The Russian Fox and the Evolution of Intelligence

This is a guest post by Brian Potter of  Coarse Grained. It explores a different aspect of some of the ideas in my post, The Return of the Barbarian, and Paula Hay’s guest post, Cognitive Archeology of the West. If you are interested in guest-posting, email me.

Consider the following experiment (the Wason selection task):

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?

The correct answer is “8” and “brown”, but very few people get the correct answer – between 10-25% depending on the exact formulation of the problem. Even when its expressed in more familiar terms, such as “If a person goes to New York, then he takes the subway”, success rates remain extremely low.

However, consider the exact same problem, rephrased slightly:

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a statement on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 16, 25, ‘drinking beer’ and ‘drinking coke’. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if “If you are drinking alcohol, then you must be over 21”?

Phrased like this, success rates shoot up to around 75%. But what makes this form different than a question about riding the subway?

The Specificity of Intelligence

The answer is that the rule above is couched in the language of a social contract, and determining whether it holds is determining whether that contract has been violated. In essence, you’re trying to figure out if anyone’s cheating. The reason we’re so much better at solving the second problem is because humans have a built in mental-module specifically for detecting cheaters. Rather than a general intelligence, what’s inside our heads is in fact a complex bundle of mechanisms each designed to solve a specific problem. And social problems are likely to have been some of the most persistent ones during our evolutionary formative years – so much so, that they may be the reason we have intelligence at all.

The evolution of intelligence is still somewhat of an unsolved problem. For one, it’s very difficult to create an environment that makes high intelligence worth its costs. A bigger brain means a woman is much more likely to die during childbirth, that infants must be born earlier (and thus completely helpless), and that much more energy must be expended towards power-hungry neural tissue – such a trade-off is seldom worth it. For another, our intelligence emerged extremely rapidly. Over a period of a few million years human cranial capacity increased several fold, putting at at approximately seven times the size you would expect for an animal our size. That sort of jump, in the words of Dan Dennett, requires an “evolutionary crane” – something capable to doing some heavy lifting fast.

It’s likely that the social environment of our distant ancestors was such a crane, inadvertently providing a situation where the rapid emergence of intelligence was not only possible, but favorable. To understand how, consider another animal that has a body part that’s proportionally much too large – the peacock. Their huge tails serve no purpose other than decoration, and in fact make them much more likely to be consumed by predators. How could they possibly have evolved?

At some point in the past, probably for no good reason, peahens began have preferences for large-tailed peacocks – they began to think they were “sexy”. As a result, peacocks with large tails mated more successfully, and left more offspring. It thus became beneficial for peacocks to have large tails, even if they required more energy to grow and made them more likely to be eaten by a predator. But interestingly enough, it also became beneficial for peahens to have a preference for large tails, since having a large-tailed mate would result in large-tailed (and thus successful) children. These traits spread throughout the population, boosted by the fact that they also serve as an indication of reproductive fitness – a hugely decorated tail suggests a freedom from mutations and parasites, and that the male is fit enough to maintain it. Peacock tails gradually got larger and larger. Thus a preference which came about almost at random induced a positive feedback loop, and over time resulted in peacocks with enormous, decorative tails which serve no function. The giraffe has a similar process to thank for their enormous necks.

This process happens every so often in evolution – a positive feedback loop gets created, and every instance of a change creates conditions that elicit even more change. It’s known as an “arms race”, and it’s not just limited to sexual selection. The same phenomena occurs with parasite-host interactions. The parasite evolves an ability to let it infect the host, the host evolves a defense against the ability, which induces the parasite to evolve means to overcome the defense, and so on. Whenever arms races occur, they become strong drivers of evolution because they result in a constant selection pressure that the species can’t “outrun”. In fact, the phenomena is also known as the Red Queen hypothesis after the character from Alice in Wonderland, who must run faster and faster to simply stay in the same place.

Social Intelligence Arms Races

The rapid increase in brain size that occurred in hominids over the last several million years strongly suggests that the driving force behind our intelligence is some type of positive feedback loop. And the fact that most of our cognitive advancement came in the form of improved social cognition suggests that the arms race was somehow social in nature. This could have occurred in a variety of ways. One possibility is that, like the peacock’s large tail, intelligence for some reason became “sexy”. Thus there was a constant pressure on intelligence as the smartest males had the most reproductive success. However, for this to have occurred, intelligence would also have to act as some indicator of fitness – and indeed this is what we see. Intelligence correlates with body symmetry and semen quality, and may also correlate with pathogen and parasite resistance. Essentially, fitness indicators must be difficult to produce – if they’re not costly, they’ll simply be faked by cheaters who don’t possess the underlying traits. By successfully displaying a large and ornate appendage, one where a bad gene or a nutrient shortage would easily ruin it, a male is essentially saying “Not only do I have good genes, I’m so reproductively fit that I can afford to waste resources maintaining this giant thing”. As useful as big brains turned out to be, they may have evolved simply because they’re large and ornate appendages, signals of high fitness that would be difficult to fake.

