What will ET look like when we meet him/her/it?


Origins of Intelligence: the 2nd post

I have to admit that in my last post I asked the wrong question.  I asked what traits made tool use possible.  Watching this TED Talk, I learned that many species on earth have used tools, everything from chimpanzees to crows.  However, very rarely has this ability to use tools transformed into the ability to learn from other tool users.  Intelligence may have tool use as a jumping off point, but it is not exclusively indicative of intelligence.  The question I should have asked is what happens after tools? The TED Talk I referenced made the case for language being the catalyst that sparked our stunning evolutionary and cultural explosion.  However, the presenter skipped over another, perhaps even more important step in the evolutionary chain: social learning.  Social learning is the ability to observe another organism performing a task and then perform that task.  What are the requirements for social learning then?

1)      The organism in question must be able to observe another organism. Generally this means visual observation.  Would it be possible for observation to occur without eyes? Sound perception is associated with language but it wouldn’t help with the development of language.  The exception to this rule would be echolocation.  In Daredevil, a blind comic book hero is able to form a map of a space based on echolocation.  Is this beyond the range of current human abilities?  Almost certainly.  Is it impossible?  Almost certainly not!  Taste and touch are too limited in the amount of space perceived.  However, I think chemo-sensory observation would be possible, especially since a lot of subconscious communication in humans occurs in chemosensory perception.  Would it be possible to decipher actions based on chemosensory cues? I don’t know but I think it’s worth considering.  If the organism in question was an aquatic or amphibious organism, electroreception would be a distinct possibility!

2)      The organism must comprehend that the organism being perceived and the organism doing the perception are different entities, but that by performing the same actions the organisms could achieve the same results.  This definition approaches self-awareness.

3)      Finally, social learning means that there must be social systems in place.  Conspecifics must spend time in the same vicinity in order to observe one another.  This means that they must not be so territorial as to chase off any conspecifics encountered.   If they lack this territoriality, generally organisms have a social hierarchy of some kind.

Richard Wrangham may have had a valid point that the cooking of food allowed us to become modern humans.  I think the reduction in jaw size and musculature allowed for the fine facial muscle control which facilitates our language.  Never fear, readers.  I have more on the origins of intelligence.  There will be at least 1 more post on this subject!  But for now, I have to go look at geckos!

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