The Purpose of Intelligence

In which the author argues that the evolutionary need for, or “purpose” of, intelligence is to create.

Many species of animals have evolved a powerful method of teaching their young. It is called instinct. The very genetic material of the offspring contains most of the instructions that they will need for survival. The role of the parent is often to demonstrate the behaviors that will trigger the instinct. The role of the offspring is to imitate the parent, and then follow the irresistible urge that results.

The problem with instinct is that, since it is genetically-based, it takes generations of mutations to allow the species to change to meet new conditions. If the species cannot adapt quickly enough, it dies out. Some species have evolved more flexible behavior, called intelligence: the ability to adapt consciously to changing opportunities and threats. In other words to create new solutions.

Such flexible thinking has long been dubbed “cunning,” “sly,” or “almost-human,” when applied to animals other than ourselves. But science keeps bringing us up short by forcing us to notice tool-making crows in New Caledonia, rapid change in social order and aggressive behavior among baboons, and evidence of song-writing skills among whales. This forces us to look again at our assumptions about being the “king of beasts” and the only truly sentient species on our planet.

Humanity has always been driven to create, even when that creation has no visible survival or social function. Some of the earliest human artifacts we have so far discovered were clearly crafted with an awareness of form and design that goes beyond the utilitarian.

35,000 years ago, there was art

Our current factory school system, assembled by the robber barons of the industrial revolution to provide the raw material of labor for their money-making machinery, aims only at getting children to imitate what teachers say and do, and to regurgitate the raw and undigested facts they are fed. It operates under the assumption that, once children have a sufficient set of factual information, they will be able to go out into the world and make sense of it.

No Guidance Now

And so our metaphors take shape as schools organized into rigid-walled boxes, segregated from the world they are trying to explain, and with children separated from one another by artificial and superficial barriers of age, subject matter, and level of “achievement.” Metaphors of “tracks” and “scaffolds” lead to the use tools such as scripts and stopwatches to “standardize” teaching and learning. The Holy Grail of education is “proficiency,” as measured by computer-scored tests.

But the ancients knew what science is now re-proving: that learning is not a linear process, but a spiral. And that learning, for an intelligent being, requires the active participation of the learner. We all begin as tiny seeds made of an egg and a sperm. Implanted in a uterine wall, we grow in a spiral, centered around the umbilical connection to our mothers. Once born into the outside world, we grow in a metaphorical and logarithmic spiral, gaining momentum and abilities far beyond linear constructs.

Classic Cretan labyrinth with spiral overlay

Think how quickly infants mature from helpless, slug-like creatures, whose only defense is their very helpless cuteness. Almost in the blink of an eye, they develop coordination, intention, and personality. Soon, they are motoring around in creeps, crawls, walks, and runs. The brain goes from a confused and overwhelmed nervous system ganglion to an amazing central switchboard of sensation, impulse, action, and reaction — and that is all in the first few months of life.

By the time we reach “school age,” we are already marvels of fine-tuned biological and intellectual possibility. As does every other creature of similar complexity, we indulge in play in order to discover and hone our skills for the time they will be needed in earnest. We begin to invent ever-more-difficult problems for ourselves to solve, and we begin to investigate real-life mysteries. Why does the moon wax and wane as it does? Where does the sun go at night? Why do these plants grow here and not here?

As we mature, our questions, and our investigations, become increasingly complex and more related to larger issues. What is my relationship to other humans? To other life? To the planet itself? Why am I here? This is the natural order of things, and has been for hundreds of centuries, pre-dating any form of history that has survived.

Now, having heard and wondered at the songs of mystery as sung by the universe, our species has been forcefully confronted with a new deity: Progress. Of course, Progress is but Mammon dressed in high-tech clothing. The only purpose of Progress, according to the new high priests of the world, is to increase wealth. And of course, since there is not enough wealth to go around, wealth should be reserved for the deserving.

One way of looking at capitalism.

These plutocrats, who currently control the world and its debates, follow a sort of retroactive social Darwinism that states: “Wealth migrates to the deserving. Since we are wealthy, we must be deserving. Since you are not wealthy, you exist to increase my wealth.” Those who take this view of society love to think of themselves as being at the top of a sort of pyramid of capitalism, victors in a global game of “Survivor” due to their superior genes and/or ability. “To the victor go the spoils,” remains their cry, but now they want us to acquiesce in being stripped of our value as well as our valuables. But that’s a topic for another day.

Maslow's Pyramid

The pyramid is much more importantly a metaphor for a much older understanding. Building upon a solid foundation, enduring difficulty and privation, and completing a whole person who stands erect and aiming ever-upward: that is the purpose of life in many traditions. The spiral, as a life path or a migration story, appears in numerous cultures. One common human interpretation of the spiral is the labyrinth, which encourages the one who walks the path to consider their journey through life and the fact that the beginning and ending are at the same point. And it is quite possible that the Egyptians who built the Great Pyramids did so by constructing counterclockwise spiral ramps up the exteriors, acknowledging even in that process that the path to completion is not a straight one.

Did the Egyptians build a spiral ramp to construct each pyramid?

That fact means, in turn, that creativity — the ability to invent new solutions to problems — is essential to the survival of our species. The problems we face today, many of them of our own making, require completely new ways of thinking and behaving in order to solve them. We have to work together for the common good, and acknowledge that no one — no human, no creature, no resource — is dispensable. We all sacrifice to become a better whole, and humans are no better than any other part of the community. We, as a species, are uniquely able to step up to the challenge.

“Humans have invented the small, nomadic band and the continental megastate and have demonstrated a flexibility whereby uprooted descendants of the former can function effectively in the latter.” – Robert M. Sapolsky

But we have to fix the way we teach our children. We have to make creation the primary goal of the school day: students must learn to create their own understanding in multiple ways. We have to abandon the idea of total control of the scope and sequence of lessons by some all-seeing authority. We have to celebrate the truth that everyone learns differently, but that we are all designed to be excellent learners. And we have to acknowledge that we all need each other in the process. As social beings, we challenge each other, we lift each other, and we help each other climb our own spiral ramps of personal success.

Shouldn’t that be what school is like?


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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