The evolution of intelligence – some initial questions and avenues for inquiry
What follows are just some rough outline thoughts on the topic. For now, I will adopt certain working assumptions, including that evolutionary theory (especially the Darwinian version) is broadly correct and that IQ is generally an accurate indicator, if not measure, of human intelligence. These initial assumptions may be re-examined later. For the present, the terms 'intelligence' and 'IQ' and their derivatives will be treated as synonyms.
I’m interested in studying the extent to which intelligence (measured in raw IQ terms) is an evolutionarily-beneficial adaptation. In particular, what interests me is whether there is a point at which superior intelligence becomes superfluous for adaptive purposes, or even counter-productive to survival, and perhaps socially-destructive.
Obviously on an individual level, we can speculate that a high IQ could inadvertently lower an individual's reproductive success. A person with a high IQ may have greater opportunities to engage in risky behaviour that might result in early death, serious injury, bankruptcy, or imprisonment, etc.; whereas an average IQ person who plods through life without taking significant risks might not suffer these consequences and so could be reproductively more successful.
However, my interest here is with what happens at the social level. Do high IQ societies axiomatically implode?
It's evident that IQ distribution is fairly consistent across different populations and time periods (in so far as it has been measured). Does this indicate that human societies, and maybe non-human animals in their social groupings, evolve equilibria of some sort that are optimal for group or species survival, in which individuals at the extremes of intelligence fail to reproduce? Or is a species-level IQ equilibrium explainable by a simple regression to the mean? (The latter seems to be the conventional scientific explanation).
The Dynamic/Static Models of IQ
As I see it, the question of what explains the 'equilibrium' is of some fundamental importance. If extreme intelligence is an adaptive failure, this would suggest that IQ is essentially ‘static’ across different periods and that selective pressures don’t increase average IQ considerably (though they will probably be responsible for modest increases). I’ll call this the Static Model.
On the other hand, if there is a regression to the mean, this would suggest that evolutionary forces push IQ higher over time and human beings select for IQ or what are thought to be the manifestations of intelligence, such as material success. I’ll call this the Dynamic Model.
The Dynamic Model may seem more intuitively correct, as it accords with a common understanding of evolutionary theory, whereas the Static Model may seem strange at first glance. Surely we can’t have the same IQ as, say, people in the Dark Ages or people in the Stone Age? However, I think the Static Model does have some basis in evolutionary theory, if we allow for a socio-biological explanation for intelligence differences within as well as between societies – i.e. society functions on the basis of different ‘castes’ of intelligence, with a tiny group of thinkers and creators and a overwhelming majority of followers.
The Static Model, if it can be fitted into a satisfactory evolutionary framework, could also provide the impetus for a more balanced critical reappraisal of Boasian anthropology. I think there may be some merit in the Boasian perspective.
Could higher IQs ironically explain Western devolution?
Supposing the Dynamic Model is the more accurate one, could the progressive evolution of intelligence paradoxically be responsible for the destruction of Western societies? A high IQ person is unlikely to be virulently racist (though there are ‘racist’ members of MENSA). Often such people have very little grasp of reality. I think this alienation from the realities of life has its roots in the nature of industrial and post-industrial societies, in which there is an abundance of resources for the relatively well-off and very little physical risk has to be taken in working or obtaining and extracting resources. The post-modern and post-industrial era began in England from the late Victorian era onward (starting from around the 1850s). A leisured middle-class emerged, which formed the core of liberal, social reformist and socialistic movements. Such people tend to be shielded by wealth and circumstances from the negative and adverse consequences of their own views and beliefs (when enacted as policy) - the obvious example being mass immigration, which is often justified on humanistic or economic grounds, without any consideration for the humanistic, economic or social consequences for the domestic working class.
