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Ecological Intelligence

In 1983 Harvard neuropsychologist Howard Gardner shook the educational world by declaring there are important kinds of intelligence besides the linguistic and logical-mathematical skills that standard tests measure. He added five more "intelligences" : spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal (the last two are sometimes grouped as "Emotional Intelligence").

In 1999 he added Naturalist Intelligence, which he defined as skill in recognizing and classifying flora and fauna. At first I was shocked to see such an inadequate definition; surely being "nature smart" goes way beyond taxonomy. I discovered that he very briefly mentions "the talent of caring for, taming, or interacting subtly with various living creatures."* But he needs to be able to measure the abilities he's defining as intelligences, and he knows how to test pattern-recognition.

Still, I thought: pattern-recogition is common to several of the intelligences he's trying to identify. How can you use it to define only one? He gets around this by hypothesizing that it developed in early human beings in response to nature, for survival, and since then has generalized to other uses.

I think he's stuck by defining "intelligence" as something "intellectual." Sure, the words are related -- but commonly we think of intelligence more broadly, as quick and clear understanding. We may not know how to measure Barbara McClintock's famous "feeling for the organism," but we acknowledge its importance. Her hypothesis of "jumping genes" required not only recognition of organizational principles both more subtle and more complex than "classification" — but intuition, as well. Similarly all kinds of husbandry require two-way communication, another non-intellectual skill.

Let's not limit Naturalist Intelligence to how we relate to flora and fauna, either. As we wake up to our dependence on the whole natural system of our planet, let's investigate other early-human skills like sensitivity to the weather, sense of direction, tasting the soil.... Do humans have the geomagnetic sense that enables animals to flee earthquakes?

Landscape designers certainly use the spatial intelligence that informs other artistic work. But research shows that certain kinds of landscape evoke more positive feelings in most people: notably an open expanse, with some water in view. Since humans evolved on the savannah, perhaps this preference is another early survival skill.

In August Gardner will publish a new book: Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory And Practice. I hope to see better development of "naturalist intelligence." After Katrina, it's clear we need it.


© Copyright 2006 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 17 March 2006

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  For more information (Green Hands gets a comission if you buy from these links)
  • Howard Gardner's books on Multiple Intelligences
  • Examples of the response from educators:
    • Naturalist Intelligence - on the M.I. Smart! Website of the Chariho Regional School District in southern Rhode Island. This program was designed to nurture the innate talents and abilities of all children, by focusing on "Teaching and Learning through the Multiple Intelligences."  Don’t miss the “More Info” link.
    • Naturalist Intelligence Thoughts from the New City School in St. Louis.
  • On Barbara McClintock:
  • Another approach to this whole subject comes from the concept of "biophilia," the innate human affinity to nature. When Howard added Naturalist Intelligence, in Reframed, he mentioned biophilia in passing, but without any serious consideration. Here are a few references:
    • Biophilia; The Human Bond with Other Species, by Edward O. Wilson - the seminal work.
    • The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson. Theory and research in many directions. Chapter 3, "Biophilia, Biophobia, and Natural Landscapes" Roger S. Ulrich cites "hundreds of studies ... focused on affective responses to natural and urban landscapes" — my source for the item about savannah views.
    • Arousing Biophilia; A Conversation with E.O.Wilson. This piece was originally published in the Winter 1991 issue of Orion Magazine. At one point Wilson comments "The psychologists have got to be brought in on the act. How could our relation to nature, on which survival depended minute by minute for millions of years, not in some way be reflected in the rules of cognitive development that generate the human mind?" Biophilia is framed as a feeling, not a skill — but as I have attempted to show, certainly skills may arise from it.
  • The Science of Climate Change: Adapt, Mitigate or Ignore? - Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government and Head of the Office of Science and Technology, explains why the evidence for global warming is past the point where skepticism is intelligent.