The Stupidity of Intelligence

Again and again the thinkers of our time have been scratching their heads: if we are so intelligent, then why are we destroying our planet. The more the question is left unanswered, and the problem unadressed, the more evidence mounts that the very head we are scratching may not be that intelligent after all.

Our problem is our narrow definition of what makes one intelligent. We still think of intelligence in quantitative terms i.e. the IQ scale, when in fact processing power and level of ability to conduct complex thinking is only one part of what intelligence encompasses. It is much broader and multifaceted. It is about emotional intelligence and the ability to see the big picture. It is about being able to see outside of the mathematical formulas, recognise and understand “outliers” in the data, and be able to see things from multiple angles, including the future as well as the past. 

Scientists who study intelligence in other animals have been making the mistake of focusing on “measuring” how those animals compare to humans specifically in the type of intelligence that humans have, forgetting that these animals may possess types of intelligence that are actually weak in humans. We train monkeys to press buttons in order to get treats, and throw an octopus in a difficult situation to see how long it takes it to get out of it. All these comparisons are about problem solving, which is only one type of intelligence, and a dangerous one that is. It is problem solving that led to the invention of the atomic bomb. It is problem solving that helped the Nazis find a solution to the Jewish “problem”. This problem-solving ability broadly continues to dominate our view of what intelligence is, and it stunts other, vital forms of intelligence from emerging. 

Indicative of our dogmatic, narrow definition of intelligence is the fact that we consider compassion, empathy, spirituality as “values” rather than as intelligence. We consider them to be optional choices and opinions, as opposed to vital compasses that should be as important as the practical, mathematical and factual dimensions of our basic way of thinking, which forms the dominant bedrock of what we think is called “intelligence”. However, it is these “values” that are most needed today in order for us to tackle the existential crisis we face. If they are so important, then surely they should be part of what we call Intelligence. 

To understand how this narrow version of intelligence became dominant, one only has to look back to evolution. Evolution focused on reinforcing intelligence traits which had to do with problem solving in order for us to survive. On the other hand, intelligence traits that had to do with a social and moral code, with considering the benefit of the group vs the benefit of the individual, and understanding our responsibility towards the natural environment, were traits that stood no chance. They had little evolutionary advantage and were simply left behind, languishing as secondary traits that only a minority of the genetic pool possessed. 

As a result we became a species that, on one hand may be incredibly able to overcome obstacles, but without any consideration to fellow humans as well as our natural environment. In fact, I have just defined Capitalism. Capitalism has helped us become who we are as a species, and it had a good run. However we are now faced with the problem of climate change and ecological and social collapse, which requires us to use another type of intelligence, one that we never fully developed. This planet is asking us to use a type of brain that we never had to use as our default brain, because we never had to worry about natural resources running out. We never had to worry about overpopulation. We never had to worry about our children asking us why we brought them into a condemned world. We never had to worrry about running out of forests to cut, running out of land to cultivate, running out of Earth to exploit. 

There is a commonality among all these questions: they are all questions that have to do with things running out, something that our brain was never built for. Rather than thinking about degrowth, we envisage ambitious Green New Deals to save the planet, because this is the only way our brain can think. It was not built to consider questions about our existential future. It was not built to feel sorry for others and ensure they get equal income, ensure they get ICU beds in the middle of a pandemic. Our brain was primarily built to exploit, whether it is resources or other humans. It’s not because we are evil. It is because our brain evolved in a period of unlimited abundance. Only when our civilisation grew too big did we realise that we are living in a finite bubble, a glass dome where everything is recycled, even our own shit.

We are desperately in need of a brain that we simply did not develop enough. You could say that we are Kodak: still trying to use film in a world that moved on, that learned to take its own selfies. But we all know what happened to Kodak. Humans v1.0 may still be roaming the planet, but it is already out of date. Our intelligence “technology” is obsolete, and our current civilisation is finished.

to be continued…(or not)

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3 thoughts on “The Stupidity of Intelligence

  1. We’re no different than animals, and even plants in terms of utilizing the Earth’s resources. We just figured out how to make those resources ‘fungible’ using energy.

    It is the nature of life to expand to the limits of available resources. It’s the nature of reality to fill back life when those limits are reached.

    We keep finding ways to plow through natural -local- limits we’re now faced with ultimate global limits that impact everything.

    So, what nature normally would do to enforce resource limits, we now have to do for, and to, ourselves.

    We need to learn how to manage our instinctual nature rationally.

    I’m not fanatical about religion but, therein lies the hints of the answer. Religion is the reason we are able to form large scale cooperative societies. Without it we would still be tribal.

    Biologists have broken down genetically instilled instinctual behavior as follows:

    Survival
    Reproduction
    Group Forming
    Territoriality
    Competition
    Quality of Life Seeking

    Each of these demonstrate duality/spectrum. What part of these spectrums which activates is influenced by natural abundance or scarcity.

    Our worst natural behavior is supported in an abundant environment because we can afford the mistakes. In a scarce environment we eventually get forced into highly cooperative behavior.

    The good part of the abundant phase is random experimentation. Some experiments turn up very successful survival strategies. This is the essence of the Scientific Method manifested in nature. We just codified it.

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