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

Posts tagged ‘TED’

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.  🙂

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!