Another possibility is that pressure to survive in larger and more complex social groups selected for larger and more complex brains that were better able to handle them. This is known as either the Social Brain hypothesis or the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis, depending on which behaviors you’re focusing on. The theory essentially states that interacting with large groups is difficult to do, and becomes MORE difficult as the members of the group get smarter. Interacting with a group involves communicating with others, understanding their intentions, forming coalitions, outwitting and deceiving others for food and mates, providing instruction – all tasks which impose a large cognitive burden. And though we don’t notice it, we’re in fact amazingly adept at social reasoning. As Wason demonstrates, consider how effortlessly we can understand complex, nested social relations (ie: “Sam wanted you to tell me about what Sue said to Ted before she talked to Steve”), and how they seem so much easier than even simple logical operations (quick, what will NOT(XOR(1 0)) output?). More intelligent individuals would outwit and out deceive their competitors and more adeptly handle the complexities of the social world, but their reproductive success would ultimately result in even sneakier opponents and an even more complex social landscape, resulting in a continuous pressure on improving intelligence.

The Russian Fox

But my personal favorite (though not necessarily the most likely to be accurate) is what I’ve dubbed the Russian Fox hypothesis. Over a period of 45 years, a group of foxes in a lab in Russia were continuously bred, with one small stipulation – only the friendliest, least aggressive, most docile foxes out of each generation were allowed to breed. Over many generations, this resulted in a group of tame foxes – foxes which were eager to associate with humans, wagged their tails when happy or excited, had floppy ears, and overall exhibited many dog-like traits. Experiments showed, that, even though only tameness was selected for, these foxes showed an increased ability to follow and understand human gestures – in essence, they showed increased social intelligence. It’s possible that the evolution of human intelligence was a response to a similar pressure – that in fact we were being selected for increased docility, and increased intelligence was a mere “correlated byproduct” – an accident.

This selection for docility would help to explain another puzzle of human behavior – our sense of cooperation and altruism. Human society, no matter how primitive, is based on a large-scale division of labor. We show unprecedented cooperation on food sharing, hunting, and warfare – even those not directly related to us, and even when it costs us a great deal to do so. This goes far beyond the cooperation of any other animal and far beyond what a simple “gene selection” model would predict. However, Herbert Simon showed how docility, by making an individual more disposed to accepting instruction, could allow for the emergence of truly altruistic behaviors by simply bundling them with other “taught” behaviors. If human society was sufficiently strict about enforcing its norms (which would include the rules for social interaction), this would create a pressure for better ability to learn them, and result in the appearance of specialized social skills.

By asking which (if any) of these hypotheses is correct, we’re doing more than determining how intelligence evolved – we’re in fact asking about the sort of society that our ancestors lived in. The Social Brain hypothesis seems to imply a competitive society where men are pitted against each other for access to females, where each person strives to understand the nuances of the social world in order to further their own best interests, and where everyone is trying to game everyone else. A society of competition and deception, but also one of freedom.

Russian Fox, on the other hand, implies a society where proper behaviors are strictly enforced, where altruism is expected and rewarded, and where people do won’t go along pay stiff penalties. A cooperative, yet restrictive society, where altruism exists but is enforced.

Sexual Selection as a Wildcard

Sexual selection was probably a driver in each of these theories, but it could have played a role in many different ways. If the primary driver was competition between males for females, that would primarily select for the ability to outwit and out-think, and place it in line with the social brain. But if the primary driver was female choice, it’s more likely that altruism would be selected for – altruistic mates would be more likely to be good fathers.

Of course, it’s not as if we’re forced to settle on one of these. In fact, it’s often fairly difficult to determine where the dividing lines are between the theories. An important part of Social Brain is the ability to woo mates, which implies elements of female preference and sexual selection. And if altruistic behavior (arising from docility) were an important part of society, female sexual selection could have been an important part of it’s enforcement. And being able to cooperate requires, on some level, an ability to understand the intentions of others, so baring some sort of cosmic experiment it’s unlikely that whatever pressure existed was on tameness alone. The hypotheses are all bundled together in one complex heap. We shouldn’t be surprised to see elements of all of them exerting force on the evolution of our intelligence.

And if these pressures all existed simultaneously, it would be reflected in ancient society. We’d expect to see humans both cooperating and competing with one another, acting altruistically one moment and stabbing someone in the back the next. And though our vision of past society only extends back a few thousand years, this certainly matches with what we can plumb from history. Social dynamics, then, has gone unchanged not only for the thousands of years of recorded history – but for millions of years prior to that. We’ve come a long way, but maybe not quite as far as we think we have. In some sense, the path of human advancement is finding new ways to do the same old things.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. The first thing that jumps out at me from this post is the idea that docility might have lead to intelligence.

    If we also assume that civilization was the force that created the docility pressures, and that civilizaiton also makes humans dumber due to the externalization of intelligence into institutions, you get a weird competition effect, at least for the last few thousand effects. Of course, your Russian Fox docility explanation would go back for millions of years rather than thousands, so you could say that group-living before either barbarian/civilized happened, drove the docility, and that the dumbing down became a stronger force with the invention of writing a few thousand years ago.

    • If indeed Russian Fox is correct, the interesting question becomes “what is it about docility that selecting for it results in larger, more powerful brains?”

