Blog: Understanding the Nature of Intellect
Can a cat understand quantum mechanics? Can a dog comprehend modern chemistry?
These might seem like silly questions to ask, but they represent a thought that goes much deeper. It proposes a fundamental question about a creature’s intellect.
What is the nature of intellect?
It sounds easy enough to answer, but when one gets down to the nitty gritty of it, one finds that there are many layers to this question.
Intellect is the capacity of an organism to understand the world around it. It also includes the organism’s ability for problem-solving, logical reasoning and creativity.
The brain is where the magic happens. Where neurons fire, strengthening and weakening the connections between them.
Human brains are interesting in that they are bigger than most species in the animal kingdom. It’s not just the size of our brain that’s different either. The cerebral cortex, which is responsible for higher intellect, is disproportionately larger in humans. It makes up 80% of our brains.
But that alone isn’t enough to separate us from the pack. After all, many traits once thought to be unique to humans are found in the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees wage tribal war with each other, rats show altruism, and in a study on animal behavior, Capuchin monkeys demonstrated an understanding of inflation and even took part in gambling. Crows can use twigs and branches to fashion crude tools for different situations. They even use small stones to bring up the level of a water source to get a drink, just like in Aesop’s fable.
Perhaps the biggest distinguishing factor between humans and other species is the level of plasticity in our early developing, brains. Plasticity is the molding potential of a brain.
Studies have shown that human brains are less genetically inheritable than those of monkeys. This means that our young brains take a longer time to grow and hence can be shaped for a longer period.
The longer the brain is molded, the more information we can take in from our surroundings. Take a newborn baby as an example. Their limbs are constantly moving when they’re awake. This movement helps them understand their place in the space around them, thus molding their brains to understand spatial dimensions. Everything they do from their early life right up until their final breath shapes their brain in different ways. Our brain’s plasticity could hold the key to understanding the origins of our intellect.
Intellect as a Survival Tool
An important property of intellect is the ability to adapt.
Intellectual creatures are constantly trying to understand their environment. A large part of early humankind’s survival came down to this ability. Being able to perceive threats and opportunities for hunting in their vicinity gave early humans an advantage over other animal species. Other animals possess this sense of awareness, but not to the level of human beings. A rabbit, for example, might only have to worry about a fox within the area of its burrow. Early humans had to worry about a multitude of threats. With the variety of nutrients required to fuel our bodies, humans had to hunt and search for different kinds of food sources. This inevitably led them to confront different types of predators.
All this led to human beings joining forces to form tribes. For the first time, humans were able to see problems from the perspective of other humans. The ability to work together and come up with different solutions for the same problem greatly increased our problem-solving ability and logical reasoning.
Communication also plays a major part in the development of intellect. A human child has an expressive vocabulary of 2600 words, and a receptive vocabulary of 20,000 to 24,000 words. Compare this to that of a dog, which on average is only capable of a mere 165 word receptive vocabulary. It’s this difference in language complexity that gave humans a significant advantage over the rest of the animal kingdom.
A World of Artificial Intelligence
In recent years, the main goal of computer scientists has been to develop pure artificial intelligence. Known as seed intelligence or general-purpose intelligence, it is a level of intelligence equal to that of a human being.
As it stands, we have developed machines and programs that beat chess masters and professional Go players at their own game. However, these programs are specialized to do just one task. Deep Blue, the machine created by IBM to play chess, was only good at playing chess. Give it another task, and it would fail miserably.
This is where artificial intelligence can’t hold a candle to our intellect so far. It cannot replicate our ability to take different parts of understanding and glue them together.
An Alien Understanding
So far, everything discussed has been with regards to planet Earth. But what about alien intellect? If we entertain the idea that alien life exists, what is their intellectual level, and how would they display such intellect? One would think that any life that evolves sentience will have some level of intellect. How they choose to show such intellect may be something quite incomprehensible. An advanced alien being will understand the concept of the laws of physics, but might not be able to express themselves in a way as humans understand.
To bring it all back to the first couple of questions asked, cats and dogs have never needed to understand quantum mechanics or modern chemistry. Their survival doesn’t depend on knowing these subjects.
These areas of study were born from human intellect that is driven by “forward thinking” and curiosity — discovery of the natural world is how humanity ensures its survival.
In other words, everything what we witness and scrutinize in our physical environment is fundamentally driven by an attempt to survive and the intellect allows us to do that.
However, I’m not sure that human intellect is the most optimal tool of observation and analysis. AI may, over time, present us with a completely different way to adapt and problem solve that is out of the realm of our understanding. Even more intriguing is the idea of alien intelligence beyond our universe.
Humanity, AI, and the prospect of alien intelligence might ultimately define what the nature of the intellect truly is. It is the ability of an organism, human or otherwise, to question and understand where it comes from, where it’s going, and its place in this world.
“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan