Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Step outside the box to understand the Evolution of Intelligence

Brainstorm 12

On the Earth, at least, humans are exceptional life-forms when it is judged by their ability to understand and control the environment in which they live. It seems obvious to us that we are more intelligent than other animals – but in saying this we are the ones who are defining what “intelligence” is – and if we are true scientists, we should start by asking how objective we are.

The purpose of the brainstorms on this blog is to look at the foundations of our so-called intelligence and to ask whether, at the biological level, our basic brain mechanisms really are significantly different to other animals. The approach I am taking is to assume that the thought processing mechanism in the human brain is virtually identical to our nearest animal relatives, and that our intelligence is due almost entirely to a larger brain capacity and culture, driven by language. ...

Trying to get over an unorthodox view of the brain is hard work, as you can easily find yourself working outside the “what is acceptable research” box. It is very difficult to be an truly independent observer as everyone (including me) comes with cultural baggage which takes it for granted that there is a significant difference between humans and animals. To explain the nature of the obstacle it is useful to look at changing attitudes to the concept of evolution.

Considered in terms of everyday living the underlying concept of “the survival of the fittest” is possibly as old as the human species. In the days of the hunter gatherers it would have become apparent that family groups which included the best hunters were likely to do best in the welfare stakes. Once agriculture started it would have been rapidly realised that the best long term results were obtained by retaining the best animals for breeding. As we became more civilised it would have been even more obvious that those with the best personal skills, most wealth, or best weapons, had clear advantages in the competition game. For this reason – if people were purely objective assessors of the facts - there would be nothing surprising in Darwin generalising the idea of the “survival of the fittest” by applying the concept to the problem of how the many different species came about. His work of breeding pigeons would have been completely understandable by anyone involved in selective breeding of domestic animals while the subtle differences between the Galapagos Finches would have been lost on the vast majority of people. So why should he have been reluctant to rush into print – and why were his worries of significant opposition justified.

The problem Darwin faced was purely cultural. By suggesting that species changed with time and, even worse, humans were descended from the apes, he was questioning widely held taboos associated with ancient held creation myths and the belief that humans were spiritually different to animals as the result some of supernatural agency. There was much passionate debate at the time and this continues to the present day (particularly in the USA). Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary there are still a lot of people who refuse to accept that the world is very old. There are many more who acknowledge evolution when applied to animals and would agree that “survival of the fittest” applies to teams in a football league. However they consider that humans have some kind of additional supernatural spiritual feature that distinguishes them from other animals, even if they don't actively worhip a god, and cannot define "the soul" in scientific terms. Even among scientists who reject all supernatural features I suspect that the majority take it as self-evident that there must be some fundamental differences in the way the human brain work - “After all, we are so clever that we must be different.” But if we are really being objective we should not automatically put our brains at the centre of the intelligence universe, or we may be repeating the mistake our ancestors made when they put our planet at the centre of the physical universe. 

This means that in trying to develop a model of the evolution of human intelligence based on the idea that there is no significance between humans and animals in the way that the brain works I am asking many people, including many scientists, to think outside their mental “comfort” boxes.

Let me make it clear that the big question that is needs to be answered is “What is left?” once we eliminate the effect of culture and make allowance for brain size? Do human brains have some unique information processing facility? Or is “that special something” many scientists are looking for the intelligence equivalence of the Philosopher's Stone. It is clear that many very detailed studies have been carried out in many different specialist areas and as discussed earlier in The Black Hole in Brain Research it appears that there is currently no adequate model of the link between very different disciplines.

Perhaps the “Philosopher's Stone of Intelligence” does not exist. If this is an idea worth exploring the obvious starting point is to start with a model which assumes that there is no significant unique feature in the human brain. If the model proves satisfactory we have found a way to link disparate approaches to the problem. If it can be shown that there are serious flaws in the model the nature of those flaws should indicate where the significant feature lies. This is what I would call a proper research project – as it is based on a win-win approach - in that you have useful results whatever the outcome, even if you disprove the original assumption.

Earlier Brain Storms

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