Our general notion of human intelligence is a fairly narrow one. It’s not very different from the off-the-shelf variant of intelligence that Oxford describes as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. It disregards one deeply rooted aspect of human intelligence; most of our intelligence is a direct result of other human beings existing around us, creating, exchanging, teaching. That’s how we have flourished as a species, as a collective — by bouncing ideas and information around like knockers on a pinball machine.
When acclaimed science fiction writers cling to the decade-old tropes about the competent man of science, it’s easy to forget that the scientific coat-hangers they are hanging their stories from are made of humanity's struggles of thousands of years — collaborating and communicating. The idea that we are standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants isn’t celebrated as much when astronaut Mark Watney science his way out of Mars in Andy Weir’s debut novel, “The Martian”. Looking back, Mary Shelly might have single-handedly started the genre of science fiction, but the notion of lone-scientist, I find mediocre at best.
It’s very easy to overlook when we study anything that there’s always another human being on the other side. Our knowledge is not much more than moulted shells of giants’ shoulders. When Stephen Hawking wrote, “On the Shoulders of Giants”, he illustrated exactly that. Iconic works building on top of one another. For some reason, we have developed a habit of celebrating individuals, and maybe for good reasons, I guess; a social scientist would be able to elucidate better. But it makes me mildly disappointed that we celebrate Einstein, but not his teacher Hermann Minkowsky. Lesser known in the pop-science circles that a big chunk of Einstein's work hinged on Minkowsky’s work. Hendrik Lorentz’s work is also a recurring theme of Einstein’s work on relativity. Not to mention there’s ample record that Einstein has spent a considerable about of time talking with Henri Poincare, who is also attributed for building upon Lorentz's work. Even when it’s not a singular chain of thought carried on from one person to another, Einstein in effect collaborated with geniuses of his time. I think what popular science has mostly failed to communicate is that human intelligence is inherently collaborative — sometimes in form of text passed from the past to the future, or across countries or continents.
In an interview, Chris Atkenson, a roboticist told the story of how his soft and squishy robots inspired Disney’s cuddly robot hero, Baymax. And it turns out, Atkenson later took inspiration from Disney’s movie character. Human ingenuity came full circle. Our minds work best when paired with another, or maybe four. The best ideas arise when we take the time to talk. When we take the time to open our minds to others. And you don’t have to look at scientific literature to witness the grandeur of human minds working together. If you are like me and spend time in Wikipedia’s reference section, you’ll invariably come across borderline bizarre references, coming together in a tangible form. An individual in no reality would be able to gather informative connections as numerously as displayed on an average Wikipedia page. It’s a testament to our collective intelligence building together.
I am willing to go further and say that most of our intelligence only exist in presence of other human beings. We are always building upon others, explicitly or implicitly. The collective intelligence of our species is exactly what makes us human. It’s not the solo-inventor at his basement trying to solve Earthly problems, but all sorts of individuals contributing, communicating, thinking, collaborating. From geoscience to reusable rockets, from vaccination efforts to cloud computing, it’s all a few billion minds toiling away.