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The Wilt Chamberlain analogy for human intelligence

January 23, 2014

300px-Wilt_Chamberlain3

Wilt Chamberlain is one of the most dominant players in the history of basketball, if not team sports. He is the only player to score 100 points in a single game. The only to average more than 40 points in a season. The only to average at least 30 points and 20 rebounds. Wilt Chamberlain was also a terrible free-throw shooter, one of the most fundamental and basic skills in basketball. He averaged an abysmal 0.511 over his career, including a staggeringly low 0.380 in 1967.

Wilt Chamberlain often comes to my mind when I think about the vagaries of human skills, whether cognitive or athletic. Sports, as any fan will attest, are complicated. Of course some players are great at offense and terrible at defense. Of course you can excel at shooting in general but be terrible at free-throws. Of course Wilt Chamberlain existed! No one who follows sports in any way is really surprised by such outcomes. We know that athletic skills do not easily transfer across domains or even within the same domain.

So if we recognize that athletic skills in one sport may be meaningless in another…why don’t we do something similar for intellectual traits? Why are we so quick to conclude that rejecting one scientific theory renders someone intellectually impotent everywhere? At the very least, should we not look at the evidence before casually dismissing them?

Which finally brings me to creationists. I humbly submit that we should think of creationists–all human beings really–as potential Wilt Chamberlains. That is, as people who might be able to excel in certain intellectual tasks even if they have problems elsewhere. Just as we don’t exclude people from all of sports if they can’t shoot free throws, we shouldn’t banish creationists from all of science (or the people we respect) for their single belief.

Intellectual ability, after all, is more complicated than athletic ability. In sports, we can often easily identify transferrable skills. We’re confident a world-class soccer player will be an above average middle-distance runner. Not so straightforward for cognitive abilities. A world-class theoretical physicist might actually be a below-average experimental physicist.

So the next time you think about creationists, consider for a moment that evolution might play the same role in their intelligence as free-throw shooting did in Wilt Chamberlain’s basketball game. In both cases, a single trait doesn’t tell you very much and is ultimately not very important.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2014 7:48 am

    I suppose it depends on a specific area of ‘intelligence’ rather than an overall assessment of intelligence.

    I may not immediately peg creationists as bad at Math but their belief in creationism is surely enough fodder for me to question their ability/willingness to conduct themselves in other experimental disciplines, such as physics. Similarly, I wouldn’t automatically assume that Wilt would’ve been bad at tennis but I probably wouldn’t have invited him to play skeeball.

    • Victor permalink
      February 1, 2014 2:49 am

      Explain the last comment about skeeball. Are you saying that you believe he would have beaten you at skeeball?

      • February 4, 2014 7:32 am

        Ha! Wilt would almost certainly have beaten me at every single athletic event he tried. I’m saying his skeeball ability is completely unrelated to his basketball ability, and we can’t use one to predict the other. Anyone who knows anything about sports knows that. We should do something similar when it comes to intelligence.

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