Is there an advantage to being "stupid"?

By Copyleft [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As I was looking through the scientific literature the other day, I came across an article published in 1973, "The Evolutionary Advantages of Being Stupid." With a title like that, how could I not read it?

In this article Dr. Eugene D. Robin discussed how larger and more complex brains are associated with greater intelligence, which by evolutionary standards was thought to be related to "superiority." He described how this line of thinking places man at the peak of evolution resulting in our tendency toward an anthropocentric view of the world. Anthropocentrism also leads to interpreting or seeing things in terms of our own experiences or value/belief systems.

Dr. Robin went on to argue that looking at survival of species in hindsight suggests that those which survive have done well whereas those that have died off must have been inferior. Rather, he argues it is important to think dynamically. Meaning that traits evolve continually as does the environment. So a trait that may benefit the species at one point in time might not help at all at if conditions change. He quotes Asimov who posed the question, "Which is the fitter, a man or an oyster?" If Earth were covered in water, clearly oysters would fair better than man.

With regards to intelligence, Dr. Robin also proposed thinking in terms of it being a dynamic trait that could help or handicap a species. Take for example diving mammals. Mammals that are good at diving, have evolved the ability to survive with low levels of oxygen. This ability may also protect them from health conditions associated with low oxygen such as blood loss, heart attacks, strokes, etc. In this example, smaller brains relative to body size are more advantageous as it allows the animal to dive longer (and perhaps have better health). In other words, by presumably sacrificing intelligence, the animals with smaller brains have increased survival. His own research looked at turtles that can dive for more than 1 week. To accomplish this, turtle brains create energy through pathways that do not rely on oxygen and, as a result, have reduced activity while diving. Thus, by anthropocentric standards turtles are relatively "stupid" even though they have survived over 200 million years.

2Pseudemys_scripta Image of turtles from Lvova Anastasiya (Львова Анастасия, Lvova) (Own work (own foto)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Another argument Dr. Robin presents is that dinosaurs were great at hunting because they were big. At the same time, their large size meant they needed to eat a lot and thus were at risk of running out of resources. Compare this to humans, who are more intelligent and thus able to manipulate the environment to produce adequate food (and other resources). What impact have these environmental modifications had? Or consider the modern rise of so-called "superbugs" from the overuse of antibiotics. Is human intelligence thus a lethal trait?


Eugene D. Robin. The evolutionary advantages of being stupid. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 16(3): 369-380, 1973. doi: 10.1353/pbm.1973.0060


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I was expecting it to be about evolution. The question would be why there is such diversity of human intelligence. Everywhere you go, there are some really bright people, and many far less so, and the size of the gap rather surprises me.

Intelligence is not the only variable. Many other personality traits vary.

We evolved for most of the last 100,000 years in groups of 150 people or less. A functional tribe would need charismatic leaders, risk-taking hunters and explorers, careful gatherers.and someone willing to spend their days sitting by the river flint knapping.

All the different range of IQ and personality we recognise today would have found a useful role and the tribe would have functioned less well without them

By Entropic man (not verified) on 22 Feb 2017 #permalink

But many diving MAMMALS, unlike turtles, are actually noted for high intelligence - quite likely human-equal for some cetaceans in areas of mental performance not involving tool use. Otters are not such deep divers, but are playful enough that I doubt they're especially stupid. What's left, manatees?

Dr. Dolittle, those are all interesting ideas. I would argue that intelligence is the evolutionary trait that has helped us, humans, get to the place we are at. While other animals can hold their breath for a long time or hunt well, we can solve problems and build things. Our intelligence gives us a major advantage compared to other species. This is easily seen if we take a look at how humans have affected the Earth. In our own human ecosystem, our everyday lives, intelligence also gives us an advantage. The more educated we are, the better the jobs we can get, and the more money we make. The intelligence of an individual gives him or her an advantage over other people in everyday life.

Isn't that a hype? Maybe this evolution field still needs some research with respect to Neuroscientific studies.

By Neuroscientia (not verified) on 25 Feb 2017 #permalink

Interest article! Intelligence is not an essential adaptation. Billions of different of species throughout the history of earth have thrived without it. Evolution is about fitting into a niche. Being intelligent isn't necessary in many niches. Where di you find the article?

By ctsciencenut (not verified) on 11 Mar 2017 #permalink

When it comes to the crunch, the stomach can eat the brain, the brain cannot consume the stomach. Some cnidaria only bother with a 'brain' until they've found a good rock, then consume it to pay for initial anchorage costs, doing very well thereafter without it.

By Julian Pursell (not verified) on 21 Mar 2017 #permalink

The argument that aquatic mammals should have smaller brains sounds logical, but unfortunately it's not based on any data, just speculation. At least for seals, sea lions, and walruses, very old ( and more recent empirical data (10.1046/j.1365-2656.2001.00499.x) clearly indicate that they have larger brains for their body weight than do other, terrestrial carnivores.

By Olaf Bininda-Emonds (not verified) on 27 Jul 2017 #permalink

We evolved for most of the last 100,000 years in groups of 150 people or less. A functional tribe would need charismatic leaders, risk-taking hunters and explorers, careful gatherers.and someone willing to spend their days sitting by the river flint knapping.