The July issue of Scientific American is out, and I couldn’t resist grabbing a copy. For one thing, it’s hard not to notice a cover with a large picture of a human brain on it. For another, the caption was an attention grabber. The headline is “The Physics of Intelligence,” but they followed this up with a question: “Evolution has packed 100 billion neurons into our three-pound brain. Can we get any smarter?”
Setting aside the question of whether or not evolution is the means by which our brains came into existence, there remains the fact that evolution can only be a means. It is a process not a cause. Atheists in the scientific community are often guilty of academic provincialism, assuming that because science can demonstrate a how, that it can also explain the why and the what next without any recourse to philosophy or religion. Atheists assume that science has already rendered religion obsolete when, in fact, science can answer very few of the questions that religion and philosophy pose. Even if evolution is how the brain developed, it does not prove that there wasn’t a who developing it.
This matters to a discussion of the article in Scientific American because of the question that article raises: Can we get any smarter? This is neither gloating nor arrogance on the part of the editors. Rather, it is a question that challenges one of the core assumptions of evolution, and that is that change over time continuously results in an increasingly better product. Survival of the fittest is the process by which the best and strongest survive to pass on their genes, and the weakest are wiped out of the gene pool by their failure to adapt.
Ever since Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, atheists have counted on evolution to improve on the human race. The whole idea of a superman is predicated on the idea that humans, as a species, will continue to get stronger and smarter as natural selection weeds out weaknesses and abnormalities. If an atheist has hope for the future, it surely lies in the expectation that human beings will get better at solving problems that currently seem insurmountable. Even our ability to survive the possible death of our planet depends on our finding new ways of transporting a lot of people over great distances in space – a prospect that is currently impossible by any technology we can now conceive of. I don’t just mean that we can’t build the technology; I mean that we haven’t even imagined a solution that would really be feasible. In order to fulfill the kind of destiny that Darwinism offers us, we need to get a whole lot smarter.
The article in Scientific American (“The Limits of Intelligence” by Douglas Fox) would seem to throw a monkey-wrench into this vision of our future. The size of our brains could increase, but then they would get slower because information would have longer distances to travel across our neural network. If we grew more neural connections, they would take up more space, plus they would consume more energy and our brains already use up about 80% of the energy we burn on a daily basis. (Can I turn that into a diet plan? Think more, eat less?) On top of this, more neural connections would mean more information traffic and more “background noise”. The conclusion would seem to be that the human brain is as good as it’s going to get.
For those who do not believe in a higher power (i.e. we’re out here on our own), that has to be a depressing thought. The article does not, however, leave them without a ray of hope. Perhaps, we might find a solution in connectivity. Perhaps, the development of technology that allows us to “pool our intelligence with others” (43) will prove to be the next great step in our evolution. As a matter of fact, I think we should continue to develop that connectivity, as long as we are aware that information technology has the potential to make us all dumber together instead of making us all smarter together depending upon how we use it. (See the previous post on PBS’ special Digital_Nation.) I applaud the new definition of polity that seems to be developing in countries like Egypt and Syria where the governments have too long been Hobbesian Leviathans devouring their own people. Instead, the internet, through tools like Facebook and Twitter, has become the new Leviathan, the new embodiment of the will of the people. I think there is great hope that this will ultimately (perhaps, not instantly) produce more democratic societies, and history has shown that democratic societies tend to be more just and innovative.
But I don’t think this revolution is attributable to evolution. We have always been wired to live in communities, to pool our resources and abilities, and to depend on those around us to help us get things done. We have certainly invented new ways of doing this, but it is not a fundamental change in us as a species. It is simply a new and more efficient way of doing what we have always done. Those of us who espouse a worldview that includes a Creator have always assumed that any being who could design and wire the human brain must be unimaginably brilliant. If he has given us the best possible brain within the natural laws he established, why should we find that surprising? We always knew that we were fearfully and wonderfully made. Moreover, our minds were created by a God who designed us to live in relationship with himself and with other people. God alone possesses the absolute power of self-definition. The rest of us have always learned who and what we were through our interactions with those around us. If we are getting better at creating and facilitating those interactions, it does not create a new destiny for us. It simply makes us better at fulfilling the destiny our Creator gave us from the very beginning of Time.