Is mediocrity intelligent?

ShortNeckedGiraffeWhen I graduated from college, I took a job working for the psychology department. I had unofficially minored in psychology and a couple of the professors liked me and wanted to keep me around.

One perk of this arrangement was that I got to go to Bell Labs (though it wasn’t called that anymore) with the biopsych professor as part of his entourage for a talk he was giving on signs of collective intelligence in species — not in the organisms, in the species itself as a sort of superorganism.

He was presenting to the "artificial life" department within Bell Labs, who wanted to see if phone networks could be made more robust by modeling the patterns of biological life.

The reason I was able to go was, in a sense, that I had decided not to go to graduate school, but here I was surrounded by PhDs who loved their jobs and were fascinated and passionate about their disciplines. And they got to work with high-tech everything. Very different from the bucolic environs of our tiny college campus. It didn’t quite inspire me to reconsider graduate school, but I think it did play a role in getting the biopsych prof to leave the academy for the private sector.

Anyway, it was in this presentation at Bell Labs that I first learned the evolutionary concept of the deme — an idea that has informed my thinking ever since, including my thoughts on politics. Before I was a full-blown libertarian, I was already opposed to uniformity, opposed to central plans, and in favor of decentralization of authority and decision making. That decentralism came from my understanding of evolution and information theory — of cybernetics in its broader sense.

Here’s what a deme is:

A deme is an isolated gene pool within a species. If a gene pool is isolated for long enough, its members can no longer reproduce with organisms from the main gene pool, and the deme becomes a distinct species. But while the deme is still a deme, still compatible with the species’ genetic mainstream (though distinct from it) it plays a crucial role in that species’ survival and future evolution.

The irony, from the perspective of the ever-upward model of evolution, is that this important subspecies is generally considered less "fit" than the main population. Because of its isolation, the deme hasn’t had the full benefit of progress made through the genetic trial-and-error process enjoyed by the mainstream. Not enough "cross fertilization."

Imagine an island where the giraffes aren’t as tall as their distant cousins on the mainland.

But what we often forget about the "survival of the fittest" is that fitness is relative and entirely contextual. What makes an organism better able to pass on its pattern to another generation depends entirely on the environment in which it strives to do so.

There is no absolute "better" evolutionary strategy. Better and worse depend entirely on time and place. As the environment changes, today’s better may become tomorrow’s worse.

FitnessHillClimbingTo make his point, my professor friend showed a "fitness landscape," a 3D graph, with fitness, in the evolutionary sense, mapped onto the vertical access, higher being more fit. Each horizontal axis represented some adaptation or variation of evolutionary strategy. You can only fit two more into a 3D map, but there could be an endless number of such dimensions. The purpose of this graph was to show "hill-climbing" behavior on the part of the abstract blobs that represented different species’ collections of survival strategies.

Now, hill-climbing behavior is not by itself a sign of intelligence. We don’t consider plants to be intelligent just because vines climb up out of the dark undergrowth or because leaves turn toward the sunlight.

But we do tend to consider an entity intelligent (or at least more intelligent) if it shows the ability to seek out higher peeks than the local hilltop it has managed to climb to. You can see that behavior in the graph above. The blob isn’t cohering at the hilltop; it’s sending tendrils downhill to explore the valleys and neighboring slopes. Those tendrils are the demes, lower on the fitness axis but essential to keeping the species-blob from stagnating on a peek that may prove temporary as the environment changes.

That may be too much to take in from such a sketchy but still dense description. You can download the paper here, if you’re interested in the details.

For now, just imagine some catastrophe that makes our vertically challenged island giraffes a successful Plan B for the species. Higher leaves are suddenly detrimental, but that’s what it’s easiest for the mainland giraffes to get to. If there is any cross-fertilization at all, the runty descendants of the island giraffes will begin to take over the mainland.

How fortunate for the species that it didn’t invest everything in the taller-neck strategy.

I have much more to say on this topic, but for now I will leave the political parallels as an exercise for the astute reader.

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One Response to Is mediocrity intelligent?

  1. Pingback: Yes, We Have No Bananas — The Libertarian Standard

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