The Many Definitions of Intelligence (part 4 of Magic Island)

This is part 4 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Part 3 can be read here.

Ni-Vanuatu, I must confess, remind me of children.

More specifically, their reactions reminded me of 3- to 7-year-old Western children.  Kids of that age are old enough to understand magic but aren’t old enough to become cynical about our ability to genuinely conjure.  Many children of that age believe in magic as they believe in Santa Claus, with all their heart.  They are mesmerized by it, can’t get enough of it.

Once, a 6-year-old asked me how I did a trick, and I gave her the standard line: “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”  She looked up at me.

“Okay,” she said in a tone that sadly consented to death in exchange for something much more valuable.

The ni-Vanuatu—and all indigenous people, actually—have some of the same childlike wonder: Their eyes go wide.  They look at each other to make sure their friends have registered the miracle, as well, their eyes saying: Did you see that?  And in those eyes, there is also an alternating current: excitement, then trepidation; excitement, then trepidation.


I pondered long and hard about what the ni-Vanuatu reactions meant.  Are indigenous peoples stupid?  Are they inferior?  Was I simply shooting fish in a barrel?

Then a fellow traveler showed me a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond (Vintage, 1998), which is one long compare-and-contrast essay between indigenous peoples and the Western technological tribe to which we belong.  He suggests, to my great surprise, that indigenous tribes may actually be more intelligent than Westerners, starting with the people with which he’s most familiar, New Guineans.

The indigenous people of New Guinea are, on average, “more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is.  At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of brain function…they appear considerably more adept than Westerners.  Of course, New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have not.

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“Hence, when unschooled New Guineans from remote villages visit towns, they look stupid to Westerners.  Conversely, I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I’m with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter)….”

Diamond gives two “obvious reasons” why indigenous peoples may be more intelligent than Westerners.  The first is that throughout the last several thousand years, the major cause of death in densely populated Western societies has been disease, which kills everyone, including the most intelligent, with near equanimity.  During the same period, the major cause of death among indigenous tribes has been war, which tends to kill off the most aggressive people and spare the thoughtful and intellectual ones.

The second reason is the influence in the West of endless television watching during childhood and beyond.


“…Traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing….Almost all studies of childhood development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation.”

Upon reflection, Diamond’s arguments gave me a new perspective not only on my indigenous audiences, but unexpectedly, on all my magic audiences.  Magic is not so much an intelligence test, as audiences often frustratingly assume it is when they cannot figure out a trick.  Instead, it is an indicator of the way in which a spectator has been taught to think.

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Did a spectator have an uncle who taught him some secrets?  Was he raised in an affluent household in Beverly Hills, for example, and see magicians twenty times a year at the birthday parties of his friends?  Did his rich parents buy him every trick that he ever craved from Houdini’s Magic Shop?

Or did a spectator receive no prior insight into deception or sleight of hand at all, and therefore approach magic as a tabula rasa?  In light of Diamond’s observations, such preknowledge, or lack thereof, seems much more relevant to the successful execution of tricks than intelligence.

In addition, one’s attitude toward magic seems crucial, as well.  If a spectator was raised to believe that magic is absolutely real, as ni-Vanuatu are, then they are more apt to accept a trick at face value rather than question it.  If, on the other hand, he is raised to believe that there is a rational explanation for everything, as Western children are, then he will continually ask, “How do you do that?  What’s the trick?  Come on, come on, tell me, tell meeeee….”

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Rather than making me feel like a god, like David Frum, my successful performances for ni-Vanuatu instead just made me think more deeply about what I do.  I thought about my astonished American audiences, some of whom can be seen here, here, and here.  I thought about the wide spectrum of reactions that my magic engenders.

But still, I craved to explore the subject more deeply.  Port Vila was the capital town, and I was eager to see what lay in store for me on one of the more remote islands.

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Tanna, I had heard, was brimming with magic and mystery.  There are 28,000 people on Tanna, most of whom are villagers who live in thatched huts in the jungle, without benefit of electricity or indoor plumbing, without a Western education, without television, radio, or mass media of any sort.  None of them have ever heard of The Masked Magician.  Many Tannans believe with all their hearts, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that magic happens every day, all the time.  It was no wonder that TV’s “Survivor” reality series chose this country for the site of its Fall, 2004 episodes.

So when the opportunity arose to visit Tanna, I leapt at the chance.

[Part 5 can be read here.]


8 thoughts on “The Many Definitions of Intelligence (part 4 of Magic Island)

  1. You’ll have to read my book when it comes out. I examine all these questions in it and some of the magic. You are quite right. The Tannese don’t question magic just taking it at face value and there were numerous incidents whilst we were there that this was born out. The difficulty becomes when the local people want to be in our 20th century world.

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