There’s something I don’t understand.
Okay, there are a lot of things I don’t understand, but I’m going to limit this discussion to one thing in particular, and it isn’t quantum mechanics. It’s why people seem to want to believe that some traits are hard-coded in our genes, while others aren’t.
Usually, it’s the crappy stuff that’s genetic. Science journalists are jumping through hoops to show that obesity is hard-wired. Ditto alcoholism. Criminality, even. But nobody seems to want to believe that your genes are your destiny when comes to the good stuff, like intelligence, musicality and athleticism.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book, Outliers, on the subject. I haven’t read the book (having given up on Malcolm Gladwell since the last chapter of Blink, in which he undermined the entire theory of the book), but Kevin has, and one of the advantages of being the proverbial One Flesh is that I get to talk about books he has read as though I read them myself. They hypothesis of this particular book is that success is, to a large degree, determined by A) luck and B) practicing for 10,000 hours, and not so much to innate gifts.
You’ll get no argument from me about luck, but I’ve got a problem with the 10,000 hours theory. It seems to me that people with no gift give up on whatever skill they’re trying to build at about Hour Seven. The degree to which one perseveres is likely to be directly proportional to the size of one’s gift. I’m something of an expert on this, having not persevered at many, many things. Clarinet. Photography. Fiction. Stonemasonry. Tennis. One cheek swab would tell you all you need to know about why I’ve given them all up: I suck at them.
Intelligence is a particularly sticky wicket. While everyone concedes that genes are involved, there’s a general unwillingness to believe that we none of us can get any smarter.
This is compounded by the difficulty in measuring an innate thinking ability. It’s hard to imagine a test that will yield identical scores from identical twins, one of whom went to Harvard and one of whom was raised by wolves. And so parenting web sites are crammed with advice on how to raise your child’s IQ – read the right books, go to the right school, take practice tests.
And you can raise your IQ score. You just can’t get any smarter. I’m absolutely convinced that we are born with every iota of intelligence we’re ever going to have. It’s just that we can’t prove it because we don’t have a good enough test.
Which brings me to my opossum.
Those of you who stop by often know that raccoons have been terrorizing our chickens, gnawing away at the coop in the middle of the night. You also know that we’ve decided to trap, kill, and eat the culprit(s).
We borrowed a trap from our friend Les, who happened to have a raccoon-sized Havahart in his shed.
If you’ve never had to trap a wild animal, you may be unfamiliar with the Havahart trap. It’s a cage with a door that closes when the animal steps on a plate in the cage. It’s called “Havahart” because the assumption is that you’re going to take the trapped animal to a safe haven and let it go. I’m sure the marketers who named the trap fully understood that some of their customers would shoot and eat the animals they trap, but “Havablast” didn’t go over well with focus groups.
We baited the trap with sardines and put it out next to our compost pile, the site of many a midnight raccoon rave. For the first couple of nights, we got nothing, and then we got a something. A furry something. But it wasn’t a raccoon. It was an opossum.
We had nothing against the opossum, whose worst offense was stealing some turkey feed, so Kevin opened the cage to let it go. After a few moments, it realized it was free, and lumbered off into the woods, dazed and confused but unharmed.
Kevin and I speculated that we caught an opossum instead of a raccoon because raccoons are smarter than opossums, and know better than to eat sardines put out in a metal box. But, when I tried to ascertain opossums’ general intelligence level, I found that they are supposed to be quite smart.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Results from some learning and discrimination tests rank opossums above dogs and more or less on a par with pigs in intelligence.”
If we can’t even measure human intelligence, how on earth can we measure and compare such disparate animals? I know we can arrive at some rough generalizations – rats are smart, turkeys are dumb – but to conclude that an opossum is smarter than a dog and “more or less” as smart as a pig seems unrealistically granular.
It also sounds like the beginning of a joke. A pig, a dog, and an opossum walk into a bar. Bartender says, “If the train leaves Chicago at 9:00 AM traveling at 60 miles per hour …”
Maybe the people who determine the animal intelligence hierarchy take into account how long the species has survived. Opossums have been around some 70 million years, so they must be doing something right. But, by that logic, horseshoe crabs should rule the world.
Unfortunately, the experts at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife didn’t compare opossum and raccoon intelligence, so I can neither confirm nor disprove my theory that raccoons are way smarter. I mean, come on. They’re always the ones who figure out how to open the garbage cans. They’re the ones who come into your house to eat the cat food. They’re the ones who have a long-term plan to break into the chicken coop.
But maybe it’s because they have 10,000 hours of practice. I think we should bait the trap with Kevin’s copy of Outliers.