Should human beings not have become intelligent?

Variations on this question get asked very often. Because the fundamental flaw in them is a single error of perception, I want to make this essay a standing resource that can be referred to each time such questions arise in the future.

A few examples of the kind of questions I am talking about:

  • Why do we human beings have civilisation when no other animal does?
  • Why did only humankind get intelligence and other animal species did not?
  • Would the world be a better place if humans had never become intelligent?

There are many versions of these questions but you get the idea. Basically, the questioner wonders why humans have certain qualities that are not commonly found elsewhere in nature or the animal kingdom.

The error I want to bring to light stems from the anthropic bias. That’s the urge in humans to see human beings as somehow fundamentally different from their surroundings. Religion has supported this bias for a long time by putting man on a pedestal of course, but even in the minds of people who are not given to religious arguments, this bias persists. It makes us think of ourselves as special and unique. In truth, every form of life is unique in some way. And if they were to think of themselves as special, we would consider them biased. But we don’t often apply such critical thinking to ourselves.

Consider this:

Leopards can outrun us, fish can outdive and outswim us, birds can outfly us. You might say that we can do all these things thanks to our intelligence. My answer to that would be that our intelligence is not a thing that we possess. It is us.

Leopards don’t ask: Why did we become runners and other animals did not? Maybe we were not supposed to be fast but became like that?

Fish don’t ask: Why did we become capable of breathing underwater when many other animals did not? Were we not supposed to swim but became that way?

Birds don’t ask: Why can we fly when other animals can’t? Were we not supposed to fly but became that way?

The reason these questions seem silly is because we, as humans, don’t see animals as removed from their skills. A fish swims. A leopard runs. A bird flies. Without these qualities, these creatures would not be what they are.

But when it comes to ourselves, we begin to make a distinction between what we are and what we have. It’s a false dichotomy. It has no meaning unless we give it one.

If human beings had not been intelligent, they would not have been human beings. They would have been something else. The moment you understand this simple truth, the need for this question goes out the window.

When we ask if something was “supposed to” happen or not happen, we automatically lend credibility to the assumption that there is some kind of guiding force or deciding authority that has laid down an objective path or standard that we have to follow.

All we know is what we are and what we have been, that’s all. The human condition is as much a product of evolution as our bodies are. The cities we have built will not be built by any other species. If they ever build cities, they will be theirs. The same goes for our economies, the expression of our sciences, and all the complicated artifacts of our culture. These are not things we received. These are things we are.