Archive for the ‘Science and society’ Category

brainpower_big.jpg The “racial intelligence” bulldozer that James Watson set rolling a couple of weeks back is still whirring in our backyards as the new row over superior Jewish IQ scores is begging media attention.

This time the perpetrator is the Bell Curve fame Charles Murray and his American Enterprise Institute. I am not going into much detail about it. You can read the whole thing here.

The book ‘Bell Curve’ by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein once had the fate of being the most celebrated and at the same time, the most shunned book dealing with sociology of intelligence. The book set the scene for serious debates on the way IQ tests were used as real measurements of peoples’ intelligence.
The consensus regarding the average intelligence of various races was popularized to be as follows: Ashkenazim Jews 115; East Asians 105; Whites 100; American Indians and most Hispanics 90; African Americans 85; and sub-Saharan Africans 70. By the same order, accumulation of wealth, the level of income, achieved academic success etc., were also popularized to follow closely with the average IQs of these six racial groupings.

What do we actually know about Intelligence Quotient?

The results of large studies and their meta-analyses can be filtered down to the following concrete points:

  • IQ tests aspire to assess only 4 areas of human intelligence:

Verbal comprehension, Processing Speed, Working (arithmetic) memory and Perceptual organization (visuo-spacial).

  • People who are good at one area of intelligence (defined by the test) tend to be good at other areas too (+ve correlation).
  • IQ tests are always constrained by the cultural, linguistic, socio-economic and other contextual biases.
  • IQ tests don’t assess attributes like

Creativity, Personality, Practical sense, Social sensitivity, Leadership and Altruism.

  • IQ tests can be consistently and precisely interpreted only when the scores are very low or very high.
  • General Intelligence or ‘g’, as measured by IQ scores, is an attribute of the psyche (the software), rather than any macroscopic characteristic of the brain (the hardware).
  • IQ test scores are positively correlated to genetic make up as evident from large twin studies.
  • The effects on IQ scores thought to be caused by the environmental factors tend to disappear as the test-takers enter adulthood and further into old age.
  • Even then, there is no definitive evidence yet to link higher IQ test scores to brain size, or any particular genotype.
  • Training for IQ tests can certainly improve IQ scores.

Genetic basis for intelligence

The animal Brain plays the role of just the hardware on which the software called “mind” runs. Stretching that metaphor a little points out that there need not be a one-to-one correspondence between the hardware and the software for every behavioral trait. And studies have only shown IQ to be genetically linked; they have NOT shown that intelligence is solely a genetic quality. Having the right environment is extremely essential for the full expression of such “intelligence” genes (if there are any).
The examples of higher average IQ scores in certain human races may hence be more cultural rather than biological. Cultures that pressurize their children to achieve more in academics tend to produce better IQ scores. Just like average human height has increased over generations due to better nutrition, expression of intelligence too can hopefully improve in encouraging environs.

Is intelligence an essential survival quality?

It may be difficult to swallow without salt but it’s true: Intelligence does not confer any significant evolutionary survival advantage to any species.

Survival in the natural world, in a reductionistic sense means advantage in numbers, disease-free & adaptable gene pool and flexibility with nature. Social achievement and academic profiles, which are direct correlates of high IQ scores, have nothing to do with gene propagation and adaptability, even though various human races emphasize on these aspects more and more after every generation.

If we extrapolate the selfish gene concept to the macro evolutionary scenario, we find that the mind, consciousness, intelligence and all the emergent behavioral patterns are just a few of the myriad ways of “selfish” genes to propagate themselves.

This “rule” becomes clearer when one steps further backwards and look at the picture of evolution of life on planet earth as a whole.



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The past week saw the greatest controversy in a year ignited by the seemingly racist comments of the 79 year old Nobel Laureate James Watson.

Watson who shared his Nobel with Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for the discovery of the Double-helical structure of DNA, had always been at the helm of controversies mostly b’coz of his fascination for Eugenics.

The latest of his comments on intelligence and race came in an interview in Sunday Times on Oct 14.

He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really” and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

He adds that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.

Watson was quick to apologize for his biased and baseless comments once the interview became controversial and his credibility challenged not just by the general public, but the scientific community as well.

