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What is Intelligence?

Most people define intelligence in terms of our ability to learn and to solve problems. This is a useful definition. To the extent we're intelligent, we can figure out what's going on and how things relate to each other -- and then we can apply that understanding to the world around us, selecting good options and influencing -- or adapting to -- the actual situations we face.

This definition tells us that intelligence is related to knowledge. Old knowledge -- knowledge stored in our memory -- helps us respond to usual, hum-drum situations in life. It doesn't take much smarts to do that; it's relatively automatic. But we do need intelligence to create or apply new knowledge to new situations -- to solve problems, to respond successfully to changes and challenges, and to make sense of novelty. Perhaps most importantly, our intelligence helps us understand our successes and failures and learn from them.

While I agree that intelligence plays a dominant role in learning and solving problems, I see these as expressions of a broader capacity: I think that in a more general sense, intelligence is what gives us the workable patterns we use to shape our lives and the coherence that makes sense of all the pieces. Intelligence sculpts congruence between the patterns of the world and the patterns in our minds. It does this outwardly by helping us shape the real world according to our understandings and dreams. And it does this inwardly, by helping us rework our mental models and plans to better align with "what is." So intelligence can be viewed as a feedback loop between the real world and our minds.

Based on that understanding, I believe the most useful definition of intelligence is the capacity to respond creatively, appropriately and successfully to varied (or varying) circumstances.

This sort of intelligence is not a single aptitude or cluster of aptitudes, but rather a broad functional capacity (i.e., responsiveness) which arises out of, but is greater than, the interaction of many aptitudes (perception, reason, intuition, emotion, compassion, memory, category formation, synthesis, timing, motion, etc.) -- an interaction that creates and applies useful patterns of response.* That capacity has helped many organisms survive and evolve in changing environments.

But we are still mid-evolution in this regard. Our intelligence capacities are fragmented, both within us (e.g., emotion vs. reason) and among us (your intelligence vs. mine). This fragmentation has led directly to a state of affairs filled with unprecedented dangers and challenges for us all. Our collective knowledge-making capacity has alienated us from reality, even as it has given us power. We find ourselves beset by the entrapping logic of ideologies; the out-of-context experiments of science; the social decisions of self-serving elites and experts; and the ubiquitous manipulation of our personal thoughts and feelings by special interests -- all forms of alienated power arising from alienated knowledge.

Our predicament arises because "knowledge is power" and "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Our fragmented intelligence has produced powerful and unbalanced knowledge, technologies, structures and practices that divide us from each other and from the larger, interconnected natural and human communities we inhabit and depend on.

Many of the most horrendous achievements -- toxins, wars, gas chambers, species extinctions, etc. -- are accomplished by high-IQ individuals. Most measures of IQ examine select clusters of a few intelligence-related aptitudes, but fail to test our capacity to generate the full product of intelligence, which is appropriate responses in a changing world. To compound this error, we fail to test people's ability to generate these responses together, even though in real life we seldom respond in isolation. And our sense of what's appropriate is often shallow indeed!

We then proceed to use these fragmented IQ measurements to favor fragmented intelligences that produce maximized, alienated power. Those with the most alienated intelligence capacities rise to the top of our social institutions. And the rest of us have our intelligence -- our capacity to respond well -- numbed or manipulated by those leaders and their mass media.

Is it any wonder we're in trouble?

There are many forms of responsiveness -- many intelligence-facilitating aptitudes such as interpersonal and aesthetic sensibilities, big-picture intuition, doubt, compassion and curiosity -- to which our society assigns little status or reward. Our infatuation with fragmented, alienated IQ hinders our ability to respond, both individually and collectively. The many forms of responsiveness and the many possible combinations of aptitudes are each more useful in certain circumstances than in others. We need access to them all. We need to respect and cultivate them all and understand their interactions and co-actions. We need to know our own strengths and weaknesses in this regard, and to include others who have different strengths than ours. We need, in short, an intelligence grounded in our whole capacities, an intelligence that helps us creatively find our way together through the complexities of the whole situations we need to deal with.

"Co-intelligence" is that special form of intelligence -- grounded in interconnectedness, wholeness and co-creativity -- that provides us with a way to engage our full cognitive and responsive capacities in greater harmony with each other and with the larger forces of Life. It is not different from intelligence. It is a more wholesome form of intelligence that includes everything we think of as intelligence, and more.


* The concept of multiple intelligences is explored by a number of investigators of intelligence, and is part of most models of co-intelligence.

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