Discover more from Aporia
"Yeah, but would a nerd survive in the jungle?"
What use is calculus if you cannot start a fire?
Written by James Thompson.
One variation on the “IQ isn’t everything” refrain is the assumption that bright people might not fare well in inhospitable environments. Whether they be deserts, jungles, or polar regions, what use is calculus if you cannot start a fire?
This perspective found support recently when four children, including a 12-month-old baby, were found alive in the remote Colombian jungle after making it out of a plane crash that killed their mother. They had survived for six weeks before being found by the military.
The eldest, a 13-year-old girl called Lesly, kept her siblings alive, using
her deep knowledge of the jungle and what could be retrieved from their family’s luggage as survival tools. Rescuers said they had found traces of ribbons and a pair of scissors which had been used to build a tiny roof to protect their temporary encampment from the intense rain.
Ed West gave a good account of this event, and of the ‘humans are not that bright’ hypothesis propounded by Joseph Henrich, who argues that individuals are highly reliant on cultural norms and knowledge.
All these accounts tend to provide a list of explorers who came to grief by not relying on local knowledge, particularly of the Inuits in North polar regions. Conclusion: civilized smarts count for nothing.
However, these lists show evidence of publication bias: failed expeditions are spotlighted, while successful ones often go unmentioned.
Henrich argues that humans are not that bright, given that they cannot survive harsh environments. A band of chimpanzees would easily wipe out a band of humans. If humans manage to survive, it's due to their cultural knowledge, the inheritance of wisdom from previous generations, without which they would be doomed.
This argument, however, has its flaws. First, where does this culture originate if not from intelligent humans acquiring survival skills and disseminating this knowledge? It is often the most intelligent individuals who make groundbreaking discoveries that less intelligent individuals observe, memorize, and pass on. Second, if humans aren't inherently bright, how do they so effectively learn survival habits? As Linda Gottfredson insightfully outlined in 1994, a significant component of intelligence ‘involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.’
Applying standard measures, what if we evaluated intelligence by survival rates under extreme circumstances? To overcome selection bias, we would need a comprehensive database of these events, many of which remain unknown.
Consider the ill-fated Scott Antarctic expedition: Scott and his team didn't survive, having been outpaced to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen. The latter's expedition was an unequivocal success, largely because Amundsen respected both local knowledge and scientific findings. He knew to store paraffin in thoroughly sealed containers and to have his team well-versed in skiing. Both expeditions used advanced technologies and sextants, and borrowed skills from indigenous populations.
Remember the intrepid Shackleton, who, after their ship Endurance was trapped and destroyed by ice, guided his men on an extraordinary journey. With Worsley's navigation skills, they reached Elephant Island after six exhausting days on three lifeboats. Then, Shackleton undertook the daunting 800-mile journey to South Georgia Island in a single boat.
Consider another instance: a group of rugby players and their friends, who, after surviving a plane crash in harsh high-altitude conditions, ingeniously fashioned a survival kit from the wreckage. They even defied deep-seated cultural norms to stay alive.
This also serves as an important reminder for those who believe novels accurately reflect human nature. British readers were captivated by Golding's "Lord of the Flies," which depicted stranded schoolboys descending into murderous chaos on a South Sea island. In reality, when a group of schoolboys were marooned on a South Sea island in 1965, they managed to survive for a year by maintaining camaraderie, treating injuries, and keeping fires burning until rescue arrived.
Returning to the story of the children who survived in the Colombian jungle, their mother heroically urged them to leave her and find help. While her courage deserves admiration, staying near the plane, which offered shelter and food, and was more noticeable from the air, would arguably have been a safer choice. This brings us to the question that lingers after the publicity subsides - why did the plane crash?
The Cessna 206, operated by Avianline Charters, departed from Araracuara Airport, Colombia, on May 1, 2023, for a domestic charter flight to San José del Guaviare, 220 miles to the north. At 7:34 am local time, the pilot issued a distress call citing engine failure. Shortly after, radio contact was lost.
Many aeroplanes crash in Columbia:
Avianca Douglas DC-4 crash (February 1947)
Avianca Flight 4 (January 1966)
Aeropesca Colombia Flight 221 (August 1981)
Aeropesca Colombia Flight 217 (March 1982)
TAMPA Colombia Boeing 707 crash (December 1983)
Avianca Flight 410 (March 1988)
Avianca Flight 203 (November 1989)
SAM Colombia Flight 501 (May 1993)
Intercontinental de Aviación Flight 256 (January 1995)
American Airlines Flight 965 (December 1995)
Air France Flight 422 (April 1998)
TAME Flight 120 (January 2002)
West Caribbean Airways Flight 9955 (March 2005)
AIRES Flight 8250 (August 2010)
LaMia Flight 2933 (November 2016)
Aerosucre Flight 157 (December 2016)
Colombia Cessna 206 crash (May 2023)
It seems premature to say that intelligence does not matter.
James Thompson is a former senior lecturer in psychology at University College London. He taught at the University of London medical schools and has a Ph.D. in the cognitive effects of cortical lesions sustained in childhood. His interests are neuropsychology, psycholinguistics, child development, psychological trauma, intelligence and scholastic attainment. Read his Substack, Psychological Comments, here. Follow him on Twitter.