He said …”to all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

But whatever he said now, the damage has been done. Watson’s claims on “evidence” regarding intellectual levels of races have given the right wing neo-conservatives a chance to reiterate their anti-reservationist, anti-pluralistic demands toppling political balance everywhere.

Watson knows very well that there aren’t any statistically significant evidence to suggest that there are genetic differences in intelligence among human races identified in studies yet. In fact the last part of what is quoted as his statement (about the possible differences in the evolution of intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated) may be quite plausible, but reading Watson in the context that he himself has set up through his eugenic rantings in his “post Nobel” years reveals a “prejudiced” man.

The funniest part is in two simple but powerful facts of neurobiology and cognitive science:

  1. there are as yet no IQ tests that are perfectly culture-free and context-independent which can be administered universally to all sects of Homosapiens
  2. no genes identified yet have been directly linked to any kind of animal intelligence.

Without satisfying these two ideal conditions, it is scientifically impossible to extract objective evidence regarding intellectual inferiority and superiority at the genetic level.

Page 3 Tag: Watson’s own reputation had been under question for long when new revelations about the role of Ms. Rosalind Franklin in the ‘DNA helix discovery’ and how her data was used in the discovery without giving her any credits came out. Story goes that Ms. Franklin was ungratefully excluded from the Nobel winning work after Watson and team “stole” the data from Ms. Franklin. Ever since the allegations came up, Watson had been attacking Ms. Franklin (even after her death) passing comments on her being intellectual but autistic and so on.

The Sunday Times interview is here.

See also :

Intelligence – Myths and reality

Evolutionary Socialism – a cause for affirmative action.


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Overzealous Science Journalism.

Scientists always keep complaining that the public doesn’t understand science. Yet university and lab newsroom reports of latest research claiming of “break-through” are becoming glaring examples of how sober facts of science can finally be contorted into flashy news totally detached from reality. Quite often it is seen that the researches themselves indulge in this unbecoming activity as they prepare reports about their research for the layperson. May be it’s their craving for the limelight or may be it’s the pressure from the funding groups or university themselves.

Overzealous science reporting often exhibits two kind of basic flaws: first, where the interpretation of the research findings and their extrapolation are themselves far fetched; second, where the journalist’s understanding of the research data is imperfect.

The chief problem cropping up when researchers report their own study is that they hardly bother to contain their explanations within the limits of their research data. Instead, there is a more-than-needed emphasis on the broader implications of the new study and why the study is “so important”. This leads to unrealistic extrapolation of research data – a menacing issue especially in the field of social psychology and behavioral sciences.

Take for example the story from the Beckman institute, University of Illinois regarding the re-running of the famous Duncker’s Fortress/Tumor Problem : “Researchers Find Eye Movement Can Affect Problem-solving, Cognition.”


They report in the current (Aug., 2007) issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review that by occasionally guiding the eye movements of participants with a tracking task unrelated to the problem, they were able to “substantially affect their chances of problem-solving success” to the point where those groups outperformed every control group at solving the problem. These results, they conclude, demonstrate that “it is now clear that not only do eye movements reflect what we are thinking, they can also influence how we think”.

A quick run through the original paper will tell us that such generalizations were too hasty, while even the answer to the basic question of whether the problem-solvers really used the visual clues offered by eye-tracking, remains elusive yet. Remember that even with very explicit visual and analogical cognitive clues, Gick and Holyoak had not produced satisfactory results in the 1983 ‘modified re-run’ of Duncker’s original Fortress/Tumor Problem experiment.

The trends in sociobiology are much more deplorable than this. Darwinian principles in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology have almost (or at least in popular appeal) become synonymous with genetic determinism. The world is trained to ask “Did my genes make me do that?” and the media promptly replies quoting a new research: “Blame it on your genes, baby!” And then there is the new idea of “neuro-marketing”, where the detection of a flurry of regional brain activity in an fMRI on seeing a brand is “branded” as “BRAND PREFERENCE”.

Newsroom boys found it less exciting to term it “learned preference” which had been the more appropriate explanation for the behavior any way.

