The Principled Intelligence Hypothesis

I have been reading the thought provoking Elephant in the Brain, and will probably have more to say on it later. But if I understand correctly, a dominant theory of how humans came to be so smart is that they have been in an endless cat and mouse game with themselves, making norms and punishing violations on the one hand, and cleverly cheating their own norms and excusing themselves on the other (the ‘Social Brain Hypothesis’ or ‘Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis’). Intelligence purportedly evolved to get ourselves off the hook, and our ability to construct rocket ships and proofs about large prime numbers are just a lucky side product.

As a person who is both unusually smart, and who spent the last half hour wishing the seatbelt sign would go off so they could permissibly use the restroom, I feel like there is some tension between this theory and reality. I’m not the only unusually smart person who hates breaking rules, who wishes there were more rules telling them what to do, who incessantly makes up rules for themselves, who intentionally steers clear of borderline cases because it would be so annoying to think about, and who wishes the nominal rules were policed predictably and actually reflected expected behavior. This is a whole stereotype of person.

But if intelligence evolved for the prime purpose of evading rules, shouldn’t the smartest people be best at navigating rule evasion? Or at least reliably non-terrible at it? Shouldn’t they be the most delighted to find themselves in situations where the rules were ambiguous and the real situation didn’t match the claimed rules? Shouldn’t the people who are best at making rocket ships and proofs also be the best at making excuses and calculatedly risky norm-violations? Why is there this stereotype that the more you can make rocket ships, the more likely you are to break down crying if the social rules about when and how you are allowed to make rocket ships are ambiguous?

It could be that these nerds are rare, yet salient for some reason. Maybe such people are funny, not representative. Maybe the smartest people are actually savvy. I’m told that there is at least a positive correlation between social skills and other intellectual skills.

I offer a different theory. If the human brain grew out of an endless cat and mouse game, what if the thing we traditionally think of as ‘intelligence’ grew out of being the cat, not the mouse?

The skill it takes to apply abstract theories across a range of domains and to notice places where reality doesn’t fit sounds very much like policing norms, not breaking them. The love of consistency that fuels unifying theories sounds a lot like the one that insists on fair application of laws, and social codes that can apply in every circumstance. Math is basically just the construction of a bunch of rules, and then endless speculation about what they imply. A major object of science is even called discovering ‘the laws of nature’.

Rules need to generalize across a lot of situations—you will have a terrible time as rule-enforcer if you see every situation as having new, ad-hoc appropriate behavior. We wouldn’t even call this having a ‘rule’. But more to the point, when people bring you their excuses, if your rule doesn’t already imply an immovable position on every case you have never imagined, then you are open to accepting excuses. So you need to see the one law manifest everywhere. I posit that technical intelligence comes from the drive to make these generalizations, not the drive to thwart them.

On this theory, probably some other aspects of human skill are for evading norms. For instance, perhaps social or emotional intelligence (I hear these are things, but will not pretend to know much about them). If norm-policing and norm-evading are somewhat different activities, we might expect to have at least two systems that are engorged by this endless struggle.

I think this would solve another problem: if we came to have intelligence for cheating each other, it is unclear why general intelligence per se is is the answer to this, but not to other problems we have ever had as animals. Why did we get mental skills this time rather than earlier? Like that time we were competing over eating all the plants, or escaping predators better than our cousins? This isn’t the only time that a species was in fierce competition against themselves for something. In fact that has been happening forever. Why didn’t we develop intelligence to compete against each other for food, back when we lived in the sea? If the theory is just ‘there was strong competitive pressure for something that will help us win, so out came intelligence’, I think there is a lot left unexplained. Especially since the thing we most want to explain is the spaceship stuff, that on this theory is a random side effect anyway. (Note: I may be misunderstanding the usual theory, as a result of knowing almost nothing about it.)

I think this Principled Intelligence Hypothesis does better. Tracking general principles and spotting deviations from them is close to what scientific intelligence is, so if we were competing to do this (against people seeking to thwart us) it would make sense that we ended up with good theory-generalizing and deviation-spotting engines.

On the other hand, I think there are several reasons to doubt this theory, or details to resolve. For instance, while we are being unnecessarily norm-abiding and going with anecdotal evidence, I think I am actually pretty great at making up excuses, if I do say so. And I feel like this rests on is the same skill as ‘analogize one thing to another’ (my being here to hide from a party could just as well be interpreted as my being here to look for the drinks, much as the economy could also be interpreted as a kind of nervous system), which seems like it is quite similar to the skill of making up scientific theories (these five observations being true is much like theory X applying in general), though arguably not the skill of making up scientific theories well. So this is evidence against smart people being bad at norm evasion in general, and against norm evasion being a different kind of skill to norm enforcement, which is about generalizing across circumstances.

Some other outside view evidence against this theory’s correctness is that my friends all think it is wrong, and I know nothing about the relevant literature. I think it could also do with some inside view details – for instance, how exactly does any creature ever benefit from enforcing norms well? Isn’t it a bit of a tragedy of the commons? If norm evasion and norm policing skills vary in a population of agents, what happens over time? But I thought I’d tell you my rough thoughts, before I set this aside and fail to look into any of those details for the indefinite future.

