How Intelligence Is Dumb

Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, Red Figure Kylix, c. 470 BC, from Vulci. Via

Humans place great stock on intelligence — even looking for it on other planets — but our living family, nobody else is that impressed. Our animal family is more scared by what we’ve done to Mother Earth, which is not the same thing at all. Going by what we’ve done to the planet, intelligence is dumb.

I increasingly think that what we call intelligence is just another trait, like the tail of a peacock. Something we find find attractive within our species, but which is at best a burden and, at worst, gets us killed. The vague trait we call intelligence is, in fact, wildly maladaptive, and you don’t have to take my word for it. As Thomas R. Zentall says in the Handbook of Intelligence: Evolutionary Theory, Historical Perspective, and Current Concepts:

The role of our intelligence in the domination of our species over others seems obvious, but in the broader perspective of evolutionary success, as measured by the number of surviving members of a species, intelligence, as a general characteristic, correlates somewhat negatively with most measures of evolutionary success.

This is putting it lightly. What we call ‘intelligence’ has led to one of the most spectacular self-owns in evolutionary history. One subspecies of Mammalia is currently mass-extincting its own family, quite proudly calling it ‘growth’. This is like feeding an ever-growing tumor and saying we’re getting ‘swole’. We got so caught up in being smart that we forgot what the sapiens in Homo sapiens means. We forgot all about wisdom. As (Gump, 1994) said, “stupid is as stupid does.” Now just look around. What the fuck have we done?

What Is Intelligence?

Some of the many definitions of intelligence

I consulted two handbooks on intelligence. What they both agree on is that no one agrees. We can’t define intelligence at all. Despite considering it important enough to test children on and render in artificial form, we can’t define intelligence. We operate at great speed on a foundation of blithe ignorance, the definition of leaping before looking. As Dr. Sam Goldstein says, “there is no scholarly consensus as to what exactly defines intelligence.” As Dr. Marc Bornstein says, “No one really knows what intelligence is, and vital as intelligence is to human self-understanding, the concept has successfully eluded any universally agreed-on definition.” You’d think this would be a problem, but no, they go on for entire books about it anyways.

Given that we don’t know what this intelligence thing is, it would have been wise to not build our entire civilization on this dubious foundation but here we are. We have tried our damnedest to beat nature and we find ourselves beat down in just few centuries. As Icarus found out, what goes up must come down. Or as Oedipus Rex tragically discovered, we meet our fate on the road taken to avoid it. I’ll delve into that Sophocles play here, because it’s a good one.

The Plot, And Losing It

I’d say spoiler alert, but Oedipus Rex is nearly 2,500 years old and part of common memory. To briefly rehash the plot, our man Oedipus was the son of a king named Laius. The king, however, was told that his son would one day kill his father and marry his wife, an abomination if there ever was one. To forestall this, King Laius abandoned crawling baby Odie on a mountainside, which of course didn’t work. The gods are not easily fooled. Odie was adopted and raised somewhere else, without knowing it.

Later, when he was walking on two legs, an independent, third-party oracle told Odie the curse that he lived under. To be a patricidal motherfucker. Odie, ignorantly, thought he was cursed to ruin his adoptive parents, so he hightailed it out of town. On the literal road taken to avoid his fate, he met his actual father Laius and killed him in a fit of road rage. Hence the saying, he met his fate on the road taken to avoid it.’

Following the road to his father’s kingdom, Oedipus finds a Sphinx parked there, eating everybody who can’t answer his riddles. But Odie was smart. Intelligent if you will. He figured out the Sphinx’s riddle, which was this, in direct translation:

On earth there is a two-footed and four-footed creature, whose voice is one.
It is also three-footed. It alone changes its nature of all the creatures
Who move creeping along the earth, through the sky or on the sea,
But when it walks relying on the most feet,
That is when the speed in its limbs is most feeble.

The more common telling of the riddle — which even a child today knows — is that “The [Sphinx] that visited Thebes was a female who asked passersby what creature had four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening. When people could not answer, she killed them. Oedipus’ claim to fame is that he answered the question correctly, whereupon the Sphinx killed herself.” (David Mulroy, translator). That was the riddle that Oedipus answered, becoming a hero, albeit temporarily. As Odie said, while yelling at an old sage trying to tell him the greater truth:

What happened when the rhapsode bitch was here?
You should have spoken up and saved the town!
Her riddle wasn’t meant for passersby
to solve. It needed your prophetic art.
And yet you didn’t know the answer. Birds could tell you nothing. Gods were silent too.
but Oedipus, the ignoramus, came
and beat the beast with logic, not with birds [ie, divination]

What was the answer to the riddle? The answer was man. Man walks on four legs (crawling) as a child, two legs as a man, and then three legs in technologically aided oblivion. Oedi got the riddle write, slaying (via suicide) the Sphinx, but he missed the greater plot. As do we, hearing the story as a mere tragedy of one man. Oedipus Rex is really the tragedy of mankind, writ small.

