Rethinking Intelligence – The Marginalian

Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence

“Intelligence supposes good will,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. “Sensitivity is nothing else however the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself.” But our efforts to outline and measure intelligence have been pocked with insensitivity to nuance, to range, to the myriad attainable methods of listening to the world. Throughout the human realm, there’s the darkish cultural historical past of IQ. Past the human realm, there’s the rising abashed understanding that different types of intelligence exist, able to comprehending and navigating the world in methods wildly totally different from ours, no much less profitable and no much less poetic. One measure of our personal intelligence could be the diploma of our openness to those different methods of being — the breadth of thoughts and generosity of spirit with which we acknowledge and regard otherness.

The science-reverent English artist James Bridle invitations such a broadening of thoughts in Methods of Being: Animals, Vegetation, Machines: The Seek for a Planetary Intelligence (public library). He writes:

The tree of evolution bears many fruits and lots of flowers, and intelligence, reasonably than being discovered solely within the highest branches, has in truth flowered in every single place.


There are various methods of “doing” intelligence: behaviourally, neurologically, physiologically and socially… Intelligence just isn’t one thing which exists, however one thing one does; it’s lively, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests after we assume and act. We’ve already realized — from the gibbons, gorillas and macaques — that intelligence is relational: it issues how and the place you do it, what kind your physique offers it, and with whom it connects. Intelligence just isn’t one thing which exists simply within the head — actually, within the case of the octopus, who does intelligence with its entire physique. Intelligence is one amongst some ways of being on the earth: it’s an interface to it; it makes the world manifest.

Artwork from Cephalopod Atlas, 1909. (Out there as a print and as a slicing board, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Borrowing ecological thinker David Abram’s notion of “the more-than-human world,” he provides:

Intelligence, then, just isn’t one thing to be examined, however one thing to be acknowledged, in all of the a number of kinds that it takes. The duty is to determine the right way to grow to be conscious of it, to affiliate with it, to make it manifest. This course of is itself one in all entanglement, of opening ourselves to types of communication and interplay with the totality of the more-than-human world, a lot deeper and extra intensive than these which could be carried out within the synthetic constraints of the laboratory. It entails altering ourselves, and our personal attitudes and behaviours, reasonably than altering the situations of our non-human communicants.


To consider intelligence on this approach is to not scale back its definition, however to enlarge it. Anthropocentric science has argued for hundreds of years that redefining intelligence on this approach is to make it meaningless, however this isn’t the case. To outline intelligence merely as what people do is the narrowest approach we may probably give it some thought — and it’s in the end to slim ourselves, and reduce its attainable which means. Somewhat, by increasing our definition of intelligence, and the refrain of minds which manifest it, we’d permit our personal intelligence to flower into new kinds and new emergent methods of being and relating. The admittance of common, common, lively intelligence is a essential a part of our very important re-entanglement with the more-than-human world.

Artwork by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Younger Reader.

A century and a half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler presaged the emergence of a brand new department on the tree of life — a “mechanical kingdom” of our personal making, comprising our machines ruled by a “self-regulating, self-acting energy which will probably be to them what mind has been to the human race” — Bridle provides an optimistic implication of this redefinition for the way forward for what we now name “synthetic intelligence”:

If intelligence, reasonably than being an innate, restrictive set of behaviours, is in truth one thing which arises from interrelationships, from pondering and dealing collectively, there want be nothing synthetic about all of it. If all intelligence is ecological — that’s, entangled, relational, and of the world — then synthetic intelligence supplies a really possible way for us to come back to phrases with all the opposite intelligences which populate and manifest by way of the planet.

What if, as a substitute of being the factor that separates us from the world and in the end supplants us, synthetic intelligence is one other flowering, wholly its personal invention, however one which, shepherded by us, leads us to a higher lodging with the world? Somewhat than being a device to additional exploit the planet and each other, synthetic intelligence is a gap to different minds, an opportunity to completely acknowledge a fact that has been hidden from us for thus lengthy. Every thing is clever, and subsequently — together with many different causes — is worthy of our care and aware consideration.

Complement with Walt Whitman on the knowledge of timber, Ursula Okay. Le Guin on the poetry of penguins, and Marilyn Nelson’s spare, splendid poem about octopus intelligence, then revisit Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence within the age of AI.

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