      What’s likely required is a more advanced system capable of regulating our fear signals (generated from the amygdala). In humans this seems to be performed by the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) – interestingly enough, disregulation of the connection between these two areas seems to be the culprit in a wide variety of social-based disorders such as williams syndrome, psychopathy, and autism/aspergers.

      Even though the OFC seems to be responsible for decision making and planning based on expected reward, it does so in a largely unconscious way (ie: it’s responsible for a “bad feeling about something”). It’s not exactly clear what relationship it has to our higher order functions – but it’s also apparently the “least understood part of the brain”, so there’s plenty we don’t know about it.

      • By selecting the Russian foxes for docility, this also selected for *neoteny* – most articles on the foxes mention this, they look like oversized kits, and dogs look like oversized puppies rather than wolves. When do animals (and humans) learn fastest and most flexibly? As kids…

        • Good point – now that you mention it, I believe wolves show many of these social abilities when they’re young, only growing out of them later.

          Not to mention the fact that humans (I believe) resemble neotenic apes in many aspects…

  2. Interesting post, though it reads a little bit like the unsolvable chicken/egg quandary. Your throw-away final sentence, however, sent me in a completely different direction with the mention of “path of human advancement.” I contend no such thing exists, but that’s a whole nuther affair.

    Of stronger interest to me is the notion that survival pressure and sexual selection together drive dual inheritance theory. I suspect there has never been a time in history when it was easier for genes to survive and propagate successfully, meaning that pressures and competition haven’t disappeared entirely but have been attenuated enough that general intelligence has lost its luster as a criterion for selection, though specifically social intelligence probably still ranks highly.

  3. pressures and competition haven’t disappeared entirely

    Of course not, thanks to “democracy” the selection pressure is now for lazyness.

  4. And social problems are likely to have been some of the most persistent ones during our evolutionary formative years – so much so, that they may be the reason we have intelligence at all.

    I still fail to see what this has to do with “intelligence”. Even a dog can read emotions and behave accordingly ( like the foxes ) and a horse can learn some special rules. The social is pretty dull unless you view it through the lens of Shakespeare dramas or other high literature art and in order to see this we only have to take contemporary mankind into account, not the Pithecanthropus. So the hypothesis that social behavior – being friendly or not – shapes intelligence is occult. Something must have been lost or being obscured on our long way from Lucy.

    On the other hand there is an immediate benefit for the survival of a tribe when some individuals can read their environment, understand animal behaviors and spread their learning efforts to other individuals. The mystery is why it took so long for evolution to come up with the human prototype. Why haven’t there been dinosaur civilizations?

    • Dogs and horses are in fact extremely intelligent.

      Roughly, social interaction requires a suite of higher cognitive abilities – things like understanding the mental states of others, concepts like ‘past’ or ‘future’ or ‘person who exists but is not here’, and reasoning about cause and effect.

  5. I think what a “complex society” with “division of labor” really comes down to is a Caste system. In a caste system why would every person regardless of caste be subject to the same selection pressure? Obviously they wouldn’t be.

    It goes back to Venkats earlier post on Barbarians. Barbarians are the wild root stock of Aristocratic classes. I disagree that they were some how inherently smarter than other groups of people. They were just smart in a certain way and once fire arms were invented they were at a real disadvantage. They were good at fighting, looting pilaging etc. and when successful in conquest a new selection pressure was created among their descendants for the ability to hang onto power.

    Selection pressure for docility is among lower classes. Its not sexual selection its more like ruthless culling. This culling took place in feudal society. Think of all the capital crimes. Death penalty for stealing and blasphemy and things like that, not just murder. Violent, rebellious tendencies were removed from the gene pool. Its not so much that passive docile people had more offspring, but rather that violent rebellious peasants were culled.

    People were organized into Wealth creating units for the upper classes. The upper classes warred against each other constantly, creating selection pressure for administrative abilities and ability for organizing large scale violence. So then these units got larger and larger and larger, Little fiefdoms became Kingdoms than State Nations then nation states. Violence was slowly monopolized by the State apparatus and taken out of the hands of the common people.

    This is the human domestication process. The intelligenced that is selected for is not an individual type of intelligence but a collective type.

    Today there are old money aristocrats and descendants of a long line of pirates still in power behind the scenes in international finance and espionage, in strategic think tanks etc. They are inbred for skill in game theory and things like that. They have the power to hire smart people and put them to work for them, without having to be brilliant intellects themselves. Its a very narrow bellicose type of intelligence they have. Its not creative intelligence.

    Its really like a male Affrican lion, taking control of a territory and putting all the females to work. Male and female is the original division of labor.

    This was Veblens main thesis.

    • The idea that violent lower members of society were culled by the wealthy is an interesting one, though I’m not sure I’m ready to accept it without some actual datapoints.

      There’s actually a similar point made in the book “A Farewell to Alms” that posits such culling as the driver behind the industrial revolution. Essentially, as wealthy Britons had more children and disease continuously killed off the poorest members of society, there was a demographic shift as the population became more intelligent and less violent, eventually allowing them to break out of a malthusian trap.

      • Check out “the 10,000 year explosion” by Cochran and Harpending.
        One thing to consider though

  6. I like that concept of “evolutionary crane”.

    When the population of stupid vegetarian hominids in the bushes has grown to the point where they are forced to fighting over the last nut and tuber, some of them, at the edge of the bush, will notice a hyena gorging on a carcass.

