14. Progress to Humanness

14.1 Intelligence

14.1.1 Biological Intelligence versus internal coherence of thought

Many mammalian and bird species are able to modulate and improve the instinctual responses by a process of learning. In humans, this learning process culminates in an individual intelligence. Intelligence is the individual drive focused towards the disinterested knowledge and understanding of the world. It is an attempt to resolve, by this disinterested knowledge, newly arisen situations that cannot be resolved by instinctual or automatic behavioral patterns.

The human cognitive development proceeds according to two lines, of which one is deeply rooted into the phyletic line of the vertebrates and the other apparently restricted to the human species.

Biological intelligence compares a new situation with older experiences, with statistical evaluation of the results of an action. The retrieving of past relevant experiences and their adaptation to solve the new problem generates new solutions. I developed this in chapter 6. Starting from the level of Reptiles, vertebrates exercise this biological intelligence. Turtles practice it when they are challenged by a visual problem. Children learn their mother language by this means. It is applied at all human cultural levels.

However, the human brain also elaborates symbols based on abstract rules. This type of intelligence, already detectable in 7 months-old infants, consists in the elaboration of rules of logic and is divorced from biological references. The trial and error mode of apprehension of a new situation is thereby ignored. In this case, the apprehension of a new situation proceeds through a reasoning that follows an internal coherence of thought, without any reference to past experiences nor to reality. When the rules of logic obey a demand of internal consistency of thought, they lead to assertive creeds. In the religious experience, it is the revelation of the prophet who descends from the mountain with written laws spelled out.

The two types of cognitive development are not equally applied in all the cultures that compose the Western civilization and this differential approach to cognition specifies the level of Humanization reached. A choice is perpetually made between Logic and Suppleness, Geometry and Adaptation, the Absolute and the Concrete, Submission and Liberty, Order and Growth, Stability and Movement. Some communities opted for the first terms of these alternatives, others for the second. In these last ones, scientists are preferred to lawyers, entrepreneurs to bankers, cottage gardens to French gardens and the challenge of the unknown to the security of natural borders. In Science, preference will be given in one case to feedback mechanisms, computers and statistics, in the other to geometry, clocks and rigorously defined automates. In one case, we will see a theory of Evolution (Darwin, Huxley), in the other the elaboration of a Systematic and a Classification (Buffon and Cuvier).

14.1.2 The exercise of individual intelligence

The expression of individual intelligence and the exercise of reason are among the most difficult acts a human being can accomplish because all the forces of inertia, and instincts of dominance and subservience, oppose it. Before two people acknowledge each other as human, there is a temptation to subordinate the other by snubbing the liberty of adhesion that is at the basis of the human order. The cohesion and security of human groups is maintained by the application of tremendous social pressures on challengers of the mainstreams of thought. This is a biological and social imperative of Primates that view group approaches as the best means of survival2. With such a mentality, reason is not the master faculty. Primitive societies and societies under stress are intolerant of people endowed with more insight than others because such societies are unsure of themselves and geniuses are a dislocation factor that they cannot tolerate. These societies consider the superior or original mind as being beset by the devil and suppress it. Paradoxically, they thus destroy the means of renewal that they usually seek by disciplined, concerted joint actions. What saved Christendom from stultification was that, unique among revealed Truths, the Christian Faith relied on four gospels written by four different people, each with a different cultural background, in different languages, well after God had delivered his message. It was understood that this message demanded additional explanations, which left room for the exercise of individual intelligence in protected places, as abbeys.

Abelard (1079-1142) demanded the right to follow his own logic within a theocratic civilization of consensus. He was banished first to Brittany, i.e. outside the French royal domain and later to Cluny, lying in Burgundy, which was not a royal possession either at that time. The horror that Cluny had lived with the appearance of the Cistercian movement in its midst and the revulsion this integrism had caused among the Benedictines were such that he could not have been safer than there.

This tolerant theocracy was on the verge of firmly adopting an internal coherency of thought leading to intolerance. Had Abelard lived five hundred years later, he would have gone up in flames. In the system of cognition elaborated by Abelard, who followed the teaching of Aristotle, an idea is deducted from a prior idea and there is no room for probabilities, for tolerance and adaptation. This elementary logic is easy to assimilate and follow. Plastered on primitive instincts and assertive creeds, it has recently become the main leverage of human activity.

The Church as well as the secular authorities fostered the creation of Universities whose duty it was to sustain their respective hegemonic drives. The universities arose as corporations of professors and students, allowed by royal, imperial or papal decrees. The vocation of the universities was to consolidate the existing order, reinforce it and oppose changes that might challenge it.

