Bursting the Bubble of Human Intelligence

By Mark Changizi | December 7, 2011 10:01 am

Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 FeetThe Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.”

I’m king of the world! You are too. We humans—all of us—get props for being the smartest Earthlings. And we’re not merely the smartest. No, we’re the only species worth writing home about; we’re the only truly worth building artificial intelligence to mimic. We’re the smart ones. The rest of the diversity of life may be rich in clever design, like well-engineered tools and gadgets, but they’re not designed to be intelligent. That’s for humans. Rationality and intelligence is something natural selection granted us.

But…what if our Homo sapiens intelligence is radically overrated? What if we’re smarter, but only quantitatively so, not qualitatively? What if many of our Earthly cousins are respectably intelligent after all? More intriguingly, what if there are systematic barriers that lead us to overestimate our true level of intelligence relative to that of others? And, although I won’t get into this here, what are the implications for the rights of chimpanzees, if the chasm between us and them is, instead, a slender fault line? That question has led to a recent movement to ban invasive research on chimpanzees in the U.S., a measure that the EU has already adopted.

Here I’ll discuss just two barriers, a little one and a big one, that conceal how smart we really are—or are not.

Individuality: The Little Bubble

The eyes, they say, are the window to the soul. Look at someone—look into their eyes—and you can’t fail to see the intelligent, sentient, emotionally alive creature inside. And if that person has instead, say, finished your entire bottle of Two-Buck Chuck wine, you can see that too. Not only can we often read what’s on their mind, but we can see his or her individuality—the uniqueness in the face, in the way it expresses, in the vocalizations it utters.

When we look into the eyes of other animals, on the other hand, we often get relatively little back, and often nothing at all (sometimes worse). Looking at a waddle of penguins, our sense is of hundreds of automata with roughly interchangeable personalities, and thus no personalities at all. We do sense unique personalities and inner lives in our nearest primate relatives and also in our pet dogs, but even in these cases the sense is much attenuated.

Of course, anyone who fancies him or herself a naturalist realizes that these failures in “life sensing” in other species is an illusion. When we look into the eyes of a person we’re not seeing into his or her brain, much less the soul (because the soul is invisible). Instead, we’re sensing a whole variety of cues, including eye gaze, pupil dilation, facial expressions and skin color, and these cues to what’s going on inside tend to be disproportionately informative near the eyes. We can “read” another person’s eyes because we evolved to have software for doing that. And that software doesn’t tend to work well, or at all, on other animals because their faces are very different, in the facial expressions they possess, in the pupil modulations they evince, in the shape of the eyes and pupil, in the placement of the eyes on the head (most animals have eyes on the sides of their heads rather than the front), and in the degree to which the face is naked and undergoes color changes.

Even though one may be cognitively aware that a female penguin senses in her mate a bounty of life you and I cannot sense, our innate handicap at “life sensing” in other animals must continually be fought against. Even among chimpanzees, although to a lesser extent than for penguins. If other animals often seem dead inside, it is because our human eyes are dead (unresponsive) to the life in them. It is not by any means a sign that we’re disproportionately intelligent.

Language and Art: The Big Bubble

The greatest sign that Homo sapiens intelligence is far beyond that of any other animal is our language capability and unique propensity for the arts. If we evolved instincts for language and the arts then that would indeed amount to revolutionary steps in intelligence beyond that of our cousins.

But what if language and the arts don’t require qualitative leaps in brain software? What if all the software for language and the arts was inside us long before we ever spoke or sang?

For example, what if, as I argue in my book, Harnessed, spoken language got structured via cultural evolution to sound like the events occurring among solid objects, the principal sort of event occurring in natural terrestrial habitats, and the sort of event that ape brains would have already evolved to ably process? Special speech processing mechanisms would then not be needed, because speech would have gotten rigged to harness the solid-object auditory processing mechanisms we already possessed. And what if the semantic structure of our language vocabulary closely matched the structure of the internal mental lexicon apes like us possessed long before language? Special vocabulary-storage mechanisms would also not be needed.

And, for the arts, consider music. What if, as I also argue in Harnessed, our musical proclivity is not due to having evolved to process that strange beat-and-tone-filled class of auditory stimulus, but, instead, is due to music having itself culturally evolved  to possess the signature structure found among the sounds of humans evocatively carrying out behavior in one’s midst, another class of sound our brain already had evolved to process? No special music processing capability would then be needed.

This sort of hypothesis is radical for spoken language and music, but it is much less so for writing, where we know we cannot possibly have evolved a reading instinct, writing being much too recent an invention. Yet even writing has most of the hallmarks of instinct, and it does so because writing has culturally evolved over centuries to be shaped like nature, in particular like the sorts of contour combinations occurring in natural scenes with opaque objects strewn about.

This alternative hypothesis to how we humans got these qualitative new intellectual powers—language, arts, writing—is that language and the arts developed to fit the capabilities of our ancient, non-language, non-musical brains by mimicking fundamental aspects of nature. Culture evolved to harness us, and it did so, in a sense, by “dumbing down” language, writing, and music into shapes we could process.

And the result is that we humans appear much farther removed from our ape cousins than is biologically merited. It is the fruits of cultural evolution that gave us the modern capabilities we prize, but they are powers built and amplified upon relatively meager biological brain surfeits over the other apes.


Now, I’d hate to give the impression that, because we humans are much less smart than is commonly thought, that building artificial intelligence is on the horizon. The intelligence of all animals—especially birds and mammals—is so deeply complex that I believe we’re centuries, not decades, away.

My intent in knocking ourselves down a peg is not so much to lower us, but to raise our appreciation of the intelligence found in other animals.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
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About Mark Changizi

Mark Changizi is the director of human cognition at 2AI Labs and the author of several books, including Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and The Vision Revolution.

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