“The Dark Side of Smart
Diana Fleischman is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, writing and living while on sabbatical in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @sentientist.
Manipulative communication surrounds us. With misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic, “cheap” and “deep” fakes of elected officials, and targeted ads and emotionally exploitative social media algorithms, it can begin to feel like all communication is manipulation.
Well, as it turns out, this is the thesis of an influential paper by evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins and John Krebs. The cynicism behind this statement can make many people uncomfortable. When we think about communicating, we tend to think about our own thoughts and feelings rather than how we might be influencing others. One major reason an evolutionary perspective on our own behavior can be so confronting is that it doesn’t take our word for why we do things. It looks at how what we do influences the two core currencies of life on earth, survival and reproduction.
When minds start to figure out other minds, a lot of cognitive power gets built up that can be used for other things. Consider one of the groundbreaking insights in evolution in the last few decades, the idea of the “extended phenotype.” Evolution isn’t just acting on an individual’s characteristics but the way it interacts with the environment—including other minds. Evolution is selecting not just on the teeth and tail and claws of a beaver, but also on how well its dam keeps out water. Not just the bees’ wings and bodies but also the structure of their hive.
Hold on a minute you might be saying to yourself—you evolutionary people are so cynical—didn’t we also get smart to cooperate? Perhaps, to some degree. But research suggests intelligence has been a lot more important, especially for theory of mind for competition, than for cooperation. Evolutionary models, for example, have shown that competition promotes the ability to think about other minds more strongly than cooperation. And studies have shown that areas of the brain related to thinking about other minds are activated more by competition than cooperation.
Human intelligence is incredibly useful but it doesn’t safeguard you against having false beliefs, because that’s not what intelligence is for. Intelligence is associated with coming up with more convincing bullshit and with being a better liar, but not associated with a better ability to recognize one’s own bias. Unfortunately, intelligence has very little influence on your ability to rationally evaluate your own beliefs, or undermine what’s called “myside bias.”
The dark side of smart is that whenever we do good works, and cooperate, we draw from our manipulative past. The even darker side of smart is that competition doesn’t just select an ability to manipulate but also an adaptive ability to be unpredictable. And one of the best ways to be unpredictable is to not know yourself. So we have evolution to thank for shielding us from complete self-knowledge. As a result, most of our own minds are shrouded in darkness. Perhaps that’s for the best. We might not like what we’d see.”