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

Posts tagged ‘intelligence’

Parents and the Betrayal of Octopus

I am 26 years old.  I have 2 college degrees and have set my sights on a third.  I have worked in some of the most remote places in the US.  I have built trails, used chainsaws, written scientific articles, fought wildland fires, and lived (usually) on my own since moving out at 18.  I do my own laundry, generally cook my own food and choose my own reading material.  I live 11 hours away from my parents.  And yes, they still call me their little girl.  *facepalm*

Human parents are actually pretty incredible.  They provide parental care for longer than any other species that I know of.  They provide us with food, advice, direction and love long after the time when we are able to walk and gather food for ourselves.  Maybe it can be a little much at times, but parents (the good ones, like mine and most peoples) really do a lot for us.  I really am grateful to my parents for all they have done for me.  But why do they do it?  Talk about social pressures and love all you want, there had to be a starting place, a reason for this particular trait to evolve.

Photograph is the sole property of the writer of extraterrestrialscience.wordpress.com.

Yes, Parents love us and do wonderful things for us, including cleaning our faces, embarrassing us in public and guarding us from strange photographers

Most organisms are trying to give their genes the best chance of success when they reproduce.  Many organisms do this by simply making lots and lots of babies, with the expectation that some of them won’t make it and the hope that at least a few will.  If you need an example, think of bunnies.  There’s a reason people say, “breeding like rabbits”.  Ecologists call these species r-adapted, because r is the variable in population growth equations that stands for reproduction.  Highly variable habitats are the dwelling place of r-adapted species because even if a few of the offspring are wiped out by a hurricane or something, it’s unlikely all of them would be.

Photograph is the sole property of the writer of extraterrestrialscience.wordpress.com.

Tadpoles, like the ones shown here, have gobs and gobs of brothers and sisters. I found these particular tadpoles in a wet meadow, which displayed wide variation in water pH, temperature, and cover for these little ones. The froggy parents were nowhere to be seen.

On the other end of the spectrum are us, elephants and a few others.  We are what ecologists call K-adapted.  K is the variable for competition in population growth equations.  Animals that are K-adapted occur in stable but highly competitive environments (think rainforest without the deforestation) and have relatively few babies but high rates of parental care.  K-adapted animals are attempting to give their young the most advantages they can so their babies can outcompete everybody else.

I met this young badger on a tour of a wildlife rehabilitation center. This particular badger was being raised by the Biologist in Charge because his mother had suffered an accident. Normally, she would have spent 5 months raising this youngling.

The discerning reader then asks, “Why are we K-adapted? What was so competitive about Africa?”  For the most part, I don’t think it was Africa that made us so very K-adapted (aside from the diversity of primates living there).  I think we did it to ourselves.  Everywhere we go we create cities, villages, towns, in other words communities of people.  These communities are highly competitive and have complex, confusing(!), vague, ever-evolving rules of behavior and even more importantly, language.  (Check out this TED talk for why language was important to our evolution and this TED talk for how we start learning our language even in the womb.  Also this TED talk for how babies learn language and what an exceptionally complex task it is! I love TED talks don’t you?  Here’s another one about SETI, just because!)

It takes us 18 years just to learn to communicate clearly, find a role in society, and act appropriately towards others.  (Actually, I’m still learning that last bit.)  Elephants, crows and jackdaws, dolphins, certain whales, horses, and primates all show extended parental care, have relatively complex social systems and display some characteristics of intelligence.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that we increased our intelligence to deal with our increasingly complex societies.

Of course there is one relatively intelligent animal that does not show much parental care or a complex social system.  We come back to the octopus.  What the hell octopus?  Why do you have to be the exception that makes my theory weak?  I really, really like you.  I think we could be friends if you weren’t so busy making my theories fall apart.  Reader, I am going to go think about the Betrayal of Octopus and how octopi could be intelligent without having a social system.  Until next time.  🙂


So Freakin’ Cute!

“I love frogs because they’re just so freakin’ cute.”  This Awesome Statement of Awesomeness was uttered by my boss’s 8-year-old daughter.  Then, I’m afraid I undermined my boss’s authority by cracking up.  I have to agree with her, frogs (and salamanders and snakes and lizards and iguanas all) are really, really cute.  I want to study them and have them as pets and hug them and hold them and feed them and ……. I just really think they’re awesome, ok?!

However, I don’t think they (the frogs, salamanders, snakes and lizards, hereafter referred to as herpetofauna) have what it takes to be intelligent.  One of the major differences between us and them is that we produce internal heat by metabolism, which we call endothermy.  Birds and the other mammals share this trait with us.  Herpetofauna and just about every other creature on earth do not.

Photograph is the sole property of the writer of extraterrestrialscience.wordpress.com.

