This Frankenstein of Ours. Or, Do Individuals Exist?[1]

Explorations: invention of the individual and modern epicurean interpretative framework.

I’ve written a book on the invention of the individual, and I don’t think a reader could surmise whether I thought the modern individual was a positive or negative invention. I was ambivalent, but I suspected that the negatives out-weighed the positives. Further, I suspected that the modern individual is wholly synthetic, an isolated non-entity plutonium fabricated in the heated laboratory of the enlightenment.

So, what if individuals, as constructed in the modern world, don’t actually exist?

The individual, as we know it, was invented in the 18th century (and came to fruition over the ensuing century). It was these individuals that virtually necessitated equal rights and human rights and voting and an assortment of other core features of modernity. This enlightenment individual was borne from the 8th century creation of the individual, who, up until the 18th century, was placed in a feudal largely non-epicurean (though platonic in places) world. The advent of the modern individual merged with the rise of the epicurean framework to create modernity. And yet, does this individual exist or is it a fiction? (Note: at no point in history apart from the last 150 years or so has individualistic epicureanism been the dominant structure of civilization. QED: this modern world of ours is an experiment with unknown outcomes and side effects.)

IQ and a Hopeless Car Analogy

This thought occurred to me amidst the IQ wars. One side posits the primacy of IQ as determining or, at least, explaining, much of the modern world. Contra two primary assertions:

1. IQ only correlates to defined real world attributes at the low end (e.g. >1 standard deviation below the mean, though usually >2).

2. Like genes, IQs exist in complex systems, such that the value of “IQ” is not in itself but within its ability to act in and contribute to the complex system within which it exists.

The first assertion is backed by evidence and is interesting but may be solely academic; it’s possible that IQ only correlates at the low end because of our universe of crap data (you can only correlate to known data, after all). It’s also possible that IQ only measures IQ and has no real-world application, which is true of much in assessments and the social sciences, which is littered with artificial affirmations and pseudo-correlations.

The second assertion seems more interesting. So here’s my car analogy: a transmission is one of the (if not the) most complex component on a modern car. Modern transmissions are master works of complexity and precision. They are the high-IQ part of your car. And yet, if that transmission is just sitting in your driveway, it’s just a hunk of metal, not capable of doing anything on its own. It requires mechanical force in (from the engine) and powertrain/axle/wheels out to realize its usefulness. Without the surrounding system, a transmission is useless.

It strikes me as true that humans, of whatever IQ, are complex systems (transmissions) built for complex systems (the car). Without society, the genius alone in the woods is remarkably similar to the idiot in the woods. The differences between geniuses and idiots is their coordinating efforts with and contributions to the system. Individual intelligence may be theoretically isolated, just as the mechanics of a transmission may be isolated, but assigning value cannot be practically accomplished individually.

Education, Where Bad Data Breeds

In education, there’s much research on inflection points in national education systems for triggering the birth of a modern economy. They all reference a critical mass of “high-IQ” people (≈5% of the population) that feed a critical mass of intelligent/educated people (≈30%). Again, it’s IQs operating within a system. As such, apart from contributions to and interactions with the system, what’s the purpose of discussing individual IQ?

I’ve written about how one can’t take group averages (aggregated data) and then apply them to individuals (synthetically disaggregated data). Averages and data don’t work like that. A group average is information about the group, as constructed at the time the data was extracted. Conversely, individual data (e.g. IQ) doesn’t say much about the group (or, often, anything).

“This group is college ready” is a meaningless determination on an individual level. I suppose it provides a heuristic probability for an individual, but such a probability is of such low utility that it’s not applicable for any particular action. “This individual is college ready” likewise provides no information about the group, other than it contains at least one college-ready individual. Further, the tepid correlations between the group and its components only exist at the time of the assessment; in education, the group is not a constant, so such group-individual cross-assumptions are invalid rather quickly (if they were ever valid). Even then, it’s probable that the individual assessment (“college ready”) is meaningless because “college ready,” like IQ, has little-to-no real-world correlation at the individual level. My guess is that such pseudo-rigorous assessments are not much more than random number generators.

So “IQ” may exist in itself, but like a transmission, it is largely without meaning or purpose (an observation that, of course, leads rather directly to everything from the dialogic in social theory or quantum electrodynamics in science).

Value in Complex Systems

The British operated much of the world in the late 19th century, and they debated the ingredients a successful society required. Of particular interest for them were parts of the middle east and north Africa that they controlled that seemed to be (1) an incorrigible mess and (2) could never provide any direct benefit for England. Egypt would always be a net loss, the British assumed, so why assume responsibility for it? In exploring what made Egypt an incorrigible mess, the British did not focus on “IQ” or “education” or anything related. They did not opine that Egyptians were stupid. Instead, the British observed that the two key elements for a successful society are (1) an innate moral compass and (2) organizational skills.[2] Morality, as expressed in society, is an individual characteristic, but organizational skills are obviously an expression of an individual impulse within a system. However much organizational skills exist or reside within an individual, their value exists in a system or group.[3] Regardless of the “IQ” that resides within an individual, its value resides in its expression within a group.

