We Thought We Were Intelligent
We are concerned about our intelligence agencies. They spy on us, toy with their appointed overseers, lie with impunity, ride roughshod over the US Constitution and torture folks. Despite a dismal record of failure to anticipate critical events, they provide the information the president uses to decide which of us, US citizens or others, go on the kill list. They spend freely, while funds for the hungry, the environment and the collapsing infrastructure are cut. Their operations – spying on the heads of allied countries, international organizations and the populations of entire countries – are global; the questions they raise, fundamental. There is, among the many issues raised by the revelations of their activities, a nagging undercurrent of concern that touches on our human identity. We thought we were intelligent.
Revelations about US spying feed such concerns. The use of “intelligence” in the names of espionage agencies adds certain poignancy to exposés of their activities, but the ongoing disclosures are not, by themselves, the wellspring of the undercurrent. A widely felt climate of concern, is, rather, the condition that explains the worldwide attention these revelations have attracted. US citizens worry about the intelligence of political leadership that is dismantling the constitutional foundations of democracy. Informed people everywhere worry about the intelligence of a global economic system that is undermining the planet’s capacity to sustain life.
The underlying concern pertains to our sense of who we are. We thought we knew. We are, so all of us raised in the dominant culture learn, Homo sapiens, higher beings distinguished from ordinary primates and all other living things by our extraordinary intelligence. Intelligence in other animals – to the extent we recognize it in them at all – is subordinate to instinct. Ours, empowered by an extraordinary capacity for creative adaptability, rises above it.
What Is Intelligence?
Creative adaptability, we believe, is what our intelligence is all about. This is, at least, the implication of a recent study of definitions of intelligence used in current academic research. According to Shane Legg and Marcus Hutter of the Swiss research institute IDSIA, there is an understanding common to these studies: the definition of intelligence as “the ability to achieve goals in a wide variety of environments.” Intelligence, so defined, is, in effect, creative adaptability: the ability to invent or discover ways and means of achieving goals in a variety of environments.
Our intelligence, so interpreted and measured, is exceptional. Those of us raised in the tradition that framed this pleasing judgment find potent evidence supporting it. Our species has pursued and achieved a broader spectrum of goals in a greater variety of environments than any other animal. The instruments, artifacts, technologies and social structures we generate in pursuit of the various goals we pursue are greater in variety, complexity and quantity than those of any other species. We have made ourselves at home in nearly every climate zone on the planet, from the equator to the North Pole, from the rain forest to the most inhospitable deserts.
Recent history piled up the evidence. We found we are even more intelligent than we thought. The last three centuries generated more evidence for our intelligence – more elaborately structured and technologically advanced goal achievement in more varied environments – than all the previous ones combined. The two social structures most responsible for framing, supporting and carrying out these varied and far-reaching accomplishments, the nation-state and the modern corporation, are the most rigorously structured, goal-oriented and globally expansive social structures the world has ever seen. These two structures, the key institutional elements in the evolution of capitalism and the global market economy, are unique in world history. They are, in comparison with the feudal and mercantilist organizations that preceded them, arguably – in presentations prepared by insiders for stakeholders, certainly – extraordinarily intelligent.
The goal-achieving capacity of these structures is in fact incomparably powerful and dynamic. Of the institutions in question, the dominant ones strive tenaciously to increase the efficiency, capacity and global reach of their goal achievement capacity. The latest techniques and technologies are used to rationalize processes, develop new areas of profitable activity and exploit areas already accessed more efficiently. Risks are managed; destabilizing elements eliminated; costs externalized; laws aligned; happenstance minimized; control maximized.
Decision makers hone their cognitive capacities at the finest schools. Top executives are graduates of prestigious universities. The middle echelons are saturated with highly trained specialists: lawyers, engineers, scientists and public relations technicians. And this amalgamate of human brainpower is informed and magnified by an unprecedented quantity of artificial varieties. Never before has purposeful human achievement been framed and fitted with instrumentation capable of accessing and processing such enormous quantities of information. The outcome, to insiders privileged to see from this high vantage, is clear: Human intelligence, the extraordinary ability to achieve goals in a wide variety of environments, is incomparably enhanced, enabled and magnified.
