Posted by: Dirk | July 25, 2013

Survival of the least skilled?

Recently I have been thinking whether intelligence is aimed at finding the truth or aimed at survival. I came to the conclusion that the latter was right, but that we can use reason to build a society where the two coincide. Institutions matter. Now I came across a case which quite drastically shows that intelligence can have deadly consequences. The British Medical Journal in 1976 reports the following odd case:

Charles Darwin would doubtless have been upset had he known of the Coco de Mono tree of Venezuela. It apparently bears pods of such complexity that only the most dexterous of monkeys can open them and obtain the tasty almond-like nut. Once the nuts have been eaten the monkey’s hair drops out and he soon expires – thus ensuring the survival of the least fit members of each generation.

While this sounds like a funny story let me point out one important thing. The definition of “fit” is absolutely crucial here. I don’t agree with the author that monkeys that can open nuts, eat them and drop dead are in any way “fit” (I am not the first to point that out, I have discovered). Would you think that a human being that can open cans of toxic waste, take a bath and then expire are somehow superior? Or would an animal that has additional features be superior to its co-animals?

Work on primates seem to confirm the idea that intelligence matters in a social context for endogenous monkey, a group to which we human beings seem to belong as well. Nicholas Humphrey in a 1976 article called “The social function of intellect” concludes (p. 316):

I argue that the higher intellectual faculties of primates have evolved as an adaptation to the complexities of social living. For better or worse, styles of thinking which are primarily suited to social problem-solving colour the behaviour of man and other primates even towards the inanimate world.

This result seems to be compatible with research that shows relatively rich people do not care so much about social problems as relatively poor people (see below). Again, the lesson is to create institutions that bring out the best behavior of human beings. And for those that say that this suppresses freedom: we already have lots of institutions that influence us. Think of school, families and so on. These are not natural, so we might as well think about how to improve those institutions. The result could be a survival of the most social.


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