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

Posts tagged ‘Richard Wrangham’

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!