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Does teamwork really boost intelligence?

In “Cyber-brain game suggests teamwork boosts intelligence” (MSNBC.com, April 10, 2012), Jennifer Viegas reports,

The idea that complex social interactions drive the evolution of intelligence has been around since the 1970’s. The problem with related studies has been how to disentangle what factors actually fuel intelligence and what were subsequent consequences of it.

The idea is, of course, a familiar example of conjuring in Darwin’s name. Complex social interactions require intelligence, but that doesn’t explain how the intelligence arises.

Some researchers developed digital “organisms,” and

The researchers found that the digital organisms typically started to evolve more complex brains when their societies began to develop cooperation. The results therefore support the idea that cooperation helped to drive the evolution of intelligence in at least certain species.

“The transitions to cooperative societies from uncooperative ones select for intelligence because of the constant risk of being exploited by uncooperative individuals,” McNally explained. “This requires memory of past interactions and use of this memory to make decisions.”

As the authors admit, one would think that the huge abundance of bee hives and ant colonies in the world would demonstrate that a great deal of co-operation can be achieved with very little individual intelligence. In fact, individual intelligence would pose a barrier to their organization.

(Of course, we are talking about the real world here, not a computer model.)

Here’s a useful discussion of how it probably works,

A real ant colony is not a society of scheming, self-sacrificing individuals. It is more like an office that communicates by meaningless text messaging in which each worker’s task is determined by how many messages she just received. The colony has no central purpose. Each ant responds to the rate of her brief encounters with other ants and has no sense of the condition or the goals of the whole colony. Unlike the ants in [E. O. Wilson’s novel] Anthill, no ant really cares if the queen dies. (Deborah M. Gordon, “Colonial Studies,” Boston Review, September/October 2010)

Somehow, an interesting finding that theoretically could apply to some actual species gets morphed into a “proof” later in the article:

“This is one of the first models showing that selection for efficient cooperative decision making alone can influence the evolution of intelligence, so it provides a really nice proof of concept for the social intelligence hypothesis,” she said. “This could potentially explain the large brain sizes seen in several highly cooperative species, including humans.”

But, of course, the difference between human intelligence and some higher animals’ intelligence is of such magnitude that it makes nonsense of studies like these.

Explaining human intelligence is the actual purpose of the studies, but the  value of co-operation in encouraging human intelligence is decidedly mixed. Co-operation expressed as conformity is not an incitement to intelligence; rather, the opposite.

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4 Responses to Does teamwork really boost intelligence?

  1. Human exceptionalism. How about cooperation expressed as creativity instead of conformity? It pays not to throw out entirely the bathwater with the baby of eVo psych.

    “Unlike the ants in [E. O. Wilson’s novel] Anthill, no ant really cares if the queen dies.”

    Just ask the ethologist a philosophical question; e.g. what does ‘care’ mean in the work of Martin Heidegger and how does it distinguish people from ants? Or for that matter, why did BXVI write his first encyclical about Caritas in care of human beings? Unfortunately, so many natural scientists love not wisdom anymore, partitioned as they are into narrow (and sometimes lucrative) specialities.

    Too many have allowed E.O. Wilson, Robert Trivers and others control over discourses of meaning that can now be taken back with logic, intuition, emotion…and care. It is time to start speaking more anthropically and Adamically!

  2. Gregory, in fairness to these people,they are not not evo psychs; they are attempting serious research.

    Gordon thinks Wilson’s portrayal of ants in Anthill is anthropomorphic, and she is trying to explain what a society built simply on co-operation is like. She suggests,as we saw, that it is like doing your work in response to the number of messages you receive, devoid of content. So there can be, as the researchers admit, high levels of co-operation without intelligence.

    The post’s point is that in human terms, co-operation may or may not produce greater intelligence, and acts of intelligence may or may not include or produce co-operation. The computer simulation will not stand the test of human experience, reflected on carefully.

  3. 3

    Anyone who thinks teamwork improves intelligence has never sat on a steering committee.

  4. In fairness to scholars everywhere, Denyse, there are eVo psychs who attempt to do ‘serious research’ also. Surely you would not disagree? Dismissing them out of hand is not an altogether helpful solution. If you can find a religious eVo psych, however, then please make that story known.

    “So there can be, as the researchers admit, high levels of co-operation without intelligence.”

    That point didn’t seem controversial to me.

    Ask yourself, Denyse: are human beings different in ‘degree’ or ‘kind’ from (other) animals? This is what you had in mind (pun intended) with “The Spiritual Brain,” is it not? Yet some RCCs bless (non-human) animals, as if they are ‘ensouled’ or ‘spiritual’ too.

    I think we’re more on the same page on this topic than you realise (though obviously reading very different things). Gordon is a biologist, so she is completely out of her league talking about ‘society,’ whether built on cooperation or competition or a combination of the two. Likewise for McNally; an ecologist speaking about ‘socities’ is a rather limited affair. Since the IDM highlights not sociology or anthropology, however, there’s a discount to be discussed (e.g. Dembski is the only DI Fellow with any education in psychology!) and ‘society’ could just be called ‘what all animals do.’

    “A real ant colony is not a society of scheming, self-sacrificing individuals.”

    DI lost J. Schloss (the altruism go-to guy) for a reason. Following Robert Trivers, E.O. Wilson and co. on the ‘other’ side of naturalism, it makes no sense for IDers to buy into ‘ant society’ talk. This is why I harp about imago Dei; human beings are qualitatively different. Do you not agree?

    If your position was just against the ‘authenticity’ of computer simulations to mimick human reality, Denyse, then please ignore what I’ve written; obviously I’ve misunderstood the point you wished to make and yammered on about unwelcome fields and topics.

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