From an e-mail I received:
Why isn't it sufficient that humans are smart enough to change their habits in light of all these impending disasters you write about? Why do you think this 'sapience' has to be more than it is now?
In my series on sapience (see here) I tried to delineate the core differences between sapience, intelligence, creativity, and affect. Specifically, in the second installment, "Sapience: Relationship with Cleverness and Affect", I provided a summary diagram of the four components and showed their inter-communications, but failed to adequately explain what was going on. The difficulty in doing so is that all of these psychological constructs share subprocesses and inter-operate to a considerable extent. This makes it hard to clearly circumscribe them in such a way that the important differences become evident.
Maybe I can try to make those delineations here a bit better than I managed in the series.
At least part of the problem also originates in the fact that most people have become conditioned to thinking that intelligence is the epitome of human capability, as if it is somehow unique to humans. Further, most people think of wisdom (the behavioral results of sapience) as being just a higher level of intelligence. The problem with this way of thinking is that it discounts the fact that there are examples of relatively non-intelligent people who are nevertheless wise in their choices within the limits of their knowledge. Wisdom is based on tacit knowledge, background knowledge that isn't explicitly called into consciousness (working memory), as facts are, when trying to make a decision. Tacit knowledge is encoded and stored somewhat differently than are facts or explicit knowledge. They represent life experiences that are integrated into a general model of 'how the world works' in the subconscious mind.
In order to start discussing the various constructs as components of the mind and see why sapience is different from intelligence, and is a necessary addendum to our view of minds, I have expanded the diagram given in the relationship article referenced above. This diagram (below) includes some other components of the mind/brain that are needed to better delineate the functions of the other four.
Figure 1. The components of mind along with some other necessary components. The conscious mental life of a human (and probably other primates to some degree) consists of 1) emotional experiences, felt drives and motivations, the affective system; 2) creative processes that generally go on at a subconscious level but are brought to consciousness for evaluation; 3) intelligent decision processing, which covers general intelligence (g) and comparing and contrasting concepts operations; and 4) sapience, which is primarily responsible for judgments that guide decision processing. In addition the memory storage system is shown as a three sub-component part of the mind. In reality memories are stored in traces through synaptic strengths (their ability to cause a receiving neuron to fire) in some of the very circuits that participate in processing in each of the four mental components. Finally, the perceptual system and the motor system are shown for completeness sake.
Affect and Its Interactions with Sapience
As the diagram shows Affect interacts with all of the major components as well as having a major input stream to the memory system. Our moods, emotions, and drives all affect the formation and interpretation of memories. Antonio Damasio calls this his somatic-marker theory (Damasio, 1994:Chpt.8). Memory traces can be formed with either positive or negative valences depending on the emotional state of the individual at the time the trace is formed. He argued that emotional predispositions tagged on these traces could help bias a person's intelligent decision making. He also argued that without this limbic bias the brain would be overloaded with too many decision choices in a manner similar to a brute-force game playing computer that has to test the ultimate consequences of every move made before choosing the next move. Humans tend to only consider those choices that have general positive valence since the traces that encoded those choices were formed when the individual was feeling good. In this way the total number of choices is pruned down to those most likely to lead to a good outcome.
Sapience interacts with affect by monitoring the state of the individual's emotions, moods, and general body dispositions. It then uses this information along with that from tacit memory and the state of intelligent processing to modulate the limbic processing, down-modulating excessive or inappropriate emotions, for example. It may also act to 'prime' the limbic regions responsible for memory formation (the hippocampus) and fear response (the amygdala). The direct interactions between the limbic system and the sapient system (basically the prefrontal cortex) provides the latter with the basis for interpretation of the individual's emotional state. Our conscious awareness of what we are feeling is part of this interaction.