In view of these observations (probably there are others that could be made), is there a point when superior intelligence within a super-intelligent species actually becomes socially (civilisationally) destructive? Is this also a possible (politically-incorrect) solution to the Fermi paradox? The explanation would go as follows: We have not been visited by intelligent extra-terrestrials because the munificent and liberal values of highly-intelligent civilisations are ultimately counter-productive and eventually cause the extinction of the high IQ race of the relevant species, resulting in social and technological regression, if not racial (or even specieal) extinction.
In any event, the Dynamic Model presents a social policy quandary for the liberal-minded. If races are the result of selective pressures, then it is arguably to humanity’s benefit that racial separation should continue; equally, one could use the Dynamic Model to argue that humanity should encourage race-mixing in order to level-up lower intelligence groups (though this would surely be just another means of levelling-down).
Decision-making and intelligence
Are high IQ people prone to poor non-specialised decision-making? A superior intelligence level could blind a person to the mundanities of life. Such a person may struggle with the ‘is/ought’ distinction in decision-making, not grasping that just because a sound intellectual case can be made, it doesn’t follow that that is the course that ought to be followed, since there may be wider ‘non-intellectual’ factors and dimensions to consider, such as public opinion, public confidence, custom and tradition and so on. There are lots of different variables involved in political decisions, and much of what is done is the result of what people believe. People who possess superior intelligence often can’t understand that their analysis has been framed by an opinion and can’t be considered entirely within a rigorous ‘intellectual box’.
Should people with high IQs be kept out of politics and other influential roles and restricted to specialised tasks that reflect their talents? Such people tend towards liberal political and social views, which can be destructive. Often decisions informed by 'expert' opinion turn out to be wrong or ill-founded on some basis that was not anticipated. There was probably an excellent intellectual/technical case for mass immigration when it was decided to implement it, but the civil servants and experts who justified it might have had no understanding at all of the motives of those who pushed the policy or the long-term ramifications of such a policy in matters such as national culture and identity and the general happiness and contentment of the population.
Customary social mechanisms that isolate or exclude poor decision-makers
All this may seem rather counter-intuitive, but consider why the paradox arises: it is evident that human societies do not always, if at all, promote the most intellectually-capable to positions that involve political/policy decisions or other generalised forms of decision-making. We must ask: Why?
Now consider this hypothetical scenario: Given the choice, who would you rather rely on for decisions about immigration policy - Professor Robert Winston or Tommy Robinson? One is a high IQ medical doctor, the other an average IQ political agitator, however the latter person is more likely to make sound decisions in the relevant policy area. Professor Winston inspires confidence in his specialised field, but probably does not have the understanding about the realities of life that Tommy Robinson does. Professor Winston is likely to be a rather poor non-specialised decision-maker, and left to his own devices, would wreak havoc. His superior intelligence, while not in question, is not necessarily adaptively optimal when we need to consider what is best for the preservation of our civilisation.
I think it's likely that the social and political structures of past societies - which may seem antiquated or archaic to modern eyes - were partly designed to address the problem of poor non-specialised decision-making by the accomplished and intelligent, and thus prevent societal self-destruction. Monarchies, in which the Crown itself and court positions are inherited or selected (sometimes elected from among a small group of nobility), are a possible example of a customary social mechanism designed for this purpose. A chief, King or Queen would not necessarily be the sharpest tool in the box, and this would be known by the elite in the relevant society, yet the individual was deferred to and even when assisted in decision-making by a clerical bureaucracy, a Monarch was still the guiding force and influence in the country.
To extend my hypothetical scenario above, 'Tommy Robinson' would be our King, and the ersatz 'Professor Winston' would be his adviser. The decisions would be King Robinson's to make. The King might not be a rocket scientist, but unlike Professor Winston, he is generally respected by the people-at-large, and if his experience justifies it, he is assumed to be a repository of wisdom that the more intelligent expert might not possess. The danger arises when the King is young and might not possess this wisdom, and is thus more reliant on his 'advisers'.
