by Francesco Lami
To quote Bender from Futurama, “I’m back, idiots!”. It was a nice little holiday on the Cote d’Azur, but right now I want to talk about brains. Our brains, specifically.
At the beginning of the summer I had read on some generic weekly magazine a small paragraph about how some scientists thought that human beings pushed the evolution of intelligence to its limits: in other words, they said that we couldn’t become smarter, because we peaked. My first thought was “Yeah, bullshit” because that wasn’t a scientific magazine, and it seemed like the classical vague anthropocentric article about how we are the best, and the somehow intended ending of the evolutionary project. And let me clarify this, as awesome as we are, we’re not THE best. There’s not such a thing as the absolute best in evolution. Some organisms are more adaptable than others, some have better instruments to survive in a specific habitat or more habitats (and mind you, the habitat can always change), but we’re just a small, successfull and still evolving (as every living thing) branch of the enormous Tree of Life. There are many species of bacteria, arthropods, worms, fungi, etc… that are much more successfull than us, so while our species is clearly one of the most successfull vertebrates EVER, it’s by far not the most successfull organism of all time. But I digress.
What I could concede to that small paragraph was that certainly in modern times the selective pressure necessary to “push us” to an even superior intelligence is pretty low. We were able to create awesome technology and modificate our environment to make survival easier, and in our (western) society everybody can access at least the most basic of those advantages; the creations of smart people are enjoyed by everyone, and thus smart people and less smart people have the same chances of survival. But this didn’t convince me that we didn’t have at least the potential to evolve in something smarter.
Anyway,the last issue of Le Scienze (italian name of Scientific American) contained an article about the fact that we may have indeed reached the limit of intelligence for a single organism, and I guess it was the same article referenced in that small paragraph I had read months before. Actually the article (by Douglas Fox) suggests that, while there might be ways to improve our brains, the costs in terms of energy and space (remember the joke about planet sized heads? yeah, you don’t want one of those) would be too high to justify them, so the modern version of our brain might be the near-perfect, most functional compromise. I don’t know if this is true, but certainly this is an explanation that I can accept better than “We’re so awesome, nothing can beat us”: after all, physical limits like this are the cause of many “imperfections” in the world of biology. Organisms are not magical, and even when they adapt the best they can to their environment, they must still obey its laws, and the laws of the matter they’re composed of. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, the best evidence for evolution isn’t the perfect adaptation, but these small imperfaction caused by the fact that life must build new forms from the parts it already has – it can’t start again from blank to create better components for a completely new organisms.
While the focus of Fox’s article are the details about the limits that prevent us from becoming smarter, it concludes briefly hypothesizing a way in which humanity could become more intelligent, and the most promising tool to realize this ideal is – brace for it – the Internet! HA, suck it, Internet haters.
The point is that certain organisms that act in a pretty “stupid” way individually form colonies which have a much better decisional ability and can act in an extremely efficient way for their own survival. The most famous example of this are social hymenopterans like ants and bees, insects that embody the definition of eusociality: the labor is divided among specialized castes (queen, males, workers, warriors… it depend on the species) and every individual is actually just a small part of the entire, huge, collective organism, just like a single cell is just a small functional part of a body or a brain. And it’s this collective entity that takes decisions and shows complex behaviours. Other eusocial animals include termites (Isoptera) and even mammals like the nightmarishly ugly and yet strangely fascinating Heterocephalus glaber, the naked mole rat. And animal eusociality is not the only, or even the first, example of organisms cooperating to “become smarter”: bacteria do that too. Everybody knows bacteria are single-celled organisms; most of them however form colonies capable of feats that are impossible for isolated bacterial cells. Bacteria colonies can decide if the environmental conditions and resources would allow them to grow (quorum sensing) and coordinate their metabolism thanks to special biomolecules used by the cells to communicate with each other; they can form biofilms in favourable environments, to protect and anchor themselves; colonies of Rhodospirillum centenum are capable of phototaxis (they are photosyntetic bacteria that move towards the light source) while single cells of the same species are incapable of doing so.
So the point is that, even though we are animals with a strong individual personality (well, some of us are, at least), we’re still social animals, and communication can make our population smarter and more efficient than the sum of its parts. We do this since the dawn of our species, with spoken words, and then written words, and now we can do it globally thanks to the internet. The fact that shared knowledge is a lot more vast than the knowledge of a single man is obvious, as it’s obvious that labour division and coordination made us a lot more efficient in a lot of different tasks. Are we really going to become a single planetary superintelligent supercolony? Would this really be an advantage to us? Nowadays individualism and egoism are rampaging everywhere, and so it may seem highly unlikely, and to some even scary, the possibility that society will prevail on the individual, and yet globalization and mass communication make us march everyday towards that possibility. We’ve already prooved to be strange animals: big primates who give birth only a few times in their lifetime (K strategy) and yet we managed to become one of the most widespread mammals on the planet, thanks to our intelligence and cooperation. So it may be possible the paradox of the animal with the most complex individual personality that, while retaining said individuality, becomes part of a global coordinated hive mind. I don’t know how far this process will go, if it’ll be enough to save us from ourselves and if it will influence our biological evolution. What I know is that, while some people think that globalization is evil, to me it only means that everyone in the world will have access to the same medicines. So what the hell, let’s give it a shot.