An apocryphal apocalypse

The apocryphal Odie tells us the truth behind our current apocalypse. To me, the Sphinx — part human, eagle, and lion — represents nature, our animal nature, which we have denied and seemingly dominated with logic. Odie used his intelligence to gain power and reproductive power, but the source his power was ultimately odious. He had killed his father and fucked his mother, and thus doomed his people to even worse lamentation in the long run. And so here we are, in the long run.

In modernity, human civilization has used intelligence to gain power and reproduction power — including reproduction of the non-human lifeform Capital. This was great for a while, but we have nearly spent the one-time inheritance of our ‘fossil’ forefathers and committed horrible atrocities against mother Earth.

The truth is we cursed ourselves long ago, by deciding to be separate selves from our animal family and natural mother Earth. ‘I think, therefore I am,’ as Descartes said. He had his pronouns all wrong. In our rush towards ‘enlightened’ individualism we have forgotten who we are (part of a living family) and where we come from (the Earth). As the blind sage Tiresias (a doomer) told Oedipus:

You who belittled me for being blind
have eyes but do not see your evil state,
your dwelling place, or those you’re living with,
nor even know from whom you came. You miss
the fact that you’re your family’s enemy

It’s striking reading Oedipus Rex now because, in many ways, it is the tragedy of modernity. We destroyed our animal nature with logic, enslaving our natural family, and ultimately ourselves to inhuman capital. We beat plagues, pestilence, and poverty with technology and abandoned animist and deist gods alike. Science worked. Life was good. No more would humans be cursed to be devoured by the roadside, we could just self-drive past the roadkill in our electric cars. With the “Gangsta whitewalls
TV antennas in the back.” Humans had become the apex predator, not by strength but by wits. By intelligence. It was the end of history y’all. We won!

Oh but the tragedy to come! Our intelligence was in fact our curse. Dooming us from the moment we put such seeds in the earth, and used farming tools against our brothers to fight over the surplus. Our seeming free will is precisely how our fate was dealt out. We beat animal predation for what? To blind ourselves and kill our family in a few short centuries. As the sage Tiresias told the confused Odie:

OEDIPUS: You speak in riddles. Everything’s obscure.
TIRESIAS: I heard that you excel at solving them.
OEDIPUS: Mock skill in which you’ll find my greatness lies.
TIRESIAS: That very skill, however, ruined you!

Odie’s answer — his intelligence — saved the city from the Sphinx, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. That very skill ruined him! The city was cursed with even worse suffering just a few years later, because of what Oedipus had done. Because he killed his father and fucked his mother, woeful vengeance rained down upon the people. As his priests of Zeus said,

She’s failing fast. The fruitful buds of earth
are failing, herds are failing, women bear
their labor pains in vain, and plague attacks,
the hateful fire-bringing god. He leaps
and leaves Cadmeia [Thebes] empty. Tears and groans
have made dark Death the “wealthy one” indeed.

Though our modern priesthood of economists is only dimly aware of it, such failure is upon our global city now. “The fruitful buds of earth
are failing, herds are failing, women bear their labor pains in vain, and plague attacks, the hateful fire-bringing god.” If you haven’t felt it yet, believe me, it’s just a timing difference. In truth the city of Thebes, the global city, all cities are cursed. As indigenous philosopher Tyson Yunckporta writes today,

Civilisations are cultures that create cities, communities that consume everything around them and then themselves… It really is not possible to maintain massive nations and cities in any sustainable form.

This is crazy to hear, right? I had to reread Yunckaporta a few times because I simply don’t want to believe it. I would really love to wear ‘sustainable’ Nikes and walk around a nice 15-minute city, enjoying a ‘fixed’ civilization. I do not want to, as Yunckaporta said:

Move with the land. Maintain diverse languages, cultures and systems that reflect the ecosystems of the shifting landscapes you inhabit over time. That is the blueprint and we are not the only people who know it — you might recall a similar biblical story in Genesis about the Tower of Babel.

