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Is Human Intelligence Machiavellian?
The "social brain hypothesis"
In early hominid societies, as the complexity of social interaction became more pronounced, the most successful in passing on their genes to future generations were those who navigated skillfully through the maze of non-verbal signals, understanding the needs of others and conveying their own needs effectively.
Over thousands of generations, hominids evolved a greater ability to put these diverse signals together into a pattern of meaning through increased use of their prefrontal cortex (pfc), which is the most connected part of the brain and integrates inputs from feelings, memories, sensations and thoughts.
The idea that the human brain grew in size and intelligence as a result of social complexity is known as the “social brain hypothesis” and has emerged from decades of studying humans and other animals.
Forming a "theory" of another's mind
The increased capability of the pfc has led humans to a more profound understanding of the relationship between ourselves and others than any other creature has yet achieved. Perhaps the most important step in this understanding is the recognition that other people have minds like we do, and that by thinking about how we ourselves respond to things, we can make predictions about how they might respond.
This realization is known as “theory of mind” and it forms the basis of much of our social existence. While chimpanzees have been shown to have some inklings of a theory of mind, it appears to be only a partial and hazy capability.
It doesn’t come easily even to human children. It’s usually not until a child is three or four years old before a full theory of mind emerges. When that happens, a child realizes, for example, that her parents can be wrong about something, and that there are some things they can only know about if she tells them. Before too long, she will begin to experiment with lying and deception.
Playing a "mental chess game"
Lying and deception. That seems to take us right back to the 2001: A Space Odyssey story of human nature. And in fact, when the social brain hypothesis first emerged in the 1970s, this was exactly how it was presented. What was unique about humans was said to be our “Machiavellian Intelligence” (from the title of one book on the subject.)
In the view of an influential thinker, Richard Alexander, as hominids became more dominant in their ecology, they no longer needed to evolve better capabilities to deal with the natural environment. Instead, they developed new cognitive skills to outcompete each other. In this way, we became (in his words) our own "hostile force of nature," entering into a "social arms race" with each other.
Alexander saw our ancestors as playing a "mental chess game" with the other members of their group, "predicting future moves of a social competitor… and appropriate countermoves":
In this situation, the stage is set for a form of runaway selection, whereby the more cognitively, socially, and behaviorally sophisticated individuals are able to out maneuver and manipulate other individuals to gain control of resources in the local ecology and to gain control of the behavior of other people.
Outmaneuvering, manipulation and control… are these then our defining characteristics after all? When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in the Origin of Species, one of his chapters was entitled “Struggle For Existence,” and that phrase was readily picked up by the followers of Alexander. The evolution of human intelligence, to them, represents a “special kind of struggle with other human beings for control of the resources that support life and allow one to reproduce.”
Scratching each other's backs
While Alexander was honing his theory of the "social arms race," another biologist, Robert Trivers, was explaining how, from an evolutionary perspective, even altruism was really just a sophisticated form of selfishness, based on the principle of “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine.”
In a much cited paper, he described what he called "reciprocal altruism" as an ancient evolutionary strategy that could be seen in the behavior of fish and birds, and he interpreted human altruism in the same way. "Under certain circumstances," he wrote, "natural selection favors these altruistic behaviors because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them."
The "selfish gene" hypothesis
This approach is consistent with what's become known as the "selfish gene" interpretation of evolution, as popularized by biologist Richard Dawkins. In this view, all evolution can be explained by the "selfish" drive of our genes to replicate themselves. And those special human virtues that we value so highly are no exception.
"Let us try to teach generosity and altruism," Dawkins suggests, "because we are born selfish." Alexander comes to a similar conclusion, proposing that "ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interest."
It’s a powerful story, and one that fits with the prevailing philosophy underlying our global free-market economy. Our very genes are selfish; all creatures in nature are ultimately selfish; we humans are merely unique in having taken our selfishness to new levels of Machiavellian manipulation.
Even Alexander admitted that his ideas seemed “repugnant,” but felt it was even more repugnant “to deny men the possibility of seeing themselves as they are.” The geopolitical history of the 20th century seems to have borne out this philosophy: communism failed, we are told, because it was founded on an unrealistic view of human nature, whereas capitalism succeeded because it’s based on harnessing the selfish nature of each individual for the ultimate good of society.
Evolution as a complex system
A powerful story, indeed, but one that has been shown in recent decades to be erroneous at each level of its narration. While the idea of the “selfish gene” still holds currency in the popular imagination, it has been extensively discredited as a simplistic interpretation of evolution.
In its place, theorists offer a view of evolution as a series of complex, interlocking systems, where the gene, organism, community, species and environment all interact with each other in a variety of ways over different time frames. And regarding our intrinsic human nature, a new generation of scientists has pointed to our ability to cooperate, rather than compete, as our defining characteristic.
Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 1 | How We Became Human
Richard D. Alexander, "The Evolution of Social Behavior," Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 5 (1974): 325–83
Robert L. Trivers, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism," The Quarterly Review of Biology 46, no. 1 (1971): 35–57