I have been reading the thought provoking Elephant in the Brain, and will probably have more to say on it later. But if I understand correctly, a dominant theory of how humans came to be so smart is that they have been in an endless cat and mouse game with themselves, making norms and punishing violations on the one hand, and cleverly cheating their own norms and excusing themselves on the other (the ‘Social Brain Hypothesis’ or ‘Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis’). Intelligence purportedly evolved to get ourselves off the hook, and our ability to construct rocket ships and proofs about large prime numbers are just a lucky side product.

As a person who is both unusually smart, and who spent the last half hour wishing the seatbelt sign would go off so they could permissibly use the restroom, I feel like there is some tension between this theory and reality. I’m not the only unusually smart person who hates breaking rules, who wishes there were more rules telling them what to do, who incessantly makes up rules for themselves, who intentionally steers clear of borderline cases because it would be so annoying to think about, and who wishes the nominal rules were policed predictably and actually reflected expected behavior. This is a whole stereotype of person.

But if intelligence evolved for the prime purpose of evading rules, shouldn’t the smartest people be best at navigating rule evasion? Or at least reliably non-terrible at it? Shouldn’t they be the most delighted to find themselves in situations where the rules were ambiguous and the real situation didn’t match the claimed rules? Shouldn’t the people who are best at making rocket ships and proofs also be the best at making excuses and calculatedly risky norm-violations? Why is there this stereotype that the more you can make rocket ships, the more likely you are to break down crying if the social rules about when and how you are allowed to make rocket ships are ambiguous?

It could be that these nerds are rare, yet salient for some reason. Maybe such people are funny, not representative. Maybe the smartest people are actually savvy. I’m told that there is at least a positive correlation between social skills and other intellectual skills.

I offer a different theory. If the human brain grew out of an endless cat and mouse game, what if the thing we traditionally think of as ‘intelligence’ grew out of being the cat, not the mouse?

The skill it takes to apply abstract theories across a range of domains and to notice places where reality doesn’t fit sounds very much like policing norms, not breaking them. The love of consistency that fuels unifying theories sounds a lot like the one that insists on fair application of laws, and social codes that can apply in every circumstance. Math is basically just the construction of a bunch of rules, and then endless speculation about what they imply. A major object of science is even called discovering ‘the laws of nature’.

Rules need to generalize across a lot of situations—you will have a terrible time as rule-enforcer if you see every situation as having new, ad-hoc appropriate behavior. We wouldn’t even call this having a ‘rule’. But more to the point, when people bring you their excuses, if your rule doesn’t already imply an immovable position on every case you have never imagined, then you are open to accepting excuses. So you need to see the one law manifest everywhere. I posit that technical intelligence comes from the drive to make these generalizations, not the drive to thwart them.

On this theory, probably some other aspects of human skill are for evading norms. For instance, perhaps social or emotional intelligence (I hear these are things, but will not pretend to know much about them). If norm-policing and norm-evading are somewhat different activities, we might expect to have at least two systems that are engorged by this endless struggle.

I think this would solve another problem: if we came to have intelligence for cheating each other, it is unclear why general intelligence per se is is the answer to this, but not to other problems we have ever had as animals. Why did we get mental skills this time rather than earlier? Like that time we were competing over eating all the plants, or escaping predators better than our cousins? This isn’t the only time that a species was in fierce competition against themselves for something. In fact that has been happening forever. Why didn’t we develop intelligence to compete against each other for food, back when we lived in the sea? If the theory is just ‘there was strong competitive pressure for something that will help us win, so out came intelligence’, I think there is a lot left unexplained. Especially since the thing we most want to explain is the spaceship stuff, that on this theory is a random side effect anyway. (Note: I may be misunderstanding the usual theory, as a result of knowing almost nothing about it.)

I think this Principled Intelligence Hypothesis does better. Tracking general principles and spotting deviations from them is close to what scientific intelligence is, so if we were competing to do this (against people seeking to thwart us) it would make sense that we ended up with good theory-generalizing and deviation-spotting engines.

On the other hand, I think there are several reasons to doubt this theory, or details to resolve. For instance, while we are being unnecessarily norm-abiding and going with anecdotal evidence, I think I am actually pretty great at making up excuses, if I do say so. And I feel like this rests on is the same skill as ‘analogize one thing to another’ (my being here to hide from a party could just as well be interpreted as my being here to look for the drinks, much as the economy could also be interpreted as a kind of nervous system), which seems like it is quite similar to the skill of making up scientific theories (these five observations being true is much like theory X applying in general), though arguably not the skill of making up scientific theories well. So this is evidence against smart people being bad at norm evasion in general, and against norm evasion being a different kind of skill to norm enforcement, which is about generalizing across circumstances.

Some other outside view evidence against this theory’s correctness is that my friends all think it is wrong, and I know nothing about the relevant literature. I think it could also do with some inside view details – for instance, how exactly does any creature ever benefit from enforcing norms well? Isn’t it a bit of a tragedy of the commons? If norm evasion and norm policing skills vary in a population of agents, what happens over time? But I thought I’d tell you my rough thoughts, before I set this aside and fail to look into any of those details for the indefinite future.


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Yes! I think this has something to do with my puzzle in two coordination styles. An evolutionary arms race for social coordination could result in a variety of outcomes, including

  • Deciding social conflicts by who is taller; if the storter person doesn't submit, everyone knows this is wrong and supports the taller person. People then evolve heights, rather than smarts. This is like what happens in animal status hierarchies based on ritualized fighting.
  • Alliance-based social dynamics, in which stable coalitions develop, based on family ties and other factors. This may be more favorable for the development of intelligence, but does not explain many of the features of intelligence which you mention.