    At some point, one of these hungry, marginal hominids will make a tactical leap of faith, switch his nut-crushing rock for a heavy stick, and persuade the hyena to have have lunch elsewhere. He takes a first bite, and although his taste-buds shiver, he can’t argue with a full belly. His comrades join him (and the girls too, but that’s a cute bonus).

    What if there are two hyena’s? You would have to… grunt your comrades into grabbing a stick and move up with you. Those who don’t get it starve.

    The Savannah is a harsh mistress. Our poor hominids are forced to train up for this rich field, which can only be grazed by coordinated killers with specialized tools. The coordinators and tool designers get get babies, the rest just dies. A thermodynamic conquest strategy a real pressure cooker, as opposed to the bushes full of vegetarians.

    I’d say the evolutionary crane is ‘incentive.’

    • Unfortunately, incentive or not, an ape can’t simply “decide” to use a heavy stick as a club any more than you can “decide” to raise your IQ by 50 points. The ability to take an action of smashing a nut, abstracting away the concept of “hitting something with an object”, and applying it to both a new tool (a club) and a new situation (a predator) requires incredibly advanced cognitive abilities. By the time we could make such a leap, we would have had to be developing intelligence for quite some time.

  7. Christian Molick says

    Dario Maestripieri presents some interesting ideas about the evolution of intelligence in his book Machachiavellian Intelligence. All the great apes adapt to their environments in the usual fairly well characterized and expected ways, and as a result they are restricted to relatively small and vulnerable domains. Of all primates only two are known for spreading like weeds such that they can be found over large areas in very different envionments: Rhesus Macaques and Humans. Rhesus society is extremely complex. For Rhesus Macaques life is all about accumulating and making use of status, so they adapt themselves primarily to society and only secondarily to their environments as foraging for necessities (food, water, minimal shelter) takes up a relatively small fraction of their waking hours. The extreme complexity and dynamism of Rhesus society gives intelligence robust value. Many elements of Rhesus socialization are shared by and starkly apparent in humans. For example, those outside the tribe have no value apart from what they can give to the tribe. The Dunbar number also makes more sense if seen as an artifact of primitive tribal socialization than an adaptation to large scale societies or aspects of organization such as social class. Divisions of social class are a naturally unavoidable outcome of status being at the core of society.

  8. I was thinking about this just last week, focusing on the Machiavellian brain hypothesis (though I didn’t know it was called that).

    To simplify things I imagined a tribe of apes, who were only competing to get as high up the status hierarchy as possible (in this model, all their other needs, food, mates, etc, are proportional to their status).

    Question: if the physically stronger monkey *always* won in a conflict between two monkeys, would there therefore be no incentive for greater intelligence?

    Of course, in the real world a small, clever monkey can try individually ambushing a big stupid monkey and win. In this model, that’s not possible, but an intelligent monkey might try gathering a team of monkeys to gang up on a bigger monkey. Again, in the real world a monkey could gain followers in lots of ways, either by promising delicious berries or by the sheer force of its monkey charisma. Here, though, the monkey can only promise its followers higher status in the new monkey world order.

    I haven’t tried working through this model carefully, but I think given any number of monkeys greater than 2 the status hierarchy will be constantly in flux, with our monkeys constantly negotiating and renegotiating alliances, with a concomitant need for the intelligence to work all this out. That is, even without the other benefits of intelligence, such as tool use, making plans, and so on, just playing a very simple status game can require high amounts of intelligence. I think the Rhesus monkey example given above illustrates this model quite well.

    • Indeed, once you get to the point where other humans are the primary obstruction in how much you can reproduce, it becomes incredibly beneficial to be able to socially game other humans – getting to the top of the status hierarchy means a huge number of possible children. I believe some huge number of currently living people (60% of americans or somesuch) are descended from such “winners” (ie: kings).

  9. Just for fun, a 3-monkey example (with 2 monkeys, the biggest just stays on top). We have three monkeys, A, B and C, where A can defeat B, B can defeat C, but B + C can defeat A.

    Start state: ABC

    But B can get C to ally with him against A with the promise of an increase in status, so after the revolution we get: BCA

    A might now try to get C to ally with him against B, giving us ACB. But there’s no incentive for C in this agreement, so A would stay at the bottom. But there is another A+C alliance that leads to a status increase for both parties: CAB

    Now C is at the top! Now, of course, both A and B could regain their crown acting individually. Let’s say A moves first, briefly leading to ACB, before B takes on C taking us back to the start, ABC. However, things are different this time, as B is the only monkey that hasn’t broken an alliance. If all parties are playing something like tit-for-tat with retribution, B is now in a more powerful position…

    I suspect a four monkey version might look somewhat similar. A five-monkey version would probably provide enough narrative inspiration to fuel a three-tome fantasy epic.

  10. Christian Molick says

    Question: if the physically stronger monkey *always* won in a conflict between two monkeys, would there therefore be no incentive for greater intelligence?

