14 Dec 2008

Intelligence as Adaptation

Posted by jofr

Intelligence, learning and large brains are an adaptation to fast changing environments with unusual, novel or complex challenges, where a small number of fixed responses and rigid reflexes is no longer useful. Intelligence is the ability to understand and profit from experience. Large brains obviously facilitate this ability, they also support the creation of novel responses and altered behavioral patterns. A squirrel for example is blind, helpless and naked when it is born. If it is grown-up, it shows very intelligent behavior: if there is an abundance of food the squirrel will store it for the future, it will also hide the food in many places, so if another squirrel or animal were to find it, the entire year’s supply would not be lost. Obviously this is a smart behavior adapted to an environment where the abundance of food is changing frequently (like the fat storage mechanism, which is also a good adaptation to environments where food can become rare from times to times).

The most intelligent animals can be found in ever changing complex environments, where all kinds of small and large catastrophes happen. The most complex plant in our solar system is certainly the earth, and the most intelligent animals which have survived all small and large catastrophes are mammals. Among the Mammals, the most intelligent ones are hominids living in small social groups characterized by strong social relationships and sophisticated communication. These groups are complex environments for each member. Mammals are very complex and intelligent animals characterized by (1) independence in interdependence, (2) consciousness in unconsciousness, and (3) conformance in non-conformance

  1. mammals are much more helpless as infants and longer dependent on their parents than other animals, but as grown-ups their are more independent from any specific condition in the environment, because they are better adapted to it in general
  2. mammals spend a very long time unconsciously, especially at the beginning during pregnancy and during long sleep periods. Paradoxically these unconscious, isolated phases may help to build consciousness – the sense of being part of the world: by integrating valuable informations from the last wakeful state, and by preparing for the next one. The sleep of mammals is interrupted by phases of intense activity, REM sleep, which is absent in reptiles, amphibians, and fish. This activity in inactivity prepares the animal for the waking state, before it is born and before it comes awake everyday.
  3. mammals have only a small number of inborn instincts and inherited reflexes. First they are totally unadapted to the environment, their abilities are not in conformance with the needs to survive and like a blank sheet they wait for new information. Only through endless learning they come into conformance to requirements of the environment. In contrast to hard-wired instincts, actions based on learning and memory allow individually stored successful reactions built upon experience.

Mammals are the most intelligent animals, they show the most complex behavior, and they are the ones who are best adapted to change and changing conditions. In short, intelligence is an adaptation to change. H.G. Wells said in his novel “The Time Machine”:

“intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble […] There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have meet a huge variety of needs and dangers”

Credit: The squirrel picture is from Wikpedia, the picture of the chimpanzee group is from the Flickr user shiny things

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2 Responses to “Intelligence as Adaptation”

  1. […] the ability to obtain, process and evaluate information, called intelligence, can be seen as an adaptation to change. As H.G. Wells said in “The Time Machine”: “there is no intelligence where there […]

  2. […] based on genetic changes which control the behavior: Emotions, Feelings, Depression, Stress, Intelligence. Physiological refers to organic or bodily processes of an organism. Physiological adjustments […]


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