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Cultural intelligence and more
A short reflection on the nature of intelligence
By Sylvain Magne
I would like to try and explore briefly the nature of intelligence from the point of view of memetics. Still today, we struggle to define intelligence. It is quite telling to see how short and vague the definition of intelligence is in a popular place like Wikipedia for example. Maybe a memetic approach to this question could be enlightening.
Among the many proposed definitions of intelligence, my preference goes to intelligence defined as being the ability to solve problems. What I like about this definition is that it is broad, in the sense that it can apply to many organisms and then it makes intelligence somewhat quantifiable, with measurable problem solving goals. Indeed there are many kinds of problems to be solved and therefore there are many kinds of intelligence. Our intelligence, as with all living things, is a product of evolution, and through evolution we have acquired many problem solving abilities. Of all types of intelligence, humans have excelled at a particular one, cultural intelligence. I would like to show how culture is not just the product of our intelligence, but is also a creator of intelligence.
I am going to explore intelligence through a series of rather arbitrary types, but that I think relevant to my point.
Our first type of intelligence, I would suggest, is physiological intelligence. It is in the ability of our bodies to run themselves, to solve the amazingly complex problems of building organs, communicating between organs, processing energy, breathing and eating, defending our bodies against viruses and bacteria, etc. In essence, these tasks are so complex that nobody can fully understand them. Yet we perform these every day, perfectly oblivious to their inner workings. Our most advanced organ is arguably our brain but it is also the organ that we understand the least. Considering this is the place where our commonly understood intelligence is coming from, no wonder we cannot fully understand intelligence yet. We share physiological intelligence with all living things on this planet, and all species have their own tricks and ways of solving specific problems. Physiological intelligence is intelligence indeed, and the fact that it is a common gift we all have does not make it less impressively efficient.
The second type of intelligence is behavioral intelligence. Our bodies are meant to move and interact with a complex three dimensional world. We have an inbuilt intelligence that allows us to quickly learn how to best move inside our world. Our brain is the main organ responsible for our ability to achieve this. Our brains analyse the world through our senses, sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, and can act upon the world via our muscle power. Thanks to behavioral intelligence, we can hunt, we can fight or flee, we can explore, we can reach, we can manipulate objects. Again, we share comparable levels of behavioral intelligence with many animals on this planet, and again this intelligence is of a very high quality. Even though we don’t seem to apply any conscious intelligence to see with our eyes, our brains make use of incredible amounts of intelligence to allow us to see.
Our third type of intelligence is our social intelligence. Not only can we interact with our environment, but we can also interact with each other in many complex ways. This intelligence allows us to work as communities and coordinate social structures that can benefit most of its members. Thanks to our social, emotional and psychological intelligence we can communicate with each other, work together, help each other, build together, protect each other, mate and care for each other. Again many species on our planet share comparable social intelligence. We are more aware of this type of intelligence because we actively improve it through our lives and our brains let us be very aware of it. Yet many aspects of it, if not most of it, is still happening on a subconscious level, out of our conscious reach.
Our fourth type of intelligence is our cultural intelligence. Where we share most of the other types of intelligence with many other species, our cultural intelligence is comparatively vast and unique. Thanks to the development of our brains, we can learn complex languages and many other complex cultural traits and tricks. Thanks to our great memory capabilities, these cultural traits can be passed on through generations and can be accumulated to create very advanced cultural items. These cultural items have given humans so much intelligent power that humans could be said to be incomparably intelligent, on many levels. Humans can solve more problems than any other living species, but maybe even more importantly, whatever problems humans cannot solve now they may be able to solve at a later stage by evolving and improving their culture. Cultural intelligence evolves much faster than biological intelligence.
Biological evolution has made humans very intelligent and in many ways among the most intelligent species on the planet, but today, culture is really what makes humans superintelligent.
What is a human being without culture? No culture means no language, no know-how of any kind. An acultural human is doomed to be less intelligent than the average cultural human. That is because culture gives us many tools to solve many problems. The tools that we learn when growing up are the very thing that makes us significantly more intelligent. More than people may think. In fact, if a child has not had the opportunity to learn a language during the first two years of its life, the child will not be able to fully develop its cognitive powers. Biological evolution has given us means to develop a culture but if we don’t use this, we are nothing more than wild animals. By providing an education to children, by giving them cultural knowledge and understanding, we are literally developing their intelligence. Obviously, that is true only if the culture given is actually useful in that sense.
Culture is therefore not just something that humans created, it is also something that makes us what we are today. As generations succeed generations, culture evolves faster than our DNA can, much much faster. Our current evolution as human beings is driven more by our cultural evolution than anything else. As intelligent beings we change our culture, but through education, culture changes us. Culture outlives us, it is our legacy and it is the headmaster of our future minds.
The strange thing is that although we create culture, in many ways we understand it very little. We live and bathe in culture but we do not have a wide perspective on culture. The only promising model that we have today to understand culture is memetics. Memetics embodies our understanding that culture is a complex evolving system to which darwinian evolutionary theory applies. In order to truly understand culture we need to understand it in a darwinian context, and for that we need to develop memetics.
