Daniel Lemire's blog

, 6 min read

We are getting smarter as a matter of survival

5 thoughts on “We are getting smarter as a matter of survival”

  1. It is common to assume that increased intelligence is better for survival. But, it is worth questioning that assumption. Brains take a lot of energy. The most successful creatures on earth when judged by biomass and energy utilized are single celled organisms.How much intelligence do these bacteria have?

    Unfortunately, it is hard to measure the amount of ‘brain power’ in the molecular networks of a cell and to speak to the more general problem, how much of their energy is being devoted to computational processes as opposed to other processes like metabolism, movement, etc.

    A cleaner example compares biological matter to non biological matter. One of the distinguishing traits of biology is that it stores, copies, and processes information (i.e. DNA/RNA). By contrast non biological matter does not seem to do these things. On the whole, non-biological matter dominates the biological. That is, there is much much more of it than there is of us. This is strong evidence that there are only rare situations where information processing is actually advantageous in our universe.

    Getting back to humans, I think we can safely say that our current intelligence is something of an anomaly. We’ve found niche burning trees and fossil fuels in which a little extra intelligence lets us survive much better. It is possible that we will find new niches like this and the utility of increased intelligence will continue. It is also possible that this niche will disappear with the fossil fuels and none will emerge to replace it. Instead we will be left to join our not too distant brethren swinging tree to tree and searching for some tasty fruits to eat. In this case, we might do well to drop the brain size a little to something sufficient for the task at hand and save the extra energy to spend on something more pressing.

  2. Paul says:


    While intelligence certainly isn’t a one way street, there’s a long evolutionarily trail of increased intelligence that starts well before cultivated fire. Spinal cords could have been the peak, or lizard brains, or simple mammalian brains, and maybe modern human brains are, but so far a bet that more intelligence would be detrimental hasn’t panned out.

    And in the long view, a high intelligence level is necessary for survival. If the current bacteria lineage exists in a billion years or so it’ll be because intelligence brought it along to another star.

  3. @Paul

    You bring up a good point. It seems that max intelligence has been increasing over earths history, (though its hard to administer an IQ test to a dinosaur). It may be the case that average intelligence has gone up too, but thats pretty hard to prove.

    I did find a couple of studies published not long ago that looked at the correlation between brain size and survival. They found that bigger brains were a win for small mammals, but not large mammals [see 1].

    I think we can take that as evidence that perhaps average intelligence has been increasing as well. But I think my argument still stands up. For any given species intelligence might be advantageous or not, its a matter of environment.

    Also, I like your point that panspermia might depend on intelligence. I hope that’s true.

    [1] http://phys.org/news/2012-07-animals-bigger-brains-prone-extinction.html

  4. Paul says:

    The difference between average and max intelligence is an interesting point. I wonder if that’s a common byproduct of evolution: over time the number of flying species may decrease, creating a lower average “flying quotient”, but the creatures that do inhabit that niche continue to improve at what they do, upping the max. If so, we can see obvious cases where a trait did reach a peak and decrease, such as size.

    On Panspermia, an interesting outcome would be if we never quite get to human level stellar travel, and the best we’ve got for something that can hibernate for millenia and then colonize a hostile planet are the bacteria. A little bit of human ingenuity, a little bit of bacterial survival skills and this tree of life continues.

  5. Paul, I’m a fan of your bacteria colonization idea. I wonder if anyone is working on this type of problem?