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Jun
05

Intelligence as an evolutionary dead end. 

"His argument was, you're just not going to find intelligent life elsewhere, and you probably won't find it here for very long either because it's just a lethal mutation. 

With the environmental crisis, we're now in a situation where we can decide whether Mayr was right or not. If nothing significant is done about it, and pretty quickly, then he will have been correct: human intelligence is indeed a lethal mutation. Maybe some humans will survive, but it will be scattered and nothing like a decent existence, and we'll take a lot of the rest of the living world along with us."

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Human intelligence and the environment
Human intelligence and the environment, by Noam Chomsky (UNC Chapel Hill, September 30, 2011)

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7 comments

  1. Jim Williams
    Jim Williams says:

    I think he's wrong, and that silicon life will fill this planet….literally fill.  Of course, there will be no future interest in the "Universe."

  2. Edward Morbius
    Edward Morbius says:

    The essay goes into rather more than just that.

    My own thoughts on intelligence:  this has been an effective adaptation for humans in large part because it enables us to more effectively exploit available resources, particularly energy resources, in our environment.  Recognizing that exploiting available energy resources is the fundamental directive and enabler of all life.

    From fire to speech allowing for more effective hunting, gathering, and agriculture, to writing, which enabled urbanization and empire, and finally beginning in the 17th century, fossil fuels on a large scale beginning with coal, then petroleum and natural gas in the 19th & 20th centuries.  We're facing multiple threats now due to pollution, resource exhaustion, and structural stresses (financial and societal) induced by these.

    Another aspect of intelligence is that it tends to treat rival intelligence as a threat.  I have no idea what the competitive scenario with early humans was, but we do know that when h. sapiens and h. neanderthalensis met, sapiens largely out-competed (and partially interbred) with neanderthalensis.  In recorded history, stories of first encounters between civilizations have often been violent, to say nothing of nth encounters:  Greeks and Persians, Romans and Vandals / Huns / Carthaginians, etc.  So unless a rival intelligence could arise in a wholly separate ecological niche (oceans, underground, vegetation) than humans occupy, there's a high likelihood we'd see it as a threat and eradicate it.

    Chomsky dives into a multitude of other factors:

    The role of finance.  If money and finance are the ability to redirect real wealth allocations (access to existing resources and future production) then financialization of economies is part of what John Michael Greer ("Archdruid Report") calls catabolic collapse:   the feeding of the economic system upon itself by reallocating existing resources and capital internally, rather than creating new wealth.  Hollowing out of industrial production is a similar phenomenon.  They're economically viable at the level of individual persons and organizations, but create no net social wealth — the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith describes (unless, of course, the wealth reallocation on net benefits a given nation at the expense of others).  The solution to such crises in the form of "taxpayer bailouts" (or "quantitatie easing") is for governments and/or central banks to create new money — literally, new credits for claiming wealth, but not wealth itself — and introduce this to the system.  This effectively re-allocates real wealth among players and may get the economy flowing again, though the effectiveness of this very much depends on how you allocate the new money and what perverse incentives are created in the process of doing so.  A principle concern I and others have is that our existing neoclassical models of economic activity and the role of finance have very, very little correlation to reality, and to the extent that they illuminate policy are likely leading us very badly astray.

    Environmental crisis.  The first-order risk here is that environmental disruption sufficient to bring down the global economic and industrial system will happen far sooner than disruption sufficient to make humans a nonviable species (though the first might be a milepost on the way to the latter).  Chomsky's invocation of Ernst Mayr brings to mind Mancur Olson, and economist (one of the rare clueful ones) whose work centered on "the logic of collective action," and incentive failures which caused individuals to operate in direct opposition to group/social needs.

    Suburbia.  What James Howard Kunstler calls "the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known".

    Infrastructure.  Some 20-plus years ago as I was embarking on a career, I considered and for a time actually attempted to pursue the area of infrastructure revival and extension, with a specific interest in the area of rail, both high-speed and conventional.  It was an area in which there was very, very little interest or capital to direct new ventures.  I turned to other activities which have done reasonably well for me personally, though I question what real net benefit I've created for society in the process.  This speaks both to short-sightedness and to part of the tragic logic of a capital bind and catabolic collapse:  the market economy, without direction or counterincentives for nonproductive activity, channels available resources into fundamentally less-productive activities and areas.  As a glimmer of hope, the freight rail system is actually in reasonably good shape, highly efficient, and moves vast quantities of goods, both bulk and finished, throughout the nation.  It won't be adequate for a post-carbon world, however, and itself will require conversion from existing fossil fuel dependence (likely via electrification).

