Le Petit Prince

Ways in which mythologies can have a real impact, and a working mythology for intelligence.

I was reminded earlier last week about something John Ralston Saul said (and subsequently wrote) regarding mythology: that mythology is important because it informs who you are, where you came from, and what you believe you’re capable of. This can apply to individuals, groups, families, companies, institutions, nations, cultures, et cetera.

He was speaking in the context of Canada, proposing that we mistakenly advertise ourselves as “more European” than the US (presumably because of the healthcare?) when Canada is actually profoundly indigenous, and a properly indigenous origin story would not only make us a lot more interesting, but a lot of phenomena on the ground in Canada that don’t make sense from an European perspective are quite crisply comprehensible when viewed through an Indigenous lens. Saul had enough material in this idea to write two books on the subject.

The event that got me thinking of course pertains to the ongoing conduct of the police in the US, because it’s in the news, but police conduct is an issue in Canada as well. While US policing can trace its roots directly to slave patrols, the RCMP, or rather its predecessor, was founded to protect settlers not only from each other, but to intercede on the Indigenous population, and in particular the Métis rebellions under Louis Riel. Institutional continuity is maintained through mythology, and I sincerely wonder about the stories the people in these particular institutions tell each other about themselves and where they come from. I likewise wonder aloud if an “institutional memory wipe” is a feasible aspiration or just somebody’s pipe dream. And that’s all I really have to say about that.

Since we’re on the topic of dismal current events I also regret to report that a contemporary, the adept information security researcher Dan Kaminsky, suddenly passed away a few days ago from a latent medical condition. I had gotten to know Dan about 15 years ago when he was living in Vancouver for a spell, and we have always had a good rapport. May his memory, as those who observe are inclined to say, be a blessing.

Individual : Imagination :: Community : Narrative

I have written before that I am sympathetic to the ideas of enactivism, which is a theory of embodied cognition that holds, roughly, that even the most primitive organisms have a rudimentary “imagination” to the extent that they can project some aspirational future state and then move themselves into it. The more available representational medium there is—think brain, body—the richer and more expressive that imagination can be. But in order to synchronize the imaginations of multiple organisms, they need a way to communicate: some kind of language. Moreover—and for now this is my speculation—that the particular form of language for aligning and harmonizing the imagination of a group of individuals is the story, and the particular genre of story that tells you who you are, where you came from, and what you’re capable of, is mythology.

If we’re dealing with microbes, then we need the microbe version of this iconic Antoine de Saint-Exupéry quote✱: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

✱ It turns out that this “quote”, with its suspiciously specific wording, is actually a paraphrase. Being familiar with Le Petit Prince from my childhood, I was fairly confident that the colourful aristocrat would have written the original in French. And of course he did. What you see above is not just a translation, it’s been synthesized out of an entire paragraph. I suppose the lesson here is that a pithy aphorism doesn’t have to be authentic to be inspiring.

Now that I’m thinking of it, this is perhaps worth more than just a throwaway parenthetical remark: something I remember from reading Atleo’s second Tsawalk book, about how when challenged, e.g. by Christian missionaries about the veracity of their myths, tribal elders would vehemently assert that “[o]ur stories are true!” What they meant by that was that their origin myths were essential for informing the ethical conduct of their community. Truth, here, is not a matter of precise historical accuracy, but something that effectively communicates a good—as in successful—way to live your life around others, because there are always others.

Indeed one could very easily argue that the insistence of some that the bible is an accurate historical document, that if ever falsified vitiates all moral guidance therein, has caused more harm than good.

If a mythology doesn’t fit—and this is a point that Saul made—it is actually quite straightforward to try on a different one. After all, a mythology is “just” stories; the thing that imbues it with power is its correspondence (under transformation, of course) to reality: if you deduce from your myth that you can go somewhere and do something and the outcome of that is bad for you, and this problem persists, then it’s an ill-fitting myth—no better than any other, and quite possibly worse.

Some mythology of my own

As you can probably guess, I grew up “gifted”, which means as a child I got heaped on all types of special access and attention, because the general consensus among the adults involved was that I was preternaturally smart. So I learned, unsurprisingly, as many of my readers have no doubt also experienced, that “being smart entitles you to things”.

