In our first exciting episode of Who’s Smarter: Chimps, Baboons or Bacteria? The Power of Group IQ ( Part I ) we showed how small-brained baboons can outsmart big-brained chimpanzees and how bacteria can out-innovate chimps, baboons, and you and me. We also visited an evolutionary mystery in the world of a bacterial buddy that's with you every day, the E. coli found in your gut.
In Part II we discussed how E. coli use collective intelligence to do something that the current self-proclaimed sole interpreters of evolution, the neo-Darwinians, say is impossible. E. coli take a step backward in order to adapt and take a giant step forward. We also talked about how we high-bio-tech humans have stolen the inventions of our single-celled friends and have adapted bacterias' innovations to our own needs.
In Part III we'll return to baboons and chimpanzees and examine why the smaller-brained primates consistently outsmart the bigger brained. We'll look at how baboons harness the power of Group IQ, and we'll hint at what the groups you and I belong to--from our families to our companies--can do to get smart. A hint: it involves sleeping together (1).
OK, so I’m claiming there have been collective intellects since life began on this planet 3.85 billion years ago. This might easily make you wonder, if I’m so smart, and if all this is true, can we give group intellects an IQ test? The answer is yes.
Here’s the proof:
The ultimate test of intelligence is adaptability—how swiftly you can solve a complex problem, whether that problem is couched in words, in images, in crises, or in everyday life. The arena where intelligence is most important is not the testing room, it’s the real world. When you measure adaptability by the ability to turn disasters into opportunities and wastelands into paradises, bacteria score astonishingly high. But how do big-brained chimpanzees and small-brained baboons do? Or, to put it differently, how adaptable, clever, mentally agile, and able to solve real-world problems have chimpanzees and baboons proven to be?
You can tell by the number of appeals made on TV, radio, and print made to save these primates’ tails. Jane Goodall has toured the world alerting us to a simple fact. The environment that allows chimps to live is rapidly disappearing. To save the chimps, we must save the environmental niche that gives them life. How many activists have you seen pleading with you to save the environment of baboons? None. Is there a reason? Yes. Baboons have been called “the rats of Africa.” No matter how badly you desecrate their environment, they find a way to take advantage of your outrage. One group, the Pumphouse Gang, was under study for years by primatologist Shirley Strum. When Strum began her baboon-watching, the Pumphouse Gang lived off the land in Kenya and ate a healthy, all-natural diet. They ate blossoms and fruits when those were in season. When there were no sweets and flowery treats, the baboons dug up roots and bulbs.
Then came disaster—the meddling of man. Farmers took over parts of the baboons’ territory, plowed it, built houses, and put up electrified fences around their crops. Worse, the Kenyan military erected a base, put up homes for the officers’ wives and kids, and trashed even more of the baboons’ territory by setting aside former baboon-land for a giant garbage heap. If this had happened to a patch of forest inhabited by chimps, the chimpanzee tribes would have been devastated. But not the baboons.
At first, the Pumphouse Gang maintained its old lifestyle and continued grubbing in the earth for its food. Then came a new generation of adolescents. Each generation of adolescent baboons produces a few curious, unconventional rebels. Normally a baboon trip splits up In small groups and goes off early in the day to find food. But one of the adolescent non-conformists of the Pump House Gang insisted on wandering by himself. His roaming took him to the military garbage dump. The baboon grasped a principle that chimps don’t seem to get. One man’s garbage is another primate’s gold. One man’s slush is another animal’s snow cone.
The baboon rebel found a way through the military garbage heap’s barbed wire fence, set foot in the trash heap, and tasted the throwaways. Pay dirt. He’d hit a concentrated source of nutrition. When they came back to their home base at the end of the day, the natural-living baboons, the ones who had stuck to their traditional food-gathering strategies, to their daily grind digging up tubers, came home dusty and bedraggled, worn out by their work. But the adolescent who invented garbage raiding came back energetic, rested, strong, and glorious. As the weeks and months went by, he seemed to grow in health and vigor. Other young adolescent males became curious. Some followed the non-conformist on his daily stroll into the unknown. And, lo, they too discovered the garbage dump and found it good.
