III.6 From Collective Intelligence to Collective Wisdom

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” – Marcel Proust

There is a huge difference between intelligence and wisdom. Donald Trump is highly intelligent, but not wise. Intelligence focusses on interpretation of facts and knowledge, wisdom includes interpretation of feelings and emotions. Intelligence leads to behavior which is good for the intelligent person, wisdom leads to behavior which is good for everybody.  In other words, an intelligent person does what is good for her or him, a wise person does what is good for the world. Intelligence has nothing to do with morals and ethics. Highly intelligent people can be amoral and unethical, wise people have an ethical compass and adhere to moral principles.

Intelligent people recognize patterns, and apply them again in similar situations. They might also adapt behavior that has helped them in the past to new or changed conditions, to gain a competitive advantage. Intelligence is not restricted to humans, animals and plants also show intelligent behavior. For instance, in a famous experiment Heidi Appel and Rex Cocroft showed that when Arabidopsis mustard plants hear a recording of the sound of cabbage butterfly caterpillars munching on the leaves of a plant, they produce an increased amount of mustard oil meant to deter the insects . Plants are also collectively intelligent; acacia trees warn each other from herbivores. Trees whose leaves have been munched on by giraffes emit ethylene into the air that triggers production of tannin in the leaves in nearby acacia trees, making them inedible to the giraffes. They also allow stinging ants to live in their thorns and feed them with their sap, in return the ants defend the tree against herbivores. Social insects such as bees, ants, or termites are also spectacularly successful by showing numerous examples of collective intelligence, with ants laying and following the most efficient pheromone trails, or Asian honeybees collectively cooking to death attacking murder hornets. It has even been shown that Indian meal moths become more altruistic and less selfish by eating less of their own kind – the larvae of meal moths are cannibals – when they are living in close company with each other . In other words, being closer with each other makes Indian meal moths more altruistic. In that sense, Asian honeybees, and Indian meal moths are not just intelligent, but wise!

Wisdom is a much wider concept than intelligence. Wise people are intelligent, but they also show emotional intelligence and compassion and follow a moral compass. In the Schwartz theory of basic values, they have a universalist value system, which Schwartz defines as “understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.” They do not just focus on themselves, or their immediate surrounding, but show benevolence and kindness in their interaction with others. Instead of self-focused ambition they show a concern for the welfare of everybody, and think holistically. They live mostly by joy and sadness, and try to evade fear and anger. They also rarely show disgust and surprise, as they accept everything the way it comes. 

In the words of Nelson Mandela, wisdom combines the mind and the heart. A group showing collective wisdom extends these principles into the community. An early example of collective wisdom are the ten commandments, where rules developed over millennia enable peaceful co-existence for members of the community. One can argue that societies that lives in serene happiness – in collective mindfulness – are exemplars of living in collective wisdom. Comparing happiness among different countries, according to the World happiness survey, the two most powerful countries, the US (number 14 on the 2021 World happiness ranking) and China (number 52) are not particularly happy. It is thus not power, money, or glory that makes happy. In the top three spots are the rather insignificant and humble countries Finland, Iceland, and Denmark. A clue to their happiness might actually come from the lowly cannibalistic Indian meal moths: living closely together makes them kinder to each other. Finland, Iceland, and Denmark are small countries with a cohesive egalitarian culture, where people don’t just pay lip service to the golden rule, but actually live by “treating others as you want to be treated”. Another unifying factor is the high trust that inhabitants of these three countries have for their government. 

In the US I am sometimes wondering if members of Gen Z are not wiser than Gen X and Millennials.  While a course on happiness at Yale offered through Coursera got 3.3 million participants during the Covid lockdowns, participants in the age group of thirty-four and older found it life changing and revolutionary, while twentysomethings categorized it as good advice they already knew, they definitively did not find it revolutionary.

So what are the steps towards collective wisdom? Be willing to learn – be it from young people who prioritize a meaningful life over money, power, and glory, or from Indian meal moths and Asian honeybees. And show trustworthy behavior, characterized by being conscientious, reliable, responsible, accountable, and caring. Consistent behavior reinforces trust. Say what you mean, and do what you say.

In his international bestseller “The Swarm” Frank Schaetzing describes a swarm made up of cellular organisms of superior collective intelligence, which, hidden from humanity, has been living in Earth’s oceans for millions of years. Only now, as humans and their technology threaten to destroy life in the oceans, is the Swarm emerging to stop humans from converting Earth into a wasteland. I hope that increasing awareness of who and what makes us REALLY happy will help us humans to become a similar, more collectively intelligent, human swarm who will collaborate for a better future together!


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