Outsiders, it is true, may perceive certain events – recessions, bankruptcies, meltdowns, mortalities – as manifestations of systemic flaws. Insiders, disciplined to see all in the clear light of really calculable profit opportunities, discount outsider perception a priori. Insiders, acting in the interest of really operative power, privy to its inner truth and graced by its largesse, know themselves accountable to it and it alone. Embracing its brilliance as their own, they move forward, systematically and deliberately enforcing progress toward ever more cost efficient goal achievement in ever more distant locations. Intelligence, automated, institutionalized and incorporated in the legal corpus of the corporate person, finds itself, in sum, at a historic high point in the fullness of its evolutionary empowerment.
What of It?
And yet it is curious that, for all this elaborately structured intentionality, no one – no individual, no institution – ever set out to achieve the goal so many have in fact worked so diligently to bring about. No organization, large or small, public or private, ever listed as goals in its mission statement the most spectacular and irrevocable accomplishments yet brought about by human effort. We have caused the worst mass extinction of biological species in 65 million years, decimated human cultural diversity, wasted forests and topsoils, and set oceans dying, deserts growing and, in effect, the world on fire. Though we excel, generally, in innovative juristic claims to private ownership, no owner appears to claim these, our most monumental and lasting achievements. We find here, finally, the wellspring of the growing undercurrent of concern about our intelligence.
We are, we thought, Homo sapiens, set apart from ordinary primates and all other animals by an extraordinary creative adaptability: the ability to invent or discover ways and means of achieving goals in a variety of environments. The limited intelligence of other species was manifest in their limited adaptability; our superior variety, in our unlimited adaptability. We made ourselves at home everywhere, from the Ténéré in the Sahara to the Blue Mountains of Australia. We identified the unique quality of our sapiens, our distinguishing intelligence, with this capacity for creative adaptability. But what of it? The keystone in the arch of evidence for its extraordinary character, the stunning diversity of human cultures across continents and millennia, is disintegrating, wasted by the same anthropogenic forces that are decimating biodiversity in all its forms.
Homeless in All
Our super intelligence, the most powerful institutionalized manifestation of human ability the world has ever known, is devoid of the creative adaptability that, we thought, defined “intelligence.” It rolls over every barrier limiting its expansion, but is unable to “achieve goals in a wide range of environments.” It is, in truth, incapable of conceiving, let alone entering, a plurality of environments. The only realm it knows is a mathematically abstract perceptual and conceptual space measured and compassed by a bottom-lineal construct of profit. This space, the only one it knows, is the only place it goes. Every place becomes, under its rule, the same place: the same spreading disempowerment, the same maldistribution of opportunity and hope, the same environmental degradation, and the same devastation of biological and cultural diversity.
Constituted in this airless, finance-ontological space, it is constitutionally unable to sense, or make sense of anything outside it. Its sensors are fixed to register every presence, living or nonliving, in terms of its one-size-fits-all scale of bottom-lineal profitability. The sensoria of the entities it engenders reflect the narrow spectrum of its capacity for illumination. The global economy, the institutions that personify it and “economic man,” the android it molds from the only clay it knows, are identical in this: They have no organ for sensing life. Karl Polanyi noted this long ago. The global market system, he wrote in The Great Transformation (1944), was pioneered by forces that had:
no organ to sense the dangers involved in the exploitation of the physical strength of the worker, the destruction of family life, the devastation of neighborhoods, the denudation of forests, the pollution of rivers, the deterioration of craft standards, the disruption of folkways, and the general degradation of existence including housing and arts, as well as the innumerable forms of private and public life that do not affect profits.
The narrow focus of our super intelligence has its benefits. Grasping everything that is as potential fuel, its ability to fuel its power is as limitless as its inability to grasp anything it encounters as a limit. Empowered and hamstrung by its single vision, it produces wares and wars in endless and profitable variety. We are entertained, co-opted or rendered voiceless. On the perimeter, pressing in at the edges of every living awareness, the wasteland grows. We are, we thought, the intelligent ones, able to make ourselves at home in every environment. What are we to think, now that we are making ourselves homeless in all?