Are we as smart as we think?

When Carl Linnaeus was completing his taxonomy of plants and animals and needed a Latin name for his own ilk, he settled on Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man”. More recent scientists, who were precise but not necessarily humble, have seen fit to single out modern humans among their extinct cousins by adding on another “sapiens”. Narcissism? Maybe. It is at least evidence that we humans think pretty highly of our species’ mental abilities.

My previous post offered a fanciful view of human evolution, in which our social and technological development started because an absent-minded bumbler didn’t pay attention to where he was going. That’s probably not accurate. But I do wonder how our species went from cavemen to CEOs. Were we choosing to advance, or just falling into pits the whole time? And what does either option say about our intelligence, and our right to the name “sapiens”?

It is fun to imagine that there was a single occurrence that determined human destiny—for example, the birth of some freakishly big-brained Australopithecus who survived to crush things with rocks and have lots of kids, and now here you are reading this on your iPad two-and-a-half million years later. Or something involving sudden inspiration by an alien race, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. These are fun ideas, and everyone secretly wants them to be true. That we were, by chance or design, lifted to an exalted place above the lesser animals that root and grunt upon this Earth is a flattering thought. And the lovely thing is that, until research universities have reliable time machines, we cannot disprove these hypotheses.

However, those who know about such topics think it more likely that a long series of small, individually boring events occurred, each one making a little alteration, which led us to our present state of evolution. (The assumption, of course, is that anyone knows enough to conclude that anything is likely. That is dubious, but for now I won’t quibble with it.)

One thing is certain: somewhere along humans’ developmental journey, evolution selected for a bigger brain that consumes way more energy than is normal. Almost all vertebrates direct between 2 and 8 percent of their metabolism to their central nervous system (see this study). Human brains are gluttons by comparison; Wikipedia declares that they hog “15% of the cardiac output, 20% of total body oxygen consumption, and 25% of total body glucose utilization.” High-powered brains mean less energy for all other body functions, which ought to make a creature weaker overall. High-powered brains are also big brains, which is why human babies are born so early and defenseless. (Infants’ brains are even more voracious, gobbling up 74% of their bodies’ energy.) All of this is bad from a basic survival perspective.

Of course, fancy brains upend normal survival strategies. Better intelligence meant hominins could avoid dangerous situations, figure out how to deal with food supply changes, adapt to new environments, and throw rocks. (Throwing rocks is important. Our ability to hit a moving target with a stone is unique on this planet, and just may be why we have language.) Doing all these things would place further demands on the brain, which would get fancier over time, which would mean hominins could do fancier and fancier things, and so forth in an evolutionary spiral. Eventually, that brought humans to the place where we could engineer agricultural and industrial revolutions, and these got us cool things like seedless bananas and iPads. So we have fancy, hungry brains that are good at designing tools and talking about them. Does that make us intelligent?

First off, what is intelligence? Definitions of intelligence are all over the map, from strictly biological and computational descriptions to ones that verge on the metaphysical. I might summarize most of the human-centered definitions as “purposeful, rational awareness and decision-making”.

The problem is, humans don’t live up to that definition very well. History is littered with examples of people—even presumably smart ones—acting in ways that defy reason. Consider the Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant that suffered three meltdowns and has been leaking radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean since the earthquake and tsunami of March, 2011. Its designers chose to place the emergency generators and batteries, required to cool the plant in the event of power failure, in a basement that could easily be flooded. Or how about the numerous websites devoted to cataloguing and publicizing stupid photos, videos, texts, emails, GIFs, stories, Facebook statuses, et cetera ad infinitum; a lot of hours and energy have gone into producing and collecting all of these. How about Anthony Weiner’s current embroilment in a second sexting scandal? It’s not like we’ve gotten especially worse over the ages, either: Pompeiian graffiti is mostly insults, bragging, advertising, and lewd epithets. (Don’t click that link if you have any sentimental notions about the refinement of classical civilization.)

Historian and archaeologist Ian Morris proposed a “Morris Theorem of history” (in his excellent book Why the West Rules—For Now) that goes: “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.” In other words, intelligence doesn’t guide history. Major social, technological, or economic advances happen mostly by accident, or by a slow progression of habitual behaviors that aren’t consciously determined. We spend the majority of our time falling into metaphoric pits.

So, although we have fancy brains, we do not use them in a way that demonstrates consistent intelligence, as we have defined it. Are we just stupid? Maybe.

Who cares?

You ought to if you’re human. Let’s go back to defining intelligence. When discussing it, we almost always treat it like a thing, which an individual can possess to a greater or lesser degree. There’s a problem with that, because intelligence is intangible. It only manifests through actions. I think it would be wise to stop defining intelligence as a noun, and start thinking about it as a verb, as an action or a pattern of actions.

If we did this, we could no longer confuse fancy brains with intelligence. Our brains are impressive compared to the norm among animals, but we can see from our own history that they don’t automatically produce intelligent behavior. They are tools, nothing more. I could give you a tool—a hammer, for example—and tell you, “You have a hammer; you are a builder.” But that would be inaccurate. “You have a hammer; use it to build a house and you will be a builder,” is the correct statement. The tool alone does not the builder make. The brain does not the sapient make.

When we truly recognize this, I believe we will choose to act more intelligently, with “purposeful, rational awareness and decision-making”, more often. Although intelligence, as behavior, is not something we can possess, we do possess the potential for intelligence, and we demonstrate this from time to time. We would do well to use it to our utmost, since true intelligence is something we need as a species right now. Half-unwittingly, our tool-happy fancy brains have set in motion a storm of ecological and technological changes that we must either direct and navigate, or perish from due to destruction or absorption into the technium. Intelligent behavior will decide whether Homo sapiens is to be a misnamed oddity, or a genuinely wise being.

Two aliens observing Earth from space. One says, "Aw, look! They're calling themselves "sapiens". How adorable!"

5 thoughts on “Are we as smart as we think?

  1. Terrific post! I’m going to take this insight with me:
    ‘“You have a hammer; you are a builder.” But that would be inaccurate. “You have a hammer; use it to build a house and you will be a builder,” is the correct statement. The tool alone does not the builder make. The brain does not the sapient make.”

    I really appreciate your deconstruction of names and language here; rhetoric so often shapes the way we act and perceive the world without us ever taking notice. You might find this article interesting as it also plays with language/names/labels and how it shapes different social constructions and discussions:

    1. Thank you, and I’m glad you enjoyed it! Language is a passion of mine. I think we subconsciously attach a lot of tags to words, and it is well worth being aware of that tendency. That Gawker article does make a superb demonstration of this.

      Interestingly, I think we recognize the “metadata” (for lack of a better word) of concrete, absolute terms much better than we do for abstract words like “intelligence”. Those connotations could be playing a huge role in our thought processes, especially for the majority of us who think in language, and we wouldn’t even have a clue about it.

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