Monday, September 19, 2005

Intelligence on Earth and Beyond (Updated!)

I was listening to a podcast from the SETI institute where Seth Shostack was discussing intelligence and personalities of animals with various scientists. There was a scientist on the show who studied bird behavior. To me it sounded like an activity that a senior citizen involves himself in when there's nothing else to do with his days but it’s true, the guy has an important job. He found out that certain birds learn to use technology to get at food. Chickadees learned to gain acess to a cafeteria by flying in front of the electric eye that opens the automatic doors. Now that’s pretty smart. He called that a learned behavior, one that the bird did not learn from its parents or was hard wired into its brain. Here’s a cool one: Vultures in some country wait on the barbed wire fences that surround mine fields waiting for antelopes to trot by and blow themselves up so they can scavenge the pieces. Unfortunately not all birds are this intelligent. Chickens and Turkeys are pretty stupid. They tend not to learn from their mistakes. Judging by how many end up on my dinner plate I will agree that fowl aren’t the brightest of birds.

Speaking of my dinner plate, the behavior learned by these birds turns up a pattern. For the most part, the level of intelligence of a species seems to depend entirely on the type of food it eats. Pecking corn out of dirt doesn’t require innovative thinking or the need to learn new behavior but seeking out another animal as a food source or eating many different types of food requires a higher-level brain. An example the scientist used was a cow that stands around eating grass all day. A cow needs little in the way of brainpower but a large stomach to extract nutrients out of this low energy meal. On the other hand if you hunt other animals rich in protein you need a bigger brain and capacity to learn new behavior because the little buggers you eat just keep trying to avoid being eaten. Of course he never went into the opposite side of the story, intelligence related to trying not to die. I expect that the prey need to be just as intelligent trying to survive not becoming a meal as they do to seek out food. Both ways they try to survive as long as possible, or at least long enough to reproduce.

It seems like it’s simply Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Those better suited to their environment live longest and reproduce more, spreading those characteristics to the next generation. So if you have a fur coat in winter then you will live to the next winter and spread your seed. The better the coat the more winters you’re libel to survive. Intelligence in food gathering and death avoidance seems to be on the same logical pathway. Even though Darwin knew nothing about genetics when he was working out his theory this theory neatly fits into genetics once discovered that we pass down our traits specifically through DNA.

So this gets a person to thinking. If intelligence is related to food gathering then why the hell do we spend so much time in our therapists’ office? I mean what are we doing there spending hundreds of dollars a week just to talk about our perceived problems when all we really care about is food gathering. That’s simply it. Our complex relationships between our family members, spouses, children and friends are nothing more than clan behavior related to food gathering, mapping and retention.

I mentioned before that some people think that consciousness is nothing more than the fast duplicity of our neurons processing. We only think that we think that we know that we exist but we don’t. We only think we do. Get it? We’re all just a complicated structure of star matter recycled so many times that carbon molecules combine to form amino acids, proteins, DNA, cells, us!

What is consciousness for anyway? What evolutionary advantage does being self-aware give us? When the scientists who study animal behavior find self-awareness, it’s usually in social animals. That makes sense. I mean grumpy, isolated creatures rarely need self-awareness. In actuality, self-awareness is a crutch to those who spend time alone. The less you thing about your self and your place in the world the better when your all by yourself. Self-awareness seems to be a trait in certain animals like dolphins, higher primates or us. (I always like to mention monkeys with humans.) I don’t mention dolphins with us because they are clearly much more intelligent than us and much cuter. If you’ve ever read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you’d know just how much more intelligent they are. All I have to say is “You’re Welcome!”

For most of the time that humans have been self-aware we have wondered if intelligence is common in the universe. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI as most people know is an organization, once funded by NASA, whose mission statement says that it “is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.” They do this by monitoring the skies for radio and light signals. A little hello in the form of a signal pattern. They use sophisticated programs to decipher the information they receive to see if it is a communication from intelligent beings. It’s a noble search. If someone told the early explorers before they left Europe that instead of reaching the Orient, they’d reach a land rich in resources and foreign people that no one ever knew was there they’d say you were crazy too. Until it happens, most ideas seem too far-fetched to be true. Like when Ellie Arroway in the movie version of the book “Contact” says that airplanes and men on the moon sounded like science fiction until we actually accomplished those goals. Now they seem old hat.

