“Civilizations are more intelligent than individuals, but individuals are often more intelligent than groups and entire generations.” Joscha Bach said it in his conference Ghosts in the machine *: And he also said that intelligence is the ability to make models and it is a property that is beyond the reach of a single individual. A single individual is not as intelligent, according to him, as civilizations.

After hearing that, I kept thinking about another lecture I had heard, months ago, from Professor Bill von Hippel in which he said that “Cultural scaffolding was the most effective human tool for survival”. 

I went through the ideas of both and others, written in different terminologies, and wanted to put them in a set for the reader to judge.

Bach says that the intellect of a civilization is something like a global optimum of the capacity to make models. These models have to be built up over thousands of years in an unbroken intellectual tradition. This interrupted intellectual tradition is what we call culture. For Professor Bill von Hippel**, culture began when we began to hunt in groups. It is presumed that Lucy, the Australopithecus, threw stones with an ability similar to ours; but this ability is only significantly important if it is executed in a group, if several individuals come together to throw stones and sticks at the same time, because if they can kill from a distance, they can kill without risk of being attacked by the prey. Even weak individuals become effective hunting machines at a distance, if they work in groups. As Bill von Hippel says, our enormous brain is expensive to maintain, and it is sustainable, because we work in groups. As a group we can afford to divide the tasks, to specialize and to plan together. Already, the Homo erectus did this two million years ago. Cooperation changed us in many ways.

For Bill von Hippel, being involved in a community means being cohesive with it. For Bach, it is to share the “service of purpose”, it is to know the needs of society and the values that it serves; it is having the purpose of serving those needs, being able to model these and their purposes, and having a structure of the hierarchy of the purposes to be served. Bill von Hippel says it in another way: in a group we make mental connections with others and we synchronize with their preferences, with their intentions, with their projects.

Love is the discovery of a shared purpose, says Bach. It occurs when, over and above our ego, we serve the same purposes in conjunction with other people. For Bill von Hippel, we evolved to share experiences with others and the emotions of those experiences. Feeling equal makes us better as a group. That is why a human strategy is to look for ways to improve communication and ties with others, to feel part of and commit ourselves. The fact that people exaggerate the stories when they are telling them does not mean that they want to lie, but that they want those who hear them to experience the same emotion that you did, so that the experience told is meaningful and memorable.

If you look into the culture you see many accomplishments that no single individual would ever achieve. There are many cultural objects that serve as examples; Internet is one, and it is extraordinary, because it is something that is above the intelligence of any person. No one knows exactly what it would take to invent the Internet. It would take over a million engineers to reproduce something like that. It is impossible to even say it, explain it, because it is something strange, complex and difficult; here, without a doubt, there is an accumulation of design. This accumulation of design is the product of collective intelligence. A single individual could not carry out an undertaking of such magnitude. The Internet is an emerging product of many knowledge from different areas combined in an effective way. Different languages are processes like this.

According to Yuval Harari, the same is true of the fictions we have invented to control large groups. These are only possible due to the ability to give value and to believe in inventions, but all and at the same time. He gives the example of money, as it is the most widespread and compelling fiction there is. In his words: “The only fiction that works in all cultures is money. Bin Laden hated everything about the US: his ideas, his politicians, his democracy… except the dollar. Money is the most powerful correlate of mutual trust that exists. Completely strange people, even though they hate each other, come to a point in common: the abstract of money”.

“Money is a convention. Money, a simple piece of paper, is worth it because we all believe it is worth it. The moment someone points out its non-value, then it will cease to be. However, for the moment it unifies all human beings, regardless of their creeds, languages and gender”.

Art enjoys these same characteristics: it materializes, acquires value and reality within culture; it depends on the individuals, but it is not validated and becomes a phenomenon with value until the collective endorses it, or better, until those “authorized” within the collective do so. The history of art is the study of the continuities of human actions and their products categorized as artistic, with the different technologies that accompany them and their common purposes that they had in each era. Human beings have numerous practical, symbolic, and aesthetic needs. The activities that offer the greatest range of emotional, aesthetic, and social reward are established as traditions and we bring them together in a category we call Fine Arts. Some of the activities have survived in history, for centuries, and some have only occurred in specific cultures. Gardening, in eighteenth-century Europe, became an art, just as calligraphy still is in the East and not in the West. Today, gastronomy, cinema, performances and boring video- art are some of the activities that were not around a century ago and have found their way into this realm.

Institutions are another achievement of collective intelligence. They are not infallible, but they counteract easy individual fallibility. There could be no art history without institutions. Institutions help maintain order and give course to the very history of humanity. For Yuval Harari: “All the institutions on which our way of life is built are stories, fictions, fables: human rights, nations, companies, gods. It does not mean that they are not important; they are extremely important. But they are based on the necessity of a belief.” I believe that Bach believes that they are based on the common purposes that we are going to serve, within a hierarchy of values.

Some of these fictions help control other less secure fictions, less coherent with reality. Psychologist and intellectual Steven Pinker, speaking of the links between rationality and institutions, says: “But of course we can no more engineer norms of discourse than we can dictate styles of hairstyling or tattooing. The norms of rationality must be implemented as the ground rules of institutions. It’s such institutions that resolve the paradox of how humanity has mustered feats of great rationality even though every human is vulnerable to fallacies. Though each of us is blind to the flaws in our own thinking, we tend to be better at spotting the flaws in other people’s thinking, and that is a talent that institutions can put to use. An arena in which one person broaches a hypothesis and others can evaluate it makes us more rational collectively than any of us is individually.

Examples of these rationality-promoting institutions include science, with its demands for empirical testing and peer review; democratic governance, with its checks and balances and freedom of speech and the press; journalism, with its demands for editing and fact-checking; and the judiciary, with its adversarial proceedings. Wikipedia, surprisingly reliable despite its decentralization, achieves its accuracy through a community of editors that correct each other’s work, all of them committed to principles of objectivity, neutrality, and sourcing. (The same cannot be said for web platforms that are driven by instant sharing and liking.)”

*Joscha Bach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3K5UxWRRuY&t=2121s

**Bill von Hippel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-pUwQ4mfiY

Yuval Harari, quoted from From Animals to Gods.

Steven Pinker in: Reasons to Believe. How and why irrationality takes hold and what to do about it. Generación, Magazine of El Colombiano

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