There are more instances of such absurd reporting in other realms of science. The recent “Soliton theory of Nerve impulse conduction” of the Copenhagen University researchers and the “Faster than Light Signal transmission Experiment” of the NEC research institute group in Princeton are reasonably good experimental designs whose results were totally contorted to look outlandish.

The Soliton Theory of Nerve Conduction was revolutionary on one account: it suggested a broader perspective into which the established ionic conduction theories could be viewed in. All it sought was to answer the perplexing age-old question – ‘why isn’t there much resistance heat generated in the nerves as a result of electrical conduction?’ Whatever the scientific plausibility of the findings, it wasn’t even close to anything the news headline shouted: nerves use sound, not electricity!”

Similar is the story of the recent claims of Sending electromagnetic impulses at supraluminal velocities. The article as usual came in popular media with roaring headlines such as “Speed of light barrier broken” and “Time travel becoming a reality”. Astonishingly unscientific claims like” Relativity being questioned” kind of interpretations were also not uncommon.
What the NEC Research Institute group did really was that they created an anomalous dispersive medium and achieved propagation of a pulse at velocities above that of light in vacuum thru early re-phasing of the component waves. Only the group velocity got faster than light, while the phase velocity remained unaffected. There is nothing NEW about this as far as relativity or time travel is concerned, notwithstanding the brilliance of the experimental setup.

Science reporting, like any other reporting, is fast yielding to sensationalism. Flashy headlines, digressions peppered with quotes from veterans, unrealistic extrapolation of lab data, unnecessary links to science fiction and fantasies, hasty generalizations, overemphasis on genetic determinism are tricks being regularly used at the newsrooms to ensnare the uninformed reader. And what finally happens is the spread of half truths that can finally boomerang on the scientific community itself.


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The previous article, Why Should Darwinism be Capitalistic?, invited criticism from many of my ‘evolutionist’ friends. Some were against the anti-deterministic underpinnings of the article – they were reluctant to come to terms with the ‘Nature via Nurture’ hypothesis. Others were against my suggestion that Darwinism can be supportive of Socialism rather than capitalism. What most of them complained about was my support of the job and educational reservations to weaker sections of the society.

So here are some clarifications on the issue. These are excerpts from email replies, orkut messages and internet chats. They represent my attempts to detail the:

  • the influence of environment on gene expression (nature via nurture).
  • the use of neo-darwinian evolutionary principles to fight nature’s selection forces.
  • the concept of all-round social upliftment for maximum expression of best genes.
  • the necessity of social reservation and proactive steps to uplift the backward sects of each population.

An analogy to ponder over

Imagine, two pots, with randomly allocated seeds from the same batch. The two plots have equivalent genetic potential. One plot received fertilizer (an environmental condition), the other pot receives no fertilizer. The average height (i.e. intelligence) differences between each pot will be due to environmental differences (fertilizer), however the height differences amongst individual plants within a pot are due to genetic differences (assuming similar conditions throughout the pot).
Which set of plants have a better chance of disseminating their progeny..?
Which set of plants can ensure that most of their “good” genes are transferred to the next generation ?
Progeny of which set of plants are more likely to survive with the better genes ?


The gene for higher intellect (henceforth called “smart-gene”) definitely appears in a family/clan/race as a result of mutation and random chance, as evolutionary laws say.

Let me elaborate this:

A child named ‘Z’ in a family of traditional cobblers in India in 800 AD gets a few smart-genes. He has this constant urge to learn, enjoy philosophy or engage in intellectual pursuits. But the strict caste system and social practices of untouchability forbids him from following his heart. Even his family which doesn’t care about education is against his wishes and the boy is compelled to follow his father’s profession, marry somebody from his own caste and spend his life in the way, the strict society wanted him.

His wife, who is from a plain ordinary cobbler family, has no smart-genes. Now our “index” case of smart-gene-mutant is Mr.Z, who has very very small chance of passing his mutant smart-genes to his son or daughter. But still, let us simply suppose the genes were fortunately inherited by Mr.Z’s son. But even then, the son too has very little chance of passing that to the third generation because of the same socioeconomic set up that prevented his father from achieving his own dreams. If he defies the society, the family will soon be destroyed even before a third or fourth generation of children is born.