Other possible examples include lay juries, non-qualified judges such as lay Magistrates, and hereditary legislatures (e.g. the House of Lords). These and similar institutions demand(ed) customary deference, not necessarily on the basis of a person's expertise, but out of respect for the office. The office-holder is valued not per se for his intellectual accomplishments - in fact, he could be as thick as two short planks - nor necessarily for any specialist expertise he might bring to the role, but for other qualities such as general life experience, common-sense, integrity, and judgement.
Were wise men 'intelligent'?
Anthropology is an area in which I am not deeply knowledgeable and I will need to investigate further, but I have an instinctive suspicion that common beliefs about tribal 'wise men' and their role in primitive societies (both of today and of the past) might not be accurate and the true position might have been more complex.
Here's an elementary but important observation - It's obvious that in our society we don't officially kill the old just because they get old. Instead, we devote huge resources to looking after people until the moment they die of old age, despite their presence being of no economic benefit in most cases. Old age, an innately relative situation, is valued by others for its own sake. It is thought to imply wisdom and experience.
These attitudes could have primitive origins. A wise man need not be among the more intelligent of the tribal group, but rather might be selected from its most experienced members - perhaps simply on the basis of believed chronological age. In tribes that venerate old-age and associate it with wisdom rather than weakness and dependency, 'wise' meant 'old' and thus 'experienced'. The most experienced (oldest) tribal member would be the one who knew exactly what to do in a given situation. A more intelligent but less experienced member of the tribe might not take decisions that are as wise. The experienced 'wise man' had been there and done it. He would therefore not find it difficult to reinforce among the rest of the tribe the perception of him as a 'wise man'. Daily experience would prove it, as he solved or advised on novel problems encountered. Thus, the tribe learns that intelligence is not the be-all and end-all of survival, and also that a weakened, older member of the tribe might be of use.
The template for common social motifs in use today would have emerged in these simple early societies - the 'wise man' was the old man; the 'sceptic' was the intelligent man; and the 'fool' was the rebel or possibly the true wise man.
The wise man would encourage conservatism in the tribe. In any novel situation not previously encountered, the wise man would fall back on his knowledge and experience of abstract 'danger' and advise caution. The intelligent man would be the more progressive influence, using his brainpower to engineer a solution based on his knowledge and experience of comparable situations. Conflicts might break out within the tribe between those who favoured the wise man's counsel and preferred caution and those who wanted to follow the solution of the intelligent man. It would be the case sometimes that the intelligent man would lead the tribe to disaster because his solution failed. Where possible, then, conservatism was preferred, as it at least offered survival, notwithstanding the hardships that might result from 'caution'. However, we would not be where we are today, with an advanced technological society, if our ancestors had always listened to the wise man.
Here is where we come to the influence of the fool. The fool is the intelligent man's foil. Whereas the intelligent man reveals facts and endeavours to find solutions within existing principles, the fool reveals truths, and thus exposes the inherent absurdity of customary societies built by wise men. Societal hierarchies that arose from the emergence of 'wise men' might not reflect strictly rational arrangements - the continued existence of supernatural religions is an example that illustrates this point. Probably in ancient times, 'fools' were people who openly doubted the existence of these gods and were killed for their trouble. Indeed, there was a time in recent history when only a fool would doubt the existence of God in Western societies, but now all 'intelligent' people agree that God does not exist. The change is the result of a shift in material conditions (changes in production methods result in a move away from a less regimented society), but there also had to be a change in ideas. The fool is not necessarily the catalyst for ideological shifts. Indeed, the etymology of the word 'fool' suggests that a fool was simply a repeater of received knowledge and was more akin to what we would now call a 'useful idiot'. Nevertheless, the fool is the harbinger, signalling that the customary regime of the wise men is now open to challenge on some rational or expedient basis. Cue the intelligent man.
