Perhaps the most remarkable feature of human infants is not their intelligence, but their almost total lack of it. For much longer than would seem advantageous to the survival of a mammal, humans are born helpless and unteachable. No amount of attention or allocation of resources could force a two year old to become self-sufficient. The human brain does not even reach full maturity until the age of twenty-five. Contrast this with the fawn, which can stand and walk mere minutes after its birth, or the snake, which is abandoned as an egg and never knows its parent at all.
In a seeming contradiction, the human mind is endowed with an incredible amount of processing power but less initial programming than perhaps any other animal in nature. While that initial programming is no doubt important, what is remarkable is that the most intelligent species on Earth has less not more initial programming than any of the species of lesser intelligence.
This leads me to the subject of human “intelligence” and its parameters. The more the subject is examine, the more intelligence seems to be nowhere near as robust a phenomenon as boasted. Attempts to match “human-level intellect” often seem to assume this level of intelligence is much greater than has historically been the case. In fact, human “intelligence” as it currently exists seems to have been stumbled into almost by accident.
Consider how easily “intelligence” can be broken. By all accounts, so-called “Feral Children” (those children who do not have human-to-human contact until after the age of seven, but are otherwise not physically impaired) never quite manage to develop “human-level intelligence” but rather stay at the level of very smart apes for the remainder of their lives. How much of what we call “intelligence” can truly be inborn if merely not talking to someone can utterly destroy the spark?
When you consider the approximate age of the modern biological variant of homo sapien is something like 200,000 years old, but that it was 90,000 years ago that the Creative Explosion began, this begins to create serious doubts about the limits of our biological hardware. Looking at that another way, it took approximately 110,000 years after the modern brain (2,200 generations), before the modern brain began to do any of the activities we most often associate with the modern brain. It was 30,000 years ago that humans began to farm (or 60,000 years after creativity began for those keeping score) and 5,000 years since we began to build cities (85,000 years after creativity), and not quite 300 years since we began the scientific adventure. At no point during this time did humans experience any kind of massive biological change that would explain the acceleration of progress.
For all of this period, the same type of creature, with the same type of mind, was pursuing all these endeavors. Why then did it take so much time to go from hunter-gatherer to town-builder? And why such a short period of time to go from book-printer to rocket-rider?
The only answer I can arrive at is that the inborn quality of “human intelligence” is incredibly small, limited, and highly exaggerated. As a percentage of the population, almost no humans significantly add to the body of human knowledge, fewer still create new bodies of knowledge, and most that do stumble across them accidentally while executing routines accidentally stumbled upon by another human being.
What seems to have been behind our success is a number of “software updates” encoded as ideas that we passed down to one another through the generations. “Discovery” itself had to be discovered before we could purposefully discover. “Invention” had to be invented before we could purposefully invent. The concept of “Free Will” had to be concepted before disobedience became something more than fuzzy logic or willful mistakes.
What then has been behind our success?
The answer seems invariably to be human “extelligence.” “Extelligence” is the cultural capital that is available to us in the form of external media. And if we attempt to diagram this, we can easily see that the connections between the nodes of humanity, far outnumber the nodes themselves. Now carry these connections into the past, and the connections are more numerous than the present nodes could ever hope to become. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but that giant is made of a thousand ordinary people standing on one another’s shoulders.
The fire of consciousness does not come solely from an individual, though an individual may house a great fire, but from the accumulation of many sparks. If every human being is a spark, we create fire by rapidly passing our sparks back and forth and preserving the sparks of those who came before. Consider this: every word you have ever written is the captured spirit of a creative genius. We capture our insights in language and pass it down to one another, and it is this process that has been almost solely responsible for human progress. We prime our children with ideas that seem obvious to us, but forget that in our long history the discovery of these ideas was anything but easy.
Given the current population of Earth compared to the population of England in the mid 1600’s, you would assume we would be drowning in Isaac Newtons. By my calculations, if Newton did what he did alone, then there should presently be 37,210 individuals actively overturning physics. Yet it took until the early 1900’s before Albert Einstein again turned Physics on its head. This again seems to indicate that what we do is not happening solely in an individual but in a great recursive web, from which intelligence is extracted. The web is complicit in discovery with the individual. What if instead of being a singular genius, Isaac Newton was actually the node in a web that was able to codify the shape of the web and propagate this information to the other nodes?
Oh certainly, if Newton had not been born we should have serious doubts that the scientific revolution would have been successful, or at least as successful. The individual cannot be erased, anymore than the web could sustain itself on connections alone. That also doesn’t mean that Newton did not benefit from the “extelligence” of his society or that if he had been born in another time that he would have had the same success. Between the lone individual and the mob, there is a team and something like that is what must happen for new connections to be added to the web. Even if those in our team are hundreds of years dead, we can revive their connections through their written words.
To return to the original point, why is the human mind so malleable? It is beyond the scope of this text to answer, but it could well be that we have adapted to ingest the current “extelligence” of the tribe rather than to follow a fixed inherited pattern that may fail as conditions change. Human “intelligence” therefore may have been selected to be relatively small, only sufficient to take in and manipulate inherited ideas and in rare circumstances create a new one, while human “extelligence” became vast through language and incremented as it accumulated the “intelligence” of every person who had ever lived prior. In other words, the human mind evolved to receive “extelligence” and manipulate it, not to itself be “intelligent” more than was necessary to make meaningful use of inherited “extelligence.”
Consider what is easier: to make a child mimic something done by an adult or an inanimate object, to mirror behaviors in other words, or to ask them to do something entirely new without any inspiration? In fact, the human brain contains numerous “mirror neurons” which fire both while observing and enacting the observed behavior. The brain is primed from childhood to imitate the outside world, not act out inborn behaviors.
Perhaps human beings became more because we started out with fewer inborn assumptions. We allowed the universe to build itself in our minds, bit by bit, rather than taking up space with a bunch of fixed action patterns. We are perhaps not even truly ourselves or “human” and alive until we acquire language. We are an inherited and experienced web, that etches itself slowly onto our brain, rather than an inborn spark. In some sense, this seems to be substantiated in the medical record, as a child in the very early stages of language development might even have an entire hemisphere of the brain cut out without any serious repercussions. The neural tissue mattered almost not at all, only the web that would be written upon it. I am beginning to wonder how much of what we consider to be “human-level intellect” is merely absorbing the “extelligence” of humanity and letting the universe slowly write its shape on the human mind through the senses and selection.