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If Only We Were Smarter!
Phil Torres   Mar 20, 2010   Ethical Technology  

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.


I wonder is the pathetic brevity of our individual existence responsible for the reason why increasing capacity for intelligence doesn’t necessarily follow with wisdom? The wise die the inexperienced take over.

I would say that there was greater danger of thermo-nuclear warfare and world destruction during the early sixties to seventies. If you really feel that our apparent evolutionary intelligence is our doom, then there really isn’t any point in progressing further is there? What is the point of human evolution, what is the aim for the progression of humanity?

I don’t believe that intelligence is the threat, however as the masses become more educated they will naturally expect more, and demand more from society, and people need jobs and work to do - period. Therefore it is societies and economies which need to evolve to encompass this equality of lifestyle and education and the global sharing of knowledge. Either that or the masses and world population will need to be subdued and repressed and held back from any cultural evolution.

Economics is the pernicious agent at work steadily depleting world resources. And capitalism and consumerism is at the heart of this erosion. Maybe we do all need to take a step back, control energy consumption and usage at a personal level and realise there is more to life than working all day long for the profit and goals of the few, and then pursuing techno-entertainment and escapism in our leisure. We are all guilty of this selfishness, and I certainly cannot function without my regular online fix.

We may be increasing our intelligence to some degree yet what are we actually learning?
Louis has a good point : perhaps we should be pursuing the goal of greater wisdom?

Wiki Quote : ” Iodine deficiency is one of the leading cause of preventable mental retardation, producing typical reductions in IQ of 10 to 15 IQ points. It has been speculated that deficiency of iodine and other micronutrients may be a possible factor in observed differences in IQ between ethnic groups: see race and intelligence for a further discussion of this controversial issue.”

The Lancet noted, “According to WHO, in 2007, nearly 2 billion individuals had insufficient iodine intake, a third being of school age. ... Thus iodine deficiency, as the single greatest preventable cause of mental retardation, is an important public-health problem.”


Re-phrased - “What is the point of “our goals and ideals for” human evolution, what is the aim for the progression of humanity?

You are correct regarding evolution in nature and human evolution and lack of intrinsic point concerning destinies therein, and I have re-phrased my sentence better to reflect my meaning. However, notice your points could be misconstrued by many devout theists as an argument against both techno-progressiveness and transhumanism, and any pursuit of genetic manipulation for humanity?

You don’t have to be a believer in supernatural destiny or even a theist to have goals and ideals for humanity do you? Although I am a believer in spiritual and ethical evolution, as most folks can derive from my comments. You can still be an atheist, an existentialist and materialist and even a cynic, or merely a political animal and yet still value the progression of humanity over its destruction, or lack of evolution and growth in wisdom and intelligence? And is not the goal for us to rise above natural selection and nature’s indifference for our evolution?

Why should there be no “aim for the progression of humanity”? I understand your points exactly, yet even you must believe that intelligence is not the real enemy, and even if it were dangerous to pursue greater intelligence this would not really stop us would it? And why should it? It is our human nature that has to be tamed, not our intelligence?

I respect the resilience of cockroaches, yet they do not have the intelligence or aspirations that we humans do, as sturdy as they are, they will most likely out-live us all. For the sake of those bacteria we have a responsibility to ensure we evolve and look after ourselves don’t we?

Good points all around.  In the US, I think it would be a good idea to perpetuate the concept that “intelligence” is a good trait and that belief in “free-enterprise” does not mean simply being completely selfish.  A start might be to encourage individuals to think beyond their own life spans.

The cycle for this time in human existance is coming to an end. Our destiny has nothing to do with the technoworld or world economies. Mankind has sowed the seeds of destruction of which there is no return. The economies of the world will soon implode under their own debt, along with world conflicts for control over land and resources that really belong to all of humanity, not to each sovereign country, but to all of us.

This system or reality we are experiencing is nothing but a holographic play, acted out by some very evil people. The final act is upon us, but they will be surprised by the outcome, for it will be nothing short of a new reality, where this new timeline will not envolve wars, killing, famine, or bounderies seperating one people from another. We are all made of the same star matter, and are all interconnected to the universe. We will realize this soon. There is no other way!

It is the defective human DNA of greed and corruption that has brought us to this point, where the crossroad lies before us. There was nothing we could have done over the past 6,000 years to have avoided this outcome. It’s not that we need to get smarter, although eventually we will progress to using all of the human brain’s capacity for intelligience, but we will be able to use this technology in conjuction with the true intelligience of the human consciousness, and the pure vibrational energy of the human heart. The inner prison walls are about to dissolve, and the true reality will be revealed to us.

We have come to a point in our society that the present system is antiquated and does not efficiently interact with the way humans live now, or the way we will live in the future. Our cities are old and very innefficient. New smaller communities will come forth that will be much more intune with the way humans will live. We will have free energy systems, and we will share the resources of this planet. There will be no monetary or political system to shackle us down. Usary will be in the past. It will be the arts, music, and the sciences that we will focus on, not materialism, or the ideologies of a very corrupt system.

It is time for the intelligience of the human heart, and the energy we will inherit soon, and then becoming one with this planet and the rest of the universe, then we will we truly realize our human destiny. We will carry on, and take the technoworld with us, but we will use it differently than we use it now.

So it’s not about getting smarter, its about simplifying the way you live and look at this world. Its time to treat this planet as we should have when eons ago it sprouted life here and brought about a sustainable place for us to survive. It is nothing short of a miracle that we have such a beautiful blue planet that has all the right ingredients to support life, and has the resources to provide us with the neccesities we need to survive. It doesn’t happen that often in this chaotic place we call the cosmos. We need to cherish what we have, and prepare for the next transformation of our spirit or souls.

The universe works in cycles, and we are coming to the end of this cycle. Our Earth , our solar system, are traveling thru this galaxy, and the cycle we are approaching will change everything. If you don’t understand this or believe it will be so, that is fine. For your time to awaken will come later, there will be another go around till you awaken to the future that lies ahead. We will be waiting for you, and you will not be dissappointed!

Its time to take a step back, take a quantum breath, empty all the clutter, and just listen to your heart. Time will slow down, and you will be ready to experience a new way of existing.

Actually I have to disagree.

The problem is not intelligence, but arrogance, ego-centrism and its parent of generic and basic egotism. Intelligence tends to breed intellectual arrogance, but is actually definable by conscious control and subjugation of this definitive limitation of potential. Arrogance is an inherent Achilles heel towards intelligence.

Egotism leads us to the conclusion that WE are representative of the ultimate possible development, concerning intelligence, that has ever graced humanity. Arrogantly, we ignore any evidence to the contrary, feats which we can but stare at in confounded wonder at how such ‘primitives’ could accomplish which we can BARELY duplicate our own selves, DESPITE our current level of technology. Discs of radioactive green anomalous glass buried beneath Indian jungles, other artifacts which we could only duplicate with very modern technologies.

I could continue indefinitely.

I’m more inclined to agree with Mike, there is no “point” and the only purpose you could argue is for the continuation of the human species. Therefore the problem would be obstacles to that continuation. But couldn’t our intelligence still be subject to natural selection? Couldn’t our alliances or identities whether religious or political, artistic or technical all factor in the to natural selection in ways we are completely incapable of understanding?

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