    Rhesus societies minimize direct competition between adults, and the only interface between tribes is at the very lowest level of status. This is why social intelligence is so necessary. There is nothing like jousting competitions or sports tournaments. What contributes most directly to status are family and favors, but there are many subtleties. For example, there is no status to be gained from repeatedly wounding tribe members, so sympathy plays by low status members are common. To add an additional level of complexity status is what each Rhesus makes of it, so low status tribe members do get opportunities to take high status actions like mating and eating first as long as they can somehow get away with it and not provoke others. Although in theory only the alpha male mates with females in the tribe, low status males often successfully pass on their genes. It turns out to be the tiny little details and momentary exchanges make all the difference between survival and reproduction or not.

  11. Anatomically modern human beings living over the last 200,000 years as hunter gatherers, had more advanced brains than those of Barbaric Nomadic pastoralists of the Steppes of Central Asia, and other regions, who later conquered more settled farming people and became rulers.

    Sociopaths have their wiring screwed up in the front of their brain. So barbarism is an evolutionary step backwards.

    But it lends certain advantages.

    But it doesn’t really matter what monkeys do or don’t do. There is a long chain between us and our ape like ancestors. There have been a lot of developments since then. Humanity was arguably most advanced when life was most egalitarian and there was the least amount of sexual dimorphism.

    So big psychopathic muscular brutes, with beards and harems of women of women, ruling over others in fear…is atavistic. Its a step backwards in human evolution. More recently we have developed human rights and democracy etc. But for example in Dubia, you see the atavistic model of the biggest meanest bad asses having the most stuff, while all the actual work is done by slave labor.

    When modern humans left Africa they were more advanced than that. Just because modern humans have advanced technolgy doesn’t mean we are highly evolved. Arguably there is really advanced technology in Dubia, but its a feudal monarchy, where women are property.

    Its basically rule by psychopaths who can digest milk. That’s the genetic superiority of the barbarian conqueror.

    • Thanks,
      I wanted to convey the point myself. In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini says:

      Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice, and challenge that is so characteristic of modern life. More and more frequently, we will find ourselves in the position of lower animals — with a mental apparatus that is unequipped to deal thoroughly with the intricacy and richness of the outside environment.

      >> Humanity was arguably most advanced when life was most egalitarian.
      Agreed on that count too. Indeed, we’ve become so numbed by the very flawed and very recent Industrial age (<200 years old?) that we've started to view homo industrialis as our existential blueprint, and are getting carried away with all our thesis around this warped, soon to be extinct existential model (*).

      (*) insert your favourite TEOTWAWKI here: peak oil, catabolic collapse, overshoot etc…

      When I read this analysis, the thought that popped into my head was “ants versus elephants.” Ants can lift many times their body weight, while elephants can only lift 4-5% (300-500 kg). Yet we think of elephants as the heavy lifters.

      No offence to anyone, but even Venkatesh is unable to capitalise on such occasional moments of lucidity on a long term basis. ;-)

      • Others have argued that because we’re no longer well equipped cognitively to handle the deluge of information now available, we should be augmenting human capabilities with computer and machine implants. In short, our future is cybernetic. I think it’s pie in the sky, but lots of so-called futurists are clamoring for it. They want to be the Borg.

        • Brutus,
          During my PhD, I had the (mis?)fortune of interacting briefly with him, so I know all too well about people wanting to be Borg.

          BTW, Thank you too. You’ve completed the spectrum, so to speak. Existentialist discussions on the Net is either obsessed with the “selfish gene”, “bonobo/chimp sex games” as a means to explain everything that has passed under the Universe, or endlessly slobbering over “Universal Soldier meets Terminator”! :o

          I usually resist joining the fray in such discussions because this kind of mud-wrestling is frankly, not worth it. A Thank you to Ted and yourself for prodding me to participate.

          And while the two schools busy themselves with arguments and counterarguments, I am reminded of this scene from Enter the Dragon, particularly:

          Don’t think, FEEL. Its like a finger pointing to the moon. If you concentrate on the finger you will miss all that heavenly glory!

          If we understand the simple truth that

          There is a long chain between us and our ape like ancestors. There have been a lot of developments since then.”

               then we can focus on the here and now (the heavenly glory, so to speak). Then we can perhaps accept that this is what Humans are capable of doingand capable of achieving. But for that to happen, we need to first realise the truth that we are beyond monkeys and we don’t need to focus on fantastic fantasies either.

          That’s my noise to the gaggle.

        • I am not an emergentist so I don’t frankly believe in the self aware AI taking over the world. As far as augmented human intelligence, imagine how susceptible people would be to manipulation! People could computer hack others brains!

          I think there is more noise than information anyway. Just becaue you can’t watch 100 channels of cable t.v. at the same time doesn’t mean you are really missing anything.

          • My reply to Brutus is stuck in moderation (likely due to links in reply), but I make some points that agree with your remarks on achieving “Singularity”.

            In fact, I posit, that we’ve actually regressed(*), and those that don’t believe me can read Victorian novels (Conan Doyle, etc) and observe that a person transplanted from that era will actually happily fit into today, without any major gear shift…. (OK, maybe the touchphone will take some getting used to!)
            (*)I mean, if I followed a simple linear interpolation of the projected “science trajectory” from my school days, we should have colonised Mars!

    • Do you have a reference for the following assertion?

