Sunday, November 22, 2015

Which was First: Intelligence or Technology

The usual parade of development of intelligence in the human species has things happening thusly: first primates develop hands, meaning grasping claws, soft, with opposable thumbs for some non-intellectual reason such as they were better at climbing in forests; then the hands allow some early tool use most likely wood and then stone; then the brain develops to make more use of the tools. After this short sequence of evolutionary intelligence, the brain has gotten to the point where there is positive feedback from having it grow larger, and it does, and we as a species arrive on the planet.

This sounds like a reasonable guess, but if we really want to know if intelligence is going to evolve on different planets, which is an obvious necessary precursor to flying starshps, did it really go that way? Are there any other less obvious pathways which might be right and which might harbor completely different Great Filters, including the one that has stopped all planets but ours from even thinking about star travel?

It is not the development of large brains. Elephants, dolphins and whales all have larger brains than humans do, and while they exhibit signs of having brain power, they certainly aren’t intelligent in the same way that humans are. Some better communication skills exist, maybe great memory, but we must vote no on intelligence. There might be an argument made about the ratio of brain weight to body weight, and here man is exceeded by even some insects, birds and rodents. So a more complicated formula with brain mass and body mass might be found, but perhaps this making this quantitative misses the point.

Evolution happens in a particular direction because there is an advantage provided in reproductive ratio. If some gene change results in more copies made in the next generation, on the average, that gene change increases its share in the gene pool in a gradual way, eventually displacing competitors. Speciation happens in a gradual way, as a single animal in a species with bisexual reproduction would not be able to reproduce.

The usual argument is that each of the steps in the pathway mentioned above, hands, tool use, brain, provides some survival advantage. They interact, and there would be multiple gene changes that together provide an overall increase in reproduction ratio. This particular pathway is especially appealing to those of us who are involved with technology. Technology at the very earliest stages, involving the use of some found material or easily produced item, made from wood perhaps, plays a large role in developing intelligence, and since technologists are often proud of themselves for their technological skills, it is pleasing to think that technological skills created the creatures that are our ancestors.

What other skills or attributes could a larger brain play a role in that might also provide a relative advantage? Sensor specialization is likely not the answer. Other creatures have better sight, hearing, smell and taste, and likely proprioceptive sensing as well. Other creatures have other senses we do not have, such as the ability to navigate using either polarization or the Earth’s magnetic field, infrared vision, and likely others. Having a bigger brain volume devoted to processing these sensor inputs is not likely the driver for intelligence, or those creatures with better or more diverse senses would be the intelligent ones.

Combinations of sensors, such as the collection that involves the selection of food and makes an animal more of an omnivore, is also not likely to be the key. There are insects and animals which are more omnivorous than humans. Perhaps disease avoidance or curing is. Survival is not just a matter of finding food and avoiding large predators, but also in surviving any infections or other diseases which strike. If the brain evolved the ability to recognize sickness in a fellow creature, and then provide some particular nutrients which would ameliorate it, and help the sick creature to recover, then if there was gene similarity between the donor and the acceptor of the nutrients, and trust between them so that the sick one accepted them, some small benefit to reproductive rate for genes they shared might arise. The idea that some early primate developed something like folk medicine has not achieved currency, but food selection was certainly something that the early primate brain was good at, and if they lived in groups, recognizing other group members was as well. Recognizing changes in the appearance or the behavior or some other aspect of another member, which was an indicator of sickness, is not a large leap from the group recognition ability.

It is possible to recognize other humans based on many attributes, face being the most common perhaps, but voice, gait, gestures, and many other aspects can also be used. For example, gait can be used at distances where faces cannot be seen well. If these aspects are all integrated together in the brain as a complex able to recognize other group members in many situations, then being able to notice discrepancies that appear over short times should also be noticeable. Aging changes these aspects as well, but the changes from aging occur over longer time periods and also are similar among various members of the group. Aging changes might be easily distinguished from the rapid changes in voice or gait or speed or other aspects which denote some infection or disease is present in the observed creature.

Over long periods of time, the group might learn what herbs or other medicinal might affect the progress of the infection or disease, and if it was large enough, to pass down this information. There is some indication that certain animals understand that if they feel a certain way, they should eat some particular nutrient. Maybe that is how the early stages of such an evolutionary advantage got started.

Brain size would be pushed to understand larger numbers of medicinal and more diverse symptoms, and as it grew, other capabilities would be easier to be added. When the symmetry of the brain broke, and brains began to develop particular capabilities on one size only, this might happen more easily. Brains develop symmetrically in size, but if only a lobe on one size were involved in, say, recognizing unique herbs or being able to find them, the corresponding lobe on the other side might be available for something else, like tool use.

This would mean that tool use gets started, not because of some evolutionary feedback loop that says tool use increases survival so the gene for it is increased in frequency, but that tool use gets started by accident, in that there was some extra available computing power in the brain occasioned by something else, like medicinal use, and human ancestors just fell into using it. This more complex pathway reducing the importance of technology, but it might be right. Alternatively, there might be other pathways where brain size and complexity is forced by some other activity or attribute, and again, tool use just happens to use up some spare computational power on the opposite side of the brain.

If there is a different path to intelligence, all the previous thinking about what conditions there would have to be on an alien planet for intelligence to happen need to be reexamined.

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