The Job of Intelligence — Decision Processing
In many ways intelligence is really a very mechanical process. Its main job is to follow decision-making rules applied against a complex set of conditions, perceptions, memories (concepts) and emotion-based drives. For example, when we start to feel hungry our intelligence has to wade through a wide variety of these to produce a decision about how to best get fed. The hunger starts as a limbic system drive that informs both the sapient system and the intelligence system (also the creativity system just in case the individual needs to meet unusual conditions with creative solutions!). The latter then starts assembling the relevant information and organizing it in working memory to work through the potential options. Meanwhile, sapience starts bringing some background tacit knowledge to the forefront in the subconscious mind. It evaluates the current condition suggested by the intelligence system against a vast wealth of tacit knowledge.
Intelligence is actually a large tool kit of operations and controls or executive functions that continually process incoming information from the perceptual system ("The clock says its twenty to twelve."), from the affective system ("But, man, am I starving"), and from the creativity system ("What should I tell the boss if she finds out I took an early lunch?") as well as explicit memory ("What was the name of that restaurant down the street?") to arrive at a decision for action ("If I can call in the order it will be ready by the time I get there and I can get back before the boss realizes I left early.").
What sapience adds to this is a judgment as to the goodness and rightness of the decision. Memories, both explicit ("The last time you did this you got in trouble.") and tacit ("Getting in trouble could lead to losing your job. Sneaking away without the bosses approval will make her mad. And more...") may be brought to bear. This judgment may give rise to nudging the decision away from reprehensible (or just thoughtless) behavior or at least give the individual pause in further deriving a decision. Of course, for most human beings the drives from the limbic system are often more powerful than those from the sapience system, especially when hunger, sex, or mind-altering drugs are concerned! Indeed, before one has reached their mid-twenties, the axonal wiring in the prefrontal cortex is still immature, which may explain why youth are risk takers — poor judgment capabilities.
The intelligence system is responsible for the mechanics of decision processing. It is not, per se, responsible for long-term judgments of the quality of decisions made and executed. It is sort of like the difference between corporate managers that only care about short-term profits and could care less about the long-run ultimate effects of those decisions. As long as it boosts the bottom line now, why worry?
That is why intelligence, and creativity with it, are not sufficient to solve the really long-term problems of our world.
Evolution of Experience-Based Decision Processing
Reptiles don't have a lot of cerebral cortex devoted to forming memories, either explicit or tacit, from their experiences in life. Their brains, the core limbic brain, are evolved to make decisions based on hard-coded (genetically endowed) pattern recognition and quick response. They never had to deal with complex worlds or messy social relations so they didn't have a great need to build life-time memories to aid their decision making. Instincts worked very well.
It isn't until we get to mammals that we see much thicker cortical tissues devoted to learned patterns. The cortex provides a means to actually do two things. It allows the animal to do more elaborate perceptual processing than would be possible with the lower centers (e.g. the thalamic nucleus). And it allows the animal to form associative memories of more complex relations between percepts, what we call concepts, or in most mammals that just means things like where food or mates might most often be found.. Of course both percept and concept processing depends on forming memory traces in circuits of neurons that can be used to shape decisions that the limbic system might have already formed. The capacity to override the limbic system and choose behaviors based on experience as well as current perceptions was the impetus behind the evolution of intelligence in animals, specifically mammals (and birds). Intelligence conveys adaptive behavior on the possessor. And as the world increased in complexity, as a result of the same evolution that was producing animals with more complex behavior, the selection for greater intelligence to fill more nuanced ecological niches reinforced the increases in intelligence that we see in various families and orders of mammals.
Figure 2. The early mammalian cortical (mental) systems were built atop the reptilian (limbic) systems. They elaborated some of the functions of decision processing and added more memory capabilities. The earliest memory systems were probably devoted to skill and associative (Pavlovian) learning in conjunction with a simplified intelligence for adaptive behavior in a more complex world than reptiles had lived in. In later mammals some portion of intelligence was involved with real-time judgments and interacted with an extended form of skill memory called tacit memory. Episodic or explicit memory began to differentiate as mammals developed the early forms of first-order consciousness through working memory.
