This is conceived as an informal and spontaneous annex to my more extensive blog, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

28th January 2014

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The Principle of Civilization-Intelligence Covariance

In yesterday’s post on extraterrestrial intelligence I wrote:

The idea of cognitive extremophiles may prove an interesting way to think about alien intelligence, and it provides a conceptual hook for approaching the idea of what I would call non-peer intelligences, which would presumably produce non-peer civilizations.

There is a principle implicit in the observation that non-peer intelligences would presumably produce non-peer civilizations, and the principle is this: civilization supervenes upon the intelligence that is the source of civilization.

I realized that this relationship of covariance between civilization and intelligence means that the illustration that I recently used in my post Seven Levels of Civilizational Comparability to show the possibilities of how civilizations originating in ETI might relate to terrestrial civilization. I have taken my graphic and altered it as it appears above so that it now reflects possible relationships between terrestrial intelligence and ETI:

  1. Before the advent of intelligence comes the organically-based consciousness from which intelligence can emerge, and this consciousness prior to intelligence lies outside the scope of the zone of proximal development of intelligence.
  2. An ETI in the early stages in the development of intelligence — and by “early” I here mean “prior to the advent of abstract reasoning” — is comparable as an intellect, but is not a “peer.”
  3. An ETI that has achieved abstract reasoning, and is therefore capable of understanding itself and other intelligences (including ETIs, which, from its point of view, which would include us) might be counted as a distant peer or a near peer in intelligence, even if it has not attained our level of intellectual sophistication.
  4. A peer intelligence, sensu stricto, would be an organically-based ETI with an intellectual development roughly equivalent to our own — say, for present purposes, a minimal ability in mathematics, logic, science, and intellectual creativity, including all the arts.
  5. Continuing to follow the red arrow in the graphic above, an ETI that had developed its intellectual capacities somewhat beyond our own would still be a peer, but it would be a near peer or even a distant peer if its intellectual capacity were significantly more advanced than our own. (Such a development might come about as the result of post-biological intelligence, which for us would be transhumanism, but more generally might be called transorganicism.) However, we would still be able to recognize these intellects as intellects, as we would recognize intelligence as such, and as a more advanced instance of our own intelligence.
  6. A sufficiently advanced ETI would begin to pass beyond our ability to understand the intelligence involved. As with comparing ourselves to the earliest stage of intellectual development, we would here both be comparable as intelligence simpliciter, but clearly not peers.
  7. An ETI that had developed beyond anything recognizable as intelligence, and had passed over into post-intellectual forms of consciousness, would no longer be comparable to us as an intelligence, and would cease to be even a peer. This would be like comparing ourselves to a pre-cognitive consciousness as in (1) above.

Thus we see it is possible to establish a thorough-going parallelism between civilizational comparability and intellectual comparability, as each of the items above is a straight-forward reformulation of the seven levels of civilizational comparability that I first formulated in Seven Levels of Civilizational Comparability.

To return to the issue of supevenience — civilization supervenes upon the intelligence that is the source of civilization — at least initially (from the standpoint of methodological naturalism), the intelligence in question is biologically emergent — or we could even say, biologically supervenient. Once intelligence supervening upon biological organisms gets its start, it can move on to other other physical embodiments and expressions. On Earth, this means that our human civilization supervenes upon the human intellect; beyond Earth, this means that extraterrestrial civilization supervenes upon ETI. 

The supervenience of civilization upon intelligence follows if and only if two worlds cannot differ in respect to their civilization properties if they do not also different in respect to their intelligence properties. If you’d like to follow Jaegwon Kim’s terminological shift away from supervenience, you could say that there exists a property covariation between human civilization and the human intellect, and that there would be property covariation between any extraterrestrial civilization and its source ETI. 

Civilization is characterized by a cluster of properties, as is intelligence; the covariation of the cluster of civilizational properties and intellectual properties means that there can be no change in the cluster of civilizational properties without a change in the intellectual properties. As an exercise, the reader can formulate strongly supervenient or weakly supervenient accounts of civilization and intelligence, depending on the modality substituted for “necessity” in the necessary (or otherwise) relationship between covariant clusters of properties.

This principle can be brought down to Earth (both literally and metaphorically), and it could be said of the distinct traditions of civilizations on Earth that each is covariant with a particular expression of intelligence. From this it follows that the distinct traditions of civilization on Earth are a consequence of distinct forms of intelligence.

I suspect that this claim would engender strong resistance, since from the time of enlightenment universalism until today it has been the presumption that human intelligence is the same everywhere. Indeed, to argue the opposite has been held to be tantamount to racism or ethnocentrism or any number of a range of intellectual vices that have in the past been employed to dehumanize the other.

Rather than shrink from this conclusion, however, I embrace it, as I strongly suspect that, while the raw processing power of the human mind is more or less identical around the world, and is biologically indistinguishable, that the slow emergence of cognitive modernity in circumstances of reproductively isolated populations has meant that the character of the intellect has varied widely wherever it has emerged on Earth.

Tagged: supervenienceproperty covarianceETIphilosoophy of civilizationcivilizationintelligencecognitive modernityextraterrestrial civilization


  1. geopolicraticus posted this