Of course what they don’t tell you is that this halo effect fades off by about age twelve or so, when your precocity is no longer as much of a novelty, and then you just skip from one burnout to the next. I genuinely wonder how things would have been different if Carol Dweck, whose (at least one, I’m no expert) conspicuous contribution to the field of developmental psychology is that we should praise children for their diligence rather than some imagined innate genius, had come along earlier than she did.

I suppose I reached the absolute nadir of diminishing returns to the “I’m really smart, therefore I deserve…” narrative at some point in my late 20s, when I realized that in fact I had no way of knowing how smart I actually was, because I was merely told I was. Not that I set great store by IQ, but if they ever tested me for it, nobody ever communicated the result.

Results from online IQ tests I took in later years of course varied almost comically from one to the other, and I don’t care enough about an “accurate” result, whatever that may mean, to get it properly done—whatever that may mean.

What that narrative afforded me for the first 28 or so years of my life was a kind of unexamined confidence in my abilities which was very persuasive—at least to the credulous. It later dawned on me that given that I actually had no idea how smart I was, it was only necessary to believe that I was smart, and act accordingly, and other people would believe I was smart too. But again, only the ones that are easily led. This is a point I repeat because it’s what ultimately caused me to reconsider my narrative: the people who bought the line “you should pick me because I’m smart”—a blatant non-sequitur, by the way—had clearly not scrutinized it either.

My revised mythology around my or anybody’s intelligence, which I’ve been subscribing to for over a decade now, is much closer to Forrest Gump’s than what I had subscribed to previously. If intelligence reduces to behaving in a way that consistently gets beneficial results, with the ability to attribute those results unambiguously to skill, knowledge, and judgment, then I join the chorus of those who argue that intelligence is much too situated and context-specific to be smeared out into some kind of lifetime batting average, let alone a static attribute like shoe size. Smart is, after all, only as smart does.

The questions remain, I suppose: How do I know all these big words? How do I have all these skills? How do I remember all these facts? These all have mundane explanations:

  • Words: I don’t know how big my vocabulary is but a safe bet is that it is above average. Making your word bag bigger is something anybody can do: when you read a book, and you see a word that you don’t know, you look it up. It also helps to look up the etymology of that word, because related words often have parts that look and/or sound the same. This also helps you remember them (see memory). When you are confident that you have seen a word in use enough get a sense of what it means, then you can start using it yourself.

  • Skills: When you want a particular outcome and you don’t have the means to bribe, threaten, or otherwise manipulate somebody else into doing it for you, then you either give up, or you learn how to do whatever it is yourself. This usually takes effort, so whatever the result is has to be worth it. You will know you have succeeded when on command, you can do the thing, and it works. This is also a much more robust basis for one’s self-confidence.

  • Memory: Here I will concede that while it is possible that I have inherited extra capacity to retain information, it is by no means the only, or even the most likely explanation. For one, my memory is by no means consistent, and the things that I do remember, I remember because something reminds me. Associating things with other things is actually how memory works. Since I have accumulated the majority of my skills and knowledge on a demand-pulled, associative basis, it is not really surprising to me that I retain a lot of what I encounter.

In recent years I have made an effort to gravitate to more common language when I am comfortable that the fine distinction between a familiar word and a grandiloquent one doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, I have found it helpful to use the most precise language available when I am puzzling out a problem, in order to get the work to an internally consistent state. I can always dial back my language in a copyediting pass.

So the updated mythology goes something like this: how smart you are, as a lever for raising your social status, is determined by the consensus of the people around you—how smart they believe you are. The real-world applicability of this leverage is limited.

I don’t know how smart I really am, in a purely Darwinian sense, and I’m not confident I can ever really know how smart anybody else is either. Material success is not a reliable indicator of anything: I’ve met a lot of absolute dingbats who are doing great, and a lot of (ostensible) geniuses who are languishing, miserable, in obscurity. I’m sure that’s the same experience for everybody. The question is not am I smart, but am I smart enough, and furthermore, smart enough today?

More to the point: I don’t want to think of myself as some kind of one-in-a-million galaxy brain. It’s too much pressure. I’d rather believe I’m an ordinary person with a penchant for dumpster-diving through the refuse pile of human knowledge, and who, with great gratitude, had the benefit of some early encouragement. What a mythology like that says, is that anybody can learn anything, as long as they have the time, resources, and access to the relevant content. The vast majority of that content is dirt cheap and left unguarded. That’s a much more hackerly vision, and one I would much prefer to subscribe to.