Then we get to the primates. Primates underwent some new reorganization of the prefrontal cortex that increased the effectiveness of intelligence and gave rise to a new semi-autonomous version of judgment that incorporated more aspects of social relations processing, the beginnings of moral behavior. Judgment started to take on a separate identity, more or less similar to the way that the cerebral cortex differentiated from primitive tissues in the reptilian brain, the prefrontal cortex developed beyond the original frontal lobes to elaborate even greater functionality.
Figure 3. The early primate brain evolved to further differentiate the function of judgment processing, originally a sub-function of intelligence, as tacit memory systems became more elaborate. All of this is seen in the evolutionary expansion of the cerebral cortex in primates and the development of the prefrontal cortex as extensions of the frontal lobes.
Primate evolution led to greater and greater expansion of the prefrontal cortex along with increased integration of the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex with virtually every other sub-area of the prefrontal cortical areas. At the same time special neurons, known as Von Economo cells or spindle cells which provided something like a communications superhighway between the limbic systems and the prefrontal cortex proliferated tremendously, especially in a great ape whose genus came to be known as Homo. Mankind evolved the most extensive prefrontal cortex, the most extensive patch of tissue in that cortex, called Brodmann area 10, and the most Von Economo cells by far of any primates. By the time Homo sapiens came on the scene, these expansions had dramatically increased, far beyond anything that we see in the other great apes.
Humanity achieved a qualitatively (and quantitatively) new level of judgment processing far exceeding anything any prior animal had managed. It was supported by other expansions in other parts of the cerebral cortex. Memory capacities and qualities were explosively improved. Intelligence and creativity processing were increased, quite possibly in response to the development of the new expanded functions of sapience. Thus was born into this world a qualitatively new kind of animal. One capable of abstract thought and external symbol production (speech, writing and tool making).
Sapience has one more, very important function. It is operative in making decisions about what we should pay attention to in our life experiences. We make judgments about what we should learn, what is important in life. Thus, our tacit knowledge is dependent on how well our sapience system guides our intelligence system in encoding memories from experience. This is the basis of wisdom. Wisdom is the accumulated 'good' knowledge that an individual builds up in tacit memory over a lifetime of a wide variety of life experiences. The more developed our sapience, the more likely we are to exercise wisdom as senior citizens.
But Sapience Isn't Developed Enough
My biggest assertion is that while mankind has evolved a certain level of sapience, and that level served well in the early times of our species, it has been overshadowed by the combined capacities of our intelligence and creativity (what I call our cleverness). These also underwent explosive evolution leading to our ability to creatively solve problems. That is, we are able to find immediate creative solutions to immediate problems, especially how to exploit aspects of nature to gain access to more energy. What has not kept pace in terms of our sapience evolution, our ability to make good judgments, is the capacity to think (subconsciously) long-term. We are short-term imaginers. We are so good at short-term problem solving that we have gotten trapped, evolutionarily speaking, in that mode of planning. We can easily ask the question: Can we do this? But we rarely ask the more important question: Should we do this? The latter has implications our brains are not evolved to deal with.
When I say we I am using that for shorthand for the 'average' human specimen. On average, I suspect that we are not sufficiently sapient. Sufficient for what? For guiding decisions that could lead us through the labyrinth of complexity of modern society to a happy future. We have, through our advanced cleverness, created a world that we are no longer generally competent to deal with. We are now making very poor judgments about what we should do to cope with the extrasomatic, mechanical amplifying beast of a culture that we have created. Ironic, no?
Sapience, like intelligence and creativity, is not a monolithic capability but its strength is distributed statistically through the population. Some people are more sapient than others. It is very likely, however, that the level of sapience needed to really make a difference, to make us capable as a species to survive the coming challenges, is exceedingly rare within the population. Wise people are in short supply. Still, there are some.
The bright possibility is that high sapience is exactly the capability that will endow individuals with an ability to adapt to the new world that is rapidly approaching. The challenges that humanity faces are going to be selective, highly selective, for particular traits among individuals and groups. I would like to believe that they will select for higher sapience. That a bottleneck event might radically diminish the population of humans on this planet seems inevitable to me now. I hope that the survivors will represent more sapient potential that the future genus of Homo might be truly superior to the current one, a Homo eusapiens.