      Anatomically modern human beings living over the last 200,000 years as hunter gatherers, had more advanced brains than those of Barbaric Nomadic pastoralists of the Steppes of Central Asia, and other regions, who later conquered more settled farming people and became rulers.

      I was under the impression that for the last 100,000 years, long before the forking into Veblen’s classes (which we can put down around 15,000 BC… Neolithic revolution), all humans have basically been anatomically modern in the same way. i.e., nomads, hunter-gatherers and settled peoples are biologically the same, and any differences are due to cultural rather than genetic evolution factors.

      • Well a couple things:

        Our Brains have shrunk since the Neolithic revolution. This could be attributed to similar effect in animals undergoing domestication.

        My other point is that if Genghis Khan was a clinical psychopath which this quote attributed to him implies

        “The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms”

        He possibly has a couple mutations associated with psychopathy related to the blunting of dopamine reception in the prefrontal cortex, namely DAT1 AND DRD4 7R genes

        The etiology of this currently being studied. But there is evidence that Psychopaths have brain function similar to people that have sustained brain injuries. This could be a deleterious set of mutations, that have none the less been subject to positive selection, meaning it could be adaptive under certain social conditions, like for example a life based on predatory raiding. He definitely experienced reproductive success.

        So my point is took so many millions of years to develop the functionality of the prefrontal cortex and these genes that blunt dopamine reception interfere with that functionality.

        But maybe less is more. Its all a matter of ones perspective, I suppose.

  12. That pair of models look like they are compatible, and could refer to not just to different mechanisms in the same society, but in places exactly the same mechanism:

    Foxes were selected for “friendliness” as well as docility.

    You can then speculate that being friendly and engaging requires specificity of response to build basic rapport with the different people making the selection (did multiple people choose between them which one was more friendly? Very likely for a scientific experiment.)

    That requires a bit of modelling, pushing intelligence up, but also increasing the difficulty of the task, as other people are getting more complicated too, requiring the improvement of your model.

    In other words there could be a race between our theory of mind and our weirdness resulting from the same capacities!

    I’m not saying increases of theory of mind depth are always required to interact with more intelligent organisms; some people are very acommodating and good at producing a simplified self for view, like most of us do with babies, but maybe that effect kicks in at a higher level of complexity.

  13. The way I see it, the leap in intelligence happened between people like us (who’ve been around for 200,000 years) and hominids like Homo heidelbergensis, I think is the name.

    We don’t descend from chimps, , we simply share a common ancestor. More recently we descend from Homo erectus types that were almost exactly like us from the neck down before we developed these formidable brains.

    Homo heidelbergensis, was taller more muscular than we are, up to seven feet tall. Basically giants compared to us. They may have possessed speech and projectile weaponry.

    They had smaller brains sloping foreheads which implies that their prefrontal cortex wasn’t as evolved as ours. So it looks like possibly our brains got bigger due to the development of empathy. Which is more of a female trait than a male trait. So why assume this sexual selection for intelligence was among women choosing smart males? Why not rather males fighting over and choosing intelligent females, that were excellent gatherers and nurturers of young? I think it was more a female arms race.

    The earliest division of labor was between hunting and gathering. I think we are perhaps a bit overly impressed with the intelligence required for hunting and discount gathering. Imagine an advanced culture passed on woman to woman over thousands of years related to all the edible plants in the area, when they come in to season, how to prepare them to make them more digestible etc? How to make shelter, how to use fire. Women in indigenous societies usually do all the work. Among plains Indians who do you think built the ti-pis? This division of labor could possibly go back several hundred thousand years.

    So basically to arrive at us you have the homo erectus body become more gracile and grow a bigger brain especially in the forehead. I think these changes were made in the female sex that is where the natural selection took place. I think there is a female type brain and a male type brain. Self consciousness comes from the interplay between these two mindsets, because modern humans basically have a measure of both. What has been happening in the course of human evolution is the female sphere has expanded and the male sphere has shrunk. Everything productive was once woman’s work. Hunting and warfare is just basically killing and stealing. Lions and tigers do it with more class then we ever will and they do it with smaller brains. So i don’t see how that created an arms race. or if it did it was only half the story.

    • > We don’t descend from chimps, we simply share a common ancestor.
      Very refreshing to hear this indeed

      > I think we are perhaps a bit overly impressed with the intelligence required
      > for hunting and discount gathering.
      LOL! It is because videos such as these are used all the time, not for the original intended meaning but to feed one’s own fantasies about this, that and the other. Just look at the title of the video, enough said.

      > So why assume this sexual selection for intelligence was among women
      > choosing smart males? Why not rather males fighting over and choosing
      > intelligent females,
      Hear hear *clap clap*! The answer to that will likely contain phrases such as “Fragile male egos”, “constant reassurance”, etc.

      I don’t have the same volume of readership as Ribbonfarm, but would you be interested in collecting these views and doing a brief guest post of this point on my blog (gmail: sawbonessurio if you are interested)? Thanks.

    • I didn’t detect a gender-political or sexist thread in Brian’s views. I appreciate your pointing out a potential unconscious gender bias in the seeking of the source of the arms race/evolutionary crane, but I don’t find the argument that hunting-gathering/female activities was the source as compelling as the ones driven by the male. I’d like to see a more detailed argument that leaves the women-and-gender question aside altogether, and just looks at whether empathy itself, independent of gender, supports an arms race.

