Selecting for intelligence

The garlic has been plucked from the garden, and I have already chosen the bulbs that I will break into cloves to replant in November.  I chose the smallest, most sniveling bulbs and will eat the largest, most robust ones.  Only kidding — of course, I chose the best for replanting!  I would have been a really stupid gardener not to have done so.  All farmers and ranchers know they have to choose the best characteristics they are seeking in their current production in order to breed them for an improved future outcome. 

We do the same for people by, for example, providing universities so they can, among other things, choose mates among the best and brightest.  Beauty among the "xx" population used to serve this purpose.  Though it was somewhat successful, it was not infallible.  (Google jokes about blondes: "Three blondes walked into a building.  You would have thought at least one of them would have noticed it!")  Grade point average is far more accurate in selecting for intelligence.  Of course, any system can be ruined, so admission standards at elite institutions have to be maintained.  Thus, we have sneaky parents going to jail and paying fines when, through guile, they try to push their mediocre offspring into the best colleges.  Indeed, there are consultants who can be paid by the wealthy to help in the process of college admission, leaving the poor to fend for themselves based solely on their innate abilities.

What is the nature of intelligence that makes it so valuable a commodity?  It is the ability to solve problems relatively quickly.  Survival is based in part on luck, but also the ability to react quickly.  Thinking quickly has the advantage of being able to find solutions sooner.  As important, it means that any one person can address a larger number of problems in a limited time frame than another person.  I am certain that there were many really smart cave men; otherwise, you would not be reading this essay.

The idea of equality of outcome in life negates the need for intelligence.  This observation explains why schools can reduce the challenging nature of their curricula.  When there are no problems to be solved, there is no need for the application of intelligence.

Of course, intelligence, as with any commodity, has a critical level below which the use of the commodity becomes too rare to be useful to society.  I wonder how life will be when the current crop of students cannot understand the textbooks of previous generations.  Perhaps this is one reason Elon Musk believes there are too few people in the world, rather than too many.

Of all people, only some can function at the highest levels because intelligence in not equally distributed.  With more people, there will be more very bright people and a few more ultra-bright folks who push the boundaries of our knowledge.  A complex society provides more opportunities for these ultra-bright people to engage in problem-solving.  In a simple society, there will be nothing for these special people to do.  It is a real conundrum.

And what if it is the brightest people who insist upon a simple society?  That seems to be the current situation.  This set of facts suggests that bright people are afraid of other bright people, so they structure society to limit the need for high intelligence.  I have no idea how to overcome this paradox.  Perhaps human society will wither and rot, or just freeze in place.  Fortunately, the future is hard (read: impossible) to predict.

Image: John Benson.

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