After five seasons of sci-fi adventure-comedy riddled with speculative technology and its accompanying speculative technobabble, SyFy channel’s Eureka recently ended its final season. Eureka is set in a fictional small town—called Eureka—that doubles as a Research and Development think tank for the US Government. The town is populated by the world’s most brilliant technological and scientific minds, recruited by the government in order to produce Advanced Science with apparently limitless resources, a bastion of research where the intellectually superior can devote themselves to a life of pure intellect free from the concerns of the outside world. As a SyFy show with such a premise and recurring guest stars like Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day (both rockstars in and active promoters of nerd/geek culture), Eureka caters primarily to a niche nerd/geek/(insert your label of choice here) audience.
However, we experience Eureka through the eyes not of one of its many scientific geniuses, but of its most average citizen. Jack Carter, the show’s protagonist, is remarkable for being ordinary. Thrust into the role of sheriff after an accidental arrival, Carter is immediately bemused and disoriented by his new role as one of Eureka’s few denizens of average intelligence. At first glance, Carter appears to be a classic example of a bumbling Everyman, spending much of his time confused and uncomfortable with the intellectual prowess of those around him. The curious incongruity to this narrative, however, is that in both Eureka’s “monster of the week” episodic narrative and their season-length story arcs, it is Carter who consistently rescues other characters and recognizes solutions to crises facing the town, typically through creatively piecing together information supplied by his smarter scientist friends. The writers regularly produce a deus ex Carter to save the Eureka from disaster.
But is the deus ex Carter really just a narrative cop-out? When examined more closely, could this narrative pattern have a deeper point? Like its titular town, Eureka the show could be seen as a kind of think tank for pondering the nature of the human intellect. After five seasons of Carter’s unorthodox successes, I suggest that Carter’s unique problem-solving abilities ultimately inform a more nuanced theory of human intelligence than the traditional scientific mindset upheld by Eureka’s geniuses and, by extension, the show’s audience. In Carter’s incongruently savvy heroism, Eureka deploys a carefully constructed, devastating critique of the very scientific elitism that Eureka’s niche audience is likely to endorse.
Carter’s Unmeasured Intelligence
In order to discuss Eureka’s handling of human intelligence, it’s necessary to briefly touch on some intelligence theory. The famous, standard method for assessing a person’s level of intelligence is an IQ test. Commonly measured on something like the Stanford-Binet intelligence scales, an IQ score is a single number that represents an individual’s “intelligence quotient.” IQ rests on the concept that intelligence theorists call the ‘g’ theory of intelligence: ‘g’ stands for general intelligence, a measurable, single quantity summed up by an IQ score that ranges, roughly, from about 20–160+ (because of complicated ceilings, the assessment of highly gifted people is usually inaccurate past 160). The distribution of IQ in the population is centered around 100, meaning that a score of 100 is dead average.
IQ scores are widely used in the assessment of intelligence, but some researchers have argued that an IQ test doesn’t provide a complete picture of human ability. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, proposed Multiple Intelligences Theory as a contrast to the traditional, single ‘g’ measure of intelligence. According to Gardner, human beings possess discrete and not necessarily correlated cognitive abilities that cluster into various realms of “intelligence” such as logical-mathematical, musical, interpersonal, spatial, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences. IQ scores may reflect some of these abilities—like verbal, mathematical, and spatial—but not others, like musical or bodily-kinesthetic. Another psychologist and challenger of ‘g’, Robert Sternberg, proposed a triarchic theory of intelligence and also argued that IQ does not provide us with an accurate picture of human abilities. In the triarchic theory, human intelligence arises out of a composite of analytical, practical, and creative cognitive abilities, and these practical and creative intelligences are two components typically underestimated by traditional IQ measures, which align more closely with analytical skills. Gardner and Sternberg’s two theories are perhaps the strongest competitors of the standard ‘g’ theory of intelligence.
All right, so back to intelligence in Eureka. At first glance, in the Eureka universe standard ‘g’ theory measures of assessment seem to be used without question. And by these measures, Carter is unquestionably lacking. Carter’s high school GPA was 2.8, a C average. In S02E05, “Duck Duck Goose,” Carter is revealed to have an IQ score of 111. This actually places him slightly above average, but it garners him nothing but mockery from Eureka’s geniuses, including his romantic rival Nathan Stark, who spends the majority of the first few seasons providing a standard of genius against which Carter can never hope to compete.