Eventually, the males who made the garbage dump their new food source began to sleep in their own group, separated from the conservative old timers. As they grew in physical strength and robustness, these Young Turks challenged the old males to fights. The youngsters’ food was superior and so was their physical power. They had a tendency to win their battles. Females attracted by this power wandered outside the ancestral troop and spent increasing amounts of time with the rebel males—who continued to increase their supply of high-quality food by inventing ways to open the door latches of the houses of the officers’ wives and taught themselves how to open kitchen cupboards and pantries and who also Invented ways to make their way through the electrified fences of farmers and gather armloads of corn. The health of the males and females in the garbage-picking group was so much better than that of the old troop that a female impregnated in the gang of garbage-pickers and farm-raiders was able to have a new infant every eighteen months. The females in the old, conservative, natural-diet group were stuck with a new infant only every 24 months. The innovators were not only humiliating the conservatives in pitch battles, they were outbreeding them.
Why were the baboons so much smarter than chimpanzees? Why were they able to innovate and to surf the waves of change and the currents of the strange? Because they didn’t just think as individuals, they thought as a group. Their individualistic, curious adolescents were antennae, probing the possibilities of the unknown. These explorers and innovators sometimes went off on their own while the main troop broke up into small groups to do their wandering. But at night the small groups and individualists gathered to sleep together in crowds of from a hundred to seven hundred. And in the morning, through body-language arguments between the males about where to go during the day, these groups and rebels shared information, they compared notes.
Chimps are not wanderers. They are stick in the muds and stay at homes. They patrol their existing territory. And they live in groups of a mere fifteen to 35. They don’t get together in nightly multi-group conventions to compare notes.
The result? When the old environmental slot of chimps wears out or is wiped away, they have no options, no fallback, or, more important, no fall-forward positions. Baboons have smaller brains. But they have smarter Group IQs. And they can turn any environmental challenge you toss their way from disaster into opportunity. Chimps can not.
Here’s an additional guess about why the group IQ of baboons is higher than the group IQ of chimps. When chimps fission, when one group of chimps separates and becomes two groups, those two groups eventually replace peaceful competition with war. And I mean a war in which the losing group is exterminated…in which its adult males are murdered down to the last one and in which only the most delicious females, the fertile ones, are kept alive. When baboon groups fission, the groups compete with a far less genocidal form of violence. They have fights, brawls, gang bangs, and bullying sessions. They use their might and hurt each other. But they don’t wipe each other out. They don’t kill each other. They don’t pursue systematic genocide.
The result is that the alternative strategies pursued by each baboon group—the alternative hypotheses—live on in the baboon mass mind.
The bottom line? Baboons are on the increase in Africa. Chimps—despite their relatively humongous brains—are on the path to extinction. And that increase or shrinkage is a direct measure of adaptability, a measure of intelligence, a numerical indicator of group IQ.
Another lesson, especially for the group of thinkers represented in this book--to have a high collective IQ, it’s not enough just to have a group and to parcel out the job of thinking in a nice, egalitarian manner. Structure makes all the difference in the world. Especially structure that uses individuals, small groups, and the collection of those groups into larger units, units that can share information. Structure that harvests the force of both competition and cooperation. Baboons have this sort of competitive-cooperative-individualist-small-group-plus-big-alliance structure. Chimps do not.
And there’s another bottom line. Our social and psychological sciences have utterly ignored the study of collective intelligence, of Group IQ. Eshel Ben Jacob’s pioneering work on bacteria, for example, has appeared primarily in physics journals, not the journals that explore the secrets of the social body and of the psyche. And swarm intelligence has been largely relegated to the artificial intelligence, robotic, and computer communities. That’s a mistake. To raise our own Group IQ, it’s time for us humans to dig a little deeper and to study the inner secrets of social organization among our fellow organisms on this planet--bacteria, chimps and baboons.
(1) The line about sleeping together above might be a bit much, since I don't recommend that CEOs gather in groups of 200 on sleeping cliffs at night and bring their wives. Though, frankly, if it weren't against our cultural norms, it would probably produce dynamite results. Look what happened in France when Louis XIV made his nobles sleep in the same luxury dorm, Versailles. And look at what happened at about the same time 7,000 miles away in Japan when the Shogun made the entire nobility move their families and their sleeping quarters from their walled castles to one city, Kyoto.
Both cultures--that of France and that of Japan--powered up and hit lift-off. Both ignited the series of brainstorms that led to mercantile and industrial revolutions.