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#13: If Only We Were Smarter!
Phil Torres   Dec 19, 2010   Ethical Technology  

While we tend to believe that more smarts would help us solve the formidable mass of problems we have created, the empirical data seems to disagree with us.

According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2010? This month we’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 31 articles published this year on our blog (out of more than 600 in all), based on how many total hits each one received.

The following piece was first published here on March 20, and is the #13 most viewed of the year.

The history of our belief in progress is a complicated one. This belief first arose during the eighteenth century Enlightenment and became a central feature of the Western worldview until circa the mid-twentieth century, when the first anthropogenic “existential risk” was introduced. Although progressionism suffered a serious blow with the inauguration of the Atomic Age, a renewed belief in the goodness and historical reality of techno-progress has reemerged within the transhumanist movement.

But most transhumanists (with a few notable exceptions) do not espouse a naive progressionism. While a kind of utopian millennialism, complete with its own “techno-rapture” (the Singularity), can be found in certain strains of transhumanist thought, transhumanists are also responsible for the important and growing literature on global catastrophic risks, the vast majority of which turn out to be, to some degree, “technogenic” in nature.

What I would like to question here is a common supposition that underlies many proposed solutions to our present and anticipated future plight, namely that if only we were smarter than we are now, then we would be able to better solve the profusion of problems confronting us. Bostrom and Sandberg, for example, write, in a paper on cognitive enhancement [PDF], that “society faces many pressing problems which would be more readily solved if its members were smarter, wiser, or more creative.”

This is just one of numerous passages that could be quoted from the literature, although most emphasize only intelligence and instrumental reason (a problem-solving capacity) rather than wisdom.

Is More Intelligence the Answer?

But what reason do we have for thinking that more intelligence would help rather than hinder the situation? Simon Young, for example, equates greater intelligence with “higher levels of survivability.” Empirically speaking, however, this seems to be exactly opposite the facts.

Consider the following data points:

The first humans, Homo habilis (“the handy man”), had significantly larger cranial capacities than their hominid ancestors, the australopithecines. In fact, the appearance of Homo habilis on the evolutionary stage was historically coincident with the first stone tools, dubbed the Oldowan toolkit. Once made, these tools appear to have established a positive feedback loop resulting in directional selection for individuals with larger brains. Incidentally, this may have been the first instance of cognitive enhancement via technology.


As our ancestors’ brains grew over many generations, so too did their abilities to manufacture lithics. This yielded a second and slightly more sophisticated industry of stone tools, known as the Achuelean Industrial Complex. The tools composing this complex exhibited a more standard design than those of the Oldowan, which suggests a further expansion of cognitive/conceptual capacities.

Then, approximately 300,000 years ago, a new kind of artifact appeared: a composite rather than reductive type of tool. While reductive tools involve linear sequences of actions (flaking stones and whittling wood), composite tools involve the non-repetitive fitting of three or more parts together using fine motor skills.

This also appears to be coincident with the emergence of language, which exhibits the same sort of combinatorial properties as composite tools and contrasts with the repetitive sequences of primate vocalizations and tool reduction. Yet another milestone in the cognitive development of humans. [1]

What Hath Man Wraught

Now, all of these artifacts being manufactured allowed our ancestors to manipulate the environment, or “niche construct,” in increasingly powerful ways. In fact, I’ve heard anthropologists say that the only reason the hunter-gatherer way of life was sustainable is because after depleting all the resources of one locale, nomadic hunter-gatherer groups would migrate to a new region, thus allowing the previous locale to “heal” before another group moved in.

Indeed, as the Pleistocene came to an end just prior to the Neolithic revolution, it appears that mass extinctions followed our technology-equipped Homo ancestors everywhere they went. The well-known megafauna extinctions occurred around this time, very likely a consequence of natural climatic changes and, importantly, human overkill. This flurry of extinctions then bled into the Holocene extinction event, which dates back to the introduction of agriculture some 10,000 years ago and has continued unabated to the present. (In fact, it has gotten worse.) And, strikingly, this event is very much the result of human activities.

