Science in the Real World, Part 2: Evolution of Scientific Intelligence

The way the scientific enterprise is organized is changing dramatically. Fifty years ago last week, Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. Rereading The Double Helix by James Watson, I get the impression that those days were quite different. While a postdoc in Copenhagen, Denmark, Watson wrote a letter to his contact at the funding agency in Washington, D.C., requesting a transfer to Cambridge, England. Although there were a few bumps along the road, he did not have to write a 25-page research proposal incorporating a detailed financial plan.

Today, scientists spend (too) much of their time writing research proposals. If they are fortunate enough to get their plans funded, they have to spend a considerable amount of time reporting on their progress to the agency involved. Usually they have to report to their own institution as well, in a totally different format, of course.

Luckily, I do not have to waste my time writing proposals (not yet, that is). Instead, I can indulge in my obsessions. These days, a topic that is never far from my mind is the analogy between human and organizational intelligence. I draw on a simple working definition of intelligence: successful goal-directed behavior. The ingredients of an intelligent system are that it has to have some goal, has the ability to sense the world, and has the capacity to act upon its environment to reach the desired goal.

So, according to this definition, even the thermostat in my living room is an intelligent system, as long as it keeps the temperature in my room constant. If it fails, I call it stupid.

I myself am somewhat more complicated than a thermostat, but I also have goals. For example, I can state with confidence that I am academically quite successful considering the fact that I have a Ph.D. I also have to admit that I am somewhat challenged in reaching my financial goals. So, I am academically smart and financially stupid.

On the grander scale, we humans have been quite successful in reaching our goals: Our survival as individuals and as a species testify to this. On top of that, we are changing the planet to our own specifications, thereby improving the chances of achieving our goals even more effectively. Pretty smart, aren't we?

Ever since our species stumbled on the faculty of language, we have been building increasingly larger social organizations. We can apply the same definition of intelligence to these systems. A company, for instance, has the goal of maximizing profit (although perhaps these days its goal is mainly survival). Microsoft can be called an intelligent organization because it has been very successful in realizing its goals.

But systems change, their organization evolves, and their goals also progress. In a wonderful cartoon, Sidney Harris depicts three stages in human evolution. The first drawing is a Java man, and his goals are written in his skull: "Eat, Drink, Fight"; the Neandertal is aiming for "Hunt, Make Tools, Build"; and the third picture shows a modern man: "Charisma, Image, Sarcasm."

An important aspect of this cartoon is that these men have increasingly bigger skulls, suggesting that new organizational layers have been added. It is for good reasons that we call the outer layers of our brain the neocortex. It contains, for example, the parts of the brain that are involved in language comprehension and production. It is especially the change in system behavior caused by the change in organization that I am fascinated with.

Let us apply these ideas to ourselves, as scientists. Our goal is to understand natural phenomena, and if we achieve this goal we call ourselves smart. We sometimes achieve it by looking at the world and thinking about it (observation). Or else we act upon the world and see what it amounts to (experimentation).

If you study the history of science, big jumps in our understanding are usually made by one or two individuals. They have taken their obsession to the limit and have given us a different view on a phenomenon that suddenly makes it appear simple (gravitation after Newton, DNA after Watson and Crick).

Over the past few decades, something novel has been happening in the history of the scientific enterprise. Just like the human brain, it is evolving, and new layers are being added to its organization. Universities are growing into large conglomerates of departments and institutes. Funding agencies are growing ever larger. You do not write a letter to a real person any more, such as Watson; instead, you fill out a form on the agency's Web site.

The obvious question is this: Will this new structure of the scientific organization make us more successful in reaching our goal of understanding the world we live in? Or will it change altogether the goal of this enterprise we call science? The proper answer is that it is too early to tell. The influence of the neocortex on the success of the human species was also not clear overnight.

But if it is true that obsessed individuals usually achieve the major advances in science, a reasonable question presents itself: Will there be a place for the modern equivalents of Watson and Crick, or is the contemporary scientist just a cog in the machine?

Editor's Note: This is the second part of our new series on science and society, "Science in the Real World." Stijn Oomes, the column's author, can be contacted at

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers