Three Messages on the “MI Front”

Nowadays, most of my energies are devoted to new projects. With Wendy Fischman and other colleagues, I am studying higher education in the United States. And with Lynn Barendsen, Danny Mucinskas, and other colleagues, I am continuing work on The Good Project. In particular, we’re focused on the fostering of good work and good citizenship in young people… and in the rest of us.

That said, to this day, approximately 80% of my over-the-transom mail concerns the theory of multiple intelligences—and I can confidently predict that when I die, obituaries will feature MI. As for the MI queries, I direct people to my MI Oasis website and the FAQ document, to various readings, or to colleagues who continue to work, broadly speaking in the MI tradition. And occasionally, I provide answers myself and may post them on this site.

In the last weeks, three items have come to my attention and I thought it worthwhile to mention them:

1. Neural networks dedicated to social processing:

When MI theory was first introduced, almost 35 years ago, the most convincing line of evidence was the existence in the brain of neural zones that are particularly dedicated to specific kinds of contents. At the time, the neural evidence was quite schematic because methods of monitoring the brain were still quite rough and imprecise. Nowadays, it is possible to get far more precise evidence—and in a recent article in Science, we find evidence of the neural systems in monkeys dedicated specifically to the content of social information. For a non-technical summary, click here.

In this context, I should also mention the work of Branton Shearer and Jessica Karanian, who have provided far more up-to-date information about the neural correlates of each of the several intelligences. See this link.

2. Genes for intelligence:

Ever since the concept of genes were introduced early in the 20th century, at about the same time that the psychometric examination of intelligence was launched, investigators have searched for the gene or the genes of intelligence. As with the discovery of evidence for neural correlates of specific intelligences (like interpersonal intelligence), the physicality of a biological marker is persuasive particularly (as it happens) to American audiences.

It’s long been clear that there are genes for intelligence, as measured by psychologists (“g” for general intelligence), and it’s also been clear that many genes are involved—often hundreds or even thousands have been cited.

Nonetheless, as reported in Nature Genetics on May 22, it is progress in the genetics of intelligence that recently 52 genes have been identified as contributing to psychometric intelligence. It’s estimated that these genes account for 5% of the variance in measured intellect—of course, leaving 95% unaccounted for.

I have to emphasize that this discovery does not have any particular relevance to MI theory. We still have little idea of whether strength in, say, musical, or spatial, or interpersonal (social) intellect is based largely, somewhat, or minimally on psychometric intellect. And that is because psychometric intellect is primarily a measure of linguistic and logical abilities, with spatial abilities sometimes included as well.

My own speculation is that there will be some overlap, but there will clearly be specific genes or gene complexes that are implicated in one intelligence and that these will not be identical with those genes or gene complexes are implicated in other intelligences. Put concretely, the genes that contribute to traditional IQ will be different from those that contribute to musical or athletic or social talent.

And even if I am wrong, even if the correlation across intelligences turns out to be quite high, this fact does not undermine MI theory. And that is because we still need to understand why specific individuals can be strong in intelligences A and B, and not in C , D, or E, while others can exhibit the opposite profile. And the explanation is likely to lie in the importance (or unimportance) attached to a specific skill in a given society, the amount of resources devoted to its cultivation, and the excellence of the teaching and modelling. Put concretely, if a society values music, teaches it well, and individuals are highly motivated, the population will be musically intelligent as a whole—think Finland, think Hungary.

I believe that we will continue to accrue evidence for the scientific validity of MI theory. But in the end, its status as a scientific claim is not identical to its significance for education. The latter goal has to be determined by teachers, and others involved in education—which, as it happens, is all of us.

3. An unlikely award for me:

On May 26, I learned by email that I had been selected as the 2017 winner of the Mensa Lifetime Achievement Award, for “contributions to the field of human intelligence and related subjects.” It’s always pleasurable to get an award and particularly one that was not expected. Moreover, I looked over the previous winners, and they are all respectable scholars of intelligence.

Still, the receipt of the award has a certain irony. Mensa is the organization for individuals who have documented high IQs—and if I am known at all within psychology, it is as a critic of the concept of IQ, particularly as a variable used to explain a whole cluster of human outcomes. Moreover, I have sometimes quipped that individuals in Mensa spend time congratulating one another on their high IQ scores—a comment that is not a sign of respect, I have to admit.

But I would never have studied cognition, and would never have developed and enunciated a theory of intelligence, if I did not think that the topic was an important one—indeed, one of the most importance in psychology. And in that vein, I am happy to accept the award and to hope that, going forward, we can continue to explore the relationship between the traditional views of intellect and more iconoclastic ones.

-Howard Gardner

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