Let us consider another example that is rather topical. It was once the case that only a fool would think that all the races are equal. Now the reverse is the case: so-called 'racists' are derided as fools. Again, changes in the material conditions in society and the needs of capitalists has prompted a change in the ideological orthodoxy and what is deemed acceptable for people to think and say. In other words, in matters of race, the wise men are foolish, the fools are laughing at the wise men, and the intelligent men try to cope as best they can, waiting patiently for the popular cue to overthrow the whole silly farce.
Is democracy itself an adaptive social mechanism designed to limit poor decision-making by a high IQ 'technocracy'?
I refer to what is 'popular' because in considering the dynamics of social change within small-scale and large-scale groups, and the influence on this of intelligence, we must not neglect the relevance of consent. Democracy is the embodiment of a 'Might Is Right' philosophy. Even in the fiercest dictatorship, there will always be an element of democracy, even if it is only residual and formal or merely amounts to acquiescence in despotic rule, since the People - the masses - make up the overwhelming majority and manifestly outnumber the elites. It is axiomatic - if political science really is a science, I would say what follows should be considered an iron law - that at some point, it will become clear to even the dimmest subject that the emperor proverbially has no clothes. In this context, the practical import of that phrase is that at some point there is a realisation among the People that power really is with the People (John Lennon wasn't quite right - power doesn't need to be given to the People, it's already with us). There then follows a Reckoning, which is why even in a political economy such as capitalism, in which wealth and resources are heavily concentrated in a few hands, we still have a notional political democracy. Thus, we arrive at part of the answer as to why we have democracies at all. They are the result of class warfare - pressure is brought to bear, the property-owners relent in order to preserve their wealth by tricking the non-owners into thinking they are to be allowed meaningful political choices.
However, this does not satisfactorily explain things fully. We also need to understand why Aristotelian political communities are constructed in particular. Why not a Platonic scientific community instead, in which the cleverest take all the major decisions? Indeed, let us go further and ask: why isn't 'politics', so to speak, practised as a purely scientific and philosophical endeavour? (Which is just another way of asking the first question: why do we have politics at all, with its practised Sophistry that Socrates derided?). The answer must be, to put it rather bluntly (and perhaps I am sacrificing precision here in favour of clarity), that non-intellectual decision-making is often preferred and leads to superior outcomes. Or to put it another way, populist decision-making results in better long-term outcomes for civilisations.
Could democracy itself be an adaptive mechanism, used unconsciously to guard against the dangers of 'intellectualisation' and 'politicisation' in the form of bureaucratisation and technocracy? The orthodoxy is that democracy is not only 'better' but 'necessary'. However, the question is not strictly rhetorical. Arguments for democracy don't tend to hinge on the quality of its decision-making, only its inclusiveness. There is nothing inherent to the democratic case that ensures better decisions or outcomes, but I would like to speculate here that democracy may have its origins in a need for a community to limit the influence of the type of people we would now call 'technocrats'. Maybe civil wars were fought within societies between these two groups? These conflicts might have had their origin in primitive times. Groups and tribes might not have been ruled by simple brute strength, but instead a 'superior intelligence' could have emerged in the form of a few 'differently-wired' individuals who then used their intellects to manipulate and organise everybody else. But the brute strength of the 'dim' majority remained a reserve source of power against the intellectual elite, and this reserve 'might' was probably used from time-to-time to remove an unsatisfactory elite. The leaderless tribe would then be ripe for infiltration and takeover by more intelligent outsiders.
If we look back through history, we can see traces of such conflicts along ethnic lines: Normans versus Saxons, British Crown versus British North Americans, Gentiles versus Jews in Western societies today, and so on. The outcome of such conflicts in ancient times could have been an understanding that major strategic decisions (i.e. matters of public politics) would be decided in assemblies or by selected chiefs from or approved by the native (populist) group, rather than by an intellectual elite. More recently, we could argue that the Trump phenomenon and the wider political phenomenon that the mainstream media call 'populism' also represents a rebuttal of technocracy in favour of a kind of politics that seeks to address non-intellectual factors in decision-making, such as the preservation of culture, tradition and European civilisation itself.