A few days ago the journalist Stephen B. Gray emailed me with the following query:
I see from your web site that we have many viewpoints in common, and I have
enjoyed reading it. Maybe you can give me some help with the following
puzzle.Christians sometimes use as an argument for God that advanced human
intelligence, the kind that lets us develop abstract mathematics and physics
(not to mention late Beethoven quartets, Mahler symphonies, Shakespeare plays,
etc.) would not develop on its own. One doesn’t need abstract thinking to make
better spearpoints. I assume a highly capable brain consumes even more energy
than a lesser one, so it would be evolved against unless it offered some
survival value over the long run. The question of course is why it did
I am writing an article refuting many Christian claims but as yet I
don’t have an answer about development of high intelligence. Is there anything
you can say or point me to?
Good question. I hope my answer was equally good:
It is certainly a puzzle, to which I am by no means sure I have the answer. There is a technical answer, which I suggest below, but I have also suggested a non-technical argument I have made elsewhere, which your audience might find more accessible. It’s at the bottom of this email, and basically says, even if intelligence and the universe as a whole were created, it doesn’t tell us anything about whether religion is true. Nothing whatsoever.
The traditional evolutionary answer to this conundrum is that there is still a massive pressure to improve our intelligence, but it does not come from competing with other organisms. Rather, it comes from other people. Social competition drives the reproductive advantage of higher intelligence, even though it is the classic ‘expensive tissue’.
The only problems with this problem are that a) there is little evidence of such competition, and b) the development of intelligence does not arise from evolutionary causes. Other than that, everything’s hunky-dory!
a) There is little evidence of such competition
There is an eminent cognitive anthropologist name Christopher Hallpike (one of whose books I happen to have published) who argues that the effective distance between societies, the existence of effective social controls o competition (especially for mates) and the general lack of selective pressures between groups means that evolution doesn’t affect cognitive capacity very much. I am inclined to agreed with him. However, even if he’s wrong, there always…
b) The development of intelligence does not arise from evolutionary causes
I have written a very long (but still unpublished) paper on this, but the gist of of it is that evolution created the potential for intelligence, but that potential is only realised in the course of individual development. So no amount of evolutionary pressure will explain why we have developed higher and higher levels of intelligence, any more than it could explain why one stone rolls down a hill faster than another.
There real answer lies elsewhere. In essence, you can only explain why we reach such a high level of intelligence by looking at the conditions in which intelligence develops in the individual. These conditions are partly biological but mainly social. Again put very briefly (the details are set out at enormous and very trying length in my History of Human Reason), as social system become more complex, so the forms of activity in which one must engage to live in that society become more and more complex. Thus life in a hunter-gatherer society is of quite limited complexity, while industrial capitalism forces us to live through elaborate systems of roles, money, commodities, employment, law, bureaucracy … As a result, the mere conduct of social life in a complex social system causes one to live a more demanding life, which generates both the experience and the demand to develop to higher and higher cognitive levels. And that, I believe, is the real reason why human beings have such advanced intelligences.
All this assumes that intelligence has the capacity to develop that far, even though, in many conditions, it simply doesn’t. That’s a bit of a puzzle too. How come all that potential was there all the time? But again the answer lies in the fact that evolution throws up only a potential for intelligence. In the case of most adaptations, you tend to be limited to incremental improvements. But in the case of intelligence, you get this sudden transition to intelligence in all its glory. The reason this is possible is that intelligence is a quite different kind of structure from other aspects of life in general, and as such has a vast potential to fulfil that has nothing to do with the usual limits of biological change. After all, if the whole development of intelligence takes place within the individual, then the whole potential must be present in each individual. So unlike the potential of living organisms, most of which is only realised as evolution replaces one species with another, the whole potential of intelligence as such can arise in anyone, given the right conditions. Spooky stuff.
But this is also the inconvenient part of the answer from the standard scientific point of view, because the standard scientific point of view does not generally allow for the possibility that intelligence has superseded biology as fully as biology supersedes chemistry. Nature does not make leaps, goes the conventional wisdom. To which I can only reply, does that mean that life is only chemistry, only more so? Still, it’s a bit of an embarrassment. It’s only merits are that ) it does not support religion either, b) it’s entirely scientific, and c) it’s true.
So you may find it convenient not to raise this issue until directly pressed for an answer!
But if you are looking for comment on religions using arguments from human intelligence, I think you’ll find this blog entry of mine (see below for all my blogs) more helpful. Basically, every single step in the theological argument is a non sequitur.