Does intelligence evolve?

Human beings and human intelligence are indisputably the products of evolution. But that does not mean that human intelligence will itself evolve further. In fact it won’t.

Well, if that doesn’t sound like special pleading, I don’t know what does. But then human intelligence is special. Or rather natural intelligence as a whole is special. Not magical or blessed or the product of a special creation, but rather so placed by evolution itself that it can undo the knots and straighten out the hidden connections that driven evolution itself, and so take charge of the process.

Yet if natural intelligence is special on every level, it is only in the same sense that organic structures and processes are ‘special’ from the point of view of physical of chemical systems. Just as life introduces a whole raft of new structures such as ecosystems, reproduction and natural selection, and yet is the product of prior physical, chemical and generally material process, so natural intelligence introduces a whole new range of elements – not least history, consciousness and individuality – that have analogues, but not equals, among organisms.

The consequence of all this is that although intelligence assumes a biological substrate and platform and could neither have evolved nor developed without the pre-existence of life, once it exists it does so on terms that are very different from those of evolution. So if evolution continues to be a factor intelligence must continue to deal with – which it certainly does – that does not mean that it is determined by evolution. After all, a cat has to deal with gravity, but you would be hard pressed to explain a cat’s startling acrobatics through the equations of physics.

So in what sense is intelligence immune to evolution? As I have argued elsewhere, it is a long story, perhaps stretching back to eh origins of life, but the basic case is quite easily explained. It is a story in three chapters, to be told in no particular order, about the most basic structures of human existence: objects, subjects and the world.

What are you doing?

Let me start with a very abstract claim (don’t worry, it only lasts a paragraph). Everything human beings do consists of constructing objects. You know something when you can grasp it on its own terms – which is to say, objectively. You know you have succeeded in doing something when the reality you were trying to achieve endures without you continually having to shore it up – which is to say, as an object in its own right. You know you are acting rationally when you can say what goal you are trying to achieve or what value you are trying to realise, plus explain how you are going to get there without introducing prejudices and assumptions you cannot defend – which is to say, as objects on their own terms. And so on.

Leaving out the philosophical problem of whether objectivity can ever be complete – personally I have no doubt that it can, but the present argument doesn’t rely on this fact – how does this make intelligence any different from any other kind of organic structure, and what difference does it make to evolution?

In short, one of the most striking yet unregarded facts about human beings is that we know what we are doing. There is, unless we deliberately adopt the method of trial and error, no place for random variation or natural selection in intelligent activity. But neither are we limited to executing pre-programmed instructions, even if we allow for the qualifications of learning, memory, facultative adaptations, and so on. Unlike any non-intelligent organism, human beings are capable of saying and justifying in advance what they are trying to do, devising and justifying a plan for doing it, executing and justifying that plan in an orderly manner, and continually monitoring and justifying whether we are fulfilling our purpose.

Piaget had a useful term for this ability – he called it ‘object permanence’. By this he meant that our intelligence lets us recognise that things exist independently of our consciousness of them. Even from consciousness’s own point of view, object permanence means that we can look at things in a detached manner, and see not only objects themselves but also the relationships between them, the relationships between these relationships, and so on. As a result, the simple ability to recognise that things exist in themselves soon allows us also to recognise the rules, systems and laws that determine how they exist and the kinds of things our objects can, must and will – or will not – do.

Nor is this talent limited to consciousness as such. Because of our insight into what makes our objects what they are, we not only know that a house we build still exists when we are not aware of it (which is radical enough) but we made it that way precisely so that it would exist – and act – as it does, independently of our own actions. We made it with walls and roof and doors and windows and rooms and systems and furniture and all the rest so that these things would do things for us without us continually having to do them for ourselves.

In short, the object permanence that intelligence gives us also gives us technology. Of course, many organisms use small parts of their environment in an analogous manner, especially (for example) nesting creatures. But nest-building does not seem to be based on any genuine insight into the nature of the situation its maker is in, the nature of the materials they are using or the purpose for which they are used. In human beings not only is this insight there but this talent seems to be generalisable to absolutely any situation, from architecture to global communications systems to evolutionary theory.

So what difference does all this make to evolution? In a nutshell, if we can grasp that things exist independently of our consciousness of them, this is as true of the biological forces by which we are surrounded as of anything else. In other words, we can recognise evolution itself, how it works and what it is doing – and might do – to us. We can recognise, anticipate and deal with sources of variation and selection and decide for ourselves whether we want to allow, evade, forestall or reverse them. Unlike any non-intelligent organism, we can understand what is happening to us and take action if it is not what we want. Of course, we don’t always succeed, but that is a different matter. Meanwhile, through our objective grasp of the structures whereby life operates, we can invent our own selective forces, or intervene still more directly. At the moment we are just beginning to discover genetic engineering; who knows what we will know a century from now.

Who are you?

One of the most basic rules of evolution is that organisms in different lineages never throw up quite the same structure. The bodies of shark, ichthyosaur and dolphin may be streamlined in broadly similar ways, and the eye may have evolved over and over again, but never did this process result in the same structure showing up in more than one place. The possible ways of solving the same functional problem are so many and starting points and conditions so varied that the odds are simply too long.

