Friday, November 09, 2012

Is Intelligence Over-rated

Those of you who read my blog regularly (Hi Mum!) will know that one topic I return to regularly is intelligence, and what is it good for, if anything. I was reminded again of this topic when I read about a new  human species recently identified from fossils found in Kenya, taking the number of concurrent species to at least three. As the following picture (taken from the BBC article above - thanks Auntie – who presumably took it from the original article in Nature) shows, our ancestors and relatives had several attempts at being us before they got it right.

So what happened to the other species? The conventional view is that they failed to adapt. The environment pulled a fast one on them, and they couldn't cope. H. sapiens pulled ahead and left the others in the dust because, our (that is, H. sapiens’ ) intellectual elite informs us, we were ‘superior’ in some way. We were smarter, more adaptable, or ‘fitter’, to use Darwin’s term.

But maybe we were just lucky. Maybe evolution didn't select us. It just hasn’t got round to getting rid of us yet. It has just dusted of its hands after disposing of H. floresiensis, and now its turning its attention to us. Not that we haven’t been standing in full view, hopping from one foot to the other, with our hand in the air shouting ‘My turn, my turn’. Certainly, the way we are screwing with our planet could only be construed as a challenge to the evolutionary process. “Come on then evolution, show us whadya got?” 

Story lines for the ‘we lasted because we’re smarter than all the others’ scenario are obvious, and can be found in several Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies and magazines, often with some accompanying time travel, or the pathos of watching the last Neanderthal slowly wasting away because the bullies, sapiens, are taking all the food.

However, I don’t think the ‘we’re still here because someone had to be last’ scenario has been fully exploited in literature. Current end of the world movies are a little exuberant for my taste. All that going out with a bang when a real artist would see the drama and tragedy in going out with a whimper.

Since I am not convinced that intelligence is a necessary outcome of evolution, I think it would be interesting to describe us slowly becoming extinct because we couldn't run fast enough, couldn't photosynthesize, couldn't breathe underwater or couldn't take to the air and soar without landing for weeks or months (as the albatross can do) while the ground beneath us is ravaged by one or more of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Becoming extinct because we couldn't agree on the problems with the environment, or couldn't suppress out aggression and our itchy fingers on the nuclear trigger is too mundane.)

To look at it from another angle, a story could describe why other traits are superior to intelligence, why man faded away because other animals or plants adapted better to the changing environment. The ultimate come-uppance tale would be mankind extinguished because he could not adapt to the environmental changes he had caused, while other animals could.

We could speculate that intelligence is such a useless adaptation that we are lucky to have got this far and we're only hanging on by our finger nails anyway. Human intelligence has lasted no more than two million years, a pitiful performance put beside whatever the dinosaurs had that kept them going for about a hundred and fifty million years. It’s probably less successful than having long shaggy hair and curved tusks almost long enough to scratch your backside with and living on the arctic tundra, or living at the bottom of the ocean and eating squid for supper on a Friday night.

The interesting part would be, what are we missing that will result in our downfall. The characteristics listed above are obvious contenders, but I’m sure there are other ways we could fail to adapt, perhaps characteristics that have yet to make their appearance.

Or a Stapledon-esque panorama of life on Earth from the first prokaryotes to the ultimate life-form, where the rise of mankind is little more than a pebble on the road. And the ultimate life-form? I think it would be something that could leave Earth when it detects that the sun’s time is up, and migrate through the interstellar waste to another, younger star system.


Anonymous said...

Lol. "Not that we haven’t been standing in full view, hopping from one foot to the other, with our hand in the air shouting ‘My turn, my turn’."

Anonymous said...

Oh, Simon, have you ever thought of adding the "follow by email" feature so readers can get your posts directly to their mailboxes?