Intelligence or Evolution?

post by Ramana Kumar (ramana-kumar) · 2021-10-09T17:14:40.951Z · LW · GW · 10 comments

Here are two kinds of super high-level explanation for how things turned out in the future:

  1. Someone wanted things to turn out that way.
  2. Selective forces favoured that outcome.

Which one is a better explanation?

This question is one I’m highly uncertain about, and often shows up as a crux when thinking about where to focus one’s efforts when aiming for a good future.

One way of labelling the alternatives is intelligence vs evolution. There’s a cluster of stuff on each side. I’ll try to point to them better by listing points in the clusters:

Under some view, both intelligence and evolution are good explanations for how things turned out. They just amount to taking a different perspective or looking at the situation at a different scale. I agree with this but want to avoid this view here so we can focus on the distinction. So let’s try to make the alternatives mutually exclusive:

  1. Intelligence: someone was trying to produce the outcome
  2. Evolution: no one was trying to produce the outcome

This question is very similar to unipolar vs multipolar, but maybe not the same. My focus is on whether the main determinant of the outcome is “capable trying” vs anything else. This can be for a few agents, it doesn’t require exactly one.


If you think our future will be better explained by intelligence, you might prefer to work on understanding intelligence and related things like:

If you think our future will be better explained by evolution, you might prefer to work on understanding evolution and related things like:


Why believe intelligence explains our future better than evolution? One argument is that intelligence is powerful. The outsized impact humans have had on the planet, and might be expected to have beyond it, is often attributed to their intelligence. The pattern of “some human or humans want X to happen” causing “X happens” occurs very frequently and reliably, and seems to happen via intelligence-like things such as planning and reasoning. 

Relatedly, the ideal of a rational agent – something that has beliefs and desires, updates beliefs towards accuracy, and takes actions thereby expected to achieve the desires – looks, almost by construction, like something that would in the limit of capability explain what outcomes actually obtain.

Both of these considerations ignore multipolarity, possibly to their peril. Why believe evolution explains our future better than intelligence? Because it seems to explain a lot of the past and present. Evolution (biological and cultural) has much to say about the kinds of creatures and ideas that are abundant today, and the dynamics that led to this situation. The world currently looks like a competitive marketplace more than like a unified decision-maker.

Will this continue? Will there always be many agents with similar levels of capabilities but different goals? To argue for this, I think there are two types of arguments one could put forward. The first is that no single entity will race ahead of the rest (“foom”) in capability, rendering the rest irrelevant. The second is to rebut trends – such as multicellular life, tribes, firms, and civilizations – towards greater coordination and cooperation, and argue that they are fundamentally limited.


I don’t know all the arguments that have been made on this, and since this post is for blog post day [LW · GW] I’m not going to go find and summarise them. But I don’t think the question is settled – please tell me if you know better. Being similar to the unipolar vs multipolar question, the intelligence vs evolution question has been explored in the AI foom debate [? · GW] and Superintelligence. Here is some other related work, split by which side it’s more relevant to or favourable of.



Acknowledgements: Daniel Kokotajlo for running the impromptu blog post day and giving me feedback, Andrew Critch and Victoria Krakovna for one conversation where this question came up as a crux, and Allan Dafoe for another.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by gwern · 2021-10-11T01:49:05.553Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Why not both?"

Replies from: ramana-kumar
comment by Ramana Kumar (ramana-kumar) · 2021-10-12T11:01:06.662Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that both are good explanations. My question is more about which will be dominant in the long run. I tried to ask this more clearly with the mutually exclusive version in the post (someone vs no one was trying to produce the outcome).

I could view the "Why not both?" response as indicating that neither is dominant and we just have to understand how both operate simultaneously (perhaps on different timescales) and interact. I think I'd view that as actually coming down mostly on the evolution side of things - i.e., this means I should understand intelligence only in the larger evolutionary context -- no intelligence will permanently outstrip and render irrelevant the selection forces. Is that right?

Replies from: Pattern
comment by Pattern · 2021-10-14T16:23:26.766Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sometimes something is invented (not necessarily just by one person, and possibly changed by 'one or more processes you would call 'evolution'',) which makes both more powerful. Writing. Trade networks. The internet. Languages that are a mixture of earlier languages (for easier communication between speakers of one of two languages). Etc.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2021-10-09T22:08:21.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The pattern of “some human or humans want X to happen” causing “X happens” occurs very frequently and reliably

I think we have to be very careful with this kind of reasoning because of hindsight and survivorship bias. Humans are very good at explaining their behavior as rational when it largely isn't. I would like to see a systematic review of such decisions.   

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2021-10-10T20:02:51.107Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some humans wanted X to happen. Other humans wanted to prevent X. Finally, X happened.

We can interpret this as a result of intelligence (of those humans who wanted X to happen) or evolution (some impersonal mechanism selected the winning side).

Replies from: ramana-kumar
comment by Ramana Kumar (ramana-kumar) · 2021-10-17T14:49:11.703Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a good point. Could something like Shapley value help in distributing credit for X between the humans and the impersonal mechanism? I find myself also wanting to ask about how frequent these cases are -- where it could easily be viewed both ways -- and declare that if it's mostly ambiguous then 'evolution' wins.

For "some impersonal mechanism" I'm thinking "memetic fitness of X amongst humans" (which in some cases cashes out as the first group of humans being larger?). What are other ways of thinking about it?

The story feels a little underspecified. When X happens because the first group of humans figured out how to thwart the second group, and anticipated them, etc. and furthermore if that group consistently does this for whatever they want, it seems a lot more like intelligence.

comment by Donald Hobson (donald-hobson) · 2021-10-10T23:12:03.792Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Darwinian evolution as such isn't a thing amongst superintelligences. They can and will preserve terminal goals. This means the number of superintelligences running around is bounded by the number humans produce before the point the first ASI get powerful enough to stop any new rivals being created. Each AI will want to wipe out its rivals if it can. (unless they are managing to cooperate somewhat)  I don't think superintelligences would have humans kind of partial cooperation. Either near perfect cooperation, or near total competition. So this is a scenario where a smallish number of ASI's that have all foomed in parallel expand as a squabbling mess.

comment by Pattern · 2021-10-10T23:30:27.863Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The distinction is a shaky one. What's the difference between this 'Evolution' and a 'Market'? Lots of people might want to make lightbulbs or flying cars.

Replies from: ramana-kumar
comment by Ramana Kumar (ramana-kumar) · 2021-10-12T11:03:27.882Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I did intend 'Evolution' here to include markets. The main contrast I'm trying to make is to a unified rational actor causing the outcomes it wants.

Replies from: Pattern
comment by Pattern · 2021-10-14T16:27:02.484Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought I'd check because at first glance markets have selection from intelligence. (If I buy coffee from Starbucks, etc.) And seem like a mixture. But evolution arguably has the same property, at a different time scale. So I see why you'd lump them together.