Solving Problems: Identity and Intelligence

I believe that determining our collective identity can assist us to find solutions to our most pressing problems- environmental, social, political and economic. Solving problems requires the application of intelligence, and the best teacher of what is intelligent is natural selection, the process through which all life emerged on the earth.

The notion that the fittest survive is just a special, biological, application of the wider principle of the survival of the stable, of the inherently ordered. But because the world is continually in a state of flux intelligence requires change, adaptability and learning. Originally, of course there were no minds in which learning and intelligence could reside. It is rather that mind, including the human mind, is just itself one product of natural intelligence. In this sense, intelligence can be defined as the ability of a natural system or species to adapt to its environment, to survive within it, and to create an unfolding lineage.

We can now be reasonably certain that intelligence on earth has taken more than one direction in its organic form. Some of the cephalopods, for example, are known to manifest not only remarkable skills for survival and socialisation, but also appear to possess a form of conscious awareness. Yet they have arrived at this remarkable state through an entirely different path to that travelled by humans, with the two routes diverging some 600 million years ago. Even on this small planet we are not as unique as we sometimes like to imagine.

Moreover, given the current understanding of the likely numbers of so-called ‘Goldilocks’ planets’ (not too hot, not too cold) in our own galaxy and in others it is highly likely that intelligent life exists on planets other than our own, though whether we could ever communicate with it remains uncertain. In the case of the earth we can justly assume that it is through natural selection that all forms of intelligence have arisen. Indeed, many authorities consider that natural selection is likely to be a non-terrestrial mechanism as well as a terrestrial one; it is quite possible that wherever life has evolved its origins lie in naturally-selective processes.

Although there are many forms that intelligence has taken in practice, we humans can only see ourselves and the world reflected through the medium of our particular variety. So far as it goes this ‘anthropic principle’ appears unassailable. We see the universe in the way we do because if the universe were not so constructed, and we not constructed according to its laws, we would not be here to see it or see it in the way we do. Intelligence, and the intelligence of natural systems, both organic and inorganic, is a material and not a divine, construct. We recognise it by looking around us at nature and from that perspective gazing back at our origins; we see what that intelligence enables us to see.

Evolution by natural selection is an algorithm or step-by-step computational procedure in which a pre-existing variety within species is selected by virtue of the survival value it confers. The process is deterministic, relentlessly computational, and is one which of itself would be largely unproductive. Left to its own devices it leads to the sterile reproduction of like for like and to the eventual elimination of all generations, and the genetic information they embody. Such must be the inevitable consequence of those changes in the environment that must sooner or later kill off all unadaptable species.

But there are two features that save the algorithm from destruction. There is the underlying variation within phenotypes which is indeterministic, incorporating random copying errors and mutations; and there are those changes in the environment which favour some variations within species over others. It is the interplay of these two phenomena that enables natural selection to work. Countless episodes of random genetic miscopying, mishaps and mutation, led through one branch of the evolutionary tree to primates and to humans.

Intelligence at the level of the animal kingdom is characterised by an ability to sense the environment and adjust internally or act externally. In this sense intelligence generally requires two things- firstly, making and acting upon representations of the world, and secondly, having a point of view, a perspective (both internal and external) from which a system can make those representations. These external and internal representations require the processing of information to the advantage of the processor or components within the processor. In time, and in some species, mere processing evolved into an ability to manipulate the environment in which the phenotype found itself.

Human beings are the most successful example, to date at least, of a biological system that controls and manipulates its environment. Humans have colonised the planet and tamed or extinguished many competing species. If we survive long enough on earth we may go on to colonise other planets and other solar systems. And all of this stems from the mechanical iterations of biological algorithms interacting with the environment and with randomly-generated variation in the gene pool. We are now reaching the stage at which we might engineer future variation in that same gene pool, and from the date that we do so we might indeed be said to be intelligent designers, able to ‘realise’ our own goals and futures.

This picture of human evolution places it firmly in the context of a universe that is a closed physical system. Every state in that universe is predicated on the basis of the preceding one. Every living thing that exists today has material origins that can be understood in terms of the interaction of physically-determined laws, or algorithms, in combination with random variation.

If then we are the products of deterministic physical laws, our nature might appear to be fixed and our actions must in some sense be determined in advance; our sense of free will must in some way be illusory. The fact that we are also the product of random variation, of those accidents that afforded some creatures in our evolutionary past adaptive advantage, seems to provide little help in affording us constructive freedom or self-determination. Our origins are partly accidental, and perhaps something in our nature is genuinely indeterminate, but what kind of freedom of will or choice could this confer?

Curiously, the one theory that does shed some light on human freedom is that of natural selection itself. At first glance this seems unlikely. It is, after all, a thoroughly physicalist account of the origins of humanity affording a role to precisely determined laws (the evolutionary algorithms) assisted by miscopying and mutation.

But change arises through the interplay of these factors, the interaction between order on the one hand and chance on the other. Evolution is a process of trial and error, or to be more precise trial takes place and error is eliminated. Originally in evolution such elimination took the form of the death of the species that were not adaptive; these species were ‘trials’ that failed and the species died out. The species that survived to reproduce were those that manifested selective advantage.

Such advantage took many forms but one of the key aspects was the possession of physical attributes which enabled biological systems to gain some form of control over unsuccessful behaviour; learning from experience would be one critical example. Of course, what an animal learns within its own life-span cannot be inherited by its progeny, but what can be transmitted to the next generation are the genes that carry the capacity to learn.

Once this gathered pace evolution became much more of an open system in which feedback featured, in which the algorithm became more complex as it set to work on more challenging material. There emerged sophisticated ‘command-and-control’ mechanisms, of which the mammalian brain is a prime example. Complex organisms are changed by their life history and by the ability to learn from experience. If anything makes our freedoms possible it is learning, both the non-conscious learning of the critical period in infancy and, when this period has passed, of the consciously-attentive adult.

Of course, we can see this only in hindsight. Objectively we are the product of a mindless physical process which gave rise to a mind that might visualise what had happened as ‘trial-and-error elimination’. Yet the ‘test’ analogy appears peculiarly apt. Nature is a test bed for survival; it solves problems in survival. Each phenotype is a tentative solution to some evolutionary problem. Originally these problems were objective and non-psychological. But in time the process created human beings with minds, language, ideas, mental states, intentions and judgements. From that point on problem solving became subjective and psychological.

Now there occurred a significant game change. The plasticity of the control-and-command structures is enhanced, an acceleration in brain size occurs. The problems of survival in a changing environment become more transparent. Now an ineffective solution to a problem need not necessarily involve the death of the human phenotype; increasingly, our ideas and our hypotheses can die in our stead. We can adjust to correct our errors during our lifetime.

Human beings have internalised and personalised the process of problem solving that was once objective in nature; in a sense it is always what it was, except now a significant part of it is embodied in human minds. It has spread from the physical world to the subjective and inter-personal worlds. What in nature had taken the form of ‘trial-and-error’ elimination becomes learning in humans. It is learning that characterises humanity and enables us to achieve solutions to the problems that we face.

Of course, it also means that we create problems. Many of our current difficulties- unrestrained technological change, population growth, social and economic inequality- are the product of those same intelligent bodies and brains. But whilst we can create problems, we can solve them too.

This interpretation places intelligence, learning and creativity at the heart of human identity. We are animals which find solutions to problems. This link between biological and cultural evolution, and the importance of learning and creativity, helps to define what we are, and what it is that connects each of us to every other human being.

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