The theory of multiple intelligences made known by Howard Gardner has been, since it was disseminated in the 1980s, one of the proposals for research and intervention in psychology that has generated most interest on the street.

At first, the types of intelligence proposed by Gardner were 7, but twelve years after the publication of the work that would make them known, the author presented another element for this list. It was the naturalistic intelligence, also known as the eighth type of intelligence .

What is naturalistic intelligence?

Naturalistic intelligence is the ability to categorize elements of the environment by recognizing their differences and the way they relate to each other , and to use this information to interact with them in a beneficial way.

The paradigm of this type of intelligence is naturalists and explorers such as Charles Darwin or Alexander von Humboldt, who are able to enter natural environments, identify the different animal and plant species, learn the defining characteristics of each one and use this information to their own advantage.

Confusions about naturalistic intelligence

Naturalistic intelligence is presented to confusion precisely because of the reference to the natural world that is made in its conceptualization.

While in the definitions of the rest of the intelligences proposed by Howard Gardner much emphasis is placed on their condition of capacity for mental processes, the idea of naturalistic intelligence seems to give much importance to the type of information with which it works, and not only to what is done with that information . The formal nature of this intelligence as a process is explained, but the specific contents it deals with are also discussed: those elements of nature that we have to identify and take advantage of for our benefit, the anatomical peculiarities of each of the plants and animals we examine, etc.

In other words, while we know that logical-mathematical intelligence will be activated whenever we pose a logical-mathematical challenge and that spatial intelligence will play a role whenever we conceive something that can be imagined on a two-dimensional or 3D plane, it seems that naturalistic intelligence will only work with a very specific type of content: that which would be linked to the natural environment or to all forms of life that come from it.

Immersion in the natural vs. artificial debate

Interestingly, the understanding that naturalistic intelligence applies only to this type of content does not make its conceptualization clearer and more delimited, but just the opposite.

In fact, sustaining this notion of what naturalistic intelligence is forces us to relate the debate on whether the theory of multiple intelligences is more or less scientifically valid to another discussion that has practically nothing to do with it: the philosophical dispute about what is natural and unnatural, and in what sense these two worlds are ontologically different from each other. For example, are different types of vegetables natural, when they have been profoundly altered over centuries and millennia of artificial selection? Or even… are they what we know today as animal species something natural, when many of these categories have been established from genetic (and therefore “artificial”) analysis of their members and not so much from direct observation of their anatomy?

This immersion in metaphysical waters makes it not too complicated to relate naturalistic intelligence with personal enjoyment of environments little altered by human beings or with mystical ideas such as the capacity to empathize with life on the planet, sensitivity when feeling one with nature, etc.

The role of the natural in the eighth intelligence

However, and contrary to what is often believed, naturalistic intelligence does not only refer to flora, fauna and that which we find in virgin environments . Part of this confusion could come from the fact that at first Gardner explained very vaguely what this new type of intelligence consisted of, dedicating only a few lines to it, and in them he did not speak so much of naturalistic intelligence as of “the intelligence of naturalists”.

The mentions of the natural environment served to create a powerful image that served to exemplify in a few lines what this new concept consisted of. Thus, although Gardner spoke about the capacity to get to know the natural environment well, he also clarified that as he understood it, it was also involved in the recognition and classification of all kinds of objects and artifacts : cars, shoes…

That is why naturalistic intelligence would be defined, more than being a reflection of our ability to learn from natural environments, for being a reflection of our ability to learn about all kinds of environments and to interact appropriately with the elements available in them.

Validity of naturalistic intelligence and criticism

By making the concept of the natural to take a back seat, naturalistic intelligence is left out of the complications and turbulence of the ontological dilemmas of nature and artificiality, but there is another problem that it does not escape from: it seems to overlap with the rest of the types of intelligence . Or, at least, with linguistic intelligence (to conceptualize the identified elements), logical-mathematical intelligence (to understand the hierarchies and categorizations) and spatial intelligence (to apply this knowledge in a specific environment and in real time).

The problem of the overlap between the types of intelligences proposed by Gardner does not come up again and certainly does not concern only naturalistic intelligence, but the nuclear idea of the theory of multiple intelligences, according to which these are mental capacities more isolated from each other than united to form a whole. Until now, due to the lack of empirical evidence in favour of multiple intelligences and the good health of the notion of a unified intelligence, the addition of this octave does not serve, for the moment, to reinforce the ideas of Howard Gardner.

Bibliographic references:

  • Gardner, Howard (1998). “A Reply to Perry D. Klein’s ‘Multiplying the problems of intelligence by eight'”. Canadian Journal of Education 23 (1):
  • Triglia, Adrián; Regader, Bertrand; and García-Allen, Jonathan (2018). “What is intelligence? From the IQ to multiple intelligences”. EMSE Publishing.