But Carter can compete on more unorthodox, unmeasured skills, in fact, through exactly the kinds of intelligences discussed by both Gardner and Sternberg. Carter possesses both incredible bodily-kinesthetic abilities as well as practical and creative intelligence, harnessing the acumen of those around him and generating solutions from that expertise. And it’s here, in both physical feats and in the practical and creative realms of synthesis and application, where Carter shines.
Despite his apparent scientific ignorance, Carter excels in simplifying complicated scenarios and communicating them effectively. The ability to make others see the relevance of new and unusual information is a hallmark of Sternberg’s practical intelligence, and Carter has this skill in spades. In a typical example of Carter’s creativity, in S05E11, “Mirror Mirror,” Carter draws on his everyday life experience with garage door “clickers” to propose a solution to finding a signal on a particular frequency. “Who says you’re not science-y?” one of the characters exclaims. “Almost everyone,” Carter muses, noting with the audience that his near-constant discovery of clever solutions goes unnoticed and unmeasured because he does not conform to traditional achievement measurements. Lacking formal expertise in math and physics, Carter lets the scientists assess a crisis situation and provide him with the facts. This is an efficient and highly successful strategy: instead of taxing his own resources, Carter is able to outsource the scientific understanding to a cadre of geniuses and devote his own mental energy to discovering the forest while the scientists examine the trees.
And in line with Gardner’s theory, Carter’s non-measurable intelligence is also exemplified by bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Carter’s trademark job is a one-man end-of-episode bomb-squad: if someone’s science is malfunctioning in Eureka, it will undoubtedly be Carter who has to risk life and limb to throw a switch, release an anti-bomb, and save the day. If Carter is just a bumbling Everyman, then his genius friends’ willingness to throw him nonchalantly in the face of terrifying physical danger is merely evidence for his expendability. After all, with his average IQ, Carter the sheriff is the most replaceable person available for high-risk situations. Yet when these dangerous scenarios are examined, it becomes clear that there is much more at work here than the geeks using Carter as cannon fodder. If Eureka is indeed challenging to the traditional IQ model, perhaps the most strikingly nontraditional ability to laud is something like Gardner’s bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.
Carter routinely displays superhuman levels of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and is implicitly trusted as the only capable of extremely sensitive spatial, and kinesthetic calculations in a high-risk, high-pressure environment. In S04E14, “Up in the Air,” despite his protestations, Carter adjusts admirably to constantly rotating spatial orientation in a floating house. In another typical day at the office, Carter delivers an anti-matter bomb into a black hole according to a precise time and spatial window (S04E20). Carter is the opposite of expendable; his action-hero feats are an application of Gardner’s bodily-kinesthetic intelligence that allows him to control his physical performance at the level of an Olympic athlete’s precision.
Carter as a Guardian Against Abstraction
Beyond his distinctive and overlooked intellectual gifts, Carter also serves as a beacon for humanity within Eureka, constantly pulling the scientists back into the real world and serving as a guardian against disembodied abstraction. Carter’s unorthodox bodily-kinesthetic intelligence and his intuitive connection with reality are emphasized during the final season-long story arc of season five.
In the first part of the season, Carter rescues members of the town from imprisonment by Beverly Barlowe, a returning villain who had been the town’s former psychologist and who is a member of the shadowy Cosortium that claims Eureka’s government-controlled weapons projects are too dangerous to continue. As a psychotherapist, Barlowe is along with Carter one of the few characters in the show who is not tied to the hyper-analytical, hard-science perspective of the majority of the town’s scientists. Though a villain, Barlowe actually reinforces Carter’s technological paranoia as she consistently points to real flaws in the Eureka scientists’ pursuit of science without the direction of a moral compass or emotional understanding of the consequences of their technology.