      I get a slight sense that perhaps you are politicizing this along gender lines more to redress a perceived bias in the post/other comments.

      Empathy as the “crane” isn’t a new idea. It seems to be the root argument in Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization that, like your comment, emphasizes the role of women.

      I haven’t finished the book, but its overtly polemical and political tone has me skeptical so far.

      My amateur opinion is that the hunting-gathering adaptations (such as refined color vision) go much further back than humans forked off the main ape trunk.

      Aside: in this and other comments, I sense that you are trying to convey three things at once: a moral stance, a political stance and a view on evolutionary history/psychology. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to at least attempt to keep the 3 separate. Whether or not you like “barbarian values” and hunting/killing or care about women’s rights etc., the “truth” is what it is. Conflating the 3 leads to messy conceptual leaps (for example, just because hunting IS practiced by animals with less complex brains like lions and tigers does not mean it is a “low” form of intelligence. You could make the same strawman argument about empathy… I’ve seen videos that clearly show very primitive worms showing empathy, in their pattern of clustering/clumping… does that mean that empathy as a biological adaptation is “only” worm-like in complexity?

      Maybe it’s just me, but I get more value out of keeping morality and politics out of it. I am not po-mo enough to believe that every cognition is intrinsically a political act that has power/oppression angles to it.

      • Venkat,
        I think there is no confusion, only a different way of viewing the world and in semantics. What Ted (and me in my post still stuck in moderation) wanted to point out is that it is not all about just intelligence/evolution/adaptation/gender/etc…. in discussing these topics!

        There is another layer; the layer of consciousness that almost never comes up in these discussions. And it is not all moral-religious-cultural mumbo jumbo at this level either. Which is why Tiger/Chimp/bonobo/selfish gene analogies also become equally stretched beyond a point — unless everyone is willing to discuss only in “that” level of consciousness.

        I had no issues with Ted using empathy as a moot point, nor do I have problems with studies that point out “even worms are capable of empathy”, because empathy is what every living being is capable of possessing and displaying at opportune moments. After all, Livability is not some middle-class luxury. It is an economic imperative.. There’s a straw man in every Human construct, if only we put the time and effort into finding it, but life’s too short to waste.

        Just to stretch the point some more, here’s one more argument/counter-argument that leads to nowhere but entertainment! ::: Jim Corbett relates in one of his books, how a fed tiger left a lamb alone despite the lamb nuzzling close enough to the tiger. Equally, all axe-wielding serial killers happen to be humans… Therefore, all Tigers are capable of gaining “jnana”, and and all humans are inherently barbarian phychopaths!! The counter-argument would be… there is no proof of Jim’s story except Jim’s himself and his narrative in the book, who may have written that to sell his book (*), but there’s documented evidence (police records) on these murderers! This line of argument maybe factual, grounded on neutral rationality but takes us nowhere in the end.
        (*) unlikely considering prevalent Victorian attitudes to animals/hunting was completely the opposite, but there you go.

        An aside, the trend to use words in a context disassociated to its common use (“sociopath”, “barbarian”, etc…) in discussions/articles somtimes is coming back to haunt? ;-)

        One more assertion: One can never ask a value-neutral question, nor can one provide a value-neutral answer. So, let’s leave aside which cocktail is a better mix – nihilism and technological trend fixation or morality/politics and evolution……. gender politics and evolutionary trends…

        >> My amateur opinion is that the hunting-gathering adaptations (such as refined color vision) go…
        Meanwhile, my own opinion is that all archeology is conjecture…. Sure there’s rigour in the field, but the reconstruction from the digs of how our forbears lived is that archeologist’s opinion (Just as Moody’s “AAA” rating is ‘just their opinion’!). So someone was lucky enough to be first an state an opinion (that becomes accepted). A new upstart, now has the unenviable task of having to deconstruct the earlier opinion “scientifically” first, before even venturing to place a newer one!
        Another aside. Remember this amateur school-boy joke?

        The Russians dug 1000 ft in the ground and found copper wire; they declared Russia had electricity 1000 years back. US dug and found optical fiber and declared US had telephone 2000 years back.
        A sardar in India found nothing. Then said “oye we had wireless technology 5000 years back”.

        I also posit that when viewed from a “Human consciousness” perspective, the entire discussion is capable of rising above the tired and circular anthropomorphic Tigers/ lions/gender/ barbarian/monkey/ fox/ cyborg/<whatever-else-I-missed> intellectual baiting that these discussions, despite their best intentions, are inevitably doomed to descend into.

        Lastly, it is good, when a certain topic provokes strong reactions. It simply means that our value system is getting challenged, at least enough for our minds to take notice. :-)

  14. I just deleted a big long post. But anyway it was good stuff! I take your point though Venkat about conflating morality, politics and anthropology. But what if they are the same subject?

    Anyway the point of my deleted post is that in creating a complex society based on specialized castes, it would stand to reason that members of each would be modified in some way from their common origin of autonomous hunter gatherers who were generalists. Its easier to see how going from hunter gather to peasant is a step down but harder to see that going from Nomadic herder to conquereor might also entail a similar fall from grace.

