Skip to content
Surprising Science

What Is Intelligence? Just a Byproduct of Cooperation.

Why have humans evolved into an intelligent species? The complexity of our social relationships, which require cooperation, naturally selects for higher cognitive processes. 

What’s the Latest Development?

By developing computer simulations of neural networks that evolved over 50,000 generations, scientists at Trinity University have concluded that intelligence is an evolutionary byproduct of social teamwork. Each neural network, or ‘brain’, took part in two social dilemmas in which “two players must choose between cooperation and defection during repeated rounds. Upon completion of either game, each ‘brain’ produced ‘offspring’ with other ‘brains’ that made more advantageous choices during the games. … After 50,000 generations, the model showed that as cooperation increased, so did the intelligence of the programmed brains.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Evolutionary biologists have long been puzzled by the high levels of intelligence that are seen in humans and other animals like primates, dolphins and birds. Why does intelligence arise in some species and not others? “It has long been held that social interactions provide the selection pressures necessary for the evolution of advanced cognitive abilities, and in recent years, decision-making in the context of cooperative social interactions has been conjectured to be of particular importance.” Given the complexity of our social relationships, those members of society with cognitive advantages are more likely to reproduce. 

Photo credit:


Up Next