Fundamentally, intelligence can be thought of as an organism's ability to sense, process, and respond to information to its adaptive advantage, forming memories to anticipate and optimize advantage in future encounters. By this definition, an amoeba has a rudimentary intelligence. So does a grove of aspen trees. Intelligence, then, isn’t the sole prerogative of humans, or primates, or even mammals, but a ubiquitous feature of life on earth. A major challenge is to explain the variability seen in evolved intelligence and describe its ultimate limits.

Natural selection offers a mechanism for the evolution of intelligence, acting through the environmental landscape. The challenge is to uncover the key evolutionary innovations that led to an organism’s increased adaptability, spanning the blueprint of a genome to the brain's representational power to the individual’s role in collective cognition. How can an organism maximize its sensing and coding of information, its communication, and its response? How many ways has life evolved mechanisms to achieve these evolutionary adaptations?

This project explores the evolution of complexity and intelligence on Earth, both at the individual organism and collective group level. Researchers will investigate how selection mechanisms shape expressions of evolution and adaptation, the limits to selection processes, how some agents change the selection pressures by constructing niches, and how plasticity and learning — two critical aspects of adaptability — change the selective pressures across generations.

Ultimately, the goal is to reveal hidden principles of organizational complexity that could unify complex phenomena, from brains to society itself, and show us why one species — the one that's reading this — could be so aware, and so self-aware, as to construct a theory of evolution in the first place.

The Santa Fe Institute thanks the John Templeton Foundation for initiating this work.

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