Missing the Point about Evolution

Even among fairly well educated people, there is a fundamental misunderstanding when it comes to the theory of evolution. A student of mine wrote that “humans are the most intelligent beings on the planet.” My response: I’m not sure this is true. Intelligence is relative. If a creature is able to successfully live and reproduce in its environment, it is intelligent. For instance, insects that have been around for millions of years can be called highly intelligent. In contrast, we humans might actually destroy our environment and go extinct.

This is a case where Luhmannian systems theory can help. It makes no sense to say that one species is “more evolved” or “higher on the evolutionary ladder” than some other species. This trope has been used racists to justify their racism. There is no “up or down” in evolution. This view is consistent with a stratified, hierarchical society.  Evolution has no direction. A cockroach or sewer rat is just as “highly evolved” as a human being.

Hierarchical views of evolution also lead people to envision life forms on other planets as more intelligent than we are or extraterrestrial societies being more highly evolved than our own “primitive” society.

This is at the heart of what anti-humanism means. We shouldn’t take ourselves as the model or paradigmatic species.

7 Comments

  1. Although I agree that (neodarwinian) evolution theory is highly misunderstood even among educated people, I think you’re simply dismissing the issue by redefining intelligence as some sort of functional fitness or survavibility.

    I also am very against the notion that humans are super-special, a type of metaphysical specism. Still, even though evolution is not considered teleological, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a significant difference in capacity in the resulting animals. Denying that humans are not the standard of the universe (with which I agree) is not the same as “there is not difference in intelligence”.

    The problem here is two-fold. First, conflating evolution in the neodarwinian sense with evolution in the sense of “more capacity” (or more intelligence). Those two should not be equated in principle.

    Second, the use of “more intelligence” as a justification for racism. When faced with that, we have two options: first, negate the difference in intelligence; second, negating that intelligence is a good justification for racism. My view is that the first option not only does not work (because it’s false), but it implicitly agrees that intelligence is a good justification for racism (forcing us to negate it), when it is not.

    So instead of trying to deny the difference in intelligence between species (or between humans), we should be denying the notion that intelligence is a good measure of ethical consideration.

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    1. Rodrigo,
      Thanks very much for the comments. I depend on other people to help me work out these ideas butI don’t get many comments on this blog. Can you tell me more about how you define intelligence?

      My intent in the post was to take the environment seriously in a systems theory sense. I want to radicalize the concept of intelligence. If we consider that every psychic system differentiates itself from its environment in its own way and must maintain its difference from its environment, then two different psychic systems cannot share the same environment. So how can we justifiably compare the “intelligence” of the two people? To compare the intellectual capacity of two psychic systems is to assume that they share the same environment. Of course, the school do that, taking the school curriculum as the shared “environment,” I suppose. But systems theory wouldn’t see it that way.

      A person with Downs Syndrome, for example, has a very different environment than yours or mine. But if we want to compare intelligence, we have to place us all in the same environment. This would be one way of observing, but that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with the actual experience (or perhaps successful living) of any of us.

      So, I guess the big question is, What is intelligence? And then we’d have to add, For what system? because every system observes in its own way.

      Also, are you saying that we can in fact compare races based on intelligence? If so, I can’t agree. I see race as a nothing more than a concept used to categorize groups of people (even if this is done in some ethical neutral way). There is no race gene, even if there are genes for skin pigmentation, etc. To me, race is no more real than Santa Claus; so it cannot be of and use when considering intelligence. So along with intelligence, how do you define race?

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  2. > Can you tell me more about how you define intelligence?

    I don’t have a set definition for intelligence, and I know that it’s hard to have one because of the many aspects that can be or not included, specially when dealing with something like a “general intelligence”. So any definition I give would be problematic in some sense. But my point doesn’t need a strict definition of intelligence. I’m not arguing for a definition of intelligence, I’m arguing against the dismissal of (a comparable) one.

    > My intent in the post was to take the environment seriously in a > systems theory sense. I want to radicalize the concept of
    > intelligence. If we consider that every psychic system
    > differentiates itself from its environment in its own way and
    > must maintain its difference from its environment, then two
    > different psychic systems cannot share the same environment. So
    > how can we justifiably compare the “intelligence” of the two
    > people? To compare the intellectual capacity of two psychic
    > systems is to assume that they share the same environment. Of
    > course, the school do that, taking the school curriculum as the
    > shared “environment,” I suppose. But systems theory wouldn’t see
    > it that way.

    I understand what you are saying about the difficulty of taking everyone as sharing the exact same environment. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some commonality that allows us to compare. Because if you go all the way in that direction, you get more or less a truism. Sure, you can define intelligence as the way a psychic system differentiates itself from its environment. But if you don’t leave any room for generalization and comparison, then it’s the same as saying “each system is exactly as it is”. Technically true, but that doesn’t add much.