In this story arc, key scientists are trapped in a “cerebral” existence in a computer program, a construct that enables the writers to highlight Carter’s connection to bodily-kinesthetic reality, set explicitly against the “disembodied science” of a computer program. It is Carter—with neither technological nor scientific expertise—who is chosen enter this dangerous simulated world, and his ability to bring his mentally hijacked friends back to reality is a testament to Carter’s deep ability to ground himself in tangible reality, resisting the dangers of technological abstraction. In a sci-fi universe fraught with mind-body gaps and machine consciousnesses downloaded to digital memory, Carter serves as grounding to corporeal reality, calling the other protagonists back from dangerous alternate realities. Consistently suspicious of technological interventions, Carter is often the first to correctly assess the risks associated with relying too much on technology and, in a town with a morality rate twice the national average, it’s Carter who keeps the scientists safe.
And in the series finale, Carter rescues the town from a series of wormholes by throwing himself bodily through them. Holly Marten, recovering her memory of the town as part of a secondary plot, exclaims: “I remember now! You guys are smart, but the Sheriff is the strong force, he holds it all together!” Carter is Eureka’s essential component, the protective force against scientific destruction.
Finally, in S05E09, “Smarter Carter,” Carter trades his own unique skillset for traditional giftedness, with devastating consequences. Carter is transformed into a highly analytical, intelligent scientific theorist, and he proudly announces that he knows all the penal codes in detail. Andy, Eureka’s robotic deputy with an accompanying computer memory, points out “but I already know all the codes, you don’t need to!” This statement reflects the inefficiency of this new expertise; while in the abstract Carter now knows more than he did before, this is a waste of his resources. Carter begins to lose touch with the practical skills he had evidenced before.
More frighteningly, increasing Carter’s IQ correlates with an equally impressive increase in psychopathology. “Smart Carter” goes on to ignore his partner Allison’s emotions and ultimately to endanger Andy’s wellbeing, his lack of concern springing from a blinded focus on scientific inquiry. Devoting himself to theoretical research, Smart Carter ignores Andy’s well-established identity as a robotic person and sees him only as a replaceable machine object, in contrast to normal Carter’s empathic friendship with the robot. And of course, the episode is only resolved with restoring Carter to his former self, “curing” him of the genius that was crippling his ability to connect with both practicality and empathy.
And here we arrive at Eureka’s most challenging argument for why it’s important to diversify our conceptions of intelligence: in the absence of practical, and intuitive intelligences like Carter’s and his ability to question technological abstraction, genius flounders. Being “IQ smart” is simply not enough, either in solving problems or in making ethical decisions, and leads us to ignore a vast range of human abilities. And more, relying on traditional IQ intelligence alone is dangerous and ultimately destructive to our most intuitive, compassionate selves.
Eureka appeals to a core audience of nerds and presents them with what initially seems like nerdvana: a mythical town where intelligent geekiness is exalted and the scientifically gifted rule the roost. The audience for a sci-fi adventure show is likely to identify with Eureka’s scientists: smarter than everyone around them, brought into a place (town, cable network) where they can happily devote themselves to Science (fiction) without having to worry about a world that fails to understand them. Furthermore, nerd/geek culture tends to protest that not only do intelligence and erudition make up for social and emotional deficits, but also that intelligence is enhanced by fewer practical and emotional concerns. One of the most common tenets of science fiction, after all, is that the future will advance towards a highly technologically and scientifically dominated worldview.
But surprisingly, Eureka takes this initial appeal and flips it on its head. Instead of catering to the self-aggrandizing fantasies of a niche audience, Eureka challenges its audience’s elitist assumptions. By pointing out the importance of alternative modes of thought and by highlighting a character consistently assessed as intellectually average, Eureka argues for the uncomfortable possibility that abstract intellectual prowess alone is simply not good enough, and that standard methods of intelligence assessment overlook fundamental human talents. Moreover, Eureka argues that the elite scientific community of Eureka cannot even survive without people like Carter: those skilled in interpersonal communication, unorthodox problem-solving skills, and alternative forms of intelligence such as bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Eureka’s emphasis on practical and emotional intelligence, as well as the stark dehumanization that can result from losing touch with those intelligences, illustrates what is lost if cerebral analysis is exalted at the cost of practical and emotional realities. Eureka’s message is clear: respect the diversity of human ability and challenge scientific elitism, or suffer the consequences.
Catherine Hicks is a PhD Candidate in Psychology in San Diego who studies academic achievement, competition, and implicit theories of intelligence. She spends a lot of time arguing about the nature of genius, dancing whenever there is music playing, and thinking of ways to subvert traditional education systems.