Gardner's Naturalistic Intelligence

04 January, 2021
What's naturalistic intelligence and what's it for? What does it have to do with nature and who were the famous characters that developed it? Find out in this article.

Thanks to psychologist and educator Howard Gardner, we now know that there isn’t just one but eight types of intelligence. Before then, we really only paid attention to logical mathematics and linguistic intelligence. This was particularly the case in schools and for the purposes of intelligence assessments. However, fortunately, we now know that there are quite a few more types of intelligence. Indeed, Gardner’s naturalistic intelligence is one of them.

This type of intelligence concerns your ability to relate to the environment and its elements. It allows you to observe, understand, order, and classify nature. Furthermore, you’re able to establish relationships between its elements. For example, flora and fauna.

Naturalistic intelligence is probably one of the least known classified intelligences, as well as the least valued, certainly at an academic level. However, as you’ll see, with this kind of intelligence, our ancestors learned about their environment and how they could survive.

A magnified leaf.

Gardner’s naturalistic intelligence: what is it and what purpose does it serve?

Naturalistic intelligence is part of the theory of multiple intelligences that psychologist and educator Howard Gardner proposed in 1943. He formulated and disseminated his theory in the 1980s. More specifically, his multiple intelligence theory dates back to 1983. However, it wasn’t until 1995 that he added naturalistic intelligence to the model. So what does the concept of naturalistic intelligence refer to? It’s actually your ability to categorize elements of the environment, recognizing their differences and how they relate to each other. You can then use this information to interact with these elements in a beneficial way.

In addition, using this type of intelligence, you can connect and interact with different environmental elements. This, in turn, means you have a better relationship overall with your environment. In reality, this concept encompasses the urban, suburban, and rural contexts, and not just the “natural environment”.

Our goal to survive

Naturalistic intelligence is probably the intelligence that most helped our ancestors to evolve and adapt to their environment. For these reasons, some experts place its origins in the Paleolithic era.

Leaving aside the survival aspect, today, this type of intelligence allows you to better understand nature and develop hierarchies within the natural systems themselves. This is particularly useful in certain fields of knowledge, like biology, for example.

Famous people with naturalistic intelligence

Who has, or rather, had a high level of naturalistic intelligence? Charles Darwin (Shrewsbury, 1809 – Down House, 1882) and geographer and naturalist Friedrich Heinrich Alexander (Berlin 1769 – 1859) certainly did.

These authors entered into natural environments and learned from them. They identified animal and plant species and learned their defining characteristics. Then, they used this information for the benefit of both themselves and society. This is what naturalistic intelligence is all about.

Defining characteristics of Gardner’s naturalistic intelligence

In Gardner’s definition of naturalistic intelligence, he emphasized the type of information obtained, as opposed to what you do with it. Indeed, while you might speak of this type of intelligence as a process, in reality, it’s actually more concerned with the concrete elements it deals with.

As we mentioned above, these concrete elements refer to the elements of nature. This means, for example, the anatomical peculiarities of each plant and animal you’re observing. Therefore, you activate your naturalistic intelligence when you’re faced with a natural environment or spaces which contain different life forms.

The processes involved in Gardner’s naturalistic intelligence

What processes are activated when you use naturalistic intelligence? These are mainly observation, selective and sustained attention, classification, and categorization skills, the realization of inferences, and the identification of relationships. Furthermore, you formulate environmentally-related hypotheses. It’s also a type of intelligence that allows you to experiment and that orients you towards nature. This, in turn, allows you to get to know and value nature better. In fact, getting a little philosophical for a minute, naturalistic intelligence means an appreciation of beauty, as well as a real love for the environment.

 “Keep your love of nature, for that’s the true way to understand art more and more.”

 -Vincent van Gogh-

Does Gardner’s naturalistic intelligence overlap with the other intelligences?

Naturalistic intelligence might, in some cases, overlap with the other intelligences Gardner proposed. One example is in the case of linguistic intelligence. You could argue that you’re using linguistic intelligence when you conceptualize elements that you identify, even though they’re from the natural world.

Furthermore, with logical-mathematical intelligence, you can understand the hierarchies and categorizations that have been developed thanks to naturalistic intelligence. Indeed, as you can see here, the latter two intelligences can even complement each other. Another example can be seen in the case of spatial intelligence. This intelligence applies the knowledge you obtain from naturalistic intelligence to a specific environment and in real-time.

In short, naturalistic intelligence is certainly not one of the best-known forms of intelligence. However, it’s undoubtedly the one our ancestors were most influenced by when it came to surviving and adapting to their environment. Naturalistic intelligence involves many areas of the brain. However, interestingly, it’s generally considered that the brain’s right hemisphere is more involved than the left.

“Nature never hurries. Atom by atom, little by little she achieves her work.”

 -Ralph Waldo Emerson –

  • Gardner, H. (2006). Schaler, Jeffrey A., ed. “A Blessing of Influences” in Howard Gardner Under Fire. Illinois: Open Court.
  • Gardner, H. (1998). A Reply to Perry D. Klein’s ‘Multiplying the problems of intelligence by eight’. Canadian Journal of Education, 23 (1).
  • Gardner, H. (1989). To Open Minds: Chinese Clues to the Dilemma of American Education. Nueva York: Basic Books.