    In a way, it’s similar to the nominalism debate (to which I’m very sympathetic) and the problem of natural kinds. Yeah, the idea of universal essences is very problematic and naive. But if we take only particulars to be real and remove all possibility for categorization, generalization and comparison, then all we are left with is the “tautology of existence”. It’s true, but pretty much closes any discussion.

    > A person with Downs Syndrome, for example, has a very different
    > environment than yours or mine. But if we want to compare
    > intelligence, we have to place us all in the same environment.
    > This would be one way of observing, but that doesn’t mean it has
    > anything to do with the actual experience (or perhaps successful
    > living) of any of us.
    >
    > So, I guess the big question is, What is intelligence? And then
    > we’d have to add, For what system? because every system observes
    > in its own way.

    Again, we stumble in the same problem as above. If we say that the only way of comparing would be to be in the exact same environment as that person, that amounts to saying that the only way to comparing would be to BE that person, insofar as that person is its diferentiation from its environment. So there’s no longer a comparison between two things, the only comparison would be between a thing and itself.

    > Also, are you saying that we can in fact compare races based on
    > intelligence? If so, I can’t agree. I see race as a nothing more
    > than a concept used to categorize groups of people (even if this
    > is done in some ethical neutral way). There is no race gene, even
    > if there are genes for skin pigmentation, etc. To me, race is no
    > more real than Santa Claus; so it cannot be of and use when
    > considering intelligence. So along with intelligence, how do you
    > define race?

    I was just replying to what you said about “This trope has been used [by] racists to justify their racism”. Here, my point also doesn’t depend on the definition of race.

    What I was pointing was the options we have when faced with the BAD idea of using any form of difference (intelligence, evolutionary ladder, etc) as a justification for dicrimination and opression.

    If someone says “I can opress because I’m more intelligent”, we have two options to dismantle that. That happens because the person is conflating “difference in intelligence” with “ethical consideration”. The first option is to deny the difference, saying “You can’t opress because you can’t compare intelligence”. But that response implicitly agrees that IF we could compare THEN we could opress.

    What I’m saying is, instead of trying to deny the comparability and hence the difference in intelligence (among humans or among species), we should simply note that the difference is not an ethical consideration. Being more intelligent doesn’t mean you can opress. So in principle we could be more intelligent than a cow (in general, although not always and not in evey way). But that doesn’t give us an ethical free pass, because the ethical consideration for the cow remains.

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    1. Rodrigo,

      You write “But if you don’t leave any room for generalization and comparison, then it’s the same as saying “each system is exactly as it is”. Technically true, but that doesn’t add much.” That’s an interesting point.

      Ultimately, we might (I’m not sure) actually have to say “each system is exactly what it is” even if it doesn’t lead any useful knowledge. When we compare one system with another system (such as the minds or psychic systems of two human beings), we’re observing how that system observes–second-order observation, in other words. From the “outside,” we cannot know what is actually going on in anyone’s mind. So any assessment or comparison is not going to be an assessment/observation of that mind (or intelligence, however we define that) but an observation of some kind of set in a mathematical sense. I am no mathematician or logician so I am getting into muddy water here, but I just mean that the observing system, which could be the education system or the science system or another system, draws a distinction in order to indicate something. And this means there’s an unmarked space or blind spot. Whatever that observing system observes might actually be useful for that system (e.g., it can help to organize the schools or workforce), but I don’t think it actually tells us anything about the “internal” operations of any observed system.

      So . . . sure, we can create a definition of intelligence with certain criteria and then compare the “intelligence” of two or more people, but this won’t tell us anything at all about how one psychic system constructs reality. It comes down to questions like, Who (what system) is observing? Why are they observing? What are they looking for?

      You write, “What I’m saying is, instead of trying to deny the comparability and hence the difference in intelligence (among humans or among species), we should simply note that the difference is not an ethical consideration.” You’re right. I can agree that a system can make comparisons; so I don’t need to deny the comparability. The education system, as an observing system, can create a definition of intelligence and then compare students, and this might be useful for that system. But I am more interested in the distinctions we make in order to make those comparisons, and what is our motivation?

      I hope this is somewhat coherent. I am trying figure this stuff out for myself while discussing it with you.

      Like

  3. > When we compare one system with another system (such as the
    > minds or psychic systems of two human beings), we’re observing
    > how that system observes–second-order observation, in other
    > words. From the “outside,” we cannot know what is actually
    > going on in anyone’s mind.

    I completely agree. But I think we have to settle for our own first-order observation combined with a second-order, and a third-order and so on. We need, yes, to be aware of the limitations and avoid overstepping.

    > But I am more interested in the distinctions we make in order
    > to make those comparisons, and what is our motivation?

    I think I understand what you mean by the role of our motivations in the comparisons, but I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “the distinctions we make”.

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    1. I mean distinctions a social system such as education makes between mastery/non-mastery or that the health system makes between illness/health (or absence of illness) or that science makes between truth/absence of truth, etc. All of these distinctions are motivated in some way.

      Like

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