The Emergence of Intelligence [Preview]

Language, foresight and other hallmarks of intelligence are very likely connected through an underlying facility that plans rapid, novel movements

The most difficult responses to plan are those to unique situations. They require imagining multiple scenarios, as when a hunter plots various approaches to a deer or a futurist spins three scenarios bracketing what an industry will look like in another decade. Compared with apes, humans do a lot of that--we can heed the admonition sometimes attributed to British statesman Edmund Burke: The public interest requires doing today those things that men of intelligence and goodwill would wish, five or 10 years hence, had been done.

Human planning abilities may stem from our talent for building syntactical, string-based conceptual structures larger than sentences. As writer Kathryn Morton observes about narrative:

The first sign that a baby is going to be a human being and not a noisy pet comes when he begins naming the world and demanding the stories that connect its parts. Once he knows the first of these he will instruct his teddy bear, enforce his worldview on victims in the sandlot, tell himself stories of what he is doing as he plays and forecast stories of what he will do when he grows up. He will keep track of the actions of others and relate deviations to the person in charge. He will want a story at bedtime.

Our abilities to plan gradually develop from childhood narratives and are a major foundation for ethical choices, as we imagine a course of action, imagine its effects on others and decide whether or not to do it.

In this way, syntax raises intelligence to a new level. By borrowing the mental structures for syntax to judge other combinations of possible actions, we can extend our planning abilities and our intelligence. To some extent, we do this intelligence building by talking silently to ourselves, making narratives out of what might happen next and then applying syntaxlike rules of combination to rate a scenario as dangerous nonsense, mere nonsense, possible, likely or logical. But our thinking is not limited to languagelike constructs. Indeed, we may shout Eureka! when feeling a set of mental relationships click into place and yet have trouble expressing them verbally. Language and intelligence are so powerful that we might think evolution would naturally favor their increase.

As evolutionary theorists are fond of demonstrating, however, the fossil record is full of plateaus. Evolution often follows indirect routes rather than progressing through adaptations. To account for the breadth of our abilities, we need to look at improvements in common core facilities. Environments that give the musically gifted an evolutionary advantage over the tone deaf are difficult to imagine, but there are multifunctional brain mechanisms whose improvement for one critical function might incidentally aid other functions.

We humans certainly have a passion for stringing things together: words into sentences, notes into melodies, steps into dances, narratives into games with rules of procedure. Might stringing things together be a core facility of the brain, one commonly useful to language, storytelling, planning, games and ethics? If so, natural selection for any of these talents might augment their shared neural machinery, so that an improved knack for syntactical sentences would automatically expand planning abilities, too. Such carryover is what Charles Darwin called functional change in anatomic continuity, distinguishing it from gradual adaptation. To some extent, music and dance are surely secondary uses of neural machinery shaped by sequential behaviors more exposed to natural selection, such as language.

From Hammering to

AS IMPROBABLE ASthe idea initially seems, the brains planning of ballistic movements may have once promoted language, music and intelligence. Ballistic movements are extremely rapid actions of the limbs that, once initiated, cannot be modified. Striking a nail with a hammer is an example. Although apes have elementary forms of the ballistic arm movements at which humans are expert--hammering, clubbing and throwing--they tend to be set pieces lacking novelty. These movements are integral to toolmaking and hunting, which in some settings were probably important additions to hominids basic survival strategies.

Rights & Permissions
or subscribe to access other articles from the June 2006 publication.
Digital Issue $9.99
Digital Issue + All Access Subscription $99.99 Subscribe
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article