Rethinking Intelligence In A More-Than-Human World

Essay by Amanda Rees: “We spend a lot of time debating intelligence — what does it mean? Who has it? And especially lately — can technology help us create or enhance it?

But for a species that relies on its self-declared “wisdom” to differentiate itself from all other animals, a species that consistently defines itself as intelligent and rational, Homo sapiens tends to do some strikingly foolish things — creating the climate crisis, for example, or threatening the survival of our world with nuclear disaster, or creating ever-more-powerful and pervasive algorithms. 

If we are in fact to be “wise,” we need to learn to manage a range of different and potentially existential risks relating to (and often created by) our technological interventions in the bio-social ecologies we inhabit. We need, in short, to rethink what it means to be intelligent. 

Points Of Origin

Part of the problem is that we think of both “intelligence” and “agency” as objective, identifiable, measurable human characteristics. But they’re not. At least in part, both concepts are instead the product of specific historical circumstances. “Agency,” for example, emerges with the European Enlightenment, perhaps best encapsulated in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” Writing in the late 15th century, Mirandola revels in the fact that to humanity alone “it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills. … On man … the Father conferred the seeds of all kinds and the germs of every way of life. Whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their own fruit.”

In other words, what makes humans unique is their possession of the God-given capacity to exercise free will — to take rational, self-conscious action in order to achieve specific ends. Today, this remains the model of agency that underpins significant and influential areas of public discourse. It resonates strongly with neoliberalist reforms of economic policy, for example, as well as with debates on public health responsibility and welfare spending. 

A few hundred years later, the modern version of “intelligence” appears, again in Europe, where it came to be understood as a capacity for ordered, rational, problem-solving, pattern-recognizing cognition. Through the work of the eugenicist Francis Galton, among others, intelligence soon came to be regarded as an innate quality possessed by individuals to greater or lesser degree, which could be used to sort populations into hierarchies of social access and economic reward…(More)”.