Salamanders are cute! Not smart…unfortunately

Why is this important?  Our brain operates in a very narrow range of temperatures (95-100 degrees Farhenheit).  If we get too hot our brain cells do funny things like die.  Hypothermia, the other end of the spectrum, results in low oxygen in the brain, which is also bad for you.  In order to operate our brain at maximum efficiency, we need to keep it in the ideal range.  Herpetofauna on the other hand cannot produce their own heat in most cases, nor do they have effective mechanisms for dealing with too much heat.  Their means of gaining and/or losing heat are all behavioral (sitting in the shade or sun, going swimming, etc.).  As such they cannot maintain a constant temperature most of the time and their brains do not operate at maximum efficiency.

Most of the animals displaying characteristics approaching intelligence, elephants, primates, dolphins, whales and crows, are endothermic.  There is one big exception to this statement.  Octopi are the major invertebrate “smart” animal.  They are not endothermic and yet they are smart enough to outplan two graduate students.  However, they live in an environment with a relatively stable temperature.  They don’t need to produce heat to maintain a stable temperature because the unique chemical nature of water does that for them.

What does this mean for extra-terrestrials?  On a stable planet, with a (relatively) stable temperature, intelligent life forms would not need to produce their own heat, which is metabolically expensive.  Intelligent life forms from that planet could be lizard/frog-like.  Which would be so COOL!!  On a variable planet like ours, however, intelligent life would probably be more like mammals or birds.

Necessary Evils

neanderthal skulls

neanderthal skulls (Photo credit: leted)

Data entry days are the death of whatever creativity I can claim.  Most days my job happens in a beautiful, wild place. My boss doesn’t even work in the same county so most problems I encounter are my own to solve. I have changed more tires in the past few months than the whole rest of my life combined. The hot air around me vibrates with the sounds of crickets, birds, flies, animals I can’t even name. I love it.  I feel so strong thinking about all I do at work.

Then one of the data entry days happens. My computer sucks the power from my brain as well as the plugin. My chair seems especially designed to cause back aches. My desk, oh God, my desk is the kitchen table and it is not destined to be a comfortable computer stand. Unfortunately data entry is the great necessary evil (aside from grant writing) in the science world. And so I endure, back aches, carpal tunnel, brain drain and all.

The phrase “necessary evil” gets me thinking. What are the necessary evils that helped us along our path to intelligence? Are ambition, dishonesty, laziness, greed, hate, or selective obliviousness necessary for intelligence to develop in a species? Does evolution favor morality? I can see where each of aforementioned traits could come in handy in our struggle to survive. I don’t think we will easily find the answer though. I don’t know that I want to find out whether eliminating Neanderthal competitors was necessary for our survival. Science fiction is full of “be careful what you wish for” stories. What if it’s true? What if when we meet another intelligent life form, their history is as full of atrocity as our own? Could we ever cooperate with a species as terrible as our own?

Even worse, what if there are no necessary evils paired with intelligence? What if we are the boogeymen of the universe? Would we even want to meet another species, knowing what we’ve done to ourselves?

That’s probably enough maudlin -ness to last for a while. I better sign off before you read too much into my woes! Next post will be back to the origins of intelligence! Something more cheerful anyway!!

What makes EXPLOSIONS… of the cultural kind

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!

Cooking makes us weak…or something like that

Origins of Intelligence: the 1st post

The evolution of any trait is not a straight path.  Sometimes certain traits are selected for; sometimes they become less advantageous.  Sometimes selection for otherwise advantageous traits is obscured by selection against related traits.  As such we cannot trace exactly what made us intelligent.  Intelligence in this case I’ll define as self-awareness, the ability of the organism to plan, and the ability of the organism to act in order to prevent an undesirable outcome.  I’ll accept other definitions in the comment section.

The use of tools has been one of our most successful adaptations.  From cooking fires to computers, tools have changed the face of the earth, space, and even the structure of our bones.  Richard Wrangham has proposed that cooking food made the food softer, allowing pre-humans to evolve smaller, less robust jawbones.  Smaller jawbones meant that there were fewer constraints on the size of our head and we could then evolve large brains.  However, some might assume that a larger brain means more intelligence.  This is not the case as several studies have disproven the link between brain size and intelligence.

Why then did I mention this research?  It could be that there is a minimum brain size, a threshold that must be crossed before intelligence can evolve.  That threshold would be the minimum size at which a certain number of neurons could be packed into the given space.  Beyond that minimum, brain size would be irrelevant. I do not think this is likely though.  The key point is that we were already using tools before this shift in brain size.  Tool use does not relate to self-awareness but it probably relates to the ability to plan.  Intelligence was already happening before this particular shift in brain size.  The important question then becomes what other features made us capable of using tools?

Research has been done showing that after about a page of internet reading, people tend to get bored.  I am not even close to being done with the origins of intelligence, but I don’t want to bore you so the rest will have to wait for the next blog post!