The Source of Human Intelligence

What made humans intelligent? What is the source of our remarkable reasoning powers? Why don’t other animals share them?

Just because I’m a spiritually-minded guy doesn’t mean I don’t believe in evolution. There’s too much evidence to ignore it. But if evolution is right, then there must be answers to the questions above.

whatdoyouwantEvolution can generate spectacular results when direct competition is the driving force. Consider the amazing speeds of the gazelle and the cheetah. As proto-gazelles got faster, proto-cheetahs had to get faster, too. As proto-cheetahs got faster, proto-gazelles had to get faster yet. For both species, speed meant life and sloth meant death. Could the human brain be the result of some kind of life-or-death social competition?

The theory is called the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis, and it basically says that human intelligence evolved to outwit other humans in social situations. The social structure of all higher primates is quite complex, and it could be that proto-humans began engaging in a sort of race, in which those who had the intelligence necessary to compete more successfully in the social games had more children.

This post at Language Log gives an example of the kinds of amazingly complex social interactions that even our children can find themselves in. If it seems impossible to untangle, try substituting the names of people you know instead of the anonymous letters. This will trick your brain into turning on your social analysis circuits (i.e. the second, third, and fourth circuits), and everything will become clear.

If you think about your own social circle, you’ll find that it’s similarly complex, once you look at it. Luckily, our brains seem to be wired to handle this sort of thing quite well.

An interesting side point is this: if this theory is correct, then, over millions of years, human intelligence will only continue to increase. As people get smarter, their social interactions will get more complex, and the smarter they’ll have to be to get ahead in them.

I don’t know how any of this squares with the idea that we are spirits inhabiting physical bodies. The brain clearly seems to have been formed by the physical forces of evolution, and physical injuries to the brain definitely affect personality and memory and so forth. That all points to the conclusion that your personality and “soul” are generated by the brain itself. And yet… there’s plenty of evidence that some part of us — some part with memory and personality — persists after the brain is completely gone.

Once I heard a possible solution to that question: the brain doesn’t generate personality, memory, and spirit; it’s more like a receiver. It’s like a radio. If you break a radio, it doesn’t play music any more; but that doesn’t mean the radio has little musicians inside it.

Anyone have any ideas?

6 responses to “The Source of Human Intelligence”

  1. For me, changing the letters into names of familiar people made an already fiendishly-difficult problem even harder (and actually painful). This likely has to do with my severe Asperger’s syndrome (which also interferes in specific ways with guided meditations and other things I’ve tried hard). What advice, if any, does Druidry have for folks with Asperger’s trying to become better people?


  2. Hi Kate, I’m sorry it took so long for me to answer your comment here.

    People living with Asperger’s are said to have difficulty with interpersonal relationships, if I remember correctly? Something Druidry and other Pagan paths may offer is a close connection with the natural world. Mountains, forests, and flowers do not care about your interpersonal skills: they offer the same spiritual healing and comfort regardless. If guided meditations do not work, then I would say forget about them and bring your mind to peace with a walk in the woods. Have you heard of, or tried, hillwalking?


  3. Well, please tell me about hillwalking. I assume the term differs in meaning from “walking among hills.”


  4. Yes. Hillwalking is a walking meditation, in which you go for a walk over the countryside and let the rhythm of your steps and the peace of the land carry you into a meditative state. Once you’re in that, then the landscape actually acts as a visualization meditation.

    For example, suppose you’re working on some personal issue, and you want to meditate on it. If you do a visualization meditation, you can ask the question during the meditation, and you will see some image which symbolizes your answer. If you’re hillwalking, walking through nature in a meditative state, then you can ask the question as you walk, and your mind will interpret the nature around you as your answer.

    A more specific example: suppose you ask, “How can I find peace in stressful situations?” And then your eye might be drawn to a small pool of water or brook. Interpret that pool or brook as an answer, a dream-symbol. It probably means that you should emulate water — being fluid, yielding, but patient and persistent in stressful situations.

    Does that make sense?


  5. You mention some interesting ideas. I disagree with your fundamental hypothesis however. The idea that evolution and spirituality can coexist is in my view not being honest for the need for spirituality inthe first place. The notion for a god or a higher intelligence SOURCE is one of needing to explain the unexplainable. Evolutionary theories do not explain or prove anything. A hypothesis of spirituality is faith. The wind blows…
    The so called scientific explanation behind intelligence does not begin to explain the separation between genetically identical species not having the same speech patterns or levels of intelligence among humans. Many spiritual platforms do NOT hold the Greek notion of humans being composed of body/mind/spirit. No soul separation is the basis of the need for a higher Spiritual Creator/God. Heart beats and thoughts/intelligence do not have a valid explanation apart from faith/spirituality.


    1. The One — thanks for your comment. It was a little difficult for me to unpack everything you’re trying to say, so my apologies if I misinterpreted your meaning. Another caveat is that I wrote this five years ago, and my views have changed somewhat… But I still believe in the basic points.

      – First, I don’t agree that spirituality is for “explaining the unexplainable”. Certainly my spirituality is not. My own faith is strongly influenced by Zen, so ambiguity and uncertainty lie at the heart of it. It brings me deeper engagement with the world and spiritual unity; all explanations are temporary and limited at best.
      – Second, evolution does occur; it’s been observed — and induced — in the laboratory. It also makes a lot of sense. That’s different from proving that it was the primary agent behind Earth’s biodiversity, of course. It’s not that evolution doesn’t prove anything; it’s science itself that doesn’t prove anything. The Earth could have been created from nothing all at once ten seconds ago. Proof is never offered by science — or by Spirit. 🙂 But if you go out into nature, get to know the plants and animals there, engage with them, then you have to acknowledge evolution as the primary force of change and adaptation. At the same time I have also come to feel that there are other forces at work, forces that nudge life towards profound beauty.
      – I’m not sure what you mean by “The so called scientific explanation behind intelligence does not begin to explain the separation between genetically identical species not having the same speech patterns or levels of intelligence among humans”. Are you saying that science doesn’t explain why some people are smarter than others? But evolution requires variation within a population. Evolution suggests that species that vary from individual to individual will have a better change of survival when the environment changes, because when things change, some individuals will do better than others, and those individuals will have more offspring, etc. I’m not sure what speech patterns have to do with it — are you talking about languages, dialects, idiolects? And what is “the separation between genetically identical species”? Two species cannot be genetically identical. Two individuals cannot be genetically identical (unless they’re twins or clones).
      – I’m also not clear on what you mean by this: “No soul separation is the basis of the need for a higher Spiritual Creator/God.” Do you mean “there is no soul separation that requires a higher Spiritual Creator / God”? In that case, what is a “soul separation”? Why would it be the basis of a need for a God? Or are you saying “religion does not require the belief in a separation of mind/body/spirit”? That I certainly agree with. These days I tend to think of the relationship between spirit and body as being analogous to the relationship between a song and an instrument.

      For more recent thoughts of mine near this topic, you might be interested in Genesis: The Story of Why We’re Different and The Cat Cure: Animal Husbandry and Human Civilization. Thanks again. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: