Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What if intelligence correlates with cooperation among humans?

I had a wild thought yesterday. Well, I was in class today and freezing my butt off in an air conditioned room after having shaved my head the day before. That makes for great heat transfer in moments of deep thought. Yeah, I had a really deep one yesterday.

So here's my thought: what if there is a correlation between the desire to cooperate and intelligence? This thought sort of comes from an idea I had when I was in high school. I got picked on a lot in school and tried to find ways to recover from my defeats by thinking. My idea then? That the jocks and bullies in school were at an intellectual disadvantage. Why? They need to dedicate more brain cells to fire off impulses that moved muscles. The logic is that the more muscles you have, the more you must dedicate to moving all that mass. Get it?

So I'm in class, learning new stuff, and it occurs to me that in my new job, I'm going to be a writer. I'm not just a writer, I'm a technical writer, and I'm a problem solver, too. I guess all that stimulation got me going.

But I think that the logic I am suggesting holds true. Negotiating peacefully takes more brains than beating your adversary senseless with a stick. Cooperation takes more brains, too. A casual survey among the animals seems to suggest that man is one of the most cooperative animals in the world, second only to the ants. I think that there are network effects that contribute to the size of the brain when humans engage in cooperative efforts.

Research published in Nature Communications shows that previous notions about the superiority of selfishness over cooperation are not born out by the evidence. The latest research and experiments show that cooperation is what allows a species to survive and that selfishness will drive a species to extinction, or at least, to smaller brains. Even Darwin noticed cooperation in the habitats he studied, expressed surprise to see it and suggested that animals need and express love.

The initial investment of negotiating a peace and writing laws that everyone can live with is high and requires a lot of patience, thought and planning. These are skills that testy adversaries like the Visigoths portrayed in pop culture don't have. In the long run, taking the time to negotiate peace, form governments and write laws has an interesting side effect: when those big brains are not being used to fight adversaries: they can be used to make life better.

Consider this question: can you think when you're in fear? Can you contemplate the really big questions like, "What is the source of gravity?", or "Why are my hands so big?", or "Why are we using uranium instead of thorium for nuclear power?", when you're worrying about physical threats? With few if any physical threats from adversaries, we can focus long enough to consider these problems and more. We have time to tinker and create inventions and works of art that please people and make life better.

But under constant threat of assailants or predators, we wouldn't have the time to live. We would only have the time to survive.

One look at economic development among the international community bears this out. Those who are constantly engaged in war in their homeland, particularly in the Middle East, and Africa, have to devote more resources to the lower functions of the brain, namely, deciding between fight or flight. In war, you don't get time to contemplate the big questions. Much of the time in war is spent, fighting, grieving and moving to safety. Higher order thought is replaced by the urge for revenge or submitting to defeat.

Charles Darwin expressed surprise in his observations of cooperation in the animal kingdom. Yet what we are conditioned to believe is "the survival of the fittest". That phrase reminds me of how my dad used to talk about putting two humans in a pit to fight over a sandwich. He never talked about the possibility that those two humans could just relax and share the sandwich. Yeah, sharing. What a concept.

Many theories have been put forward to explain the size of the human brain. Some say it's cheap calories from cooking food. Others say its a natural consequence of our ability to dominate the environment. But honestly, we couldn't just sit around and cook food without cooperation from others. That's why I think that when humans cooperate, they make room for bigger brains.
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