    Hegel talked about the split in consciousness created through the Master slave dialectic. Its problematic for all concerned.

    Maybe I will cover this in more detail in my guest post. :)

  15. This is not related to the post, and was likely a throwaway comment from Venkat, but thought I might pitch in:

    > I take your point though Venkat about conflating morality, politics and anthropology.
    > But what if they are the same subject?
    Venkat has the unenviable task of being moderator to this site, with 17000+ visitors (and growing) to please at the same time. And one of the dominant themes (Ribbonfarmesque?) discussed here is Nihilism. As JMG, the Archdruid points in his latest multi-part series ,

    For the last few decades, it’s been hugely fashionable in America to believe, or at least affect to believe, the cynical notions that all ideals are frauds or delusions, that those who try to live up to them are either posturing liars or simple-minded fools, and that we might as well enjoy ugliness because all beauty is by definition fake.

    So, Nihilism is the cool thing and anything else is pretty anathema. So, his point was kind of expected —- at least by me.

    >> But what if they are the same subject?
    Yep. good point. As the author of Tempo the book of “narrative driven decision making”, he might privately acknowledge that it is impossible to separate these in real-life decisions that all of us make everyday, but you will never catch him admitting it in public, that too not in Ribbonfarm. Just my amateur opinion on this matter.

    OK. On with the main show. :-)

    • Not really. Realism and nihilism are very different sensibilities. Not sure where you are getting your impressions, but I definitely haven’t encountered more than 3-4 nihilists here. Not even on the BSE list.

      And you are giving me too much credit. I don’t attempt to please 17,000 people. Or even the few dozen regular commenters (I pretty much ignore monthly Uniques. Comments per post and bounce rate are the only metrics I pay attention to). I just post whatever interests me. I do no moderation besides the very rare (<5 times in 4 years) deletion of really rude comments.

      Fingers crossed. This blog has very little overhead and I hope it stays that way.

      • Venkat,
        Thanks for taking the time to clarify. I Appreciate it.
        I sincerely wish for all your overheads to remain that way. :-)

  16. > which induces the parasite to evolve means to overcome the defense

    Sorry, wrong, there is no inducement to mutate. How can I choose to mutate my fixed genes ?

    “which means only parasitses for which this defense is ineffective are the ones that survive and breed”


  17. > only the friendliest, least aggressive, most docile foxes out of each generation were allowed to breed.

    This is also false. The docile and aggressive foxes were separated and bred apart. Thus they ended up with super-docile and super-aggressive strains of fox.

    See the BBC documentary on the subject

  18. Very interesting guest post, thanks a lot. The last part seemed a bit vague to me, but especially the first half raised some intriguing questions.

    If I understood correctly, your main point is to identify possible evolutionary mechanisms or pressures behind the development of human intelligence, right? There is an approach to that problem that I find very convincing – I am afraid I only have a German paper as a source right now, though (Josef H. Reichholf in the edited volume “Evolution”). However, I reckon the author must be representing a larger school of thought with this position.

    The main point in his take on the issue is the divergence between forest-dwelling apes and early man living in the African savanna (starting towards the end of the tertiary). In that period an abudance of large animals seems to have travelled the savanna, so when one of them died (for whatever reason) there were loads of very nutricious leftovers lying around in the open. Early human groups in that time therefore sent out “runners” to secure these resources rather than actively hunting all that much. These runners had to locate the right spot (e.g. by spotting scavenger birds), get there as quickly as possible and return with extra food for the group.

    Now here is the crucial point: In a ape-society group dominated by the strongest male, these runners would have lacked the incentives to perform this specialized and dangerous task. The survival of the group highly depended on their skills, and this had to balance out (or even surpass) brute force in deciding quarrels over food and mating rights. In a way this might be the first group structure built on (instrumentalist) consensus rather than pure biological/physical factors. This kind of system relies on negotiation and social skills and (evolutionary) rewards groups that are efficiently applying them.

    Correlate that with the fact that the carrion meat (mainly bone marrow, actually) is useful and necessary in supporting the ongoing and coming physiological changes including larger brains and more intensive child care and you have a pretty convincing theory imho.

    I’m not a specialist, though, so right me if I’m wrong on any of these points…

  19. FWIW,
    Ted has collected the thoughts from his comments on this post into a well-drawn guest post.

  20. Typo: “…and where people do won’t go along pay stiff penalties.” Obviously, this should be “who don’t”.

  21. In the Russian Fox model, the community potentially punished non-docile transgressors. In the Machiavellian model, each member potentially punishes competitors. Essentially, the Russian Foxes, while viewing themselves as docile/cooperative, are acting in a collaborative-aggressive manner. The ultimate difference between the groups is in the level of cooperation but, perhaps more radically, in the perception that individuals have of themselves.

    Any well-coordinated society cultivates docility in its populace, as individuals cede their individual authority to courts, etc. Members of those societies often benefit from the displaced aggression that resides in the collective. Interestingly, they are often unable to see that this is the case and believe their society to be innocent and peace-loving. This illusion is a necessity *not just* for the continued aggression of the complex/coordinated society but also for its continued viability, since members must continue to *believe* that they are peaceable if they are continue to cede their power to the state/collective.