Loose Change

‘Intelligence’ and our Future

Posted in Musings by Neeraj on 07/23/2010

I was standing at the window listening to the rain as it fell on the tarp of the garage below. The trees swayed gently in the slight breeze and the sweet smell of newly-moistened soil wafted up through the damp air. It was hard not to think of how beautiful the Earth was.

That reminded me — I was watching an old Russian science-fiction movie called Solaris last night and I remembered a scene in the movie where the scientists, aboard a research station on a distant planet, hang strips of paper on the air-conditioning vents because the rustling of the paper reminded them of leaves rustling in the wind back on Earth. It’s funny how much we don’t appreciate the things that we take so much for granted. Looking at all the bits and pieces of plastic and rubbish strewn about below the window where I stood, only served to reinforce the thought. We are a remarkably gifted and, at the same time, a surprisingly obtuse species.

Perhaps it has to do with the way our brains have evolved. We can think intuitively only on a local or a small scale, and even then we are mostly apathetic about things that don’t directly concern us or our immediate circle of loved ones. For instance, how many of us can conceive of a light year in the same way as we can think of a yard? How many of us can think of a million years the same way as of a lifetime? How many of us can think about the environment in the same way as we think of our home? It seems that our brains are just not built to function on grandiose scales. This makes sense because all through evolution, we have been struggling with problems that are limited in scope: how to jump to the next branch, where to find the best prey, when to plant the crops, how to fight the neighboring tribe, how to woo the girl next door — all local problems that we have solved with great aplomb. The only problem is that the problems that we now face — war, pollution, disease etc — are ones that cannot be solved (or even understood) at local scales. It’s as if mankind’s growth has been very unidimensional, very unbalanced. We have learned enough to make changes at a planetary scale but we have not learned what those changes imply. It’s as if we’ve learned how to shoot a gun but we don’t know what putting a bullet in someone will do. How do we make the transition from a parochial to a global outlook? Do we even have the time to make it?

Judging from the past, I think that given sufficient time, humanity can make this transition. One good reason is that intelligence is bootstrapping by nature. For instance, why are we the only intelligent (in the everyday sense of the word) species in the world? So many animals and insects have lifetimes that are a fraction of ours. One human generation could see thousand upon thousands of insect generations. They’ve had so many more chances to make that quantum  leap to sentience. Why didn’t they? The simple answer is that they didn’t need to. Given an environment, evolution only strives for reproductive success. It does not measure ‘progress’ or ‘advancement’ in human terms. But if humans were not gifted with a special environment withheld from other organisms, why were we the only species to make the jump? The answer lies in what intelligence enables us to do. It allows us to change our environment, in turn presenting us with new problems to solve: a powerful incentive for further cerebral development. So, intelligence begets intelligence.

This is the path that we have followed, and we are now standing at a critical crossroads in our evolutionary journey. The problems that we now face may be a blessing in disguise — our chance to progress to the next level of consciousness, to a more sublime level of intelligence, a deeper understanding of our place. The commensurate trade-off could be that we may not have as much time to crack this particular nut as we had to tackle problems in the past. Will we make the right choices? Only time will tell…

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