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.