Having been inspired by a series of articles by Becky Jungbauer, I thought it might be useful to explore the basic concept of intelligence and its possible origins.

Any creature which has sensory organs of any type is collecting information. The only reason to collect information is to use it in making choices. Whether it be to eat something or not, or to move, or to mate, these are all choices that are made based on the information available to the organism.

In many cases, such choices may be effectively “hard-wired” in that when certain information occurs, a specific reaction occurs. In these instances, as long as there is no possibility of deception, then the response will ensure the desired result. In effect, it becomes a “reflex” action to a particular stimulus.

Should it be possible that the information can be misinterpreted or deceptive, then the reflexive response can produce erroneous results and compromise the organism’s ability to survive.

Therefore, it would seem that the development of multiple senses would help mitigate against the situation of a single source of information proving to be incorrect. Multiple sources, indicates multiple ways of interpreting events, and potentially better choices can be made. Once again, there is nothing prohibiting “hard-wired” responses, only that with multiple sources, the possible responses become more varied.

These kinds of processes are easily implemented whether it be the thermostat which responds to a particular temperature setting (it doesn’t need to understand temperature or even the result), or an organism responding to a light source. A simple feedback mechanism would suffice.

However, as the world becomes more complex (i.e. more creatures filling more niches), the potential for ambiguity in information sources increases. While the response to an ambiguous situation could simply be a probabilistic one, this doesn’t hold much promise for a long-term solution.

At this point, we can speculate that the addition of memory to the neural process can improve responses, so that past experiences can be stored and used to evaluate the current situation to try and determine the best response to the circumstances. In this case, we are assuming that past events are a reasonable indicator of future outcomes, so this approach may provide some benefit as well.

Once we venture down this path, it becomes easier to see how selection pressure to improve decision making could result in the development of larger storage areas, better memory management, and a decision-making or judgment center to improve results. In all these examples, we are considering the response to a situation that is currently being evaluated by the organism.

As long as there is a general one-to-one correspondence with respect to the possible solutions to the problem, then this approach can be rather successful. However, as problems become more complex, it becomes necessary to be able to abstract the solutions, so that energy and risks are not increased by trying out all the possible approaches to a problem. This becomes particularly important when a wrong choice may be life-threatening. It would seem fair to argue that this situation is what resulted in the well-known “fight or flight” response, so that the animal wouldn’t be paralyzed by attempting to analyze a situation that required an immediate reaction.

It is fairly straightforward to consider that the better an animal was at abstracting a solution to a problem, the greater the likelihood that it would survive and improve the probability of its reproducing. So with a combination of reflexive responses (fight or flight), experience, and problem abstraction, we would have a circumstance where an animal could learn from experience and apply such knowledge to resolve current problems.

By following this roundabout path to this point, if we consider that the brain is the seat of intelligence, then at which point during this story would we consider that intelligence actually emerged? We could certainly argue that there is evidence for “rational” or thinking behavior, but where is intelligence?

In the next part, we will explore what we mean by intelligence, where it seems to occur, and what is unique about it.

Concepts of Intelligence - Part 3