What if Z’s daughter is the one who inherits the smart-genes? The prospects are worse for a woman in such a rigidly hierarchical and casteist society!!

As long as the same socioeconomic conditions prevail around the family, the smart-genes find less and less chance of inheritance.

Note that there is no inheritance of acquired characters here.
The smart-genes simply rose as a result of “random aimless mutation” as Dawkins often puts it.
The only factor that environment strongly influences, is its chance of being inherited into the subsequent generation.
This situation is a kind of ‘man-made’ negative selection.
The same way we weed out poor yielding poultry or sheep from a farm.
The same way dogs, which are epitomes of servitude and fidelity, were selectively evolved from wolves

Now consider the same situation in a modern liberal Western society like the USA.

The modern Mr. Z, who inherits the smart-genes, takes a scholarship exam, pursues a college education, research in Duke, become a top rated cardiologist in North Carolina and marries the daughter of his research guide. Now his children have because his wife is likely to have the same in her gene pool too. Now, since his wife’s family has a history of intellectual members, the odds of her transmitting the smart-genes to the next generation are also higher. In whichever way you look, Mr. Z’s progeny will have greater chance of inheriting their parents’ smart-genes.

The atmosphere, in which their children grow up, will be stimulation to their genetic potentials. Better nutrition, visuo-spacial challenges of the city and top class education bring the best out of those old smart-genes.

These children, who seek out their own kind (Dawkin’s “green beard effect”) in the society, marry from families of similar or higher intellectual status. The odds of their successive generations becoming smarter improve with every generation.

Note that our Mr. Z of the21st century American city not only faces zero resistance from society but enjoys the fruits of liberty, equality and government’s financial aid in the form of grants, job reservations, scholarships, insurance etc.

This situation is beautifully condensed in the very famous FLYNN EFFECT.

Dr. James Flynn, after doing a meta-analysis of many Western IQ studies done over generations, plotted it against time, and found that average IQ scores increase with generations in the Western societies.

The reason for this is not because the earlier generations had no smart-genes. It’s just that modern western societies are more liberal & conducive for the better expression of these genes to their fullest potentials.

They permit mix up of all kinds, resulting in a global improvement of intellect rather than focal areas of brain development.

That is the most important thing about supporting reservation and other social initiatives to uplift all the sections of population rather than letting natural selection take its toll.

A short verbal ability test administered to about 12,500 adult American Blacks and whites between 1974 and 1994 support this effect of social influence. It clearly shows a narrowing of the IQ differences over recent years – a telltale sign of positive influence on gene expression.

Defying Natural Selection

It may seem strange that in highly competitive meritocratic modern societies, natural selection actually has very little toll on the individual.

If you look deeper, you will see the reason.

With the general improvement in intelligence, human societies progressively have (and will) become altruistic. It’s the selfish gene’s covert strategy to promote the survival of its own kind.

Our hospitals, medical equipments, diagnostic gadgetry, ever expanding array of drugs, humanitarian organizations, peace organizations, trade partnerships etc are towering examples of this altruism and a blatant defiance of Natural Selection.

I am not forgetting the resurgences in imperialist notions especially in recent war histories, but those can be dispensed as the old animal instinct still refusing to go off the skin.

Once the concept of “Nation” and “Nationality” wither away in the future, such notions will have no meaning at all. And by that time hominids, as a species will have something else to fight against…!

Reservation Issue

The whole meaning of reservation, scholarships and grants is to promote the maximal expression of the good genes in these oppressed castes and sects. For that, first of all, there should be some potentially smart genes that can be worked upon to be fully expressible. This means, we can’t expect the whole of those backward castes to ascend to an equal stance with the rest of the society within a very short period of time, simply from affirmative actions. Affirmative actions should essentially be followed by two things if it’s to yield rapid results: # 1) Positive change in social psyche, in accepting them and acknowledging their contributions. # 2) General increase in equality and opportunities for all.

That’s when we can claim that the society has become truly meritocratic.