9 responses to “The Principled Intelligence Hypothesis

  1. Successfully breaking rules is always one step more cognitively challenging than enforcing rules: In order to break them you need to understand what those rules amount to when enforced, but on top of that also understand how to get what you want given the rules and their enforcement procedures are what they are.

    What I think distinguishes the nerdy-smart from the socially-smart might have to do with the sort of rules that nerds try to understand. We may be oriented toward figuring out systems/principles rather than figuring out people. Systems/principles are arguably simpler than people, but being really good at figuring out people does not generate easy spinoffs for figuring out things like agriculture, medicine, math or the motions in the night sky. Also, recent leaps in human knowledge are much more about the workings of systems/principles than the workings of people. Nerds have many more resources behind them now to help with their quest. Arguably, we don’t understand people much better now than we did in the time of Aristotle and Sophocles.

  2. Just as a data point, I am a walking geek stereotype (although I don’t think I’m bad at socializing) who works in the Bay Area and hangs out with rationalists, and I didn’t even know that there was a stereotype about smart people liking to follow rules. I certainly don’t notice the pattern myself.

    I do think that smart people like to make rules.

  3. From Twitter,

    Interesting, but in your scenario humans are both the cat and the mice; evolution selected for both rule building and munchkinry. So the two abilities are correlated in general, but specific people can prefer one type of thinking. (security researcher vs. physicist)

    Specifically, I’d think that given g rule building and munchkinry are mostly conditionally independent. (On the other hand, this conditional independence may require conditioning on more than just g. I’m unsure.)

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  5. This is non sense. Traits of what we call smart,very smart are now a universal knowledge. It can easily be mimic by anyone but have no good contribution into society. We should only acknowledge smart people only if they could contribute good deeds to our society using their talents. In the world of singers people cannot sing well are what’s the difference when you compare it into the world of people with more than 145 IQ? What we can do at any areas of life is a product of our brain.

  6. This seems like it’s playing in the same broad hypothesis space as my post on geometric vs lawful general intelligence.

    I think your suggestion that norm-enforcement & norm-evasion can use the same structures is probably right, but it had to originate from a seed that’s not purely cat-and-mouse, even if adversarial component subsequently led to quick gains.

    • The seed seems like it might be something like this. Empathy is useful to mammals in part because it allows kin groups to share basic survival-relevant information. (I don’t fully understand how this works in a way that isn’t magical group selection bullshit, but it seems to happen and we can black-box that confusion for now.) For whatever reason, it’s fitness-enhancing to be able to share information about the sorts of simple action intents that things like body language can communicate. For the same reason, it’s sometimes advantageous to be able to send and receive information with different complex data structures, e.g. sets of conditional instructions. But at some point the most parsimonious way to do that is to have general reasoning skills that can be used to manipulate words as symbols that can be assigned arbitrary referents or functions. Thus – general intelligence!

  7. Just about every social animal has to deal with rules and norms.They save a huge amount of time and energy. If everyone had to bare his or her teeth and challenge a flight attendant every time he or she needed to use the bathroom, commercial flying would be even uglier than it is now, and it is pretty ugly. Challenge the pack leader when you think you can win, even if it means being second or third round at the carcass.

    I’m with you on the cat, not the mouse. Humans are social animals and predators. Being able to figure out what your prey is thinking is a powerful ability for any predator. Being able to figure out what the rest of the pack is thinking about the prey makes social hunting that much more effective. The time and energy that social rules and norms can save the pack can mean better hunting. More and bigger carcasses mean that there’s plenty left on the second or third round.

    There are other rules and norms too, the ones we impose on intellectual endeavor. I remember years ago reading about a study of creative people and their attitudes towards rules and norms. They supposedly went to various companies and asked which colleagues they considered the most creative. Then also they asked about attitudes towards rules and norms. The most creative people took rules and norms more seriously and rarely broke them. As a computer programmer who has at times been too clever by half, I’ll bet there was a lot of scar tissue.

  8. Mitchell Porter

    I have never before heard of the theory that human intelligence is due specifically to an escalating ability to evade social norms, nor of a stereotype that intelligent people like rules.

    This theory is reminiscent of the Generative Adversarial Network architecture of neural network, in which a faker network gets better at faking something, and a filter network gets better at detecting fakes. That is, one may imagine coevolving subpopulations, one composed of criminals and the other of detectives. One could even think of these as cognitive modules inhabiting the same brain.

    But I am skeptical that this is *the* evolutionary wellspring of human intelligence. Not everything is social. Even if one takes a sociocentric view of human intelligence, a society can prosper, and gain an edge over other societies, by an improvement in nonsocial cognitive abilities, so long as it is able to use them.

    As for the supposed stereotype of the rule-loving high-IQ person, it does remind me somewhat of the stereotype of an “autist”, high-functioning or otherwise, who has peculiar behavioral regularities or obsessive hobbies. But in general, this seems a matter of personality rather than intelligence. Where are the high IQs who like breaking and exploiting rules? They’re in finance and politics, living a life of overt or covert extreme selfishness.


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