What is Intelligence and How is it Used in Fiction?
Familiar components of intelligence are reaction time, sensitivity, problem solving, foresight, and memory. Novelists often elevate one or more of the components to make their characters more interesting or to give them the necessary ability to achieve plot elements. Sometimes we pick up hints that a character is intelligent and then we are delighted when she almost magically connects disparate clues and solves the crime. Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes are spectacularly successful at this. In other instances we enjoy watching a character’s routine use of his powerful intellect. It is fun to watch Lee Child’s Jack Reacher use his exceptionally acute hearing to follow the progress of a professional tail who thinks Reacher is totally unaware of his presence.
Characters are also defined by their temperament, they way they experience and express anger, love, jealousy, regret, and so forth. Temperament might seem to be the only real concern for character building, because it so clearly distinguishes individuals. Intelligence, however, sets limits on the expression of temperament. A smart wise-ass is more likely to produce interesting insults than a dumb one. And an intelligent character is more likely to notice a detail such as the shape of a tree and see the connection between shape, competitive ability, and history of the tree. Intelligence determines the depth and richness of a character’s response to experience.
What produces intelligence? We know that brain size, composition, and internal connectivity are involved, but we only know that these are correlated with measured intelligence (see the references). We do not know how they work, and we do not know the full list of factors that are necessary. Perhaps high intelligence requires the presence of structures such as complex hands, thumbs, and voice box, or perhaps an undiscovered chemical. Whatever the requirements, why haven’t they been met in many complex organisms? Why aren’t all animals intelligent?
The theme and plot for “Corr Syl the Warrior” required highly intelligent characters with powers of thought beyond human ability. I used evolution to create them. I imagined an Earth on which evolution, in its gloriously random way, included intelligence among the traits of the first higher organisms. I imagined that intelligence was common to all animals, and that along with other character traits, natural selection would continue to improve intelligence. By the time dinosaurs appeared, most animals were as intelligent as humans are now (see the references).
Before I could use intelligence in my story, I had to answer numerous questions. A central question concerned competition and conflict. Would the many intelligent species on Earth have lived and worked together peacefully? Or would they have built weapons and fought wars? Observing the warlike tendencies of our modern human civilization, we might expect that universal intelligence would have raged across the Earth like a firestorm leaving nothing behind, perhaps not even the planet itself. So this is what I decided must happen: 🙂
Rise of the Mammals
Intelligence first appeared in the seas, but it was during the long age of the dinosaurs that sentient creatures invented complex social and physical systems. In those times, intelligence was not great. Dinosaurs had only a partial understanding of the world around them. The average individual was only certain of immediate sensations, of pain, desire, and pleasure. Sparks of genus twinkled now and then, but they did not persist. Conflict and war were incessant.
After great natural catastrophes ended the dinosaurs, sentient mammal species proliferated. What was rare genius among the dinosaurs now became common. The mammals mastered genetics, ended disease and senescence, and reshaped their bodies. In spite of their expanded intelligence, mammals, like dinosaurs, were ruled by temperament, by their fears and their desires. They devised great machines and weapons. The dinosaurs were never at peace, but in the new age of the mammals, civilization and inter-species wars became far more destructive. The mammals’ first ten million years spanned the Paleocene epoch of Earth’s geologic history. It was the Age of War.
In dark times near the end of the Paleocene, the mammals brought the Earth itself to the edge of existence. Massive industries poisoned the soil, the water, and the air, and global temperature rose rapidly. Weeds and fires covered the land, and the stability and productivity of Earth’s biosphere plummeted. Battles over dwindling resources became ever more devastating. As each great species faced the finality of extinction, the risk of a doomsday act of desperation or vengeance enveloped Earth like a dark shroud.
Natural forces caused the dinosaur extinction. Sentience without wisdom, like a great river approaching a falls, carried the mammals toward their apocalypse. But on the eve of oblivion, wisdom began to appear. Utilizing their greater intelligence, or perhaps their greater fear, some mammals sought and achieved control of fear and desire. They crossed the threshold to sapience.
Descendants of some of the eldest mammals, the cottontail rabbits were first. They defined the goals, disciplines, and traditions that transmuted sentience into sapience. These small creatures began the revolution in a time of great physical hardship and danger. Individual survival required strength, endurance, and knowledge of defense, combat, and war. The warrior specialty emerged as the first great multi-species power. Sapient warriors from species of the land, air, and sea became the defenders of the Earth.
Going beyond one’s fears and appetites to sapience requires a high degree of intelligence, self-discipline, and foresight. Warriors recognized these traits, used genetics to enhance them, and unified them in an ethical system they called Immediacy. It is a simple fact that the consequences of one’s actions are most evident in one’s immediate vicinity. Immediacy, the philosophy of consequences, strives for balance in all goals and conditions.
Like the fertile layer of ash left by a firestorm, sapience and Immediacy covered the Earth. The warriors fought many battles with individuals and species that could not or would not practice Immediacy. By the end of the twenty-million year Eocene epoch of Earth’s geologic history, a sapient civilization following Immediacy covered the globe.
A peaceful civilization? Evolution can always produce divergent individuals and species. So, along with intelligence, there would be violence. Warriors would be involved. Go to the Corr Syl page to learn more about how this plays out.
Intelligence Research Links
Nothing special here, just a few places to start.
- Allometry Introduction
- Beckman Institute
- Evolution of Intelligence
- Human Intelligence
- International Society for Intelligence Research
- Intelligence (research journal)
- Plant Strategies and Vegetation Process