Intelligence and Context: Epistemological Errors

A recent article in Phys.Org, Apes’ Abilities Misunderstood by Decades of Poor Science (see also: Leavens, Bard, & Hopkins 2017), briefly discusses the biases of scientists that have led to many misconceptions about the intelligence of apes. They make a good point. However, they also seem to fall into to some problematic traps.

Just from the title of their article (Leaven, Bard, & Hopkins, 2107), they get into trouble by saying that the problem and solution is in the way they “measure” intelligence. I’d like to see the dimensions of intelligence that can be measured. We make the same mistake with children in “measuring their intelligence” and “measuring learning.” Trying to measure qualities or psychological processes that cannot be measured are epistemological errors given to us by Descartes, Newton, et al. (By “epistemology,” I am using Gregory Bateson’s notion, where epistemology is the personal construction of knowledge or our personal ways of sense-making. [See Bateson, 1972/2000]) We think we can break down everything into parts and develop mechanical models of everything. And, measuring things that can’t be measured falls into this view.

But, the authors and many other people make another error. They try to use the same context to compare two different animals (i.e., people and apes). So, they take apes into homes and allow them to experience the same things. But, this is problematic. Although it may be interesting, our homes are not the normal context for apes. In fact, such actions are contextually displacing the apes. To really understand their intelligence, we need to observe them in their own context. And, this goes for understanding intelligence in other living things. As more and more research is coming out about intelligence in all sorts of animals, in plants, in fungi, and in bacteria, we need to find ways of understanding these organisms’ intelligence in their native contexts. And, yes, decontextualizing or contextually displacing intelligence is another epistemological error.


Bateson, G. (1972/2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leavens, D. A., Bard, K. A., & Hopkins, W. D. (2017) The mismeasure of ape social cognition, Animal Cognition, August 4, 1—18. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-017-1119-1 (Accessed at:

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
This entry was posted in Cognition, Learning and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Intelligence and Context: Epistemological Errors

  1. Jeff Bloom says:

    The following comment was sent by email and is from the author of the above article:
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Dear Jeff,

    (I originally tried to reply to your recent blog post on that site, but your RECAPTIA function is not working, there.) I read with interest your blog post about our paper, The Mismeasure of Ape Social Cognition. You made two claims about our exposition that are, respectively, incorrect and arguable. First, you said we proposed better ways to measure what you argue is not measurable. In fact, we agree with you and the largest part of the paper is concerned with demonstrating the unfalsifiability of contemporary approaches to “”social intelligence,”” due to the impossibility of objectively measuring it. Bateson’s treatise on the incorrect application of methods suitable for deterministic systems to living systems was a major influence on this argument. In essence, the paper is an argument against the utility of mental causality models of psychological processing, and Bateson’s work was central to the develolpment of this argument. In sum, we explicitly argued in this paper for an emphasis on behaviour in context.

    Second, you advocate assessing intelligence in “”native”” contexts. I put it to you that the contexts in which humans, apes, and other animals currently develop are anything but “”native.”” For humans, there is no historical or prehistorical precedent for contemporary rearing environments in much, if not most of the world. For apes, they are all racing towards extinction, therefore they are adapted for contexts that no longer exist, and this is true for many other creatures, as well. So, while I agree with your emphasis on contextualisation, I do find the characterisation of contemporary human rearing contexts as “”native”” to be implausible.

    Thanks, however, for taking the time to comment on our work.

    Best wishes,
    Dave Leavens
    University of Sussex
    United Kingdom

Leave a Reply