Does intelligence play a vital role in the evolution of an organism? In other words does an expansion of learning capacity, increase the odds of evolution for the particular biological entity?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Short answer: No, it doesn't. Evolution is a statistical process which is not influenced by any means of intelligence. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Sep 8, 2014 at 6:32
  • $\begingroup$ Why then is it that those who are intelligent develop skills, skills which would assisst them to adapt to the unfamiliar enviroment? $\endgroup$
    – user34793
    Sep 8, 2014 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ This will influence the procf selection, but not the evolution itself. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Sep 8, 2014 at 6:45
  • $\begingroup$ Selection is a crucial part of evolution. I disagree with you, Chris. Intelligence can actually be a favorable trait in some cases. This does not mean that evolution has an inherent drive to produce ever more intelligent organisms. $\endgroup$
    – ChrKoenig
    Sep 8, 2014 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ There is a disagreement between Chris and HavOk because of how the question is phrased I think. Yes, high(er) intelligence may be favorable (enhance fitness) and I am sure Chris would agree with that. When the OP is asking "Does intelligence play a vital role in evolution", (s)he dosesn't mean "does it influence fitness", (s)he means some kind of weird intelligent-driven evolution "I (because (s)he probably doesn't know evolution acts (mostly) on population) become what I think is better for me" or something like that. There is no way to answer yes or no as the question is too poorly phrased. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Sep 8, 2014 at 23:14

3 Answers 3


First Comment

The questions in the OP's post (and his/her comments below the post) are very poorly phrased and let the reader think that the OP has few knowledge about evolution (no offense). This is a reason why I don't directly address my below answer in the terms of the question as it seems that the OP uses a unusual definition of the term "evolution". @Chris comment ("No, it doesn't. Evolution is a statistical process which is not influenced by any means of intelligence") probably sums up what the OP needed to read but I can't stand but giving a more complete answer about why is intelligence just a random trait and in the meantime arguing in a far-fetched text that intelligence still has actually some funny properties as it may yield to social help (social help does not necessarily needs intelligence) and eugenics programs (that might be argued that it doesn't need intelligence as well).

Summary of the answer

  • Intelligence (as many other traits) influences fitness
  • Intelligence (as many other traits) influence the environment that individuals are facing influencing then future evolution
  • Evolution is not dependent on the will of the individuals in the population.
  • Indirectly, intelligence may be of some particular interest as it yields to knowledge about physiology and evolution allowing Eugenic program and medicine which both influence future evolution.

Long answer


Intelligence influence fitness (=reproductive success). So yes it plays a role in evolution just like any other trait that influence fitness.


Intelligence evolves and by its presence it will change future evolution as it changes the environment the individual faces. For example, if a bird is intelligent enough to bottle milk bottle, it might over the long term (and assuming that humans are not inventing some solutions to prevent birds from opening their bottles) evolve longer beak to seek for milk from the bottle. Also Intelligence shape culture (set of traditions). Theoretically, all traits does the exact same thing, so again there is nothing so exceptional about intelligence.

As a subset of the impact of intelligence on the environment the individual experience: Intelligence allow culture which changes through time and it is some kind of evolution called memetics. Again, culture changes the environment the individual faces and if culture changes often because of high intelligence, then the environment may change quickly as well.

General basic comment on evolution

It is very important to not think that intelligence will allow a population to "better evolve". Being intelligent does not yield to higher probability of adaptable evolution. It is not because you know what issue you're facing that you'll be consciously able to evolve to that. For adaptation to occur you have to select individuals that are more fit in the population. If individuals in the population know who are fit doesn't mean that those fit individuals will be more selected than otherwise.

Social help and eugenic programs

In addition to the previous paragraph I must point to some potential, indirect impacts of intelligence on the evolution of a population. A population of intelligent individuals may as a group decide on which individuals will reproduce. This is called eugenics and this is the kind of process by which intelligence influence future evolution in a particularly interesting and unique way. For example, we may decide that all people that carry a non-expressed disease gene are not allowed to reproduce in order to suppress this gene from the population. In the same order of idea the population learn how to treat people that have a given genetic disease, the selection against the gene variants (alleles) causing the disease will decrease, increasing then the frequency of the disease in the population. Therefore, some medical actions (and other kind of social help) cause less adaptable evolution while some eugenic program cause more adaptable evolution. I am not talking about ethics here and am not saying we SHOULD stop treating people with genetic disease. Note that other things like the evolution of trait architecture will yield to different ability to undergoes adaptive evolution.

Interpreting my answer

It is important for a starter in evolutionary theory to make sure to learn more about evolution before trying to interpret further this answer in an incorrect way. I want to avoid that someone with few knowledge in evolution starts to think that intelligence is some kind of magical trait or that evolution is a process answering to the conscious needs individuals may have. For the moment keep in mind that evolution has no foresight and is not the result of the will of the individuals in the population (except for eugenic program). Behind this answer there are (maybe hidden) slightly advanced topics such as the strength of selection, mutation-selection-drift equilibrium, the genetic load, trait architecture and evolvability.


Seems safe to assume that intelligence CAN influence fitness, depending on the selection pressures. As Hav0k mentioned, this won't necessarily be favorable, i.e. lead to more progeny. In the case of modern humans, even if a person got more mating opportunities by being, or just appearing to be very intelligent in some areas, it might not do much to affect the population if he/she chose to have fewer or no offspring. To the extent that intelligence was valued in a population, it could of course become very influential. Whether or not (potential) intelligence is something quantifiable that is vertically transferred is another discussion I guess.


Intelligence can have an impact on selection, but keep in mind that flexible intelligence (like the kind humans possess) is a high-cost/high-reward kind of adaptation. Brains consume a lot of energy, so the resulting intelligent behavior needs to 'pay for itself' (in terms of survivability and ability to reliably gather the necessary food) if it's going to create a competitive advantage.


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