Except, it turns out, in the case of intelligence. The evidence is thin on the ground, but at present it looks like, when organisms as diverse as human beings, chimpanzees, birds and dolphins start to develop intelligence, what they produce is not just a set of functionally equivalent structures – the equivalent of the fish and whale body-shapes – but exactly the same intelligence, over and over again.

It’s very hard to prove, especially as non-human intelligence is generally so limited and so hard to interpret, but there are at least two features of all natural forms of intelligence that strongly suggest that the same structure has popped up repeatedly. Firstly, the developmental process seems to be the same for all forms of natural intelligence. Intelligence develops through the same sequence of stages no matter what the starting point. If human and bird intelligence were not structurally the same, this would be quite absurd. Secondly, when human beings and dolphins of equivalent levels of intelligence make mistakes because of their lack of maturity, the mistakes they make are of the same kind. Again, if the underlying structure were not the same this would be impossible to explain.

From an evolutionary point of view, this is just about as odd as can be. Just consider the evolutionary distance and biological differences between human beings, birds and dolphins. It is more than two hundred million years since we last shared a common ancestor with African grey parrots. None of our brains are very similar either, especially not in the areas human intelligence relies on.

Why does all this matter to evolution? Because the internal structure of natural intelligence – which is what the above was all about – is what is also known as the subject. As an intelligent being, it is the framework that defines your every experience, shapes your every desire, allows you to make sense of the world and organises how you act. It is, at the most abstract level, who you are.

It’s also another thing that takes you out of evolution. Because if all intelligence shares the same structure internally, then the evolution of intelligence can only conclude in one result. There is no variation around it, and no possibility of selection between variants, because there aren’t any. The structure of intelligence seems to be completely invariable. So unless evolution is able to take intelligence away as well as give it – and I think that the other sections of this essay make it clear that that is not likely – once you have intelligence, evolution has lost its power. Once you are a subject, you have escaped from evolution.

Where are you?

You live in the world. Which is odd, because no non-intelligent creature does. It may – must – inhabit a niche, to which it responds and which it may even change in various ways. But in the absence of a stable subjectivity and a capacity for grasp things objectively, a niche is a pretty unstable, fragmented place. After all, if the organism has no idea that things exist objectively then it can have no sense of the niche itself – which is to say, of whole within which it lives. Still less can it have any idea how it works. On the other hand, if the organism itself has no consistent or stable internal structure then there is no one there for whom the niche could exist.

Hence the oddity of living in a world. It is a single whole, which no niche is. But that is only the first oddity about the world. For a world can’t even be properly compared with an entire environment. Hence its second oddity. For while the organism’s niche includes (one might say) only that subset of its environment that directly affects or supports its activity, even its environment includes only that subset of the universe that might impinge on its niche.

For example, the tulips in my back garden already inhabit quite a large niche, given that they are directly affected not only by the soil they grow in, the garden fences that protect them from the wind and the occasional watering they get from us but also the entire UK weather system. As for its environment, current global warming means that their effective environment also includes Chinese factories, the machinations of New York stock market investors and the land management policies of the Brazilian government. But leaving aside the possibility of a rematch with the meteorite that put paid to the dinosaurs, I think it’s safe to say that their environment does not include much outside the Earth and nothing at all from outside the solar system.

Which cannot be said of the world of intelligent beings. That doesn’t seem to have any limitations at all – its ultimate universe is the universe. Quanta, quasars – they’re all there. How is that possible? Back to objects. For if we recognise objects exist independently of our consciousness of them, then we can’t help also recognising that they themselves exist in relationships with one another (and quite possibly with things we are not even aware of), whose existence is immediately implied by our recognising that the objects we are directly interested in exist. But if that is the case, then our limits in things is not limited to the parts and aspects of the universe that might us in more practical (e.g., adaptive) reasons. In fact we have a name for the study of things, regardless of whether we have any practical interest in them. It is called science.

Hence our ability – again – to transcend evolution. We inhabit a world that itself transcends any adaptive interest. Object permanence also gives us a practical grasp of that world that allows us to change it – make it more in our own image, perhaps. As a result, from generation to generation we have created a world that is increasingly defined by human concerns, human purposes, human desires, and human systems. This has now reached the point where, for better or (as now seems likely) for worse, human beings are now the biggest factor in the lives of many of the world’s species. It is likely that we will have killed off a third of the world’s species some time soon, and if the research Mark Lynas cites in his terrifying Six Degrees is anything like correct, we will soon have wrought so much damage that no species – and certainly no ecosystem – can be considered safe. But from a purely evolutionary point of view, this complete reversal of the relationship between organism and evolution means that the essential question is now whether evolution is controlled by intelligence rather than the reverse. Plainly, I would say, the answer is Yes.

How is this possible?

Finally, how is all this possible from an evolutionary point of view? How can evolution throw up a structure that breaks all the rules of evolution? It has nothing to do with the usual villains, such as ‘Intelligent Design’ (was any theory ever more absurdly named?), some of whose more blatant absurdities are catalogued here. The truth is a long but really quite simple story, which I have tried to piece together in my Birth of Reason, of which you can download a free copy here. And if you would like to read a more detailed version of the present argument, try here.

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