Today's Reading



Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives.—Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

You know it when you see it. I saw it in an orangutan once, a young male in Malaysian Borneo who had been orphaned by deforestation. I was hiking around a protected area of rain forest with a primatologist friend when we came across him.

Because he had been raised in a rehab center, he was well disposed to humans, and, it turned out, especially fond of men. He came bounding over. I was nervous as this juvenile but powerful ape tugged at my clothes and tried to climb up me as if I was a tree. I pushed him away a few times, and he finally sat on his haunches, looked up, and held out his hand. I remember taking the hand and feeling it clasp gently and warmly and softly around mine. I caught his eye. In it there was a complex look, a mixture of exasperation, cajoling, and hope; he was fed up with me pushing him away, but hoped I would understand that he just wanted to play. You know intelligence when you see it, and I saw it in him. After that handshake and the look that passed between us, we played for a good hour, which mostly consisted of him climbing up me and me swinging him around. He was basically a monstrously strong, hairy, orange toddler. He was six years old then and sometimes I wonder what happened to him, and whether he's safe in that protected fragment of rain forest.

It's a special memory for me, but the anecdote exposes several problematic issues with the study of intelligence. Perhaps I was projecting those feelings on to the animal. Many people would say they've seen dogs with the same look in their eyes. Dogs and orangutans might well be intelligent in some sense—but in what sense? How do we measure it?

To study intelligence, we need to be able to define it and measure it, and both things are surprisingly tricky. It's not something like height, which is easy to measure, though crucially intelligence is like height in that people have varying amounts of it. Intelligence is complex, multifaceted, shifting, and slippery, and it's the quality we revere above perhaps any other. How strange that we find it hard to agree on a definition. Here's what the American Psychological Association Task Force on Intelligence settled on: "individuals differ from one another in their ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt efficiently to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by taking thought." That's fine, but I want to know how artists and scientists create and develop new ideas that take us places we've never been.


Intelligence is something we can easily recognize in others, and with IQ (Intelligence Quotient) tests we can measure at least some aspects of it, but giving it a value doesn't tell us what it's like to be more intelligent. And what about those people who have never had an IQ test? We'll have a look at IQ later in the chapter, but I want to start—as I'll do throughout the book—by meeting people who exemplify the trait in question. So-and-so might have an IQ of more than 150, but how does that make them feel? Where does intelligence come from? What benefits, if any, does it bring? How do people with a surplus of it see the world? Can we load the dice so our children have more of it?


The first person I've decided to meet in this examination is a chess grand master. I chose chess because it seems to be a game of pure intellect, or one that is at least highly cerebral. It has also been extensively studied by scientists. It's been said that chess is to cognitive science what the fruit fly Drosophila, perhaps the most well-studied organism on Earth, is to genetics.

John Nunn is one of the finest chess players of all time. At his peak, he was in the world top ten. When he was fifteen, he went to Oxford to study math, becoming the youngest undergraduate since Cardinal Wolsey in 1490 (thus handily providing me with a thematic link to someone else we'll meet in this chapter), and went on to take a PhD in algebraic topology, a subject into which I can offer no meaningful insight whatsoever.

Nunn turned chess pro at twenty-six. He was clearly something special, yet while he did scale great heights, he didn't claim the top prize. Commenting on why Nunn, now sixty-one, never became a world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, the highest-ranked chess player in history, said Nunn was too clever: "He has so incredibly much in his head. Simply too much. His enormous powers of understanding and his constant thirst for knowledge distracted him from chess."

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