As the world pushed through the nineteenth century and entered the twentieth, humankind experienced massive transformations in social, economic, political, cultural, and academic arenas. Although the late 1800’s were a tumultuous time, we did emerge on the other side with amazing advancements in all sorts of areas. One such advancement was the development of the concept of intelligence. Before the late 1850’s, people only maintained a vague idea of what being ‘intelligent’ actually meant. Through the work of intelligence theorists such as Francis Galton, Alred Binet, and Charles Spearman, however, humankind gained a much clearer concept of this abstract phenomenon. The three aforementioned intelligence theorists clarified our definition of intelligence by leaps and bounds, but yet fierce controversy lingers today over the concept. One can understand the nature of this controversy and how the debate over intelligence came into existence by studying the similarities and differences of Galton, Binet, and Spearman.
**Alfred Binet; circa 1904
To understand intelligence, we must first examine a basic scientific and psychological dichotomy: “nature versus nurture.” People toss around this phrase often in debates on intelligence, but what does it actually mean? Francis Galton was allegedly the first to coin the phrase, and it describes the struggle to assign responsibility for particular traits (physical, social, intellectual, etc.) to one’s genetic makeup (nature) or the environment in which one grew up (nurture). Today, there seems to be a bit more of a consensus that nature and nurture interact to produce the people that we become, but back in the early days of intelligence theory, there was no such concession.
I would argue that perhaps the most fundamental divider among intelligence theorists is their view on whether or not humans can change their level of intelligence. This boils down to the nature versus nurture debate. Those who support nature as the stronger influence view intelligence as a fixed, inherited entity. Those who support the nurture side of the argument view intelligence as malleable, or subject to change depending on one’s environment.
Now, let’s take a look at the pioneers of intelligence theory and with which side of the debate their views align. Francis Galton was of the nature camp of the debate. In his book “Hereditary Genius” (1869), Galton “assembled long lists of “eminent” men—judges, poets, scientists, even oarsmen and wrestlers—to show that excellence ran in families” (Holt, Jim). **Read more of the article on Francis Galton’s work here.** The counterargument is that the children of these excellent men could have become excellent because they had grown up in exceptional households. Galton countered this argument with a control group in his experiment of adopted sons of Popes who were still “eminent.”
**Francis Galton; circa 1890
Charles Spearman was in agreement with Galton in that he, too, was a proponent of a fixed view of intelligence. Spearman based his belief off of positive correlations among students’ performances on specific subject tests (such as Latin and Music). He saw that those who did well on one test tended to score higher in general than those who did poorly. This led him to believe that there is a force that underlies all intellectual tasks. Spearman went on to create the concept of “g:” a mental energy that underlies all intellectual tasks. “G” is a fixed mental energy that education, therapy, and training cannot alter. (Howard Gardner, Mindy Kornhaber, and Warren Wake, pg. 58-70)
**An example of positive correlation for high scores on one test and high scores on another. Read more on the role that correlational research has played in the development in Stephen Jay Gould’s book Mismeasure of Man. For a summary, try looking here.
Alfred Binet, on the other hand, belonged to the nurture side of the argument. In 1904, the French government asked Binet to assist them in organizing their education system to accommodate for the recent switch into mass education. Binet obliged and he and a colleague, Théodore Simon, created mental tests to determine which students were capable of regular schooling and which were not. Binet desired an understanding of how intelligence works so that society could make sound, informed decisions in regards to education. He believed that society could improve the mental capabilities of populations through these decisions. Although Binet’s work eventually led to quantifying people’s intelligence (and what would later turn into Intelligence Quotients, or IQ scores), he did not see this score as fixed. He believed that this number could be changed if a child was placed in the correct environment.