We all know the short term adaptive benefits of intelligence. Language, a cornerstone of human intelligence, is a magnificent symbolic tool that has freed us from the object – we can see into yesterday and tomorrow. We can plan and do. It has enabled us to parse ideas and to transmit them one to another. Civilization is carried in no small part on the collective accumulation of ideas propagated via sharing through the generations, but language, like water, can also drown us. We can become detached from the objects that originally gave rise to language and craft a whole new world. A world that feeds us a vision that we can be deluded to think is real, and not merely riding on the thermals of abstraction. We can get so lost in our own little words, so enamored with the map, that we forget the journey to which it refers…
The use of tools and fire are certainly adaptive advantages over creatures with less developed mental capacities. The question being explored here is whether or not this increased adaptation capacity brought on through social frameworks and increased mental capacity is a potentially short term gain at a long term expense from a species wide perspective. Is there a direct causal correlation between an increased ability to negotiate with the environment and the overall survivability of a species? The answer may be no.
While increasing adaptive capacity through intelligence increases the survival of the individual and the species as a whole to a point, these benefits may come at a severe cost over long periods. In fact, it may have a deadly counter effect on broader timescales. Since we are the first species on the planet (that we know of) to have realized the capacity for such broad based manipulation of our environment we are undoubtedly in uncharted territory. A word of caution to our species may be in order, not that we are in the habit of heeding sound advice as a species, unless perhaps it is on the back of agonizingly painful reinforcement.
There are many precedents for biological adaptations that come with a down side. The gene that provides some defense against malaria as a recessive trait causes Sickle Cell Anemia and lowers overall life expectancy when it is a dominant trait. Being able to derive all nutritional needs form a narrow set of food sources is an advantage if there is a narrow range of options, but can also make the species vulnerable if that food source suddenly becomes scarce. The list goes on…
Intelligence may have down sides along these lines. Elephants will damage the local landscape by felling trees in times of famine, or when a tasty treat is in order. What we call “intelligence” is the driver of this behavior. While it is true that the capacity for intelligence coupled with knowledge greatly increases a creature’s ability to manipulate the environment to its immediate benefit, it is also true that the application of intelligence can be a survival deficit from a species wide perspective.
As humans we have strip mined the oceans, polluted waters, and belched massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere in the name of short term goals. These acts have provided many things in the way of creature comforts, longer lifespan and so on, but it is arguably at the expense of our species as a whole. If we destroy the foundation on which our nutritional dependencies exist, we have in effect “killed the golden goose” that feeds us. In other words; if our intelligence does not transcend the inevitable myopia that is present as it develops in our species it could be a species killer.
Perhaps nature has selected the human race for extinction and intelligence is the ironic method by which this fate is being executed. Perhaps this is just the tumultuous time of painful discovery experienced by every adolescent world and we are merely going to learn some hard lessons about reality before we put our grown up pants on. The jury is obviously still out on this because we are still here (for now), but our demise may already have been triggered by the momentum of things we have already done. Just because we have not received the credit card bill in the mail yet does not mean we haven’t already overspent our limit. The only chance we may have since our effective reach is global is to think globally: in a hurry. – and this is but a chance, it may be too late. Again, these uncharted waters can be treacherous and deadly.