Fuck that shit, right? I like my house. Can’t I just get solar panels and keep going in an electric car? Yuncakaporta is saying what the ancient oracles have said, what every religion has said since time immemorial (though they’re all equally irrelevant Cassandras). Yuncakaporta is saying that the whole concept of civilization is cursed. From birth. Which is what the Sphinx was telling us too.

That’s what the Sphinx’s riddle is about. It’s about death. The death of us all. A baby crawls on four legs like an animal, thinks he has ‘beat’ nature as a two-legged man, then tries to delay the inevitable with a technological cane. But our fate is unavoidable. The priests of Zeus said, “We wouldn’t want your reign recalled as one in which we stood upright and later fell,” yet this is inevitable. Everything which stands must fall.

Everything which claims identity — a man, a city, a nation, a global civilization — must die and lose it. The wages of sin (the original sin of knowledge) is death. That’s what the Sphinx was telling passersby. She was actually helping people get where they were going, by eating them immediately. We are born to die. Civilizations are born to die. All roads lead to Rome, which is to say, all roads lead to ruin. Whatever detour we take, we merely meet our fate on the road taken to avoid it. This was foretold long ago, in many stories, among them Oedipus Rex.


I fear I have taken the long way around to get to a simple point (but that’s how the story goes, isn’t it?). Intelligence is dumb, by its own definition. Firstly, there is no proper definition, so we commit violence in dangerous ignorance, like Oedipus beating up randos on the road to glory. Secondly, insomuch as there is a definition of intelligence, we suck at it.

To take the most common definition (Wikipedia, 2023), intelligence is “the ability to perceive or infer information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context.” By this definition, like Oedipus, we should really blind ourselves and wander in the wilderness. We are truly motherfuckers, ravaging mother Earth in record time. All we leave in the fossil record will be a tiny shit stain of carbon and radioactivity, easily missed by alien observers a million years hence. We thought we were the shit but we were merely a fart.

The western barbarians that trace their line to the Greeks came up with their own turgid philosophy. This faux Enlightenment elevated individuals and intelligence above all. Neither of these concepts had any philosophical substance to build a civilization upon but, fuck it, it was enough to blast the noses off sphinxes and claim global dominion. Science and technology, as handmaids to capitalism, worked wonders for a while. Gods seemed irrelevant when you could produce miracle goods. And so they were abandoned, along with ‘primitive’ tree, sun, and nature worship. This was called dumb. Oh how wrong the supposed intelligentsia worse.

The royal, capitalist ‘we’ that colonized the world failed to perceive our real kinship with fellow animals and even fellow human beings. Nature was something to be exploited endlessly, not feared, respected, and worshiped. These ‘enlightened’ thinkers thought that killing, enslaving, and stealing from our own living would have no consequences. Their scientists learned many tricks of nature but not the trade-offs involved. Now this craven philosophy has been spread all over the world as ‘development’ (capitalism).

It worked for a while, but now the consequences have come due. The great lie of intelligence is that it was a meta-adaptation, the ability to adapt, through technology, faster than any creature every born. And yet, in a geological blink of an eye, the rabid appetites of intelligence (unbounded by wisdom) have directly caused a mass extinction.

Now the eunuch priests of Capital — politically impotent scientists — are raising the warning, but it’s far too little, too late. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is on motherfucking fire. The best you can do is buckle down and plan for a decent funeral.

As the old sage Tiresias said, “How dreadful wisdom is when wisdom brings no gain!” What an epitaph for Home sapiens. Everything we hold holy — our economic growth, our science, our intelligence — all of this is precisely what pollutes the land. We have used our intelligence most comprehensively to extinguish our animal family and thus ourselves. We have used it to ravage the planet, write reports about how bad this is, and then keep doing it. We call ourselves ‘higher’ intelligence and look for creatures like ourselves across the universe, ignoring the wreck we’ve made of our own family life. What a killing joke. By any objective measure, what we call intelligence is just dumb.

As the chorus of Oedipus Rex goes, singing a hymn to the doomed, ‘intelligent’ man:

Who is the man of whom we heard
in rocky Delphi’s mantic song,
whose bloody hands were not deterred
from crimes unutterably wrong?

It’s time he use his foot for flight,
he must outrun a wind-swift horse.
Apollo’s arms are hot and bright,
and he’ll arrive in force…

Wretched, sorrowful, and glum,
lame of foot and all alone,
he flees the prophecies that come
from Gaea’s navel stone