The reservation of seats at the IITs and institutions of excellence is a complex issue. But one thing can be said. Setting apart 20 or 30% seats to the backward classes will not take away any opportunity from the general merit-class. Because, they already are evolutionarily advanced to seek and earn their share. They are already advanced intellectually. What i mean to say is that, economic independence and wealth do not solve the issue at all. The root problem is in the genes, and the remedy requires more than just a few perks to a few individuals. Mixing their genome with the general population will be the ultimate cure, but that would be too fantastic for an expectation in our society.

Spin-offs on Eugenics

I believe, we all have to learn to tolerate the current diversity of our species. We might have to accept the reality of religion-genes, criminality-genes, racism-genes, communism-genes, capitalism-genes, atheism- genes, agnosticism-genes, and what not for that matter. Within our species, each of these has a time and place – to dominate, to stagnate and even to whither away or may be even replaced by totally new genes for totally new things. But the million dollar question is whether our race is ready for that.
Most societies, be it capitalistic or communist, are growing more authoritarian by the day.
That’s a problem with all kinds of eugenics. One might argue for positive eugenics, on the basis that it promotes good qualities of human genome. But as far as our science knows it, most smart-genes are associated with some or the other kind of psychologic / organic defects in the brain – autism and schizophrenia being the ends of a spectrum. Finding a balance in the gene bridge is the biggest problem.

When smartness becomes unlimited, the person becomes a total rebel defying all laws imposed by the society.. When artistic areas of the brain are genetically pushed to its limits, the person experiences regression of the other areas which may even tend towards autism..!! (the autistic idiot savant syndrome is the best example of this kind).

If we promote negative eugenics, by not permitting” diseased” genes from reproducing, that will be an encroachment into the very nature of our life on this planet. But its a re surging concept now. Most genetic screenings are in one or the other way, negative eugenics. Its only a matter of time before the “criminals” in jails will be banned from reproducing…!!


Are you saying that we have to go against evolution?

I was exactly trying to say we have to go against evolution in this matter….!
Or else, this race won’t last another millennium…that’s for sure.

Why, because, its the unique ability of the hominids to manipulate nature to meet his needs rather than letting nature manipulate him.

Thats simply what we have been doing ever since we branched out from the primate ancestors…Just look around and we will see only those things that man has built, invented or designed, to suit his needs, to help alleviate his toil, to ease his life, to bring out the maximum of his potential…!

Our hospitals defy the very basics of natural selection by differential extinction,
Our prenatal checkups do the same
Our geriatric centers do the same
Our schools do the same
Our railway, airlines, banks, bridges and roads, our space stations, satellites, rockets, hydel power stations, nuclear reactors….you name it…Everything helps man in one way or the other in defying Nature’s forces, and saving him from being deselected..!

So why don’t we extend this privilege to all classes of people in every population..?


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Darwinian and neo-Darwinian ideas of natural selection, differential extinction and adaptive evolution have traditionally been linked to capitalistic views of “survival of the fittest”. As decades passed by, people including the scientific community at large began seeing Darwinian Laws of evolution (its not just a theory any more) as a justification for the greed, consumerism, “hire-fire” notions and at times, the imperialistic overtones of right winged capitalism and market rule.


There are no evidences to show that Darwin himself took his theories to this extent. But the synonymity between capitalistic notions of “might is right” has been increasingly supported by many studies on genetic determinism. Now, anything from racial superiority to anti-reservation campaign is justified by these contorted interpretations of laws of evolution. Even though Galton’s eugenics failed miserably in its original form (negative eugenics), it is coming back in many new disguises from white supremacy to culture-war theories – a poetic justice to history, I should say.


Are the laws of evolution as anti-socialistic as is viewed to be?



It is an undisputed fact that selection process of nature is highly merit-based and extinction awaits anything that is maladapted to its environs.





What helps adaptation?
Phenotypic expressions of genes on an individual basis and in combinations.

This is where determinists hijack the theory.
First, every trait from music and arts to adoption of a religious belief becomes the responsibility of genes. And if genes are the basis of selection, then there has to be superiority and inferiority among genes, as there are superior and inferior qualities, they say. Any animal that inherits undesirable or malfunctioning genes, as a rule, becomes inferior by their standards. Some take it a little further and attribute every trait they hate, on genes.


