May 02, 2007

Their own hostile forces

A recent debate set me briefly blog-surfing like I haven't done in a while, and some of what I ran across reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago. I won't say why, I'll just offer it (modified slightly) for your consumption or otherwise.

In two parts, and this is the first.


"It is good to appear clement, trustworthy, humane, religious and honest, and also to be so," wrote the 15th Century Italian Niccolo Machiavelli, "but always with the mind so disposed that, when the occasion arises not to be so, you can become the opposite."

Machiavelli's point: getting ahead in life is a matter of intrigue and deception. Survival means no less than outwitting the other guy. It's nice to be nice, but it's better to be bad. Think about that while I seem to digress.

In the early '70s, a British psychologist called Nicholas Humphrey went to Africa to observe gorillas. (Aside: There's a job I want). He already knew, from laboratory experiments, that gorillas are acutely intelligent. But what made them so? He expected to find answers in the conditions, the environment, where they lived: the Virunga mountains in northern Rwanda.

It was something of a shock to Humphrey, then, to find that these gorillas lived an apparently easy life. Besides man, they have no natural predators. Eating is a matter of stretching an arm out for a bunch of leaves. There faced few challenges as they went about their lives. So if, as scientists believed, intelligence evolves as a function of environmental conditions and pressures, how could such an unpressured animal be so obviously smart?

Humphrey later addressed this paradox in a groundbreaking essay, The Social Function of Intellect. Society, he suggested, is the driving force behind intelligence, and in two different ways.

First, the societies that animals live in offer a steady stream of lessons for their young to learn from, learning that is essential to survival. We are not born, for example, knowing how to peel a banana. Neither are the monkeys who do it. They, and we, learn from watching older, more experienced members of our society -- like our parents -- peel bananas.

Second, and this is where Machiavelli comes in, society also promotes competition between its members, and competition drives intelligence. While they can behave cooperatively at times, ultimately the interest of each member of a society lies in her own survival. This means everyone has to compete from day one: whether for a share of mom's milk or a place in an engineering college or a chance to mate. While the challenges of his surroundings make demands on his growing intelligence, his real intellectual enemies, if you like, are the other members of his group. By being so, they push the development of his intelligence.

Look at it this way: sure, you need a certain amount of intelligence to grab the right kind of leaves, or to kill a more stupid animal for food. But it's something else altogether to outwit another intelligent member of your society -- someone who is trying to outwit you at the same time.

Humphrey's was a whole new way to look at the origins of intelligence. Some scientists called it "Machiavellian intelligence", a recognition that being clever has its, let's say, political advantages. Want to get ahead in life? What, or how much you know is less important than keeping your knowledge from your competition.

Richard Alexander, a scientist at the University of Michigan, applied Humphrey's ideas to the ascent of man. We are the one species on earth, he observed, that lives just about everywhere on the planet: desert, forests, penthouses, tundra, slums. We have learned to eliminate any threat to our survival from the environment. We deal with predators simply: fight back hard. So well have we fought back, in fact, that we now have to scramble to preserve some of those very predators from going extinct. For a long time now, forces of natural selection that act on other animals -- climate, predators, drought and so on -- have had no effect on the evolution of man. Thus they cannot be said to have contributed much to man's great intelligence.

Then what made us intelligent? "The only plausible [explanation]", wrote Alexander, "is to assume that humans uniquely became their own principal hostile forces of nature."

We ourselves became our own competition, the force that drove our evolution and intelligence. In that sense, you might say we invented ourselves.

[Continued here]


Anonymous said...

A little too early to quote this don't you think, since natural selection demonstrates itself over large time periods -
"For a long time now, forces of natural selection that act on other animals -- climate, predators, drought and so on -- have had no effect on the evolution of man. Thus they cannot be said to have contributed much to man's great intelligence."

Otherwise a very fresh perspective. Thanks.

- Z

rossoneri said...

never thought of Machiavelli this way! a refreshingly new view of man too..

km said...


So this never-ending desire to "improve" ourselves really is just a primal instinct.

Think I am going to defy this instinct and watch some TV :D

Rahul said...

I agree with anonymous (Z), it's a bit early to assess how evolution works in humans, and evolutionary biology isn't that simple anyway.

My quite unsubstantiated guess is that human intelligence wasn't a gradual evolution from ape intelligence -- it was a sudden event (a mutation or gene duplication or something that suddenly conferred a much more powerful brain), and that new genotype then got rapidly fixated in the population. It probably first occurred in some hairy proto-human with opposable toes. The other phenotypic changes then occurred because this new intelligence rendered them advantageous (walking upright is useful if you can intelligently use your forelimbs, losing all that body hair is useful if you know how to wear animal skins in the winter, and so on...)

Subsequent small improvements in intelligence may have occurred too, due to evolutionary pressures; but such gradual changes wouldn't explain the gap between gorillas/chimps and us.

But I'll wait for part 2.

Anand said...

A nice post, Dilip. Thanks to your post, I just read 'The Social Function of Intellect'. Made a very interesting read.

dhrugeese said...

Hey.. great post.
There's an interesting perspective that I heard recently: that neo-Darwinism (not necessarily Darwin himself!), (natural selection, survival of the fittest, portrayal of the natural world as perpetual conflict, randomness, etc) went very closely with the capitalist expansion in America, and therefore there was a push from the mainstream scientific establishment in favour of Darwin as opposed to the Lamarck perspective of evolution (peace, creativity, co-operation, purposiveness, and the like).

If any of you have the time, please do check out this ebook:

Another great book which gives some brilliant arguments for this perspective and restore this balance is called "The Way", by ecologist Edward Goldsmith.