The Rarity of Intelligence
Vincent Plant discusses the inevitability of human’s high level of intelligence, and the implications this had on our planet.
Humans are intelligent. This may sound obvious, but it’s a precious gift indeed. Our brains allowed us to communicate, as well as picture concepts that don’t exist in front of us. They allowed us to hope, love and reason. Our intelligence changed the world. But was its evolution inevitable?
In the 1970s, scientist James Lovelock proposed the Gaia hypothesis. As summed up by the University of Manchester– “Life maintains the conditions suitable for its own survival”, acting like one giant super-organism spanning the planet. Lovelock named this super-organism Gaia, after the Greek goddess of the Earth. However, this super-organism has slow reaction times: if half to 2/3 of all life is wiped out, some speculate that recovery time is between five and ten million years.
The common existence of intelligence could show it is a beneficial and thus, inevitable step.
Intelligence on our planet might be beneficial for Gaia; intelligent species can make changes which are more efficient and faster than the type of negative feedback Gaia uses. For example, human civilisation can deflect asteroids, something Gaia has consistently been unable to do. This means intelligence might arise as a better means for Gaia to protect herself (within the context of the theory Lovelock proposed).
Moreover, multiple species show at least a fraction of human level intelligence. Gorillas have been known to learn sign language and gauge water depth using walking sticks. The common existence of intelligence could show it is a beneficial and thus, inevitable step (assuming we get through our adolescent phase of needless destruction).
However, it might not be advantageous from the perspective of a species. Our brains use up to 20% of the body’s energy, meaning this can’t then be used for things such as escaping predators or competing for mates. This highlights an interesting point, that progression towards higher thinking might only have been beneficial in the particular pathway we took. Even then, it may have been unlikely; the ability of our brains to grow three times as large was caused by a mutation three million years ago which happened to thrive. This flies in the face of the idea of inevitable progression.
The ability of our brains to grow three times as large was caused by a mutation three million years ago which happened to thrive. This flies in the face of the idea of inevitable progression.
There is no way to know for certain, but my money is on intelligence being likely, not inevitable. Many species show some degree of cognition, but whether any could have reached our level of intelligence depends on their habitat and evolutionary route (no matter how smart a dolphin is, it can’t discover fire). But this isn’t a bad thing in itself, rather, it reminds us of how lucky we are to be here and to experience the beauty of everything around us. Ultimately, it is probably better for us to view our smarts as fortune rather than fate.