Richard Smith: What is sustainable intelligence?

Richard SmithAt a recent party to honour David Pencheon, head of the NHS Sustainability Unit, we were all invited to have a go at defining sustainable intelligence.

When I was a boy there was only one kind of intelligence. It was tested for in Intelligence Quotient tests, and important decisions were made about us based on how we scored.

Then in 1983 the American psychologist Howard Gardner developed the theory of multiple intelligence. We mislead ourselves by thinking, as we often do, that A is more intelligent than B. It’s more likely that A is better than B at some cognitive processes but that there are others where B is better than A.

Gardner identified nine types of intelligence, and I’ve amused myself by thinking how I do on them.

  • Logical-mathematical: This is perhaps the kind of intelligence closest to what was measured in IQ tests. Scientists have this kind of intelligence, and I don’t do to badly on this one. I made the career defining cut at age 11 to get to a grammar school
  • Spatial: Artists, sculptors, and designers have this kind of intelligence. As an adolescent I painted all the time and might be average on this dimension, although the way I dress suggests that I might be in the bottom quartile.
  • Linguistic: This intelligence means a way with language, both your own and that of foreigners. I wonder if this might be two different kinds of intelligence as I scored highly on the GMAT language test to get to business school but am a complete dunce with foreign languages.
  • Bodily-kinaesthetic: Sports people and dancers have this kind of intelligence. I’m a “daddy dancer.”
  • Musical: I wonder if this again isn’t two types of intelligence. My saxophone playing was so excruciating that the people next door moved out, but listening to music and reading poetry are more important to me than almost anything else.
  • Interpersonal: This is the capacity to relate well to others and is important for politicians and teachers. It’s about listening as well as speaking, which is why I might score poorly.
  • Intrapersonal: Authors, counsellors, and philosophers score well on this kind of intelligence, which is about understanding yourself, knowing your strengths and weaknesses. I like to think that I’m my sternest critic, but I may be deceiving myself.
  • Naturalistic: We now come to something that may be close to sustainable intelligence. It’s the capacity to nurture living things and relate to your natural surroundings. Naturalists, farmers, and gardeners have this kind of intelligence. My crop of tomatoes last year wouldn’t fill a flat cap, so I don’t do well on this.
  • Existential: this can be defined as the ability to contemplate phenomena or questions beyond sensory data, such as the infinite and infinitesimal. This kind of intelligence also seems to relate to sustainable intelligence. Shamans, priests, mathematicians, physicists, scientists, cosmologists, and philosophers have this kind of intelligence. All I can say of myself is that I always thought that I’d make a better witch doctor than physician.

So how might we define sustainable intelligence? I’d wondered about this before the party—because I knew of the challenge—and the closest I came was to think about the people described in a book that David Pencheon had given me. It’s a book called Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes about the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians.

Reading the book gave me  a whole new idea of what it means to be human. The Pirahã  live utterly in the present, have no creation myths, have a numbering system that includes only one and many, accept death with comfort, don’t believe any stories unless the teller has experienced directly what he or she describes, have a unique language that upsets Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, are not interested in what the modern world has to offer, and appear to be the happiest people alive. They laugh all the time.

The author of the book, Daniel Everett, was an evangelical missionary who lived with Pirahã for years, but they could  not understand him following the religion of a man called Jesus whom he’d not only never met but had never met anybody who had met him. They laughed too when he described how a relative had killed herself. That made no sense to the Pirahã. Eventually Everett came to think that their way of life had much to recommend it and lost his faith.

The Pirahã, despite the fact that they couldn’t count to two, have sustainable intelligence that our technologically advanced world has lost. But for the fact that their environment is being eroded by others, the Pirahã could live for tens of thousands of years as they do. They are in harmony with their environment in a way that we are not.

Another “primitive” people who have more sustainable intelligence than we do are Australian Aboriginals. Through Twitter I have encountered their definition of health. Here it is: Aboriginal health “means not just the physical wellbeing of an individual but refers to the social, emotional, and cultural wellbeing of the whole community in which each individual is able to achieve their full potential as a human being thereby bringing about the total wellbeing of their community. It is a whole of life view and includes the cyclical concept of life-death-life.”

Health is a function of communities as much as individuals and death is an important part of health. These seem to me very simple but also very powerful ideas that connect directly to sustainability and that we have lost.

As I write this, I wonder if I’m returning to the myth of the noble savage as first described by John Dryden in 1672.

“I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.”

Alexander Pope wrote in 1734 about the “poor Indian” and “His soul proud Science never taught to stray.” Jean-Jaques Rousseau is wrongly most associated with the concept of the nobel savage, and Charles Dickens ridiculed the idea in his saturical essay “The Noble Savage.”

It was tough for the 60 or so people at the party between drinks and gossip to match the wisdom of the Pirahã and Australian Aboriginals and the thinking of Dryden, Pope, and others, but we had a go. Clear themes emerged: thinking beyond the immediate; recognising how interconnected we are; caring for others; engaging in systems thinking; and being spiritual and human.

Do being human and being sustainable go together? People seemed to think so, but might we have an inbuilt attraction to excess—to survive the day when we cannot kill a beast to feed all the family? Perhaps what will survive of us is not love, as Philip Larkin wrote, but machines. I fell into conversation with John Appleby, the economist from the King’s Fund, who was hugely excited by a book called The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means To Be Alive. What can we humans do that machines can’t? Could two computers be having the conversation we were having? Might machines prove sustainable in a way that we are not?

The difficulty of our task—or perhaps simply my failure to get to grips with it—is perhaps illustrated by this inchoate swinging between noble savages and machines, but I had to pick three definitions to be awarded prizes. Perhaps reflecting my confusion and uncertainty, I went for the gnomic and poetic.

Third prize went to “Hedonism future proofed.” What does this mean? I took it to mean that any plausible future must recognise our need to enjoy ourselves. It can’t be all hair shirts and hymns—unless that’s what we enjoy.

Second prize went to what I failed to recognise as a well known haiku:

Sitting quietly
Doing nothing
Spring comes
And grass grows by itself

The implication here is that we must get out of the way. The world and all its grasses and cockroaches and us within it might be sustainable if we restrain ourselves, sit quietly. (A question arose as to whether quoting an existing haiku was cheating, but I ruled that using definitions already around showed sustainable intelligence. And the prize was only a squeezy ball.)

The winning definition was “Not doing more than needs to be done,” and having produced the definition the winner followed his or her own definition and left before we awarded the prizes.
So this exercise must be defined as work in progress. We will be very grateful for any help from BMJ readers.

Competing interest: RS attempted (attempted being a very important word here)  to summarise the definitions at the party and awarded the prizes. He was wasn’t paid but did have a few free drinks and one canape.

RS was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.