[Introductory Note: the following is an important article by ARCHNBlog contributor Neil Parille. One thing to bear in mind in relation to the subject of intelligence is that the correlation between measured intelligence (i.e., IQ) and societal outcome success is one of the highest correlations ever measured by social science. The persisting skepticism of intelligence in orthodox Objectivist circles constitutes, as Neil explains in this essay, the legacy of Rand's blank slatism.]
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that Objectivists are, like apparently a fair percentage of the population, skeptical of intelligence tests (which I’ll call IQ tests). A while ago I heard Ayn Rand Institute president Yaron Brook claim that IQ tests are “B.S.” (he didn’t use the abbreviation). Perhaps less surprising is that Objectivists are generally skeptical of the contention that intelligence is a highly heritable (put colloquially, genetic) trait.
As I’ve mentioned before, there is quite a disconnect between what psychologists know about intelligence and what the average person believes. Here is what probably close to 100% of experts in the field of intelligence research believe:
1. There is such a thing as intelligence. Some people are better at math, have a bigger vocabulary and are better at solving problems of all kinds.
2. IQ tests reliably measure what we consider intelligence.
3. Intelligence is a highly heritable trait, probably in the 50 to 80% range.*
4. IQ correlates to a variety of life outcomes. Higher IQ people on average commit less crime, have less illegitimacy, have lower rates of drug use, etc.
If you don’t believe me, here are three prominent left wing intelligence researchers.
Here is Rand’s definition of intelligence:
“Intelligence is the ability to deal with a broad range of abstractions. Whatever a child’s natural endowment, the use of intelligence is an acquired skill. It has to be acquired by a child’s own effort and automatized by his own mind, but adults can help or hinder him in this crucial process.”
It is occasionally said by Objectivists and others that there are kinds of intelligence or aspects of intelligence that aren’t captured or measured by IQ tests. This idea was made popular by Harvard University’s Howard Gardner in his book Multiple Intelligences. Gardner listed among other types of purported intelligence musical ability and athletic ability. Most would consider these things skills. In any event, this dubious theory doesn’t undercut the consensus view of intelligence. For example, if you consider playing baseball a form of intelligence, it is still the case that given two equally gifted baseball players the one with the higher IQ will tend to be a better player. Put differently, nothing has been identified as a form of intelligence which inversely correlates to IQ.
Leonard Peikoff was asked in 2016 what Ayn Rand’s IQ might have been. He responded that he didn’t have any idea because IQ was not a topic in the Objectivist community during Rand’s life. He said that he didn’t know whether IQ tests were valid. I recall, but can’t find the podcast, where Peikoff was asked if Rand believed intelligence had a genetic basis. His response was that Rand didn’t think it mattered because we don’t use all of our brain power (or words to that effect). This is a common claim but, if one thinks about it, is untrue. If someone has an accident and loses twenty percent of his cognitive functioning, he is unlikely to increase his mental ability to his pre-injury level by more effort.
It does seem that Objectivists who are informed on these issues accept the consensus. Edwin Locke is a prominent Objectivist psychologist and an expert in the field of motivational psychology. In his 2017 book, The Illusion of Determinism, he accepts that intelligence is genetic in the 50 to 80% range. He sees egalitarianism behind the multiple intelligences theory, e.g., “we are all equally smart, just in different ways.” In his 2020 Objectivist Conference talk he discussed IQ tests and accepted their validity. Harry Binswanger said in a couple podcasts that he thinks IQ tests measure intelligence and intelligence is at least moderately heritable.
I imagine that many Objectivists have a hard time accepting the high heritability of intelligence for a few reasons:
First, it conflicts with their blank slate view of human nature.* As Rand famously said, man is a “being of self-made soul.” In her essay “Racism,” Rand defined racism as “the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry.” Taken to the extreme this means that every person is born with the potential to be a Newton since Newton’s genius must have been unrelated to his “body chemistry.” (But note that in her definition of intelligence Rand referenced a child’s natural endowment.) Yet if intelligence is highly heritable then nature places a limit on human ability. The average IQ is 100. It takes an IQ of 115 to be an accountant and an IQ of 130 to be a Ph.D. research scientist. It follows then that the average person will not be able to become an accountant and the average accountant won’t be able to become a physicist.
Second, an additional reason is the correlation between intelligence and desirable life outcomes. Put differently, people with an average IQ of 110 will have an easier time navigating the difficulties of life than people with an average IQ of 90. Some people are just born to be more successful than others. Although high IQ people can make a mess of their life, the Bernie Madoffs of the world are the exception.
Third, Objectivists, like Rand, contend that achievement is largely a question of proper epistemology. In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand considered the world’s problems to be largely caused by an inability to solve “the problem of universals” (which she considered to be synonymous with a theory of concept formation). I’d rather have a good theory of concept formation than a bad one, but there is no evidence to believe that Objectivists develop scientific breakthroughs at a higher rate than others.
Fourth, if intelligence is highly heritable, then what about other traits such as political beliefs, personal honesty or industriousness? Evidence shows that there is at least a moderate genetic component to these as acknowledged by up and coming Objectivist psychologist Gena Gorlin.
*This is established by studies of identical twins separated at birth and adopted into families with different socio-economic status. The IQ of an adopted child correlates to the IQ of the biological parents than the adopting parents.
**I’ve heard Objectivists say that Rand’s view of man being a blank slate is limited to the rejection of innate knowledge and isn’t necessarily related to the nature/nurture debate. On the other hand, I’ve corresponded with at least a couple prominent Objectivists who claim that males are not innately more aggressive than females notwithstanding that this is observed everywhere and persists even when attempts are made to raise boys and girls equally. See James Q. Wilson’s Crime and Human Nature.