Why intelligence exists only in the eye of the beholder

Why intelligence exists only in the eye of the beholder

Abigail Desmond and Michael Haslam write:

What has intelligence? Slime moulds, ants, fifth-graders, shrimp, neurons, ChatGPT, fish shoals, border collies, crowds, birds, you and me? All of the above? Some? Or, at the risk of sounding transgressive: maybe none? The question is a perennial one, often dusted off in the face of a previously unknown animal behaviour, or new computing devices that are trained to do human things and then do those things well. We might intuitively feel our way forwards – choosing, for example, to accept border collies and children, deny shrimp and slime moulds, and argue endlessly about different birds – but really it’s impossible to answer this question until we’ve dealt with the underlying issue. What, exactly, is intelligence?

Instead of a measurable, quantifiable thing that exists independently out in the world, we suggest that intelligence is a label, pinned by humanity onto a bag stuffed with a jumble of independent traits that helped our ancestors thrive. Though people treat intelligence as a coherent whole, it remains ill-defined because it’s really a shifting array masquerading as one thing. We propose that it’s hard to empirically quantify intelligence because it exists only relative to our expectations – expectations that are human and, moreover, individual to particular humans. Because of this, much like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, intelligence often turns up in the places we least expect it.

Intelligence is not central to the success of most life on Earth. Consider the grasses: they’ve flourished across incredibly diverse global environments, without planning or debating a single step. Planarian worms regrow any part of their body and are functionally immortal, a trick we can manage only in science fiction. And a microscopic virus effectively shut down global human movement in 2020, without having any notion of what humans even are. [Continue reading…]

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