In “Cyber-brain game suggests teamwork boosts intelligence” (MSNBC.com, April 10, 2012), Jennifer Viegas reports,
The idea that complex social interactions drive the evolution of intelligence has been around since the 1970’s. The problem with related studies has been how to disentangle what factors actually fuel intelligence and what were subsequent consequences of it.
The idea is, of course, a familiar example of conjuring in Darwin’s name. Complex social interactions require intelligence, but that doesn’t explain how the intelligence arises.
Some researchers developed digital “organisms,” and
The researchers found that the digital organisms typically started to evolve more complex brains when their societies began to develop cooperation. The results therefore support the idea that cooperation helped to drive the evolution of intelligence in at least certain species.
“The transitions to cooperative societies from uncooperative ones select for intelligence because of the constant risk of being exploited by uncooperative individuals,” McNally explained. “This requires memory of past interactions and use of this memory to make decisions.”
As the authors admit, one would think that the huge abundance of bee hives and ant colonies in the world would demonstrate that a great deal of co-operation can be achieved with very little individual intelligence. In fact, individual intelligence would pose a barrier to their organization.
(Of course, we are talking about the real world here, not a computer model.)
Here’s a useful discussion of how it probably works,
A real ant colony is not a society of scheming, self-sacrificing individuals. It is more like an office that communicates by meaningless text messaging in which each worker’s task is determined by how many messages she just received. The colony has no central purpose. Each ant responds to the rate of her brief encounters with other ants and has no sense of the condition or the goals of the whole colony. Unlike the ants in [E. O. Wilson’s novel] Anthill, no ant really cares if the queen dies. (Deborah M. Gordon, “Colonial Studies,” Boston Review, September/October 2010)
Somehow, an interesting finding that theoretically could apply to some actual species gets morphed into a “proof” later in the article:
“This is one of the first models showing that selection for efficient cooperative decision making alone can influence the evolution of intelligence, so it provides a really nice proof of concept for the social intelligence hypothesis,” she said. “This could potentially explain the large brain sizes seen in several highly cooperative species, including humans.”
But, of course, the difference between human intelligence and some higher animals’ intelligence is of such magnitude that it makes nonsense of studies like these.
Explaining human intelligence is the actual purpose of the studies, but the value of co-operation in encouraging human intelligence is decidedly mixed. Co-operation expressed as conformity is not an incitement to intelligence; rather, the opposite.