:

Post a Comment