From chapter "The Divine Right of Machines"
Noam Chomsky and others, for example Ernst Mayr, have argued that intelligent life is not sustainable. In an essay entitled “Human Intelligence and the Environment,” Chomsky writes that Mayr “basically argued that intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation. And he had a good argument. He pointed out that if you take a look at biological success, which is essentially measured by how many of us are there, the organisms that do quite well are those that mutate very quickly, like bacteria, or those that are stuck in a fixed ecological niche, like beetles. But as you go up the scale of what we call intelligence, they are less and less successful. By the time you get to mammals, there are very few of them as compared with, say, insects. By the time you get to humans, the origin of humans may be 100,000 years ago, there is a very small group. We are kind of misled now because there are a lot of humans around, but that’s a matter of a few thousand years, which is meaningless from an evolutionary point of view. His argument was, you’re just not going to find intelligent life elsewhere, and you probably won’t find it here for very long either because it’s just a lethal mutation. He also added, a little bit ominously, that the average life span of a species, of the billions that have existed, is about 100,000 years, which is roughly the length of time that modern humans have existed.
“With the environmental crisis, we’re now in a situation where we can decide whether Mayr was right or not. If nothing significant is done about it, and pretty quickly, then he will have been correct: human intelligence is indeed a lethal mutation. Maybe some humans will survive, but it will be scattered and nothing like a decent existence, and we’ll take a lot of the rest of the living world along with us.”
Chomsky is a brilliant thinker and writer. He has done more than almost any other person in the last fifty years to expose United States imperialism. But these statements—and this is true for many of Chomsky’s comments on the natural world—reveal how decisively unquestioned beliefs in human supremacism affect discourse.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Mayr and so many others believe intelligence is lethal. This culture teaches us that the way we know something is true is by controlling others: by forcing matter and energy to jump through hoops on command. The dominant cultural narrative tells us that our greatest achievements are those that facilitate our domination of others. This culture conflates “cooperation” with top-down organizational systems that have as their function the multiplication of power. Is it any wonder, then, that members of this culture believe that intelligence is “lethal”?
But how can we stop the murder of the planet if leading intellectuals label intelligence itself as “lethal,” and say that the murder of the planet is a result of this intelligence?
I want to deconstruct a few of these comments before I get to the main point of bringing this up. In the essay I’ve been quoting from, Chomsky writes, “If you take a look at biological success, which is essentially measured by how many of us are there…” But this is not an appropriate or realistic measure of biological success. Instead it is one that is based on this culture’s model of overshoot and conquest. We’ve all been taught that life is somehow like a computer game, where your success is measured by how many points you rack up; or like Risk, where your success is measured by how many little plastic armies you have and how much of the map you control. But this measure of biological success is simply the same old Biblical commandment to go forth and multiply projected onto the natural world. It’s also, since they come from the same imperative, a projection of the dominant economic mindset onto the natural world, a capitalist mindset where your success is measured by how many dollars or how many franchises you own. Switching terms again, but still coming from the same imperative, it’s a projection onto the natural world of a colonialist or imperialist mindset where your success is measured by how much of other people’s land you take over for your own use and to increase your numbers. That’s the definition of a colonialist mindset. And it is precisely how this culture has maximized its numbers—succeeded, according to this metric—by taking over someone else’s land (in this case, land needed by both Indigenous humans, and nonhumans).
So many anti-imperialists understand all this when it comes to economic and social policy, but it is a measure of the hold that human supremacism has over our minds and our discourse that these same anti-imperialists—and, in fact, most of us—cannot see that the definition of biological success they use is precisely the measure of success for colonialism or empire. In this case it is simply human empire, or more precisely, an empire of authoritarian technics.
I would argue that a far better measure of biological success would be whether the presence and population of a given species improves the health and resilience of the larger biotic community of whom it is a member and on whom it relies for sustenance, thereby ensuring its own species’ survival as well as the survival of other members of its biotic community. How would we act differently if we allowed this definition of ecological success to influence our social policies?
Next, please note the phrase “up the scale.” That is directly from the Great Chain of Being. But there is no Great Chain of Being that goes from unintelligent nonhumans to lethally intelligent humans.
Now to the point, which is that I’m really uncomfortable with intelligence being labeled as lethal, mainly because I don’t think it’s accurate, but also because it naturalizes the destructiveness. This is why, as every anti-imperialist knows, colonizers nearly always attempt to justify as right or natural their status at the top of the hierarchy they themselves created. (It’s funny, isn’t it, that the ones who create, then articulate these “natural” hierarchies so often end up at the top. What are the odds?) I’m also uncomfortable because it doesn’t make any sense to me that even when we do literally the stupidest thing possible, which is to kill the planet that is our only home and that supports our lives, it is a sign of our intelligence. We’re so damn smart that we’re maladaptive.
But this is one of the ways supremacisms control our thought and discourse: no matter what evidence is presented, even if it is damning to the supremacist’s in-group, we’ll find some way to use it to reinforce our sense of superiority.