Conscious Thoughts 23

“Only stupid people are breeding.”

I hear this from time to time or some variation. I think it warrants some deeper examination.

If only stupid people were breeding or stupidity yielded some advantage in the game of procreation, doesn’t that mean that stupidity, in whatever sense the speaker means, is another word for evolutionary fitness? There are two possibilities. Either stupidity is an advantage of some sort, or the people we are judging to be stupid only appear to be so.
So, what makes us think they are stupid?

Nature is a strange paradigm. “Fact is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes, there is more to things like stupidity than meets the eye.

If we think about intelligence the way we think about strength, stamina, lung capacity, or other bio-mechanically limited capacities, it might start to make sense why some kinds of organisms and some kinds of individuals are “dumb”. Intelligence has a cost, just as keen eyesight, strong bones, a robust immune system, etc. all have a cost, biologically.

Firstly, just the brute capacity to hold information must be acquired. That must be mated to an information gathering apparatus. Those must be able to interface with some method of organizing information. There must be a system to protect it all from outside interference.

A mouth only needs to bite. A claw only needs to grasp. Even something like an eye is conceptually a simple mechanism. Electromagnetic radiation (light) is absorbed by a cell in your retina, which changes the cell’s state, charges it, essentially. The charge is dispersed through a neural connection to a part of your brain, through a wire, basically. The process is really just a domino effect, but the dominoes stand themselves back up after.

Remembering what you saw and accurately expecting when you’ll see it again is a more intelligent process. Interfacing that information with knowledge of an appropriate response is even more intelligent. Predicting when that expectation or that response are no longer accurate or useful is still more intelligent, as is formulating a new expectation or new response to stimuli. A machine that can do these is unfathomably expensive. Consider that the Earth is apparently 4.5 billion years old (give or take). Consider how many organisms lived and died just to get us to here. Nature is not done paying the price, either. And it may all be wiped out (by an asteroid, for example). It may all be for naught. (“It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value.”) In that light, being dumber might start to sound like the smarter strategy.

“Stupid is as stupid does.”

Someone may be the dumbest person in the world, but that doesn’t at all prevent them from doing brilliant things. Construction workers don’t need to understand how a sky scraper is intended to function in order to put one together. A lab technician needn’t grasp a complex scientific theory in order to conduct the steps in an experiment. A soldier doesn’t have to understand the overall strategy of winning a war. Educating a construction worker, a lab technician, a soldier as to the greater purpose and meaning of their action might even be a wasteful act. Stupider operators might perform better without all that extra, tactically useless information to worry about. Ultimately, it is intelligent action that yields better outcomes, not intelligence. One does not have to know why an action is smart, only how to do the action, and when and where to do it.

We might look at “dumbness” as nature’s skepticism towards the strategy of intelligence. Rather than expend the tremendous amount of resources needed to get smart, some evolutionary strategies take a wait-and-see approach. Some organisms invest in enough intelligence to copy intelligent behavior, but not necessarily enough to formulate original intelligent behavior. Other organisms forgo intelligence. Grass, bacteria, fungi don’t seem to be intelligent at all. Their design is intelligent, but an individual of their kind doesn’t exhibit the capacity to select its behavior. They respond to environmental stimuli, i.e. the environment decides for them. A seed does not “decide” to germinate.

If we look around at all the dumb organisms that are incredibly successful, it honestly starts to feel like a stupid idea to walk around with a fragile, expensive brain in our skull. The trees, the mushrooms in the grass, the e. coli in my gut don’t have to worry about all this.

What’s so smart about being intelligent?


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