Human social dynamics includes aspects of both of these, but also includes a large place for rules, reasons, argument, words, symbols... This makes sense in terms of the side-taking hypothesis which I discuss in that post.

However, the puzzle I brought up was: if individuals are supposedly always selfishly trying to bend the rules to their own benefit, then why do we see the sort of friendly coordination where everyone really just seems to be doing their best for the system as a whole?

Your answer: humans evolved to bend the rules, but also to detect those who bend them and punish such behavior. We inherited genes disproportionately from people who survived to have children in this regime. This suggests a bias toward traits for effective rule-bending, but also for compulsive rule-following.

Confounding the evidence is the fact that there appears to be a coupling of social-cue-blindness and higher potential intelligence via whatever mechanism causes autism. I also know a number of remarkably intelligent people who are crippled by anxiety which amplifies the perceived negative consequences of trivial rule-breaking far beyond the objective reality.

Highly intelligent people who do not have a distinct social situational impairment are better than average at understanding and navigating social norms. In every way. They're better at interpreting an existing norm legalistically to condemn an enemy. They're just as good at interpreting that same norm in a way that convincingly absolves them of their own violations. They're better at being both cats and mice as the situation demands it.

They're not even necessarily calculating and Machiavellian about it. The Elephant provides true-seeming self-serving justifications for free no matter what your perspective is. Even very smart people don't tend to think in terms of "norm policing"; by dafault we think in deontologically-flavored statements like "What Sue did to me was really shitty," or "Why is he being so unreasonable about this? I didn't promise that I wouldn't look for another job."

To perform the obligatory ritual of evo-psych hand-waving, higher intelligence benefits you both when you're a mouse (you can evade norms in ways that differentially benefit you) and when you're a cat (you can construct and impose norms that keep you in power).

I think the answer to " Why didn’t we develop intelligence to compete against each other for food, back when we lived in the sea? " is that "we" did actually. Schooling and hunting behaviors in fish seem pretty impressively optimized up to a certain point. But there's a ceiling, or more precisely a stark point of diminishing returns. In the war between swordfish in search of tuna, there's a jump discontinuity between the intelligence we see in the swordfish and the intelligence a swordfish would need to have in order to develop a meaningfully more powerful tuna-hunting system. In fact, their bodies are possibly so optimized for their current hunting strategy that higher intelligence might only trip them up.

In humans, though, there was no jump discontinuity - you just need to be a little bit smarter than your neighbor to realize a marginal benefit - and there was no upper limit, or, that upper limit was high enough that it tooks until homo sapiens to reach it.

In fact, their bodies are possibly so optimized for their current hunting strategy that higher intelligence might only trip them up.

It is much more likely that intelligence beyond this point simply costs too much relative to the benefit. Brains use a lot of energy.

True. Can't ignore the fact that as far as we know hominids are the only animals that figured out fire, which is essentially a multiplier on the available nutrients we could access from a given unit of food.

This seems like it's playing in the same broad hypothesis space as my post on geometric vs lawful general intelligence.

I think your suggestion that norm-enforcement & norm-evasion can use the same structures is probably right, but it had to originate from a seed that’s not purely cat-and-mouse, even if adversarial component subsequently led to quick gains.

(Cross-posted this comment from Katja's blog)

The seed seems like it might be something like this: Empathy is useful to mammals in part because it allows kin groups to share basic survival-relevant information. (I don't fully understand how this works in a way that isn't magical group selection bullshit, but it seems to happen and we can black-box that confusion for now.) For whatever reason, it's fitness-enhancing to be able to share information about the sorts of simple action intents that things like body language can communicate. For the same reason, it's sometimes advantageous to be able to send and receive information with different complex data structures, e.g. sets of conditional instructions. But at some point the most parsimonious way to do that is to have general reasoning skills that can be used to manipulate words as symbols that can be assigned arbitrary referents or functions. Thus - general intelligence!

(Cross-posted this comment from Katja's blog)

My first comment on the new forum, please give feedback on which community norms I inevitably end up violating.

I'll attack the first section of your post, and I'll be disregarding the controversial intelligence-autism correlation.

a person who is both unusually smart

You are an outlier, the rules aren't made with you in mind.

Most people are forced break some rules in order to win, but from the perspective of most people, you can do moves which are impossible.

You can Win without breaking any rules.

Why would you throw away utility by taking unnecessary risk?

You benefit from everyone around you being more constrained by rules which they can't help but break and you can navigate trivally. In short you benefit the most by making the meritocracy gauged by something you're good at.

Risk is either for plebs who can't avoid it, or outliers who have spent their lives practicing how to do risk well.

The latter group we call "billionaires".

I’m not sure if the starting point of the postt isn't really just anecdotal evidence from self-evaluation, and stereotypes.

You have various stereotypes of the smartest persons - e.g. I believe Richard Feynman is also a stereotypical genius, but of the rule-breaking flavour

I tried to find some research on correlation between rule-breaking and IQ, and the first study I found has insignifficant but positive one

Moved to frontpage.

The biggest question is how does being good at enforcing norms provide a reproductive advantage. It seems like the benefits of co-ordination are distributed, but the costs are concentrated.

You could selectively enforce norms as a tool in political conflict (this is the most plausible story to me).

I'm wildly speculating here, but perhaps enforcing norms is a costly signal to others that you are a trustworthy person, meaning that in the long-term you gain more resources than others who don't behave similarly.

Yeah, but only if they also understand the norms you are enforcing.

Many norm violations have specific victims.

Yes, and it helps the victims, but how does the person who enforces the norms gain a reproductive advantage?