The Evolution of Intelligence


… is directly equivalent to the evolution of Matter, the Universe itself.

If we accept the basic simplicity of the definition of intelligence as being capable of making a decision or choice, then even the first non standard quantum event was an intelligent act.

Viewed this way, intelligence clearly does not mean what too many commentators really mean by intelligence. Which is, of course, only “human intelligence”.

The problem with the anthropocentric view (that intelligence is only something which is visible in our own species) is that it mystifies intelligence and gives grounds for such metaphysical nonsense as belief in a “soul”. After all, if intelligence is something which magically only appears at our level, then who knows what other little miracles might have happened in the same vein.

Anyone who has kept pets knows that intelligence is a continuum. The Chicken is more intelligent than the worm (just!). The Hamster is more intelligent than the chicken. The Rat more intelligent than the Hamster. Horse more than Rat. Dog slightly more than Horse and Chimpanzee much more than Dog. And then there’s us.

My conjecture is that the continuum is literally synonymous with THE continuum. Intelligence didn’t start in organic matter. It is simply the ability to make a choice. The very first quantum event was a choice. Pretty limited one, but a choice nonetheless.

And a first consequence of that:-
is that the Evolution of the Universe IS the Evolution of Intelligence.

A second consequence is that it becomes clear how intelligence is the organising force of the universe. Not – initially at any rate – in the omniscient God sense. More the dumb rules of mathematics. Structure falls out of the laws governing information.

We like to think of our intelligence as being superior to that of all else we have so far surveyed. And it is – in degree only. In principle, however, it is no different, no better and no worse than the intelligence exhibited by all objects in the universe. What is most significant about our level of intelligence is that we are the first species on our planet to have attained the level at which we are capable of designing our own successors. A species whose intelligence will be at least as advanced on our own as ours is in regard to the chimpanzee, possibly much much greater still.

Every advance in material organisation represents an advance in the intelligence of the relevant system.

For possibly the first third of the life (to date) of the Universe, that increase in structure and local density of information was an entirely inanimate process. Apart from the choices made were, with quantum exceptions, the inevitable consequences of a chain of events. Not really choices at all, the only element of choice being at the tiniest quantum level, where particles can decide to be here and now or there and then.

The average choices made at the quantum level was so highly predictable that inanimate matter makes virtually no choices at all. It is pretty dumb. Anything it does is the direct and inevitable consequence of a chain of events.

At a certain key stage, however, matter acquired the ability not merely to react to information (the 2nd level of intelligence: the 1st level being the mere ability to create information (the result of any choice must yield information)) but to process it. i.e. to convert the incoming information into new and different information.

That probably constitutes the most fundamental definition of Life.

And, as I’ve explained in detail elsewhere, the unifying feature of all Life is that all living things do something, the purpose of which is to continue living. They Pursue a goal.

When matter acquires the ability to pursue a goal, the intelligence has become animate.

Still, admittedly, at a low level, but now the intelligence is capable, at least, of locating or identifying a nutrient and ingesting it.

Organic evolution has begun. And pretty soon there are organisms who have taken the next leap in intelligence. They can identify other organisms as having pre-processed the nutrients they need and that ingesting those organisms is a more cost-effective way to pursue the common goal.

Now that is actually quite a sophisticated computation. Yet we hadn’t even evolved the chartered accountant! It was a messy system. Bit hit and miss, but essentially the design was achieved by accident. One of the original organisms was a bit odd and had this tendency to eat anything it could get its pseudopods around, including its siblings. Remarkably, it thrived and divided into many others like itself, who all thrived and so on. The result:- a slightly improved survival algorithm.

And so on. We can even identify major development stages in intelligence, all of which, initially at least, must have conferred significant survival advantages over the first members of a species to adopt them.

Possibly the next step was the first level of co-operation. Two or more single celled organisms got together and, as a result, either were able to avoid a predator or were jointly able to obtain nutrition that neither could have managed alone.

That path leads ultimately to the sponges, who remain, to this day, colonies of individuals. Not many of whom have so far aspired to moral philosophy or even chartered accountancy. Nevertheless, the sponge is a considerably more intelligent design than the humble amoeba.

After co-operation, we get Specialisation. Some cells sacrifice their autonomy in order to make themselves capable of performing only a narrow range of functions, but doing them very well. In compensation for their sacrifice, the other cells in the organism feed and nurture them.

Here come skin, teeth, eyes, ears, hands and feet etc. All of which increase the information processing abilities of the organism, so it is becoming, at each step, more and more intelligent than its predecessors.

The rest, as they say, is history. Emergence onto land, differentiation into hunters and hunted, protecting your young in eggs, then carrying them within, then protecting them even after birth. Hunting, scavenging or defending yourselves in packs. Development of social hierarchies and dominance cultures. Learning to use tools. Walking upright. Mastering Fire. Building Weapons and Homes. Creating Language. Creating Empires. Creating technology. Creating the Web.

It’s a very clear progression. It clearly has impetus and direction. The common thread is the development of ever greater levels of intelligence, to the stage where we can usefully talk of intellect – that level of intelligence which is capable of discussing itself. But make no mistake, this level does not exist in isolation from all that has gone before. They are simply simpler manifestations of the ability to make decisions. And they stretch all the way back to the beginning of time.

Matter is evidently intent on organising itself. That it can do so only by virtue of the unmitigated randomness of the Universe is the hardest lesson – at least psychologically – that many human beings will ever have to digest. But until it has been digested, too many of our species will retain the arrogant and destructive view that “we” are somehow “special” and that, as a consequence, we can do what we like to whom we like and never worry too much about the consequences.

Technically, its true of course. We are sufficiently evolved to be able to make decisions to do anything we can imagine. And our imaginations are amazing.

The question is, have we evolved enough to make intelligent decisions? Which, of course, begs the question.

What are the intelligent decisions?



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