A Brief History of Intelligence: Humans, AI, and the Five Breakthroughs That Made Our Brains

Image of A Brief History of Intelligence: Evolution, AI, and the Five Breakthroughs That Made Our Brains
Release Date: 
October 24, 2023
Mariner Books
Reviewed by: 

Anyone interested in the brain, brain development, social evolution and the traits that make us human will find this book an engrossing read.”

Humans are so-called “intelligent beings.” Descartes tells us “I think, therefore I am.” Thus thinking and intelligence are intrinsic to who we are as humans. What is this “thinking” and “intelligence”? Perhaps even more interesting is how as evolutionary beings we went from worm-like nematodes to authors, artists, and space explorers. Even a “brief” chronology of this spectacular journey must start like most stories, at the beginning.

Author Max Bennett takes us through this process and breaks it down into the six steps that make our brains what they have become. Ostensibly then, this is a history book, but it is also a text that helps us understand the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence (AI). To create a machine that “thinks” we must know the necessary abilities that AI must accomplish and have required billions of years to have occurred through human evolution. When this is achieved, we will have arrived at Artificial General Intelligence, where a machine can “think” almost as well as a human being.

In this easy-to-read yet scholarly book with many useful graphs and illustrations, the author leads the reader through the five breakthroughs necessary to proceed from minute organisms capable only of Directional Movement (Breakthrough #1.)

Some 50 million years later, during the Cambrian Explosion, Breakthrough #2 occurs where our brains could be reinforced both positively and negatively. The early vertebrates during this period had the ability to recognize patterns such as shapes and smells even when they were naïve to the stimulus. These organisms could then “learn” what to be attracted to and what to avoid.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          A catastrophic development then occurred—cyanobacteria “suffocated” the earth with carbon dioxide and “polluted” it with oxygen. Dubbed as one of the “great deaths,” this evolution of plants was too rapid to accommodate animal life, the oceans froze over and became inhospitable to living organisms.

As the earth emerged from these so-called “neural dark ages,” early mammals evolved and survived by being able to simulate other organisms in their brains through Imagining (Breakthrough #3). With the evolution of the neocortex in the brain, they learned before they acted. The neocortex also allowed these organisms to evaluate various choices of action and consider which one was most advantageous or fastest.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The era of mammals that followed led to such animals as modern day horses, elephants, tigers, and mice. Some would re-enter the sea to become whales, dolphins, and seals. These mammals gradually developed Breakthrough #4—Mentalizing—thinking about other organisms and being able to think into the future. Many of these animals developed social learning that allowed them to mimic and learn from the behavior of others in their social group. Also acquired at this time was the ability to anticipate future needs, thereby taking an action now to satisfy a want/need in the future.  

Breakthrough #5 is perhaps the most spectacular of all—the Development of Language and Verbal Communication. Being able to communicate with other humans we could now not only mimic others, but “stack” and overlap our progress as others tell us of their own learning and discovery. Now, over a relatively brief time as compared to previous epochs, we have been able to develop rapidly evolved to the recent emergence of AI. While currently far from perfect, this nascent machine-based learning is likely to further evolve exponentially. 

The author now posits that we stand on the precipice of a potential new Breakthrough: Artificial Super intelligence. With this evolution, silicon-based, digital learning can break free of the constraints of biological neural processing speeds that currently hold us back. Here, machines will be able to “think” better than humans.

This text provides a fascinating read and provides a history book, a road map, and a glimpse into the future. Anyone interested in the brain, brain development, social evolution and the traits that make us human will find this book an engrossing read.