Peirce's Semiotics and IQ Tests

C.S. Peirce famously posited a trinitarian division of the sign into indices, icons, and symbols, where an indexical sign works by proximity, and iconic one by similarity, and a symbolic sign by convention. For our purposes here we will be mainly interested in indices and symbols, so let us give an example of each: smoke seen over a distant ridge is an indexical sign of there being a fire over that ridge as well: the smoke, in a sense, "points to" (indexes) the fire. Each of these words I am writing is a symbolic sign: they mean what they do by the conventions of the English language, and may mean something quite different or nothing at all to non-English speakers.

I bring this up because in Ron Unz's recent series of pieces on race and IQ at The American Conservative, he has noted that urban populations generally have higher IQs than rural populations, and that urbanization has been a major factor in large IQ increases in a number of people: the Irish urbanization from the 1950s through the 1990s apparently raised their IQ from being one of the lowest in Europe to being above average.

What could cause this? Thinking about it led me back to Peirce, and to contemplating what sort of signs are more prevalent in what situations. It seems plausible to me that people who live "close to the land" -- farmers, hunters, gatherers, fishermen, and so on -- are going to be very keenly interested in indexical signs: the snapped twig that signifies the recent passing of a deer, the gulls circling that mean a school of fish is nearby, the withered leaves that indicate a fungus is attacking one's crop.

City dwellers, meanwhile, live in a largely human-constructed world, and deal much more extensively with symbols, or conventional signs: billboards, shop signs, traffic signals, walk lights, newspapers, parking instructions, eviction notices, and the general omnipresence of human conversation. And the work of city dwellers tends to involve processing symbols: accountants, lawyers, advertising designers, computer programmers.

Well, guess which sort of sign IQ tests measure one's skill at dealing with? That's right, IQ tests were designed by urbanites and test for the sort of intelligence urbanites need to succeed. Of course populations that have not lived in the symbol-intensive world of the modern city do not do as well on these tests as we children of the city.

But if they had designed the tests, and we had our "intelligence" measured by seeing how we did at tracking antelope, avoiding lions, finding water in the desert, and quickly detecting insect damage to crops, how do you think we would measure up?


  1. Pinker traces it to the development of critical thinking skills (see Better Angels of Our Nature 650-656). From what I can tell he is more or less summarizing the mainstream position on what you are describing. He gives the following as what exemplifies primitive (non-urbanized?) thinking:

    Q: What do a fish and a crow have in common?
    A: A fish - it lives in water. A crow flies. If the fish just lies on top of the water, the crow would peck at it. A crow can eat a fish, but a fish can't eat a crow.
    Q: Could you use one word for them both [such as "animals"]?
    A: if you call them "animals," that wouldn't be right. A fish isn't an animal and a crow isn't either... A person can eat a fish but not a crow.

    Pinker goes on to discuss other examples. He also points out that over the last half century or so, a number of scientific phrases have entered the vocabulary of many, such as proportional, percentage, correlation, causation, control group, placebo, representative sample, false positive, empirical, post hoc, statistical, median, variability, circular argument, trade-off, and cost-benefit analysis.

    These are concepts that sharpen one's mind to better reasoning out causal relationships, not just what is more useful for urbanites.

  2. Anonymous2:17 AM

    I think that it is interesting that your talking about this just so happens to coincide with my reading a collection of Franz Boas' papers, who pretty much was saying the same stuff 100 years ago (even the dynamic between urban and rural regarding IQ). However, this isn't the first time that this coincidence has happened, last year when you were discussing Pinker's work, I just so happened to be reading 'The Language Instinct'.

    That's kind of weird, don't you think?

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  4. I agree that it is plausible that some differences in IQ could one day be explained with a mechanism like this, whether it acts 'environmentally' or otherwise, and I also agree that there might be different 'sorts' of intelligences. I do worry that these two observations may turn out to be separate issues: the idea that IQ tests only measure a 'sort' of intelligence can mislead.

    The main issue is that IQ, when it is a faithful proxy for 'g', is theorized to measure 'general' intelligence, and I would certainly include 'manipulation of signs through convention' as a necessary (but clearly insufficient) proficiency to possess to be able to demonstrate general problem solving ability. The conventionality of the manipulations gives the flexibility required for the intelligence to be considered general. So, if the association with IQ and 'symbolic' manipulation and also general intelligence holds up, it is somewhat confusing to still refer to it as only a 'sort' of intelligence. General problem solving ability by definition must include the sort of problems that 'rural' areas often face, even if there still exist 'specialized' but more 'efficient' ways of solving these problems (basically the accumulation of knowledge about indexical signs mixed with perceptual specialization trained over time, rather than some abstract foundational system that would solve every problem).

    1. Ken, I see it as just the opposite: manipulating conventional symbols is a very specialized form of intelligence. Only one species has ever exhibited it, and it only became predominant in some members of it quite recently.


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