Inevitably such questions lead to trans-national analysis. When we observe a high-functioning society (e.g. Japan), are we witnessing IQ (a collection of individual characteristics) or IQ expression (IQ in a system) or something else entirely (e.g. organizational skills). Organizational skills don’t appear to correlate much with IQ (except at >1 STDEV below mean levels). The answer to such questions weighs heavily on education, expectations of governments, and economic development.

So what?

The impulse to isolate and elevate the individual qua individual, as a meaningful stand-alone unit, may perhaps be one substantial source of friction in the modern world. The basic unit of the modern west, we believe, is the individual. The ancients (up through the Puritans) would tell you that the basic unit is the family and the “individuals” are necessary but incomplete components. Many societies, particularly in Asia, still largely believe that individuals don’t really exist in the ways that the West thinks they do or believed it up until the 20th century (Japan certainly did until they were nuked).

Obviously there is a lot of focus on the organization — teamwork and all that. But why do we even talk about individual characteristics as if they matter individually (such as IQ). Is it because the individual gets hired, paid, and otherwise rewarded? If we don’t recognize individual, then why do we pay people differently. Certainly, individual contributions aren’t all equal. Surely there are 10% who contribute much more and another 10% who contribute nothing. Logical ends and all that leads to the conclusion that communism was correct in that all factory workers are the same, so they all get paid the same.

These are the arguments of binary extremism, a Victorian fetish to promote the reasonableness of an argument by illustrating the undesirableness of the extreme opposite while making invisible all other possible options. If we can convince everyone that the only options are 0 and 1, then you take 0 and I’ll take 1 and then we can fight about it over the next century.

Victorian weaponized taxonomies aside, there’s nothing impossible about discovering that expressed value is in the system (outputs) while holding that differentiated components are necessary (inputs). Value distribution is not zero-sum.

Emergence & Epistemology

The transmission analogy above is an example of emergence, an interpretive framework that spans science and complex systems, art, philosophy and religion. Emergence is the observation that systems contain features that none of its components possess; or, the whole is greater (or, more importantly, different) than the sum of the parts. A car has features contained in none of its components (most obviously, auto-motion). This is simple and obvious. But consider whether a society has features that are contained in none of the components. We measure the components ad nauseum and miss the systemic features (which isn’t simply an assessment of the whole but rather an observation of the parts creating the whole).

Bob Laughlin has written about emergence from the perspective that if science assumed an emergent interpretive framework, our perspectives on science and nature would radically change. Curiously, he defined emergence as “a physical principle of organization,” which suggests that the British had identified an emergent complex system feature as the key to successful societies, which does not necessarily have anything to do with IQ or college readiness.

Many think Bob Laughlin is a nut despite his resume (MIT PhD, professor at Stanford, Nobel Prize winner for physics). You’d think people would take him seriously, but after he went down the emergence rabbit hole, he was practically chased out of Stanford (all the way to Korea). He’s back but is treated as somewhat toxic.

So emergence sounds reasonable as long as it’s quarantined to specific observations. But apply emergence broadly and people start crying about it. It’s threatening.

The modern world is comprehended by its components, such as individuals, and suggesting that knowledge of or about such components is either of negligible value or entirely artificial strikes at the existential existence of most organizations. At its core, it strikes at the enlightenment and the vast power structures erected on the corpses of pre-enlightenment epistemologies.

At this point, we’re at an epistemology/ways of knowing question, which can prove remarkably controversial if one considers the epicurean clusterfuck we find ourselves in … that’s next.[4]

For more on the limited/non-correlation between IQ and real-world data, see Taleb’s “IQ is largely a pseudoscientific swindle.”

[1] I know, that’s the doctor, not the monster. The monster is just called the monster. Nigglers gonna niggle.

[2] Morality may change over time, but the British were acutely aware of the South Africa problem. Today, sexual assault is as illegal in South Africa as it is in Norway, and yet South Africa has frightening high rates of such assault. Contrary to our optimistic dreams, laws often reflect moral aspirations, not moral truths.

[3] The group seems always to be society, but, of course, may be a business or other organization. I suppose people may be highly organized for purely their own purposes, but aren’t such people usually mental?

[4] “epistemology” strikes me as a limiting term.

About Nathan Allen

Founder of Xio Research (A.I.), Applied Magic (A.I.), and Andover (data). A.I. strategy and development leader at IBM. Academic training is in intellectual history; his most recent book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense…. Lectures on historical aspects of media, privacy/law, and power structures (mostly). Previous book: Arsonist.