Many people (especially educated people) don’t understand why I define intelligence as the ability to adapt.  For aren’t the most adaptable life forms stupid organism like bacteria and cockroaches?  Brilliant scholar Noam Chomsky makes the point in the below video (hat-tip to commenter Stetind).

But bacteria are not adaptable at the phenotype level.  They are adaptable at the genetic level because they mutate very rapidly, but the very fact that they need to mutate shows that their existing DNA at a given time does not give rise to an adaptable phenotype.

Similarly, cockroaches are not actually adaptable.  They have what Chomsky calls a fixed ecological niche which simply means they are lucky to be extremely adapted to a particular situation, but they can not necessarily adapt when the situation changes.  Lucky for them, their situation never changes, which is why it’s called a FIXED ecological niche.

The only truly adaptable life-form are humans, because we adapt at the phenotype level: rather than genetically mutating into another phenotype, we simply have a flexible phenotype that can change its behavior.  Rather than having a fixed ecological niche, we can conquer any environment, from the Sahara to the arctic, from underwater to the moon.

However even though intelligence is the ability to adapt: to take whatever situation you’re in and turn it around to your advantage, intelligence might indeed be to our disadvantage and cause the extermination of us all.  That’s because what is to each of our advantages at the individual level and even the tribal level, might be destructive at the species level.

As astronomers have hinted, this may explain why the search to find intelligent life on other planets has proven so elusive.  Once a species becomes smart enough to create advanced technology, they might ultimately destroy each other.  Evolution may not yet have created a creature that has both high intelligence, and the emotional maturity to handle all the power that brings.

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