Monday, 12 December 2011

Brain Storms – 8 – Was Douglas Adams right about the Dolphins?

Douglas Adams, in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, suggested that dolphins were more intelligent than humans.

Perhaps his conclusion was based on the finding of a vast conference in with all the animal species that ever lived sent one delegate to decide on which of them had the best brain. This caucus was called because they were all fed up with Humans unilaterally claiming that they were more intelligent than all the other animals – by simply defining intelligence as “those mental activities which humans can do which other animals can't do.”

Continues below the fold

There was a lot of argument at first, but eventually a motion was passed, by the majority of small animals, that any rankings should be weighted so that the winner would be the one whose brain produced the most “bangs for bucks.” Following an enormous splash of protest the Sperm Whale was compensated with a special award for the biggest brain – at 7 kg. There was also a debate about how much of the nervous system should be considered to be brain after the Diplodocus pointed out that to minimise the weight of its head it kept most of its brain in its backside!

It was agreed that the human definition of intelligence was totally unacceptable – but there was no agreement on what should take its place. Should a brain which was very good at doing one specific task be considered better than a brain which provided a much wider general facility. The solution chosen was to define a number of different categories.

For instance the Dog came out top in the smellygence class, and the Indian Elephant pipped the African Elephant for the nosygence award. There was much discussion as to whether the visigence prize should go to the American Bald Headed Eagle or the European Barn Owl, and finally the award went to a compromise candidate – the Vampire Squid. The invertebrates soon chalked up another victory when the Octopus beat the Chameleon for having the best brain for understanding the use of colour. Arguments about the relative merits of the the Humming Bird and the Albatross in the aviatigence category resulted in the creation of several different groupings. The category was split into the hoverigence award (which went to a Carboniferous Dragonfly) and the gliderigence award which went to a Triassic Pterosaur. The sole Human representative kept on interrupting the proceedings and was silenced for a time by making him top of the chatterigence classification (which only had one candidate entry) although he started complaining again when the Bonobo became top in sexygence.

The hardest decisions related to the the animal with the best general purpose decision making brains once the effect of any specialist sensory capabilities were excluded. An animal could not claim extra brain power merely by exploiting highly developed skills involving hearing, sight, smell and, as all but one of the delegates agreed, talking. The obstacle to agreement was the problem of social animals. Should one judge the power of a Termite's brain by considering one Termite or the whole colony. Every animal (well almost every one, with the normal unsurprising exception) really liked the idea of judging a size of a social brain as the combined weight of the brains of the group's members. It was noted that radio and television meant that all humans could exchange information so were judged to be a single social brain weighing in at about 10,000,000 tons. This huge social “animal” was so stupid that it was ruining the environment on which it, and all the other animals depended. There was no doubt among the delegates which animal should be wearing the dunce's hat.

There was a very serious discussion as to whether the Chimpanzee or the Orang-utan had the best brain. How much allowance should be made for the fact that the Orang-utan's brain had to be more self-sufficient as it was a solitary creature – while the Chimpanzee brain had been under less evolutionary pressures to be imaginative, because it could expect support from other members of the troop. It was decided that while the Chimpanzee could do more when it was a member of a group, the Orang-utan brain showed a bigger capability for being original. In fact neither of these primates took the general intelligence award – which after much debate went to the Dolphin.

Now to be really serious.

If we accept that the brain has evolved by similar mechanisms to the other organs of the body we must accept that there are likely to be few if any fundamental differences between how our brains work and how the brains of our nearest relatives work. What has happened is that we have developed a specialist add-on to help us to communicate information between one parallel-organised memory and another similar memory via a serial interface. This uses a special modification in the wind pipe, and possibly some matching developments in our sound sensors..

This all means that in order to understand how our brain works the starting point must be an internal brain language which we share with animals. We then need to know how far this language could support the functions needed to drive speech and whether there needs to be any special extension to this internal brain language. What we must avoid is the assumption, made by our ancestors who put the earth at the centre of the universe, that humans are a special case. Just like the elephant which has exploited its nose, the dog that has exploited its sense of smell, the eagle that has exploited its eyesight, and the bat has exploited its hearing, we are just another animal which have pushed one of their organs to an extreme extent.

Earlier Brain Storms
  1. Introduction
  2. The Black Hole in Brain Research
  3. Evolutionary Factors starting on the African Plains
  4. Requirements of a target Model
  5. Some Factors in choosing a Model
  6. CODIL and Natural Language
  7. Getting rid of those pesky numbers

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