Quantity of Genius?

Nobly reasonable? Infinitely facultative? Angelic and Godly?!
Wow! What a piece of work was Shakespeare!
But was he a genius? Was Bach, Da Vinci, or Einstein?
What do we mean by use of the word genius?

In this, the second of four posts, the intention is to push on, away from the comfort and normalcy of home port. Our journey began in a deep contextual fog, of historical, theistic, and social themes; tricky navigation to be sure! Now sailing out of the ‘fog’, our objective, or bias, is to explore the cultural isle of Intelligence testing. Beware! For things are not what they seem…

An unmeasurable quantity tentatively defined for the good of all children
“All beings in the process of development are distinguished by and characterized by their involvement in play.” – Alfred Binet (1909)

The only son of a wealthy physician and an artist mother, Alfred Binet was raised by his mother as a result of his parent’s early separation. By the age of 15, Alfred and his mother had moved from Nice to Paris, in order that young Binet might attend law school there. Six years later, in 1878, he was awarded a degree in law, but never practiced, perhaps due to his life of privilege and independent wealth. His intent, or perhaps his father’s, was to study medicine, so Binet attended the Sorbonne, where an interest in psychology, self-propagated and mediated by books in the national library, soon overwhelmed the Sorbonne’s standard curriculum in natural sciences. He did not finish formal study. 1 After five introverted years of independent study, Binet was introduced to Jean Charcot, then director of the neurological clinic in the Parisian hospital La Pitié-Salpêtrière, where Binet worked for eight years before resigning. In 1891 he was offered work at the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology at the Sorbonne, of which he became director in 1894. Despite the prestigious title, this position, like his prior one at the Salpêtrière, was unpaid. Indeed, throughout his career, Binet relied upon his independent income in order to conduct his research. 2

Descried as a shy but critical person, he had little patience for activities that he judged unworthy of his time. In description of Binet, his collaborator Simon wrote: “to examine patients with him was always an extreme pleasure, for he brought to the situation so much imagination” and recalled “What afternoons we passed with these subjects. What delicious conversations we had with them. And what laughs too.” A less sympathetic coworker described him as “difficult, dominant, even domineering, and that he alienated many collaborators.” Binet’s daughter Madeleine described him as “a lively man, smiling, often very ironical, gentle in manner, wise in his judgments, a little skeptical of course. . . . Without affectation, straightforward, very good-natured, he was scornful of mediocrity in all its forms. Amiable and cordial to people of science, pitiless toward bothersome people who wasted his time and interrupted his work.”

Binet’s ironical satire was tinged with darkness, evidenced by the following statement, designed to test critical thinking in child subjects: “Yesterday the body of an unfortunate young woman, cut into eight pieces, was found on the fortifications. It is believed she killed herself.”
– from a 1909 version of the intelligence scale.

Several members of the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child, of which Binet was a member, were appointed to the Commission for the Retarded, as the result of a law mandating all children, aged six to fourteen, to attend school. The question under investigation was:
“What should be the test given to children thought to possibly have learning disabilities, that might place them in a special classroom?”

Binet took it upon himself to establish, and where possible, define and measure the differences separating normal and abnormal children. A first draft of L’Etude experimentale de l’intelligence (“Experimental Studies of Intelligence”) was published in 1903. Two years later, after collaboration with Theodore Simon, an assistant from the medical school, a new test called the Binet-Simon scale of intelligence was published.

Between 1905 and 1911, Binet spent substantial amounts of time on test revision. However, this was far from his only professional activity. In the same period, he wrote books on the relation of mind and brain, on children’s ideas, on retarded children, and on the theater. He also published more than 100 articles, only a few of which focused upon the intelligence scale; many others examined psychotic patients, residents of mental hospitals, courtroom testimonies, the relation between language and thought, experts at chess and mental calculation; professional actors, directors, authors, and artists, the effects of mental fatigue on intellectual performance, and a host of other loosely related topics.

