Collective intelligence is the idea that a higher level of intelligence can emerge within a group of people than the intelligence of any one member of the group individually. The phenomenon is gaining attention due to advancements in information and communications technology. Group members no longer need to be in the same room. They can be scattered around the world. Despite its recent high media profile, there is ample evidence of collective intelligence in history, and even existing outside of humans.
In humans however, collective intelligence has been cited as one possible reason for our dominance over the entire earth surface. In the evolutionary history of humans, tool making is believed to have begun some 2 million years ago. Modern tools surfaced around 300,000 years ago in Africa. Neanderthals are now known to have had brains that were bigger than ours and have inherited the same genetic mutation that facilitated speech as us. Why then did they hardly invent any new tools, let alone farms or cities? The sophistication of our modern world lies not in our individual intelligence but in the intelligence produced from our interactions with one another – collective intelligence in other words.
The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market everything in modern society is split among thousands or millions of heads. Human progress was not limited by the power of individual heads; intelligence became collective and cumulative. Moving outside knowledge of activities, culture does not belong to any one person. Different cultures evolve among groups and are shared by the collective. In the evolution of humans, culture and innovation sprang up in areas where cultures met – trade posts.
In addition, as we evolved, different cultures exhibited similarities; several societies adopted a monarchical system, and the idea of the state evolved in different places as well. Similarly with technologies: “Brian Arthur argues in his book 'The Nature of Technology,' nearly all technologies are combinations of other technologies and new ideas come from swapping things and thoughts. (My favorite example is the camera pill—invented after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer.)” It is no wonder that the oldest farming settlements are situated in regions where the most trade routes crossed back in the day. 45000 years ago in western Asia the Upper Paleolithic Revolution occurred in an area with an exceptionally dense population of hunter-gatherers. This population created an especially large collective brain and stimulated an explosion of innovation related to hunting and food collection.
As Matt Ridley says in his article on collective intelligence and human evolution, “dense populations don't produce innovation in other species. They only do so in human beings, because only human beings indulge in regular exchange of different items among unrelated, unmated individuals and even among strangers. So here is the answer to the puzzle of human takeoff. It was caused by the invention of a collective brain itself made possible by the invention of exchange.” Today, with our ever-growing population, our increasing inter-connectedness, and the technological tools available to us, collective intelligence in humans would appear to have no limits.