At present, because of human activities enabled by our increasingly sophisticated technological creations, the ongoing extinction rate is estimated to be roughly 100 times the “background” extinction rates over evolutionary time. One in three species are now at risk of extinction, half of the primate species around the world are endangered, and climatologists are warning of “‘irreversible’ climate shifts because worst-case scenarios warned of two years ago are being realized.” And, crucially, we have apparently never been smarter than we now are.

This is, in fact, confirmed by recent IQ data. Preliminarily, note that intelligence is a phenotypic feature of organisms that results, as all such features do, from an interaction between one’s genes and one’s environment. For example, despite two parents with high IQ’s, it is possible for a child to end up with a low IQ if he or she is, for example, exposed to a neurotoxin like lead. This is an instance of what Christopher Williams has called “environmentally-mediated intellectual decline,” or EMID. It is, in developing countries especially, a very serious and pervasive problem. [2]

In the industrialized West, though, scientists have observed a steady increase in average IQ, called the Flynn effect. This is probably not because of any positive change in our genes; our modern environment is not selecting those among us who are comparatively smarter. [3] Rather, the Flynn effect very likely results from nurture-related factors – aspects of our environment – that conduce to increased cognitive abilities. [4] Again, technology appears to be playing an important positive role in enhancing our cognition.

Finally, having commented now on our past and present impact on the environment as well as on the observed increase in average intelligence, what sort of future are urbane (rather than naive) transhumanists and other futurologists anticipating?

The End Time

It turns out that we have good reason to worry about a technology-precipitated eschaton, or “end-time,” being actualized in the near future. Experts today, in fact, estimate a probability of self-annihilation within the next century to be between 25% and 50%. (As Russell and Einstein noted over fifty years ago, it is the individuals who know most who are the most gloomy.)

The point of this article, then, is to gesture at an apparently strong correlation between our expanding intellectual capacities and our growing (self-)destructive capabilities. This correlation appears to hold (more-or-less) historically, contemporarily and into the prognosticated future.

Thus, while we tend to believe, intuitively, that more smarts (plus advanced technology) would help us solve the formidable mass of problems that we have created and/or exacerbated through our various technology-enabled activities, the empirical data appears to disagree with us.

The smarter we have become, it seems, the more profound, pervasive and pernicious our impact on spaceship earth and all its many marvels has been. Indeed, not only have we as a matter of fact seriously injured the biological world, but our potential to bring about a global catastrophe, through error or terror, is greater today than at any point in the past 3.5 billion years.

Maybe the best way to solve the formidable mass of problems confronting us and future generations would be to follow the sea squirt in “eating its own brain.” Maybe with enough intelligence we may come to see just how dangerous intelligence can be.


1. An excellent resource for information about early human technology is this paper [PDF].

2. See the abstract of this paper, for example.

3. In other words, those among us who are smarter are no more fit than anyone else. In fact, there appears to be a negative correlation between measured intelligence and fertility rate. See, for example, this paper.

4. See, for example, Andy Clark and David Chalmer’s famous paper on “extended cognition” here.


AI and SETI enthusiasts would do well to keep the above in mind…

It is a dubious proposition to equate brain size (or even brain to body size ratio) with intelligence level between species.  There might be a positive correlation between increasing brain size and tool use but that doesn’t mean the increasing brain size caused an increase in intelligence which caused an increase in tool use.  The bottle nose dolphin has a brain to body ratio that is fairly close to humans (about 70%).  Further just because a knew technique appears in a species technical know how (composite tools) doesn’t mean it was caused by a break through in cognitive development.  Some ants farm aphids which would seem to be a technology but the advent of this behavior isn’t known to correlate with a huge advance in ant cognition.

Second just because some smart people like Einstein, Rees, and Hawking are doubtful about our species survival doesn’t really indicate if we are in danger or not because they are not experts in human species survival, smart people may be gloomier in general than non smart people.

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