Examined in Binet’s explorations were various populations, including typical children and adults, as well as children and adults with varying degrees of mental retardation. As Binet was relatively unrestricted in his choice of study material, he eagerly pursued any area that he thought might shed light upon individual differences in mental function – including at least: consciousness, will, attention, sensation, perception, esthetics, creativity, suggestibility, hypnotism, cognitive styles, love fetishes, pain thresholds, mental fatigue, language development, memory development, and conceptual development. However, as Binet did not hold a professorship, or even a formal degree in the sciences, there was no possibility of him attracting the students and funds which might facilitate the continuation of his works. Sadly, his contemporaries seem to have been unable to recognize value in his many ideas, possibly because as undeveloped concepts, they did not evoke the obvious practical utility ascribed to the intelligence scale.

Expounding the remarkable diversity of intelligence, Binet and Simon made clear the limitations of the intelligence scale, saying that it did not yield an absolute measure of intelligence. Unlike the measure of length yielded by a ruler, the intelligence scale “yielded an ordinal classification in which the measure of intelligence was entirely relative to that of other individuals of the same age.” Throughout his career, Binet emphasized the necessity of studying intelligence by use of qualitative, as opposed to quantitative measures, and stressed that intelligence was not based on genetics alone; that intellectual development progressed at variable rates, was influenced by environmental factors (i.e. milieu), and was malleable rather than fixed.

Understanding intelligence to be a complex, relative and variable phenomenon, Binet and Simon did not issue a definition of precisely what their scale attempted to measure. They did, however, argue the central role of judgment:
“In intelligence there is a fundamental faculty, the alteration or the lack of which is of the utmost importance for practical life. This faculty is judgment, otherwise called good sense, practical sense, initiative, the faculty of adapting one’s self to circumstances. To judge well, to comprehend well, to reason well, these are the essential activities of intelligence. A person may be a moron or an imbecile if he is lacking in judgment; but with good judgment he can never be either.”

In 21 years, Binet published more than 200 times (books, articles, and reviews) in fields that are now called experimental, developmental, educational, social, and differential psychology. The diversity of topics his studies addressed is perhaps best visible from one typically productive year, 1894. Two books (one an introduction to experimental psychology methods and one on the psychology of expert calculators and chess masters); four articles on children (three involving their memory for words, prose, and visual information and one on their suggestibility); two studies of professional dramatists; one article on spatial orientation (published in volume 1 of the new American journal Psychological Review); and a description of a graphical method for recording piano-playing techniques. He also found time to co-found and edit the first French psychological journal, “L’Année Psychologique“. In addition to this, Binet wrote four plays that were produced on the Paris stage, the common theme of which was the horrifying consequence of mistakes made by stupid bureaucrats, pompous physicians, and greedy businessmen.

“Individual differences have been an annoyance rather than a challenge to the experimenter. His goal is to control behavior, and variation within treatments is proof that he has not succeeded. Individual variation is cast into that outer darkness known as “error variance”. For reasons both statistical and philosophical, error variance is to be reduced by any possible device.”
– Binet

Intuitively, I understand that Binet saw himself in the children he was helping the French government to identify. The concept and term (retarded) was, I have little doubt, for Binet a working title; an officially sanctioned label that he could use until a better understanding of special children was reached. It seems clear that what he hoped to be able to identify, by application of some device such as the intelligence scale, were extraordinary young minds who perform a kind of cognition that appears alien, if not frightening, to (neurotypical) people who populate a span in the median range of the normal distribution of human cognizance. In light of the fact that the recurring theme of his research was the remarkable diversity of intelligence, it is highly ironic that Binet’s name should be so strongly associated with reducing intelligence to a narrow range of statistically standardized numbers; the IQ scores.

Subversion of extraordinary goodness:
normalcy and the dark side of human nature

Lewis Terman was also fascinated by intelligence, but his promotion of “gifted” children (a term he himself coined and identified with) was based upon elitist ideology. A proponent of eugenics, a social movement that arose from Galton’s conception of hereditary genius, and aimed to improve the human ‘breed’ by perpetuating particular traits while eliminating others. 3 In direct opposition to Binet, Terman felt that general intelligence was a quantifiable capacity. As a eugenicist, he believed that genetics dictated general intelligence, and that one’s “original endowment” of intelligence, which he termed intelligence quotient, was not altered by education, home environment or practice.
Lewis Terman

