Why are we so smart? Really?

A few posts back I wrote about Nicholas Humphrey’s take on the uses of consciousness.  I later found an old  (1976) paper of his that evidently was fairly influential back in the day, “The Social Function of the Intellect.”  He basically asks why are we so smart?  I guess we could be a lot dumber and still thrive and degrade Gaia with our machinations. Humphrey concludes that our intellect serves to maintain society and he provides a wide-ranging discussion to support this idea, believing that the ability to think socially gave our ancestors a keen advantage.

He opens with an anecdote about Henry Ford, who had his minions search junk yards to see what parts failed on the model Ts.  They reported that every part seem to fail except one, which never failed, and Ford then directed that that part be manufactured at a lower quality, thereby saving money and increasing sales of new cars.  Sounds American, doesn’t it?  This anecdote, though, illustrates a key assumption (and bias) about our evolutionary thinking, i.e., the competitive advantage our intellect yields is a commercial one of beating out others.  Like many others Humphrey sees this as the primary advantage of our intellect:  “an animal’s intellectual ‘adversaries’ are members of his own breeding community. If intellectual prowess is correlated with social success, and if social success means high biological fitness, then any heritable trait which increases the ability of an individual to outwit his fellows will soon spread through the gene pool.”  (Just to be clear here at the outset I think any trait which increases the ability of an individual to mobilize and work with our fellows will spread more deeply through the gene pool albeit still with severe constraints).

Later on in the paper Humphrey posits a cooperative impulse, one that constrains our primarily selfish bias:  “the selfishness of social animals is typically tempered by what, for want of a better term, I would call sympathy. By sympathy I mean a tendency on the part of one social partner to identify himself with the other and so to make the other’s goals to some extent his own. The role of sympathy in the biology of social relationships has yet to be thought through in detail, but it is probable that sympathy and the ‘morality’ which stems from it (Waddington, 1960) is a biologically adaptive feature of the social behaviour of both men and other animals – and consequently a major constraint on ‘social thinking’ wherever it is applied.”  My quibble here is that ‘sympathy’, or better, to use my term, empathy, is not just a constraint on social thinking—it is what makes social thinking possible. Remember here the biology of attachment, of parenting, of mirroring, of the myriad ways empathic communication supports relationships, including sexual reproduction.  Also, consider here the empirically developed hypotheses of Michael Tomasello (see posts 7/31/18, 4/30/18 & 12/12/17) that humans are distinguished from other animals by our cooperative nature, e.g., our ability to relate empathically contributes mightily, is even a primary influence, to our cognitive abilities and our social mores, and these would seem to be the intellectual bases of society.

Humphrey gives another interesting anecdote, this one about his early career as a research psychologist.  He studied a monkey whose visual cortex had been ablated to see how much visual function, e.g., 3D spatial vision, could be recovered.  While the monkey recovered some visual abilities, she did not recover 3D spatial vision even after 3 years.  After 5 years she was retired and granted more access to the outdoors. Within 3 weeks she recovered in full her 3D spatial abilities.  Her ‘recovery’ had been constrained by her previously “stultifying” environment. Humphrey looked at the monkeys in other research projects and saw that they were housed in groups which made a much richer, and critically so, environment.

Clearly we are interrelated with the environment, and for us and many other species that includes our conspecifics.  For humans our conspecific relationships become cultural.  Yes, we progress culturally through a ‘competition’ of ideas, but one criterion for winning the competition is the degree to which an idea engenders cooperative success.   Remember Eastern and Western cultures differ considerably in how they implement this criterion (for related posts see 7/20/18 & 2/3/15).  And this may or may not be contributing to our genetic success, because such features take a long time to play out.  Cultural success can take place on the near, short or long term. For example, our president has inflated his success over the short term but over the long term this is being deflated. Are his fiduciary and competitive genes winning an even longer term competition here?  I doubt it but that is oh so complicated a question and I must now travel on.


The genetic advantage of singing is most powerful: And we’ll all go together To pluck wild mountain thyme All around the blooming heather Will ye go, Lassie go?


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