Subtle forces are pushing us from our competitive edge

Co-author Jeffrey Flier is an astrophysicist and a professor of geosciences at George Washington University. Co-author David Bowman is an assistant professor of astronomy at Yale University. By Jeffrey Flier and David Bowman A…

Subtle forces are pushing us from our competitive edge

Co-author Jeffrey Flier is an astrophysicist and a professor of geosciences at George Washington University. Co-author David Bowman is an assistant professor of astronomy at Yale University.

By Jeffrey Flier and David Bowman

A near-certain bet on natural selection is one thing. But is it possible to predict which lineages will survive and thrive in the fierce yet shallow pool of human intelligence? Nature has already placed a ceiling of intelligence on a host of advantageous traits, from language and language processing to self-control and empathy. But evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists alike are increasingly showing that human intelligence has the potential to expand, yet unfortunately is already at the limit of natural selection’s carting abilities. The exact mechanisms that drive human intelligence remain obscure, but two major forces explain just how much intelligence may be too much for our species to consume.

The first and most important force is independent improvement and redundancy of human traits. This system, first described by Evelyn Pearce in 1973, describes how genetic material can be combined with other material through sequence variations or mutations to increase any trait. The construction of sophisticated social and technological networks is easy compared with this competition for genetic resources.

The second force is proximity. One of the most compelling features of neural anatomy is the inability to differentiate between the processing of short-term memories and the processing of more distant memories. Neuroscience is proving more and more frequently that learning each day does not affect cognitive ability in our lifetime. However, during an entire week, neurons in human brains can “relearn” the information that they have previously stored — essentially “training” the brain to work more efficiently. Our need to constantly grow new neural circuits — learning, learning, learning — is the central rationale for the use of biological tools like the human brain to facilitate information exchange. It is estimated that we spend every day acquiring only 100 to 200 new neurons. In a world where there are an estimated 270 trillion neurons within human brains and where we can personally rewire every one of them to make room for a creative breakthrough, this information generation is often referred to as a form of “agility.” The level of intelligence necessary to perform these networking functions is so high that we may well be nearing the limit of natural selection’s capability to squeeze out even more from one group of organisms.

In the popular media, the term “giftedness” often applies to the tendency of biological males to excel in material worlds and economic occupations. Social anthropologists have argued that the defining features of infantile human development are “preoccupation” and “obsession.” According to the best scientific theories, this combination of traits may cause most humans to experience crippling stress as they age.

Yet in the face of these stark realities, what is one to do? Take some personal responsibility for one’s own cognitive health? Have the next generation of citizens learn new behavior and ask themselves, “What will help me succeed in my daily life?” Let young boys and girls learn programming, writing and coding or write novels. Encourage them to keep their brains active and engaged.

We need to think about how we can help them, and help ourselves, to develop as human beings with maximum cognitive abilities, and then move beyond the commonly accepted narrative of the complexity of being human, to a fuller picture of the expansive dimensions of human experience.

Human intelligence is neither rare, nor limited to our species. The capacity for creativity and social skills and the ability to support successful human societies are likely elements found in all humans. Teaching the next generation of children new ways to work in social networks and to build and maintain strong, long-lasting relationships in life will be one of the key keys to building a society that works for all people regardless of their cognitive capabilities.

The race is not necessarily on. It may, indeed, be off. But if we are to be wise and just as intelligent, we are going to need to expand to what anthropologists call “biomechanics” — what life, engineering and science can do together to make the world a more balanced and connected place.

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