Terman’s moral milieu was a product of contemporary business, civic, and educational leaders in the United States of America, who were attempting to “accommodate the needs of a diversifying population, while continuing to meet the demands of society. There arose the call to form a society based on meritocracy while continuing to underline the ideals of the upper class. In 1908, H.H. Goddard, a champion of the eugenics movement, found utility in mental testing as a way to evidence the superiority of the white race. After studying abroad, Goddard brought the Binet-Simon Scale to the United States and translated it into English. Following Goddard [the mental testing movement in the U.S.] was lead by Terman, who took the Simon-Binet Scale and standardized it using a large American sample. The new Standford-Binet scale was no longer used solely for advocating education for all children, as was Binet’s objective. The new American objective of intelligence testing was illustrated in the Stanford-Binet manual, with testing ultimately resulting in curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of industrial inefficiency. When Binet became aware of the foreign ideas being grafted on his instrument he condemned those who with “brutal pessimism and deplorable verdicts were promoting the concept of intelligence as a single, unitary construct.”

Regardless, in 1908 Indiana became first of the United States to enact a law allowing sterilization on eugenic grounds. In 1914, Harry Laughlin at the Eugenics Record Office published a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that proposed sterilization of the “socially inadequate” – people supported in institutions or maintained wholly or in part by public expense. The law encompassed the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent” – including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.” By the time the Model Law was published in 1914, twelve states had enacted sterilization laws. Despite these early statutes, sterilization did not gain widespread popular approval until the late 1920s.

Perhaps due to his bullied mid-west childhood, Terman made use of his influential professional position, in order to push for forced sterilization of thousands of Americans who scored below average on the Standford-Binet scale. By 1924, approximately 3,000 people had been involuntarily sterilized in America; the vast majority (2,500) in California. That year Virginia passed a Eugenical Sterilization Act, which was adopted as part of a cost-saving strategy to relieve the tax burden in a state where public facilities for the “insane” and “feebleminded” had experienced rapid growth. The law asserted that “heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy and crime…” It focused on “defective persons” whose reproduction represented “a menace to society”.4

Hitler much admired the eugenics practices in America and, after becoming the German chancellor in 1933, empowered Nazi emulation and application of Americanized eugenics on anyone deemed to be a degenerate. By October of 1946, due to the atrocities imposed by the efficient systematization of eugenic (“genetic cleansing”) practices during the second world war, the Nuremburg trials declared forced sterilization a crime against humanity. Terman backed away from eugenics professionally, but personally maintained his belief.

Without doubt, Terman’s America and Hitler’s Germany formed an unfortunate and uncomfortable milieu. An infamous example may be made of the cooperation between the German government and the German subsidiary of American owned International Business Machines. “It was legal for IBM to service the Third Reich directly, but only until America entered the war in December 1941”. IBM technology increased the efficiency of Germany’s “Final Solution“, defined as the systematic extermination of the Jewish population in Nazi occupied Europe. It is perhaps insignificant in the current exploration, yet noteworthy, that America did not drop Einstein’s bastard children, Little Boy and Fat Man, on Germany.

Society identifies and attempts to define both, genius and pathos.

Terman’s Termites, it seems, excelled in ability to perform within the educational system5, though none proved to be a genius, none won a Pulitzer or a Nobel, and none have left behind extraordinary lifetime achievements. It is certainly noteworthy that Einstein would have failed to enter Terman’s group, as did William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, both winners of the Nobel prize in physics, in 1956 and 1968, respectively.

Bibliography and Notes
1) T. Imhoff, “Alfred Binet (1857 – 1911)”, (2000), http://www.muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/binet.htm

2) R. Siegler, “The Other Alfred Binet”, (1992), Developmental Psychology, Vol. 28, p. 179 – 190, American Psychological Association, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/dev/28/2/179/

3) M. Leslie, “The Vexing Legacy of Lewis Terman”, (2000), https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40678

4) P. Lombardo, “Eugenic Sterilization Laws”, (cca 2011), http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay8text.html

5) W. E. Benet, “Genius: An Overview”, (2005), Assessment Psychology Online, http://www.assessmentpsychology.com/genius2.htm


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