Intelligence Reframed - Howard Gardner

"Naturalist Intelligence"

Excerpted from Gardner, Howard. Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century.

New York, NY: Basic Books. 1999.  pp 48-52.

"I generally introduce each intelligence in terms of an end state--a socially recognized and valued role that appears to rely heavily on a particular intellectual capacity. Thus, I designate a poet to denote linguistic intelligence, a computer scientist to represent logical-mathematical intelligence, and a salesperson or clinical psychologist to exemplify interpersonal intelligence.


The very term naturalist combines a description of the core ability with a characterization of a role that many cultures value. A naturalist demonstrates expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species-the flora and fauna--of his or her environment. Every culture prizes people who not only can recognize members of a species that are especially valuable or notably dangerous but also can appropriately categorize new or unfamiliar organisms. In cultures without formal science, the naturalist is the person most skilled in applying the accepted “folk taxonomies”; in cultures with a scientific orientation, the naturalist is a biologist who recognizes and categorizes specimens in terms of accepted formal taxonomies, such as the botanical ones devised in the 1700s by the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus.


In Western culture, the word naturalist is readily applied to those with extensive knowledge of the living world. The environmentalist Rachel Carson and the ornithologists John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson come to mind, as do others who have studied organisms for more theoretically oriented purposes, such as Charles Darwin, Louis Agassiz, Ernst Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, or E.O. Wilson. Interestingly, Darwin said that he was “born a naturalist” and Wilson titled his 1994 autobiography Naturalist. My recognition that such individuals could not readily be classified in terms of the seven antecedent intelligences led me to consider this additional form of intelligence and to construe the scope of the naturalist’s abilities more broadly.


The application of these abilities, in making justifying distinctions, can occur through ordinary vision or under magnifications-or by nonvisual means. For example, blind people can be acute in recognizing species, and the renowned twentieth-century Dutch naturalist Geermat Vermij depends on touch. Also, it seems reasonable to assume that a naturalist’s capacities can be brought to bear on artificial items. The young child who can readily discriminate among plants or birds or dinosaurs is drawing on the same skills (or intelligences) when she classifies sneakers, cars, sound systems, or marbles.


Judged in terms of the eight criteria proposed in Frames of Mind (and discussed in chapter 3), the naturalist’s intelligence proves as firmly entrenched as the other intelligences. There are, to begin with, the core capacities to recognize instances as members of a group (more formally, a species); to distinguish among members of a species; to recognize the existence of other, neighboring species; and to chart out the relations, formally or informally, among the several species. Clearly, the importance of a naturalistic intelligence is well established in evolutionary history, where the survival of an organism has depended on its ability to discriminate among similar species, avoiding some (predators) and ferreting out others (for prey or play). The naturalist’s capacity presents itself not only in those primates evolutionarily closest to human beings; birds also can discern the differences among species of plants and animals (including ones not in their “normal,” expected environment) and can even recognize which forms in photographs are humans.


Turning to the role of naturalist in human culture, it is worth noting that a full-blown naturalist does much more than apply taxonomic capacities. Exhibiting what Wilson has termed “biophilia,” the naturalist is comfortable in the world of organisms and may well possess the talent of caring for, taming, or interacting subtly with various living creatures. Such potentials exist not only with the end states I have already cited but also with many other roles, ranging from hunters to fisherman to famers to gardeners to cooks. Even apparently remote capacities--such as recognizing automobiles form the sounds of the engines, or detecting novel patterns in a scientific laboratory, or discerning artistic styles--may exploit mechanisms that originally evolved because of their efficacy in distinguishing between, say, toxic and nontoxic ivies, snakes or berries. Thus, it is possible that the pattern-recognizing talents of artists, poets, social scientists, and natural scientists are all built on the fundamental perceptual skills of naturalist intelligence.

Consistent with the developmental course of other intellectual capacities, a scale ranging from novice to expert can be stipulated for a budding naturalist. At the early stages, no formal instruction is necessary, but entire formal fields of study, such as botany or entomology, have arisen for the development and deployment of naturalists’ skills.


An important source of information about the independence of an intelligence comes from studies that identify individuals who either excel at, or lack, a certain capacity, as well as “dedicated” neural regions that appear to subserve these capacities. Thus, the existence and independence of musical and linguistic intelligence is underscored by the identification of brain centers that mediate linguistic and musical processing as well as by individuals, ranging from prodigies to savants, who feature singular capacities that are either precocious or surprisingly lacking.


Just as most ordinary children readily master language at an early age, so too are most children predisposed to explore the world of nature. The popularity of dinosaurs among five-year-olds is no accident! However, certain young children unquestionably show a pronounced early interest in the natural world, plus acute capacities to indentify and employ many distinctions. Biographies of biologists routinely document an early fascination with plants and animals and a drive to identify, classify, and interact with them; Darwin, Gould, and Wilson are only the most visible members of this cohort. Interestingly, these patterns are not echoed in the lives of physical scientists, who, as children, more often explored the visible manifestations of invisible forces (like gravity or electricity) or played with mechanical or chemical systems. Similarly, social scientists in childhood more often pursued verbal activities, read nonfiction, or sought interactions with other people.


While certain individuals are gifted in recognizing naturalistic patterns, others are impaired in this respect. The most dramatic examples, widely reported in clinical and experimental studies, are of brain-damaged people who remain able to recognize and name inanimate objects but lose the capacity to identify living things, or individuals who exhibit the reverse problem of abilities and defects. Just which neural centers are involved in the capacities to recognize and name animate and inanimate entities has not been determined definitively. Species recognition may well be represented in different ways in different people, depending, for example, on whether the species are known primarily through drawings and photos or through direct interactions with the plants or animals in question. But because the human naturalistic capacity appears closely related to that of other animals, it should be possible to confirm which brain regions are crucial in naturalistic perceptions. The identification of neural networks involved in particular forms of recognition--such as face to paw recognition--may provide important clues for this undertaking.


The capacities of the naturalist have not been studied much by psychologists, who have traditionally used artificial stimuli (such as geometric forms) to assess pattern recognition. Thus, their studies have yielded little information on more natural forms of categorization. Similarly, test makers have rarely if ever included items that assess people’s skills at categorizing species membership (or other skills of the naturalist). One important exception is the work on categorization by the psychologist Eleanor Rosch and her associates. Their research suggested the existence of special psychological mechanisms that identify “natural kinds”  (for example, birds or trees) and that organize such concepts in terms of resemblance to prototypes (for instance, how “birdlike” or “treelike” is the living being in question?). Much of children’s early language learning and classification also seems to build upon these natural forms of categorization rather than those forms that have evolved (or have been recast) to deal with manufactured objects.


The final criterion for intelligence is the susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system. The extensive linguistic and taxonomic systems that exist in every culture for the classifying of plants and animals testify to the universality of this feature. (In Western culture, we are especially indebted to Aristotle and Linnaeus for their pioneering taxonomies.) Works of art--from cave paintings to ritual dances to choreographers’ notations--represent other ways of capturing the identifying features of phenomena of the naturalist’s world. Much of religious and spiritual life, including sacred rites, also draws on the natural world and attempts to capture it or comment on it in ways valued within a culture.


My review process indicates the naturalist’s intelligence clearly merits addition to the list of the original seven intelligences. Those valued human cognitions that I previously had to ignore or smuggle in under spatial or logical-mathematical intelligence deserve to be gathered together under a single, recognized rubric. Eschewing formal ceremony, I have thus acknowledged an eighth intelligence by a simple performative speech act. My review process can later be used to consider and, if appropriate, incorporate additional capacities within the family of human intelligences."