In the field of astronomy, John de Sacrobosco taught astronomy at the University of Paris in 1221. His book, De Sphaera, was exposing in the most elementary, rudimentary and simple terms the Ptolemaic astronomy and the Aristotelian cosmology (fig. 14.4).

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Figure 14.4. The astronomer John of Sacrobosco, professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Paris wrote De Sphaera around 1221. The book was printed in Ferrare in 1472, 40 years before the printing of the Almagest. Its contents were taught mindlessly in the universities of Europe during at least 400 years.

It was immediately adopted by all European universities and will be studied with the same disarming zeal until the 17th century, i.e. during 400 years, without critic or change. The theologians who had accepted a literal reading of the Bible contributed to freeze the cosmological debate.

The stultifying influence of the theologians on the progress of the Western understanding of the world is documented but the theologians were not alone to resist change. The vicissitudes of war and the pandemics (leprosy, pest, syphilis, tuberculosis, typhus) that plagued Europe (fig. 14.5) forced naturally the monks to busy themselves with medicine and public health (fig. 14.6).

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Figure 14.5. Lovers accompanied by death, 16th century, wood.
Figure 14.6. The Book of medication was written by abbot Richbodo of the imperial abbey Lorsch (located south of Hesse), around the year 800.

The Reformation inspires the naturalism and secularism of figure 14.5. The word “syphilis” derives from the Greek word “Syphos”, meaning horrible. Its origin is, according to Bartholomew de las Casas, American. It appeared in Europe in 1492 and became epidemic during the siege of Naples by the French king Charles VIII, in 1497. He had to break up the siege. Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France were both syphilitic. Wars, prostitution and sodomy, all three common in those days, were the principal causes of the rapid spread of this disease. The city of Aberdeen was first to suspect contagion by sexual intercourse and branded the cheek of prostitutes for their recognition, in an effort to stop the progression of the disease.

The monks did so well that they were often called outside their convents, to assist their patients. This exposed them to carnal temp­tations that the temporal and spiritual hierarchies reproved (fig. 14.7).

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Figure 14.7. The regular frequenting of baths favored the corporal hygiene but also allowed additional pleasures, strongly stigmatized by the spiritual and temporal supreme authorities, depicted at the rear of this miniature taken from the de dictis et facis Romanorum, V. Maxime, 1470. Staatsbibliothek Preuszischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin.

The Church transferred the medical knowledge to lay men, especially once cities arose. Soon, the universities taught medicine. These universities, where the theologians who ruled Christendom were formed, actively supported the drive of the physicians for exclusivity in the dispensation of health care. The School of Medicine of Salerno obtained in 1240 from Frederic II the right to deliver to physicians the authorizations to exercise their profession. To obtain this authorization, one needed to follow during 5 years the courses of the School and practice during one year under the guidance of a confirmed physician. Obstetrics, pediatrics and surgery were neglected because “dirty”.

Mindless teaching of the theories of Hippocrates, Galien and the Arab physicians (among them Razi, Averroès, Maimonides -a Jew- and essentially ibn Sina, i.e. Avicenne) together with a vigorous interference of the Inquisition or other established authority each time a teacher professed objectionable novelties (e.g. Berenger de Carpi, Vesale, Van Helmont) led to stultification. Petrarque wrote to the pope Clement VI that “the physicians learn at our expense and become experts by repeatedly killing!” In 1528, Paracelsus, the official physician of Basel, contested in his teaching (Gross Wundarznei, published in 1537 in vernacular, God forbid!) the medicinal conceptions of Galen (2d century AD), which led to his banishment. He died at age 49 in dismal poverty in Salzburg, in 1541. Malpighi was attacked by students in his house and publicly insulted by his Galienist colleagues as late as 1661, in Bologna. Van Leeuwenhoek, who used a microscope to discover bacteria and confirm the circulation of blood from arteries to veins, spoke only Dutch, never left his city of Delft where he died in 1723 and never went to university, was vigorously combated by the faculty. Between the 14th and 17th century, the intellectual elite of Europe managed to burn about 500,000 herbalists and midwifes, on the ground not that they were incompetent but because their competence was overwhelming, wherewith they trespassed the prerogatives of the contemporary physicians and barbers. In the 18th century, the behavior of physicians, their abstruse and empty language, their flashy dresses and their dogmatism brought about the vigorous critic of the Venetians Casanova and Goldini, and of the French marquise de Sévigné. The Austrian gynecologist Semmelweis was driven to suicide in 1865 for having discovered that gynecologists and surgeons were responsible for the infections observed in operated patients and delivered mothers, because they operated with dirty hands. They continued to refuse to wash hands before an operation, and this also happened in France.


2. J. Oeppen and J. Vaupel: Broken limits to life expectancy. Science 296: 1029-1031, 2002

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