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Zenith Grant Awardee

Jenann Ismael

Columbia University

Project Title

The Emergence of Intelligence: from Nature through Culture

Project Summary

The project will be a philosophical look at the science that is helping us understand the emergence of natural intelligence. It will have two parts. The first will look at the emergence of natural cognition and its ties to information and agency. The second will examine the connection between intelligence and culture. The research is carried out from a discipline-spanning perspective that reaches from physics, through biology and the cognitive sciences, into social science. The overarching idea is that the emergence of intelligence is part of an evolutionary development that involves nature finding new ways to preserve and put information to use, and that culture (conceived as the set of socially transmitted body of knowledge, practices, skills, and norms, together with the institutions that make the transmission possible) is continuous with this development and largely responsible for the specifically human form of intelligence. The goals are to (i) put forward an anti-rationalist, collectivist notion of intelligence, (ii) bring into philosophy all of the interesting material coming out of various quarters of cognitive science, anthropology into the philosophical discussion of intelligence, and (iii) put it all against the background of the increasing understanding of the role of information in the natural sciences.

Technical Abstract

The project is a philosophical look at the science that is helping us understand the emergence of natural intelligence. It has two parts. Part I describes the progression from complexity through information processing and utilization to agency and suggests that intelligence emerges when the information is (i) made explicit and (ii) put to creative, flexible use. Environments in which intelligence of this kind confers advantage contain enough change to make simple programmed behavior ineffective, and enough regularity to reward the collection and analysis of large bodies of information. Abstract intelligence of the kind associated with human cognition is useful in environments that show long-range and higher-order patterns in data. Part II connects intelligence to culture and shows that this view of intelligence is continuous with the emergence of culture. Culture provides a longer horizon for the accumulation of information, capturing regularities that span generations and developing more powerful techniques for processing it. This is all exemplified in a particularly vivid way by science though the phenomenon itself is much wider. There is a large emerging literature in cognitive science and cultural anthropology that will be used to explore the role of culture in the specifically human form of intelligence.

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