Naturalistic intelligence: what is it and what is it for?

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been one of the most popular research and intervention proposals in psychology since its release in the 1980s.

At first, the types of information offered by Gardner were 7, but twelve years after the publication of the work that would make them known, the author presented another item for this list. It was naturalistic intelligence, also known as the eighth type of intelligence.

What is naturalistic intelligence?

Naturalistic intelligence is the ability to categorize elements of the environment by recognizing their differences and their relationships with each other, And use that information to interact with them in a beneficial way.

The paradigm of this type of intelligence are naturalists and explorers such as Charles Darwin or Alexander von Humboldt, able to immerse themselves in natural environments, identify different animal and plant species, learn the characteristics that define each and to use this information for their own benefit.

Confusions around naturalistic intelligence

Naturalistic intelligence is presented with confusion precisely because of the reference to the natural world that is made in its conceptualization.

While in the definitions of the rest of intelligences proposed by Howard Gardner much emphasis is placed on their condition of capacity for mental processes, the idea of ​​naturalistic intelligence he seems to place a lot of importance on the type of information he is working with, not just what is done with that information. It explains the formality of this intelligence as a process, but also evokes the specific contents with which it deals: the elements of nature that we must identify and use to our advantage, the anatomical peculiarities of each of the plants and animals that we examine, and soon.

In other words, while we know that logical-mathematical intelligence will be activated whenever we pose a logical and mathematical challenge and spatial intelligence will play a role whenever we design something imaginable in a two-dimensional or 3D plane, it seems that naturalistic intelligence will only work with a very specific type of content: those that would be linked to natural environments or to all the forms of life that result from them.

Immersion in the natural vs. artificial

Interestingly, the understanding that naturalistic intelligence only applies to this type of content doesn’t make its conceptualization any clearer and more delineated, but the exact opposite is happening.

In fact, to hold this notion of what naturalistic intelligence is forces one to link the debate on whether the theory of multiple intelligences is more or less scientifically valid to another discussion which has virtually nothing to do with it. she: the philosophical dispute. natural and unnatural, and in what sense these two worlds are ontologically different from each other. For example, are different types of vegetables a natural thing, given that they have been profoundly altered over centuries and millennia of artificial selection? Or even … is what we know today as an animal species something natural, when many of these categories have been established from the genetic (and therefore “artificial”) analysis of their members and not so much from a direct observation of his anatomy?

This immersion in metaphysical waters does not make it too complicated to relate naturalistic intelligence to the personal enjoyment of environments little altered by human beings or to mystical ideas such as the ability to empathize with life on the ground. planet, sensitivity to time to become one with nature etc.

The role of nature in the eighth intelligence

However, and contrary to what is often believed, naturalistic intelligence doesn’t just refer to flora, fauna and what can be found in pristine environments. Part of this confusion could come from the fact that at the beginning Gardner explained very vaguely what this new type of intelligence was, devoting only a few lines to it, and in them he did not talk so much about the intellect. “The intelligence of naturalists”.

The mentions in the natural environment served to create a powerful image which served to illustrate in a few lines what this new concept was. While Gardner spoke of the ability to know the natural environment well, too clarified that, according to him, he was also involved in the recognition and classification of all kinds of objects and artefacts: Cars, slippers …

This is why naturalistic intelligence would be defined, rather than being a reflection of our ability to learn from natural environments, of being a reflection of our ability to know all kinds of environments and to properly interact with the elements that are available there.

Validity of naturalistic intelligence and critiques

By taking the concept of naturalness to the background, naturalistic intelligence is excluded from the complications and turbulence of nature-artificial ontological dilemmas. but there is another problem which it does not escape: it seems to overlap with other types of intelligence.. Or, at least, with linguistic intelligence (to conceptualize the identified elements), logic-mathematics (to understand hierarchies and categorizations) and spatial intelligence (to apply this knowledge in a specific environment in real time).

The problem of the overlap between the types of intelligences proposed by Gardner does not come up and of course it affects not only naturalistic intelligence, but the nuclear idea of ​​the theory of multiple intelligences, according to which they are mental capacities more isolated from each other and united forming a whole. Until now, due to the lack of empirical evidence in favor of multiple intelligences and the good health of the notion of unified intelligence, the addition of this eighth does not serve, for the moment, to reinforce Howard’s ideas. Gardner.

Bibliographical references:

  • Gardner, Howard (1998). “A Response to” Multiplying Intelligence Problems by Eight “by Perry D. Klein. Canadian Journal of Education 23 (1):

  • Triglia, Adrián; Regader, Bertrand; and García-Allen, Jonathan (2018). “What is intelligence? From CI to multiple intelligences.” EMSE publication.

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