I'm getting bored waiting for monkeys or dolphins or crows or whatever to just evolve human-level intelligence. Is there anything practical we can do to create more favorable "natural selection" conditions for intelligence, to encourage its evolution in, say, a thousand years instead of a million?

For instance, if we covered the Earth with food sources that required unlocking a puzzle that a "very smart crow" might figure out, or somehow taught dolphins agriculture, or something like that, it could increase selective pressure for intelligence.

What could we as a race do to evolve ourselves some company?

  • $\begingroup$ Not enough for a complete answer, but we just continue what we're already doing, actually. We're already accelerating natural selection in rattlesnakes with the annual rattlesnake roundup, which is leaving only rattlesnakes that aren't as quick to alert predators/prey to their presence. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Mar 25, 2015 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre: Not to mention running over squirrels daily. But I'm looking for doing something intentionally, and doing it to the most likely candidate species to deliver results ASAP. $\endgroup$ Mar 25, 2015 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure there's anything we can do until our technology advances to the point we can freely alter genetic material. We don't even understand what makes us intelligent/sapient/sentient, let alone how to advance that in other species. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Mar 25, 2015 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre: Totally disagree ... All we have to do is set up selective pressure favoring the kinds of intelligence we seek, and then wait. My question asks everyone to brainstorm effective methods. $\endgroup$ Mar 25, 2015 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ I'm actually interested to see the answers, but I don't think it's going to be intuitive. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Mar 25, 2015 at 18:07

2 Answers 2


Joshua Klein, in attempting to solve an environmental problem, may have the solution. He has effectively made a crow vending machine which gives crows food in exchange for picking up out litter. Others make squirrel obstacle courses for their own entertainment, but common use of these could lead to smarter squirrels.

This issue with these is that evolution can be slow. An individual will be long dead before they see change in these populations. It takes many generations (of that creature) to establish a new breed, let alone a new species. You may wish for something quicker.

Quicker Option #1 is to specifically breed a group of creatures in captivity. This presents a lot of risks, but gives you maximum control over how things evolve. Once again, this can take a while; you need to wait for creatures to evolve over generations. This is also a proven way to breed plants and animals.

Quicker Option #2 is to genetically engineer a creature for increased intelligence. This is a "brave new field," so I am afraid the science of genes and intelligence is not well understood. It seems one simply cannot place an "intelligence" gene into a creature have near-instant human equivalent intelligence. More likely is that you will introduce or alter genes to give smaller attributes to a creature which help them cultivate intelligence. (Such as opposable thumbs...)


In its simplest form, intelligence is just one of many phenotypes that evolution acts on. In our case, the fittest human (originally primate) was the most intelligent, and natural selection selected those individuals.

If we wanted to do this other animals, we have a few options:

  1. Genetically engineer the species so that genes that confer intelligence are present and expressed.
  2. Perform artificial selection on the species based on intelligence.
  3. Change the environment around the species so that intelligence is the preferred phenotype.

Genetic Engineering

Today, we do not have the technology to do #1. We actually don't know what genes (or gene combinations) confer intelligence. Also, our genetic engineering techniques are not advanced enough to work on organisms as complex as dolphins, crows, elephants, etc.

Artificial Selection

We could, and actually have, performed #2. Research with fruit flies actually led to an increased intelligence in fruit flies over a few dozen generations. However, it was discovered that this intelligence lowered the fruit flies' fitness in other areas. This may simply be a side effect of insect gene diversity, or it may point to the larger cost of intelligence.

In order for this to be successful, we would have to come up with a metric for intelligence, and then breed those animals that show higher on the metric. To avoid genetically bottlenecking the new "intelligent" subspecies, we would have to breed this species is very large numbers: hundreds if not thousands of members.

Environmental Modification

This area has the most promise: we would let nature do the work, but direct that natural process. One idea is that, in an area with otherwise limited foodstuffs, provide foodstuffs only if the species can complete certain tasks (like your puzzle example). However, this may backfire in a sense, as puzzle-solving ability of a particular puzzle is not necessarily synonymous with intelligence: just because a salmon can remember for years the exact spot in the exact stream it was born in does not mean that it is a "smart" creature in the normal sense of the word.

  • $\begingroup$ "[O]ur genetic engineering techniques are not advanced enough to work on organisms as complex as dolphins, crows, elephants, etc." is not strictly true, in the sense that we can engineer almost any animal to glow in the dark. But it's true that, so far as I know, we can't modify the body structure of a complex animal in any significant way via genetic engineering. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2023 at 2:00

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