Sunday, 14 May 2006

Culture Club

One of the great things about reading is that from time to time you read something that sort of breaks through something in your perception of things. Reading seems to be the cheapest way of achieving such breakthroughs because it enables one to easily learn from others.
Last week I had such an epiphany while reading an article in Scientific American which tries to establish a rather innovative theory for explaining intelligence in men and in animals by observing the behaviors of different clans of orangutans.
Now we all know why man is intelligent: It's because god has created us this way (sarcasm, sarcasm). Jokes aside, though, common wisdom has it that it was evolution that made men smarter by necessity: the need to survive and the advantages of being smart meant that the smarter of the species survived.
That Scientific American article contends that observation. It claims that intelligence in society comes mostly from culture (with culture defined as the ability to learn stuff from others and reproduce the stuff that you learn). A good example is apes in captivity: while in the wild they don't tend to use tools, in captivity they tend to mimic their captors and do use them. I won't go over the article's statements, though; I'll just say that it caused these thoughts to spring into my mind, with flashbacks of unanswered questions now seemingly answered.
You see, I don't think of myself as a particularly intelligent person, yet my achievements do seem to indicate something in the intelligence department, something I have always dismissed as evidence for hard work rather than genuine intelligence. This article comes and explains why my explanation makes sense.
For a start, when I was a kid I got a lot of attention - lots of culture to learn from. I was the youngest child of my parents and by far got the bulk of their attention; not only that, I also got the undivided attention of my uncle. I credit my easy slide through school, especially at its earlier stages, to that.
I also had genuinely smart friends throughout high school and university. There is no better example for that than Yuval: During my first year in uni, when I was mainly hanging on and trying to figure out what was going on around me, I had a real hard time, failing a few tests. Once my relationship with Yuval was established, though, things were totally different: I worked my guts off, but I got some major achievements, shadowed only by Yuval's own achievements. Being that both Yuval and I are not big on egos I never had a problem with that, and in fact I can say I take pride of being in Yuval's shadow. Anyway, throughout uni we developed this approach to courses where we slowly struggled on until the last year ended up as a relatively easy affair.
I owe a lot to other cultures I have been influenced from. Take books and reading, for example: Would I be the reader I am now if it wasn't for people like Uri and Jo being there at the right time? I wouldn't be aware of the existence of Scientific American if it wasn't for Uri showing me this magazine his brother subscribes to.
Just have a look at my Stanislav Lem book collection:

  • Solaris: An early gift from my uncle.
  • Pirex the Pilot: My father bought it for me.
  • The Further Adventures of Pirex the Pilot: A gift from Uri, back in the last 90s.
  • The Futurological Congress: Another gift from Uri for my last birthday.

And my point? That I am lucky to have such influences.
I am also quite lucky not to have had bad influences. I was never under any pressure to try drugs, for example, and indeed I never tried drugs. I was exposed to cigarette smoking for brief period only. And mainly by growing up away from Australia, I don't enjoy alcohol at all (although I can enjoy a good wine for its taste).
I also managed to survive the "speed" culture every male man is severely exposed to: I no longer drive like a maniac trying to prove to everyone around me that I am Bigos Dickus incarnate. Mind you, for a long while I did, and I am still aware that I can still easily inflict great tragedies upon myself while commuting.
But: the bottom line is that I was lucky to be involved with the right cultures most of the time, enabling me to learn good stuff most of the time, as dumb as I am. I can only spare a thought to those that were not lucky as I was; I don't think society in general does enough for them, yet I am convinced that society would be better off if more people were better off.


uri said...

I’ve got news for you – you’re very intelligent.
Maybe not one of the 5 (or is it 4?) most intelligent people you know, or not as smart as the sixth smartest man in Iraq, but you were always smart, and what’s more, everybody (except you) always thought so.
Why do you think everyone copied your homework? (well, there was the added value of your history comments)

Moshe Reuveni said...

Thanks for the compliments.
I don't think I'm dumb, I just don't think I'm particularly smart, either. I think that my "smartness" comes from hard work rather than genuine brainliness, although you can argue that this is just another form of intelligence.