Thus ‘black skin’ becomes an undesired trait; lower scores on IQ tests become an undesired trait; poor performance in economic issues becomes an undesirable trait; inability of the brain to concur with societal laws becomes undesirable…the hate-list soon grows to include anything from eating habits, ideologies, cultures to (these days) even religious beliefs!


It is not surprising that the Nature versus Nurture debate now revolves around this controversy.


What these people and scientists don’t see is the context in which “survival of the fittest” is applicable. Homosapiens as a species needs to compete with everything around, including other life forms as well as nature for survival and he is doing the job remarkably well. But within the species are we supposed to keep this rule alive? Mammals, as a group, have evolved to the present state facing stiff competition from many other groups – mostly reptiles. And it is undoubtedly, societal cooperation that has helped them the most in the fight.

Hominids are no different…



In fact, it is ‘intra-specific cooperation’ that has been key in the development of many humanly attributable qualities – like language, script, technology and science; this is true for every social animal. There is ample evidence to show that all those ‘human’ qualities that we boast about, are result of nurturing the right kind of genes. The recent expositions regarding the environmental influences on psychosocial development and human intelligence points to this direction.


The laws of evolution, far from being the Trojan horse for social injustice, are actually excellent tools for social-engineering in every positive sense of the word. To see this, you just have to consider the whole of humanity – rather hominids – as one large group pitched against the forces of nature. The importance of universal nurturing of advantageous traits thru global initiatives will thus become clearer in the new light.


This essentially will mean that leaving various sects of the society to its own fate thru unrestricted finance capital and free market economy is not only against the spirit of human evolution but also the greatest blunder that man can commit, considering the unique ability of his brain to stand up against his genes. And that is where Socialism marries Darwinism.


Let me conclude quoting Dawkins, the messiah of ‘selfish gene’, who wrote in a rebuttal of Lewontin, Rose & Kamin:


…. it is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while at the same time believing that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences…. human sexuality has evolved from natural selection just the same way any animal trait evolved…this means that there have been genes influencing sexual desire just as genes ever influence anything. Yet ‘genetic determinists’ have no trouble holding back their sexual desires when it is socially necessary to do so. What is dualist about that? Obviously nothing…We, that is our brains, are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them…we do so in a small way when we use contraception. There is no reason why we should not rebel in a large way too…

[The Selfish Gene : 1989 OUP edition End notes to Chapter 11]



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VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican’s chief astronomer has declared that “intelligent design” isn’t science and doesn’t belong in science classrooms, the latest high-ranking Roman Catholic official to enter the evolution debate raging in the United States.

The Rev. George Coyne, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, said placing intelligent design ideas alongside the theory of evolution in school programs was “wrong” and was akin to mixing apples with oranges.


Intelligent design isn’t science even though it pretends to be,” the ANSA news agency quoted Coyne as saying on the sidelines of a conference in Florence.
“If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.”


His comments were in line with his previous statements on “intelligent design” — whose supporters hold that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by a higher power.

Critics say intelligent design is merely creationism — a literal reading of the Bible’s story of creation — camouflaged in scientific language and say it does not belong in science curriculum.

In a June article in the British Catholic magazine The Tablet, Coyne reaffirmed God’s role in creation, but said science explains the history of the universe.


If they respect the results of modern science, and indeed the best of modern biblical research, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly,” he wrote.


Rather, he argued, God should be seen more as an encouraging parent.

“God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity,” he wrote. “He is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves.”

The Vatican Observatory, which Coyne heads, is one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. It is based in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI referred indirectly to the evolution debate by saying the universe was made by an “intelligent project” and criticizing those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order.

Questions about the Vatican’s position on evolution were raised in July by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Schoenborn seemed to back intelligent design and dismissed a 1996 statement by Pope John Paul II that evolution was “more than just a hypothesis.” Schoenborn said the late pope’s statement was “rather vague and unimportant.”


