Is Intelligence a “Bubble”?

The human species prides itself on its intelligence. Its smarts, it thinks, are its primary distinction in the animal world. Only humans can communicate, pass knowledge to the next generation, make tools, plan for the future, grieve their dead, cheat on their mates, and lie to each other.

The trouble is that a great many other animal species can do the same things. We’ve known for decades that our closest animal cousins, the bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas, do all of these things. We have also come to realize that some birds—parrots, crows, and ravens–are a close match for the apes. If you throw a rock at a crow, it will remember your face, tell its friends what an SOB you are, and even pass that knowledge on to its children and grandchildren. Then, when you are working in the garden, you may find yourself surrounded by raucously jeering crows. If you are out hunting for some venison for the table, the jeering will warn off all the deer for miles around.

And then there are elephants, porpoises, whales, even raccoons. They too communicate, pass on knowledge, plan ahead, and so on. My late father used to tell a story from his childhood in the 1920s, when his grandfather would take him for walks around their town of Bridgton, Maine. On those walks, they passed a house where a pet raccoon had been tethered to the top of a pole by a long chain. The raccoon could climb the pole or wander around its base in a circle limited by the length of the chain. And every afternoon, the neighborhood dogs would arrive to bark at it. The dogs were smart enough to gather just outside the circle the raccoon could patrol. Just out of reach, they would bark and howl while the raccoon lunged and slavered. “Lemme at ’em! Lemme at ’em! I’ll fix ’em!”

Then, one day, when Dad and his grandfather arrived, they saw the raccoon burying his chain at the base of the pole. “Let’s sit down,” said grandfather. “This is going to be interesting.”

And so it was. When the dogs arrived and began to howl at the edge of the usual circle, the raccoon acted as enraged as ever, lunging toward the dogs while apparently restrained by a much shorter chain. Of course, the dogs moved in closer. When they were close enough, all that buried chain came out of the dirt. The dogs never knew what hit them.

Most people think that only a human being could be that thoughtful and deceptive. Not to mention vengeful, vicious, and malign.

Okay, you say. We’re not the only intelligent species on the planet. But surely we’re the smartest?

That’s a good question. To answer it, we need some idea of just what intelligence is—and it is not a score on an IQ test. Some might say it is the ability to process information efficiently, but that is meaningless in evolutionary terms. Evolution works to improve a species’ chances of successful reproduction and survival in the long term (not just this year, but for millennia). Species evolve to improve their tools (beaks, claws, sharp eyes) for finding food, avoiding predators, and dealing with cold and heat. Intelligence is another such tool. It is not for processing information efficiently, but for improving the chances of successful reproduction. Processing information is one means to the end.

Given this definition, intelligence has certainly served us well—at least in the short term. As long as the species has existed in its present form—some 200,000 years—it has done better and better. Especially since the invention of agriculture and cities—10,000 years ago–population has increased, the food supply and its reliability have increased, our ability to defeat or escape floods, fires, and predators (including each other) has increased, and so on. By 1800, we had increased the population from a few tens of thousands about 100,000 years ago and 250 million 2,000 years ago to one billion.

In the process, however, we have done grievous harm to the world that supports us. As George Perkins Marsh warned us in 1864, in his book Man and Nature, written after his years as a diplomat had shown him how ancient forests and fertile lands had been worn down to rocky barrens fit only for pasturing sheep and goats: “We are, even now, breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling, for fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage, and the world cannot afford to wait till the slow and sure progress of exact science has taught it a better economy.” Since then, “exact science” has had a great deal to say about what “a better economy” must look like. But no one has paid much attention. Things have only gotten worse.

There thus remains a crucial question: Has intelligence served us too well?

In the modern world, financial and business people often speak of “bubbles.” A real estate bubble, for instance, happens when prices are rising. Wealth inflates (like a bubble). Investors jump in, expecting prices to keep rising. But of course prices can’t keep rising forever. They stop. They drop. The bubble bursts.

Bubbles cannot be sustained.

No, I am not hinting that our brains are going to explode. But our intelligence has let the global population pass 7.5 billion people, when the global carrying capacity is estimated to be as low as half a billion. We have built so many cities that there is talk of a global sand (for making concrete) shortage. We have exhausted topsoil and groundwater. We have destroyed ocean fisheries. We have released so much carbon into the air by burning fossil fuels and clearing (and burning) forests that the climate is changing—droughts, heat waves, fires, floods, and more extreme weather comprise the new normal.

This too cannot be sustained.

One might argue that the problem is not intelligence as such, but the way we have used it to support endless growth. Economies of all kinds insist that production and wealth must grow. The production provides goods and jobs for the ever-growing population. The wealth fills a relatively small number of pockets, far beyond the point of sufficiency. Intelligence supports greed, too.

Could we use our smarts to turn things around? There is in fact a Degrowth Movement (https://www.degrowth.info/en/degrowth-definition/), but it has never been able to gain much traction. No one wants to think that enough is enough.

This too cannot be sustained.

Growth at any cost—More! More! More!—is already stripping the world of resources we need to continue into the future. If intelligence evolved to favor long-term reproduction and survival, it is failing. How thorough that failure will prove to be remains to be determined, but right now it is hard to keep optimism alive.

Comparing an intelligence “bubble” to a real estate “bubble” is mere metaphor, to be sure. But thanks to our intelligence, and our growth fetish, our impact on the world has been inflating like a party balloon attached to a gas station air hose.

People who have looked at our impact, as in the 1972 Limits to Growth book, have suggested that we will see crises in this century. A recent report (https://advisory.kpmg.us/content/dam/advisory/en/pdfs/2021/yale-publication.pdf) noted that the 1972 projections are right on track, as of 2021. Some have said that we can expect a global die-off of population starting by 2030.

We might well wish that we could deflate the balloon. If we could—if we could dial back the intelligence that got us into this fix–how far should we go? Chimps aren’t smart enough to cope with human impact on their habitat, but before we showed up they did just fine for millions of years. Crows, ravens, raccoons? They’re smart, but not so smart they destroy their environment.

If we could… But we can’t. What we need is to use the intelligence we have to change the way we live. No more unnecessary gilded palaces and penthouses. No more “growth at any cost” delusions about population and resource use.

We need an ethic of sufficiency that matches population size to resource use and ensures that the needs of all for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care are met. Even with the world’s current population, that ethic would improve the lot of a great many people.

Unfortunately, if population continues to expand, even sufficiency is not sustainable. Those in the Degrowth Movement, for all its lack of traction, who call for reducing population as well as industrial production have it right. Yet no one dares to address population reduction; “That ship has long sailed,” says Carina Millstone (https://www.greenbiz.com/article/why-economic-degrowth-ethical-imperative).

It seems fair to say that if we do not get the growth balloon off the air hose, it will go POP! After that, Mother Nature will solve the problem as only she can.

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