Friday, August 03, 2007

Yet Another Way In Which Humans Are Social Animals?

Let's assume Howard Gardner is correct in asserting there are eight kinds of human intelligence and that no one person excels in all eight. What would that say about us as social animals?

The old adage, "Two heads are better than one", comes to mind. Or, rather, eight heads are better than one -- provided the eight each represents a different kind of human intelligence. I recall something a graduate student in anthropology said about his experiences living with a Southwestern (US) tribe that might illustrate the point here.

Soon after student had begun living with them, the tribe faced a crisis over who controlled the legal rights to much of the water that fed their reservation. An elder went from family to family and explained to them what the situation was. Then, over the course of six months, he returned to each family to ask for advice, after giving the families time to discuss the crisis among themselves.

Finally, the entire tribe gathered in one village to vote on what to do about the water. The elder was the first to speak. He began by once again laying out what the problem was. He then described his efforts to get everyone's advice. At last, he came to the point of the meeting by describing the only three options the tribe had come up with after discussing the issue for six months. And then he did something that shocked the graduate student.

The elder apologized for being unable to think up more options.

Why did that shock the graduate student? Because he himself came from mainstream American culture where publicly debated decisions are made in precisely the opposite way. In America, the goal of public debate is usually to narrow down the choices until only two choices remain. Then a vote is taken to decide between them. But here was a society of Native Americans who thought even three options too few. Instead of wanting to narrow down their choices, they wanted more choices than they had. Furthermore, after inquiring, the graduate student discovered that the tribal leaders typically strove to present the tribe with six or eight choices -- and sometimes as many as twenty!

That tribe knew how to take advantage of the apparent fact humans have multiple kinds of intelligence. They made an effort to get as many perspectives as possible by drawing everyone into the decision making process. Then they laid out all the options they had come up with as a group, leaving out none. Last, they voted on the available options -- which is another way of insuring that everyone's unique mix of intelligences is heard from and represented in the final decision. In doing things that way, the tribe tapped into the fullest ability of humans to come up with creative solutions to the challenges they faced.

It is commonplace to point out that humans are a social animal. Yet, we are only recently beginning to understand what that means. Millions of years of evolution created an animal who functions best in a society. Even the apparent fact we have eight kinds of intelligence seems to reflect that truth. As the graduate student's story illustrates, we come up with the largest variety of options when we work together as a group. It is mere common sense that the more options you can come up with when meeting a challenge, the more likely you will have at least one that helps you survive that challenge. For doing that, eight kinds of intelligence are better than one.


Gary said...

Boy you folks here at Café Philos keep coming up with such wonderful questions to ponder and discuss. How do you do it?

I am of the opinion that sometimes too many options make choosing very difficult, although I do understand the point you are making. I guess I am just set in my patterns of thought - I need to work on that.

Paul said...

Hi Gary! Thanks for the compliment! I imagine that if we grew up in that tribe and were exposed to their decision making process from birth, we'd naturally develop strategies to make it easier to choose from a variety of options. Probably, we'd even get good at it.