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We have always referred to people with exceptional abilities as “smart”, “clever” or “bright”. By doing so, we unconsciously recognize the existence of a number of different intelligence-subtypes. It has now become a commonsense notion that there exist certain types of intelligence like “arithmetic” intelligence, an “artistic” intelligence, a “commonsense” intelligence, a “cognitive” intelligence, “semantic” (vocabulary based) intelligence or “knowledge based” intelligence.


Such a categorization is rooted in our concept that a person who is good at one specific area should necessarily be deficient in another area. For example there are examples around us, of exceptionally brilliant scientist who are absent-minded or super mathematicians who can hardly learn a new language etc.

So how far is this notion true…?


Well, scientifically speaking, this notion is partly correct and partly wrong. The analysis of data from more than 400 classic databases on human intelligence research has brought to light three important findings about this:


a) People good at one area of intelligence tend to be good at all other areas generally!
b) Intelligence can be an expression of certain pools of interrelated abilities.
c) Though people have a tendency to be “generally intelligent”, there are sufficient evidences for specific types of intelligences and people who are good in such areas.


Let us examine each. Point (a) suggests that there is definitely something called “general” intelligence…some specific property of the brain that makes you “clever” on the whole.


What is this property of the brain ?

Extensive research into factors like “brain size”, electrical activity, its efficiency in processing visual data, and reaction time to various challenges have shown that people with higher intelligence have faster decision and response times. Such tests have concluded that intelligence correlates well with “speed of processing information”. It is curious to note that though this is the case, we don’t yet have a consensus on how exactly we‘re gonna test this “speed”!
Point (a) also suggests that our intuition about “clever” people being adept at one thing and inept at another is not exactly true.
Though there are sharply defined pools of intellectual abilities, in reality, a clever person can possess varying degrees of all these abilities. But there are compelling evidences of patients called “idiot savants” in neurology that are exceptions to this rule. These patients are a result of a phenomenon called “ Paradoxical functional facilitation”. This means that some brain related hindrances or injuries can result not only in loss or suppression of particular functions but also the enhancement of certain other abilities.
Idiot savants generally have the IQ of a 5 year old or a 10 year old child but may exhibit amazing capabilities in other areas like Calculations or Artistic works, or music.
A famous example is that of Nadia, an “autistic savant” patient who could draw more life-like illustrations than even DaVinci at the age of 8. There are similar people who can retain thousands of pages of Shakespearian literature, but can’t even find their way home after an evening walk. The theory behind this is that the birth injuries caused to their brains enhance the expansion and development of certain other unexpected areas.

Point (b) supports the “savant” theory to some extent. There are indeed inter related pools of certain intelligences, which are outlined as below.

  • Verbal Comprehension pool: consists of abilities involvingVocabulary, similarities, information processing & comprehension
  • Perceptual organization: includes abilities like completing patterns, picture sequencing, block designs and matrix reasoning.
  • Working memory: comprises faculties like digit span, letter-number sequencing, and arithmetic intelligence.
  • Processing speed: constituted by abilities like symbol search and digit-symbol decoding.

All these capacities exhibited in intelligence tests can be conveniently categorized into 8 chief mental faculties, viz.

  1. Visual perception
  2. Auditory perception
  3. Fluid intelligence
  4. Retrieval ability
  5. Crystallized intelligence
  6. Cognitive speediness
  7. General memory and learning
  8. Processing speed

In 1988, Snyderman and Rothman brought out a book on IQ controversies. They published the results of an opinion poll conducted among the specialists in cognitive psychology and allied fields.

About 99% opined that the major element of intelligence was “Abstract Thinking”. The “Ability to Solve Problems” was chosen by ~97%. And 96% of the experts considered intelligence as a product of the “Capacity to Acquire Knowledge” too. But curious enough, only 80% chose Memory as a component. Cognitive speediness was considered by 71% and General knowledge by 62%.
Still strange was the case of Creativity: hardly 60% chose this aspect as an important constituent of intelligence!!
Research data run parallel to this poll result…but we shouldn’t forsake the fact that some of the most successful scientific theories in mankind’s history were born out of sheer creativity. Examples include General Relativity, parts of QED, photonics, Planck’s theories…


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