From the perspective of memetics, humans are the product of two replicators, the biological genes on one side and the cultural memes on the other. Where our genes build our bodies, memes build our cultural minds. Our brains come readily programmed with room for “cultural programming”. On one side one could look at the genetic brain as being both the hardware of our intelligence and the operating system for it. On the other side, culture writes programs inside our brains, the software. On one hand our brains come ready with pre-installed biological programs to learn by themselves about the environment through trial and error, and on the other hand culture comes with ready made tried and tested cultural programs that help us leap forward and acquire levels of intelligence one could not reach without it.
Today our brains are meme machines as much as they are gene machines. Every time we are exposed to memes they are sculpting our brains bit by bit. Our minds, the way we think, the things we know, the tricks we learned, the language we speak, the skills we perfected, all have been programmed by a mixture of experience and exposition to cultural memes. Without memes, you would not play or hear music, without memes, you would not speak, you would not read, there would be no movies to watch, no paintings, no art, no tools, no science, no history, no stories. Without memes, you wouldn’t know how to cook, you wouldn't know how to dance, you wouldn’t know how to take care of your health or your children, you wouldn’t know how to build a home. Without memes and culture to program our brains, we would be damn stupid.
Now, evolution doesn’t stop there.
There is a fifth type of intelligence which is growing rapidly, and that is technological intelligence. Technological intelligence is the result of problem solving artefacts, also known as tools. Since we created tools, tools allowed us to solve more problems, such as how to build homes or hunt more efficiently, etc. For a long time, tools were guided directly by our brains, as a sort of extension of our bodies. But now tools have become much more sophisticated. Tools have grown brains of their own with which they can achieve things that are simply impossible for our brains and bodies. Thanks to technology we fly, we cure diseases, we make complex calculations, we see the infinitely small and the infinitely large, we communicate through space and time, we accomplish feats comparable to magic.
This fantastic technological intelligence is the direct product of cultural intelligence, and the way it is going, it is bound to surpass our own intelligence in every way.
Where technological intelligence has not already surpassed us, it is catching up with our biological intelligence at an amazing rate. All of the types of intelligence I mentioned above are steadily being acquired by technological intelligence. Their physiological intelligence, for example, still looks rough compared to how complex body cells are, but in many ways, machines have already many great features. Where cells can create tissues, these tissues are also fragile, whereas machines are comparatively extremely strong. But where cells can mend tissues and defend themselves, machines are still unable to even start doing that. Where cells are tiny and working at the molecular level, machines are very cumbersome and rough. This said the future technologies such as nanotechnologies are looking to do just that, and even if it takes some time to get there, it’s only a matter of time, and in biological time, it’s just round the corner.
Where behavioral intelligence is concerned, again there are things machines do far better than us, like moving at high speed, flying, carrying weights, etc, but then, as surprising as it may be, no machine can walk like a human can. After many years of research such seemingly simple behaviour is a real challenge for machines. But again progress is being made, we are seeing the first machines walking up stairs, or running in fields like a horse would do. Again, machines are picking up speed and catching up fast. Another great hurdle for machines is vision. In order to move well, machines need to see well. The complexity of this task is enormous but again every day sees new progress on this front, and where we only see a limited portion of the light spectrum, machines will see a lot more, in more detail, in many more dimensions.
Social intelligence is something still very new to technology. Social interactions between machines and humans is something we’re only just starting to explore. The most blatant progress is made by smartphones. These little techno pets that we carry around can hear us and “understand” our vocal instructions. They can also talk back, recognise our facial expressions and more. Machines, it could be said, are slowly becoming social machines, but there is much room for improvement still.
Finally, cultural intelligence in machines is practically inexistent. Humans are still today the main creators of cultural content and only on occasions are machines allowed to learn from each other, teach each other or exchange “techno cultural” items. Despite that, it is already in the air and work is being done in that direction. We are looking at creating machines which could learn on their own, pass that information onto other machines and come up with creative solutions to previously unknown problems. This is leading towards what we commonly call artificial intelligence.
As you can see, technological intelligence is growing fast, in all directions, and it may be relevant to try and anticipate the effects of such rapid growth.
Intelligence in my view is the result of the evolution of problem solving capabilities. Through the ages, natural selection has allowed for many biological types of intelligence to emerge. Then something radically new happened and cultural intelligence emerged in humans. Culture evolved at a comparatively much faster rate, making us more intelligent but also giving rise today to yet another new type of intelligence which is technological intelligence. All of these types of intelligence are the byproducts of underlying evolutionary processes. Darwin’s theory of evolution has given us a tool to understand biological evolution and now we need a new tool to understand cultural and technological evolution. We need them because today things are moving and changing so fast that the problems that we will face now and in the future are coming to us faster and harder. We need, somehow, to see them coming. Our best chance at understanding the dynamics of cultural and technological changes is memetics.