When Lee invokes velocity of processing power, he converts IQ from a weapon in a race/class/gender blood sport into a tool—a value-neutral speedometer.
It’s a tool with consequences, though. Where many high-IQ opiners provide straight memoir, Lee attends to the needs of the questioner, who’s concerned with how to love someone with a low IQ score. He doesn’t mince words when discussing the hard road of kids like himself.
Teachers and parents get impatient, Lee explains, and even use epithets; moreover, a tendentious intelligence hierarchy from the American eugenics movement still casts a long shadow. But there can be an upside for low- or average-IQ kids determined to prove themselves: They learn to work. Lee, who wrote his honors thesis on George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss, has very much not had his motivation torpedoed. He actively enjoys, as he says, “challenging and repetitive work, but only if the challenge can be overcome by practice instead of a good brain.”
Then comes Lee’s forthrightness when he describes balking at “learning new stuff.” This should offer readers of any IQ score (or none) a feeling of profound liberation.
“My peers learn wine-tasting while I get drunk from my favorite Long Island iced tea,” Lee writes. “My peers learn yoga while I lie in bed playing with my phone.” Sing it, brother. “To be honest, playing videogames all the time at home sounds pretty good to me, if I don’t have to go to school or work.” He also doesn’t finish many of the novels he starts, doesn’t like to draw, and seldom goes to museums or art galleries. Because—oh yes—“I don’t appreciate aesthetic stuff.” Is Alex C. Lee the first honest witness to the human condition or what?
Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.
Like “Elias Lazar,” whose bio says he studied at the University of Vienna and who writes that he scored around 80 on an IQ test, Lee has trouble following directions, including the rules of games. (Lazar writes that he records people when they give him oral instructions, so he can privately play back their words over and over till he gets it.) “It’s impossible for me to ‘pick up’ something,” as Lee puts it. “I’m not a fast learner. When I learn a language, I have to systematically study, writing it down and getting familiarized.”
Hold up: When I learn a language.
I asked Lee about this. “My first language is Mandarin,” he explained. “I know English well.” (Clearly.) Then he added, “I know a bit of French and German too,” and that he’s written in French on Quora. Could it be that Lee is learning far more at what he perceives as his tortoise pace than his peers with their Mensa speeds? Languages are an intriguing case, since unlike much of mathematics, vocabulary cannot except in rare cases be learned a priori. (Where you might derive the surface area of a triangle from a couple of measurements, you mostly don’t know a word till you encounter it.) Any test that fails to register that talent and tenacity is itself a failure.
And of course it is. Lee is right that we’re in the thick of eugenics almost the moment we acquiesce to the implausible conceit of fixed Intelligenzquotient, as the phantom human quality was originally dubbed in Germany in the early 1900s. A hundred years later, Adam Hampshire, Roger Highfield, Adrian Owen, and Beth Parkin wrote an article for the journal Neuron debunking the notion that a unitary, measurable “intelligence” even exists.
“The idea that populations can be compared using a single measure of intelligence is dead,” Highfield wrote in WIRED at the time. The IQ test, it seems, is about as scientifically rigorous and reliable as the zodiac.
But as with astrology, what’s illuminating are people’s emotional and ideological responses to the possibility of universal typologies of personhood. Where astrology offers visual psychedelia, dream states, and oneness with the firmament, other typologies like the IQ arouse the left brain. And it seems that zillions of people still cotton to the idea of ranking our intellects, from top to bottom, the ingenious to the comatose, the gods to the rocks.