I am a smart guy. I have degrees in technical subjects from institutions you have heard of. Philosophy is my hobby. I have gone through periods when reading whole pages of text unbroken by mathematical equations made me antsy. I like classical music and jazz. My standardized test scores are outstanding. Every job I’ve had since high school has been at either a science lab, university department, or software firm. Every woman who has been attracted to me was drawn in no small part to my intelligence. That which you trade for money and sex is what you are. I am a smart guy.
I say this not just to brag, but to establish my bona fides in the area of intelligence. I may not know what intelligence is, but I know it when I see it because I spend so much time around it. And I’m not just talking about myself–I’m talking about my immediate social circle. Years ago a friend said to me: “If you want to meet beautiful people, hang out with beautiful people, because they flock.” Ditto smart people. A significant proportion of my friends, acquaintances, and co-workers either think of themselves as smart or aspire to be smart. It is an axis along which we orient ourselves.
The conventional wisdom is that intelligence is a single inborn quantity that can used to order people in a line from dumbest to smartest. It can be measured in IQ points the same way that height can be measured in inches. What exactly it is that’s being measured isn’t clear, but it is a capacity for doing a certain kind of work. For example: writing, math, public speaking. Symbolic manipulation is an important component, whereas physical strength is not. This kind of work is admirable because not everyone can do it, and because it often results in the production of novel artifacts. Creativity matters.
It is an article of faith among those of us who derive money and status from our intelligence that it is something real. It is not an arbitrary social construct, a racket cooked up by universities in order to sell people degrees. Somehow beneath all these disparate activities–writing poetry, programming computers, being an effective trial attorney–there is a single unifying trait that lies in us innately. You don’t want to push too hard on the innate intelligence angle because that road leads inevitably to the swap of racist pseudoscience, but intellect is nevertheless an objective thing. You figure that (presumably smart) scientists could invent a scanner that would measure when the brain was engaged in intelligent activity, and if they did it would show that some people were habitually more engaged in that activity than others.
If scientists were to turn their brain scanner on me when I was doing my paid computer programming job, I can believe that they would see a signature of intellectual activity. It feels that way to me. But in who else would we see the most similar signature? A poet, a historian, a modern dancer? Maybe, but my money is on auto mechanic. Based on my own fitful car repair tutelage under my father, talking to people who can do it for real, and general sense of what is involved, my sense is that my closest professional cognitive cousin fixes cars. Physically the activity is very different—you contort yourself into awkward positions and get your hands filthy—but mentally…there is a complicated piece of machinery that doesn’t quite work right and it’s up to you, by some combination of experience, deduction, and intuition, to restore to it working order. I bet you it shows up indistinguishable on the scanner.
Officially computer programmers are white collar and auto mechanics are blue collar, so I might enjoy a tad higher social status, but I’m not shedding any tears for mechanics because they make good money and their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. The poet likewise envies the middle manager’s salary, and if you have a certain disposition this seems like an injustice, but why? Forget the snobbiness in the valuation of intellectual labor over physical labor peculiar to this moment in history: what is intellectual labor anyway? The computer programmer is an intellectual and the auto mechanic is not. The actor with an instinctively attuned sense of human yearning is but the used car salesman with the same is not. The classical violinist who channels gusts of pure emotion: yes. The rapper who churns out one dense slab of rhyming wordplay after another: no. Sure it’s snobby, but even more than that it’s complicated. It’s not that the notion of intelligence makes no sense—if it didn’t it wouldn’t exist—but rather that it’s so contingent that the thought that people could be stack-ranked according to a single number like IQ is absurd.
Some people are funnier than other people. Richard Pryor was an objectively funnier person than the guy at the office who asks if you’re working hard or hardly working. In some strict sense of the word objective this isn’t true, since what is funny is a matter of opinion, but there’s such a broad consensus that Richard Pryor was a hilarious guy, and such a sophisticated marshaling of cultural nuances that went into creating that consensus that it may as well be objective. And if you think otherwise, then fine, buddy, you go out and be as funny as Pryor. Bob Hope was an objectively funny guy too. I can watch footage of him doing standup during World War Two and see that it was great, even though it doesn’t make me laugh. I recognize that Bob Hope was a funny guy–I was just born too late to appreciate him. Subjective properties are real, but they’re not simple.
Being smart isn’t like being tall. It’s like being funny.