I would like you to consider carefully the following comments made by Gerhard Adam in the discussion that followed a recent article on artificial intelligence.

Gerhard’s contribution is a lesson in the benefits of disciplined logical thought. Please read on:

“Intelligence" didn't just "wake up" one day. Its presence is visible from microbes up to the highest organisms. The notion that if you just cobble together enough pieces and intelligence will emerge is simply magical thinking.”

And in response to another comment; “It just seems that intelligence is being viewed as some arbitrary "add-on" to biology. Like it's some feature that is "out there" and has nothing to do with the organism in question.”

And to another: “We already know that rudimentary intelligence exists at the microbial level. The ability to communicate and exchange information establishes a baseline of intelligence that isn't present in any other chemical systems. Even something as seemingly trivial as "self-identity" is present and allows bacteria to distinguish between their own kind and others. In addition, we can see how such behaviors change with colonization [i.e. colonial animals] with increasing centralized control over the constituent behaviors of the individual cells. Invariably this control requires extensive ability to map the organism's domain of cells and provide regulation, control, and feedback to ensure that the entire "colony" operates as a cohesive unit. Individual cells are no longer independent units, but are "answerable" to the controlling mechanisms of the whole.

From this we can readily argue that a significant amount of data is directly related to sensory feedback mechanisms which are employed to facilitate the mapping provided by "central control" to ensure the survival and reproduction of the organism. Increasing sophistication creates an environment where direct sensory input can be abstracted into interpretable elements that can then be used in lieu of direct sensory data.

However, the inescapable component of all of this, is the distinction in biology that all "intelligence" is oriented around the survival and reproduction of the organism in question. This is what creates the motivation and impetus necessary to act and to respond to situations [which in turn are mapped back to the central control mechanism].

While we may use fuzzy terms like "instinct", those are fundamentally meaningless because they imply a kind of "hard-wiring" which doesn't actually negate or promote anything. Instinct isn't "hard-wiring", it's the "default" state. The longer-lived the organism, and the more diverse its circumstances, the greater the need to be able to acquire new information, modify behavior, and learn how to survive in different situations. This is what would largely be responsible for increased brain sizes and sophistication in "higher" animals.

Intelligence is biology, because at the end of the day, you can build any kind of machine you like with whatever degree of sophistication technology allows and it can excel at its assigned task. But until you can build a machine that gives a damn, it is nothing but a set of human induced rules.”

You might say that this is interesting, but hardly groundbreaking, just Gerhard being Gerhard. But you’d be wrong.

With those thoughts Gerhard was a whisker away from solving one of the great problems – what is intelligence?

The quotes in their entirety are useful, and should be kept in mind when considering the argument that I’m about to present, but let’s pick out the outstanding points.

“Intelligence" didn't just "wake up" one day. Its presence is visible from microbes up to the highest organisms.”

“We already know that rudimentary intelligence exists at the microbial level”

“...the inescapable component of all of this is the distinction in biology that all "intelligence" is oriented around the survival and reproduction of the organism in question.”

“Intelligence is biology,...”

What makes these points outstanding?

The fact that intelligence exists at all levels from  micro-organisms through to blue whales, tells us that intelligence is a feature of life itself, similar to the other recognisable features of life; growth, metabolism, reproduction and homeostasis. But those seem to me to be in a different class altogether to intelligence. They are what we might call tangible features; they are relatively easy to observe and measure.

Does this leave intelligence in a category of its own? Not at all.

Here is the point Gerhard almost stumbled upon; if “intelligence is biology” as he said, (correctly I believe) then intelligence is life.

I can hear the howls of protest already!

“But you maintain that cooperation is life.”

Indeed I do.  (At this point those who had trouble accepting that life is cooperation should have a stiff whisky, because they’re in for a rough ride.)

There is no contradiction here if we consider the possibility that cooperation IS intelligence.

Can that be demonstrated? Certainly!

Let’s consider that possibility in light of Gerhard’s comments.

He said “Intelligence didn’t just wake up one day.” The same for cooperation.
He said “Intelligence exists at the microbial level.” The same for cooperation.
He said; "...intelligence is oriented around the survival and reproduction of the organism in question.” The same for cooperation.
He said; ”Intelligence is biology...”  That is the case also for cooperation.

But this is still a bit tenuous.  It’s not much of an argument unless the relationship between cooperation and intelligence can be widely demonstrated in the natural world. Which it can.

The great Russian geographer Peter Kropotkin made the important point in Mutual Aid – A Factor in Evolution, that as a general rule the most social animals are the most intelligent animals. An observed increase in sociality generally goes hand in hand with an observable increase in intelligence. What is sociality but cooperation? The higher the level of cooperation, the higher the level of intelligence.

But differing levels of  cooperation/intelligence are not just seen between species. Cooperation becomes more complex and advanced as we move from cell to organism to community, and intelligence follows exactly the same pattern on that pathway also.

The correlation between cooperation and intelligence is so close and so consistent, that for all practical purposes we can assume that they are the same concept. Intelligence is cooperation.

It seems incongruous to link the two, but their dissimilarity is an illusion created by natural limits to the way we think. Those limits to our understanding are due to the point Gerhard made that intelligence is all about survival and reproduction. Humans have not been subjected to pressures that select for the ability to contemplate abstractions such as intelligence. Our understanding, wonderful though we might think it to be, has been limited by our biological history.

It might be a little difficult to see the equivalence of intelligence and cooperation, but if we accept the reality that all life forms, from the first cooperating molecules to cells and organisms and communities are based on group activity, then we see that any initiation of cooperative activity anywhere, anytime, immediately creates a new living entity, a new community with an expanded vitality and intelligence. That intelligence and vitality did not come from nothing. The input was cooperation, so intelligence is cooperation.

But you won’t let go, will you.  You’re determined to hang on to the idea that intelligence is complex or mysterious.
So here’s an example of the creation of a community with increased cooperation/intelligence.

The astounding and rapid advances that took place in the 20th Century in the field of genetics were the result of a global sharing of information and hardware among laboratories. This raised level of cooperation effectively equated to a raised level of intelligence as was proved by the results. As soon as one laboratory cooperated with another, the intelligence of the new unit was higher than the sum of the two separate units. And as the number of participating laboratories grew and the cooperation developed, so did the intelligence. 

The cooperation created the intelligence, because the cooperation was the intelligence. At this point you might argue that the higher level of intelligence followed the cooperation; that it was a consequence of the cooperation. But that is not the case because you can’t make something out of nothing. As Gerhard pointed out, “the notion that if you just cobble together enough pieces and intelligence will emerge is simply magical thinking.” The intelligence did not simply emerge out of nowhere; it grew as an integral part of the cooperation. It’s not magical, it’s not mysterious, and it’s not complex.

In fact, it’s as simple as the old saying that two heads are smarter than one. So why are two heads smarter than one?

It’s not because two is greater than one, after all, if the two don’t cooperate they achieve nothing. Two heads are only better than one if they cooperate.

 The more cooperative the two, the smarter they become. Because intelligence is cooperation.