    Chomsky's points on government involvement in economic processes are very well taken.  I'd also suggest looking into the history of oil in which a huge factor always has been creating stability in markets, largely through either monopoly (Standard Oil) and/or collusion.  SO created its monopoly through colluding with railroads against other oil producers and refiners.  Later collusions included the As-Is agreement, the Seven Sisters, OPEC, and more recently state-level agreements and speculators.  Ronald Reagan's convincing Saudi Arabia to increase production, reducing oil prices, in the 1980s played a huge role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, which then as now was a major exporter of petroleum and gas.

  3. bill camp
    bill camp says:

    there are many versions of how we collectively got into our present problems, but if we can imagine starting at zero today, observe carefully, and select multiple courses of action that will lead to a sustainable future, intelligence would fully justify itself.

    in that sense, it already has, for there are millions around the planet who recognize this.  the detail that political and economic power still rests in the hands of psychopaths is really the biggest problem.

  4. Edward Morbius
    Edward Morbius says:

    +bill camp  if we can imagine starting at zero today, observe carefully, and select multiple courses of action that will lead to a sustainable future, intelligence would fully justify itself.  That's an open argument.  There are those who'd argue that there's an inevitable Greek tragic arc to any intelligent civilization.  The one advantage an intelligent lifeform starting over now would have is that we've already exhausted the petroleum reserve — they wouldn't be able to leverage themselves up to our level of complexity (and fragility), with a grossly oversized population.  Of course, they'd also not attain our level of civilization and technology.

    I'd be very curious as to whether or not it would be possible to transition from an agrarian society to a direct solar one without the benefit of fossil fuels.

  5. John Poteet
    John Poteet says:

    It seems to be that way.

  6. bill camp
    bill camp says:

    chomsky's argument is that we have collectively allowed systems composed of rational parts that in fact act irrationally to dominate the planet.  i accept his version as mostly true.

    but to claim that this is because of a necessary flaw in human/evolutionary intelligence is not obvious.  if a child does something that is unsuccessful, we simply say the child is still learning.

    what we have not learned yet is the extent to which the natural world is at risk.  since no one person has a direct experience of that, it is a difficult task that we might not learn in time.  the risk is real, but intelligence is our only ally, not our enemy.

  7. Chris George
    Chris George says:

    Our innate intelligence is like our technology. It can be used for "good" but rarely is. In the developed world our primary individual motivation is to make money. It is the only measure of success that we have been given. Our intelligence as a species comes to play when we begin to use it to pursue this goal at the expense of all others.

    Intelligence was an evolutionary adaptation that helped us to adapt to a changing climate. Once the climate settled down at the beginning of the Holocene, we began to turn that intelligence to the pursuit of hierarchy and the pursuit of the wants of those at the top. Technology has changed in the past 15,000 years, our intelligence has not. We are still the hominid who successfully met the challenge of a changing climate and used that adaptation to progressively insulate ourselves from any further changes. It is this insulation that I believe is now maladaptive. And in my relentless pursuit of root causes, I skipped through technology and found myself questioning intelligence itself. 

    Intelligence can be our ally in the troubles we face, but only when coupled with awareness. Our technology has isolated us from the feedbacks that would tell us what has changed. Our intelligence now tells us that accumulating a pile of cash, living in a gated community behind tall walls and basically "winning" the game that our culture has set before us is all that is required for "success" as a human being. It ignores the collective effects of millions of people pursuing this same goal.

    Is intelligence a boon or a curse? The answer would depend on the perspective of the entity who is asking the question. From the perspective of an amphibian in North America? From the perspective of a Tibetan monk? From the perspective of someone working the trading desk in a major bank? Our intelligence allows us to increase our awareness, but it also drives us into blind alleys and we then use it to convince ourselves that this is the best that we can do and that this is therefore how things should be. Our collective ability to do this has led to most of the problems we currently face. And we will attempt to use our intelligence and the technology that it engenders to get ourselves out of yet another series of messes.

    Human intelligence allows us to exploit resources to increase our chances to reproduce. From this perspective it is a curse. We are the dominant species on this planet and now that we have reached planetary limits on resources we could use our intelligence to find the smart way forward that would not entail increasing our numbers any further. We could use our intelligence to find ways to lighten our impact on the biosphere. But instead we all use our intelligence to find ways to increase our portion of the spoils and ignore the impacts. Every single one of the 7+ billion of us now use this evolutionary adaptation to ensure that we will create a world that relies on our limited understanding of our planet as we destroy critical life supports in pursuit of more shiny plastic. Even those who do not get adequate nutrition would skip a meal or two to participate in this pursuit. And it is our intelligence that enables this.

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