Humans either revere or detest intelligence. Some believe in it, since in their view what lifted us out of eating bush meat in caves was our capacity to reason; others fear it and snarl at it because it leads to inequality, since some are inevitably smarter than others and go further in their pursuits.
This means that we treat it in a religious or political way, instead of viewing it as an aspect of life that develops because it has utility toward survival. This may go beyond the mere “four Fs” — feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction — into a sense of making life more enjoyable.
After all, happy organisms tend to live more productive lives and strive toward new heights, where depressed ones tend to self-insulate and perish. Intelligence may serve a role in making life more comprehensible in addition to making organisms more powerful, resulting in a greater will to live.
This leads us to ask what intelligence really is. It seems that at a basic level it is the ability to categorize and distinguish threats from unthreatening things:
In recent research, the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, has shown a persistent negative reaction when given a quick electric zap. For many minutes after receiving the short and sharp shock, this species continued to ‘flee’ at high speeds in the laboratory.
Researchers from Nagoya City University in Japan and Northeastern University in the US say that the long-lasting response, which looks like the worm ‘running’ away, is indicative of a fear-like brain state.
Both the duration and severity of the worm’s negative state seemed to be regulated by a specific neural circuit in its simple nervous system rather than direct stimulation of the motor system.
In this case, we see not so much “fear” as the ability to recognize negative sensation which is generally associated with risk or injury. The interaction between perception, memory, and response shows us the basis of intelligence: the ability to recognize stimulus and identify it as having a likely outcome.
This type of intelligence expands when there are multiple stimuli. For example, if a metal plate on a wall gives a shock when the light above it is red, an organism can eventually differentiate between the presence of both stimuli being a threat but the metal plate with no light being safe.
It turns out that intelligence does not require centralized control but a reflex system which can access memory and guide behaviors in response:
Jellyfish, jelly-combs, and sea anemones stand among the earliest ancestors of animals, and share the common feature of lacking a centralized brain.
Nonetheless, the beadlet anemone (Actinia equina) is able to habituate to the presence of nearby clones. Under normal circumstances it violently opposes any encroachment on its territory by other anemones. When the intruders are exact genetic copies of itself, however, it learns to recognize them over repeated interactions, and contain its usual aggression.
A recent study has now shown box jellyfish too are avid learners, and in an even more sophisticated manner. Though they possess only a few thousand neurons (nerve cells) clustered around their four eyes, they are able to associate changes in light intensity with tactile (touch) feedback and adjust their swimming accordingly.
Interesting, intelligence seems driven by threat and predation during these early stages:
Haeckel’s hypothetical gastrula was a particle-filtering life form, like sponges. In contrast, the predatory gastrula of Aiptasia and other cnidarians possess specialised stinging cells used for capturing prey.” The predatory lifestyle of gastrula-like forms with extrusive organelles that excrete toxins and are likewise found in single-celled organisms and simple worms, adds the Heidelberg biologist, could have been a critical driver of the early evolution of multicellular organisms and the development of complex, organised nervous systems.
Like most things, intelligence has levels. At first it is recognizing and categorizing response, then at the next it is testing variations in those categories, and finally it reaches the level of being able to affirmatively choose between bad stimulus and the different possibilities of better stimulus.
What works for lower animals does not apply to complex creatures like humans fully, but we can see how intelligence is part of the universe like gravity, and we are pulled to it by the opportunity it offers, even if that begins with avoiding pain.
Under egalitarian systems however, the goal seems to be to enforce pacifism and therefore suppress the distinction between harmful stimulus and better possibilities. This seems almost demonic, as if humanity were reversing itself in order to make everyone feel included and relevant.