thats_wild (2007-16)

What makes you so damn smart?

Speaking in Thumbs

by Rikki Hall

The strange thing about intelligence is how easy it is to fake. What looks smart is sometimes just a lucky mistake. A series of minor accomplishments can sum to great work. Computers, with their binary language, perform an incredibly long series of nearly trivial accomplishments. Little things add up.

Ants use both tricks--lucky mistakes and little writ large--to seem smarter than they are. An ant who gets lost following a scent trail to a crumb finds the cake. It is a mistake with a payoff. According to computer simulations, mistakes are necessary for the ants to achieve optimal foraging. If a few ants don't get lost, the system is too rigid and suboptimal. You have to make mistakes to find the lucky ones.

Similarly, impatience helps optimize the organization of labor in ant colonies, but the result is impressive enough to cast the illusion of careful orchestration. Myrmecologists once speculated that queens regulate labor from a central command post or that workers are genetically triggered to do only a certain job, but mathematicians showed that the system explains itself.

When an ant hatches, it sets to work tending brood. It has many sisters helping, and all the eggs are sisters too. The nurse ants feed the brood and keep the nest clean, but do not leave the nest. Another set of ants works as guards, carrying debris out and carrying food in. Foragers collect the food, the high-risk job away from the safety of the nest. Foragers tend to be the oldest workers.

Each set of ants interacts. Nurse ants give debris to guards to be taken from the nest and take food from them to store or feed to brood. Foragers hand food off to a guard and return to look for more. When an ant gets impatient, it does the job itself. Writ large, this means the colony always balances its labor force. Queuing decisions--keep waiting? keep waiting?--can be studied mathematically, and queuing theory applied to ant behavior showed no need to seek a central command system or complex genetic controls. Even the tendency of older ants to be foragers can be explained by the math.

In ants, the appearance of design is real. Ants find cake, and their foraging and labor distribution strategies are as good as an intelligent agent could hope to achieve. Perhaps design implies a designer, but in this case there are thousands of designers, and it is not intelligence, but impatience and mistakes that guide them. Or maybe that's how intelligence always works.

If ants can trick us into seeing intelligence where there is none, maybe intelligence is the illusion. Maybe all God's creatures are stupid, even us.

We treat intelligence like a grand stage on which only humans play, but we are not so selfish with stupid. Stupid things animals do convince us they are not smart, but who is fooling who? Is an Australian beetle trying to mate with a mottled, amber beer bottle stupid? The female of his species is mottled and amber. If he thinks he has found the sexiest beetle goddess on the planet, can you blame him? It's a common mistake.

The spectrum from duh to ta-da is broad, and sometimes it is stupidity that makes intelligence apparent. Intelligence is the ability to learn from mistakes. Stupidity is the ability to not learn. The two are inseparable.

How smart would you be without books? Maybe you can compute the length of the hypotenuse given two sides, but could you discover the formula if you had been born before Pythagoras? What could you learn without language? Could you learn the alphabet without the song?

How much of your intelligence have you gathered, and how much was given in books and song, gesture and expression? It is our thumbs and tongues that distinguish us from other animals, not brainpower. We overrate our own intelligence and dismiss it in other creatures until the illusion that humans are unique is convincing, but we are as dumb as the rest. We just have more ways of showing it and more chances to make lucky mistakes.

If you've never been a wasp that hovers up to a two-foot diameter spider web, avoids touching it, stings the spider and flies its paralyzed body back to a nest you've built with wood shavings and saliva, who are you to say the wasp has no idea what it is doing? Our vanity about our own intelligence may be the biggest obstacle to deciphering what intelligence actually is.

We cloud our understanding of hard questions with easy answers.

Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.