There is an equation called the Drake Equation that calculates the probability of other life in the universe. Dr. Frank Drake came up with this equation: N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L Using this equation Frank Drake estimates that there are 10,000 civilizations in the galaxy that can communicate with us. That’s not really a lot considering how many stars there are in our galaxy or how large this galaxy is. It takes light going 186,000 miles per second 80,000 years to travel from one end to the other. Thus if we are receiving signals from the center of the galaxy it would take that signal 30,000 years to reach us. By that time there’d be no use in answering but at least we’d know that we are not alone.

Back on our world we have to wonder why we are the only species to develop this level of intelligence to produce the spectrum of traits in intelligence including self-awareness. It all seems so complicated, including the concepts we live with everyday in our collective societies: Emotion and Personality. Personality seems to be a trait we also share with social creatures along with self-awareness. Dogs don’t seem to know that you are not another dog. To them you’re just the alpha dog and your dog depends on you to live. He is not aware that there are others unlike him or that he has a place in the scheme of things. He doesn’t wonder what life is about. He dreams but only about chasing balls and getting treats. But, he does have a personality.

Personality is like beauty or love. You know it when you see it. It’s the IT that people talk about when they talk about movie stars. Some people have great personalities that make other happy and some people have dour personalities that seem to reject everyone else. Other people have some combination of both, along with a purposefulness that just knows that their cranky personality is something other people find amusing. We generally describe people’s personality with one word adjectives: Happy, Funny, Melancholy, Grumpy, etc… For the most part people aren’t that one-dimensional except on Television shows. (You know the nosy neighbor that always gossips or the cranky old character that hates everyone or the funny guy.) You may recognize pieces of these character traits in real people but they are more complex than that. Usually a combination of many different traits in varying degrees, which is why it takes so long to get to know someone and you can offend anyone easily without knowing it. Everyone knows someone who can read others like a book. They have that special skill that lets them instantly know the nuances of someone they just met. Generally these people make friends easily.

Your genes are suggested to control just about every system in your body. Why parts of your body are certain colors or thickness is a result of your genetic make-up. Short, Tall, Dark, Light. It is all ultimately related to Natural Selection, according to evolution. So why not Personality? Your mental make-up should be a reflection of the best adaptive ability of that trait. Meaning that you can reproduce longer and better if you have a type of personality that in the environment that the trait thrived it was beneficial to your reproduction. Aggression can be attributed to sexual rivalry. Alpha males tend to rise above the crowd because they tend to mate more often. The alpha male strides around the nightclub stealing women from nerds and copulating with them to the chagrin of said nerds. This may be unfair but it’s the way the world works.

Of course that’s not really how it works. Attraction, if evolution theory is correct, should only be based on certain things. For a woman it would be the ability of a mate to provide adequately for her and her children since she can reproduce only in limited quantities and for a limited amount of time. Men on the other hand, seek a strategy of reproducing as widely and as often as possible. I tend to agree with this theory on a purely scientific level. Of course in my real world it doesn’t work that way and not only because I’m no alpha male. It’s because humans have devised a whole list of distractions from the base, primitive instincts of our close primate relatives. Some of us like white wine and art while other like beer and rock and roll. We seek people who fill all kinds of psychological needs. Very little of them have to do with our base instincts although some people beg to differ. Yes, people generally look for others to fill those needs (like you want to marry a someone with a good job) but ultimately we go for the intellectual match over the biological one. Is this a good thing? Who knows but I guess it’s better than arranged marriages.

With our telescopes pointed out into the sky every night at SETI we look for others in this large universe who may or may not match our intellect. There may be a very grumpy species out there just waiting for some other planet to destroy or conquer. There also may be a planet of peaceniks just looking for someone to share the beauty of the universe with. That would seem a little too much like a T.V. sitcom character. All the Vulcans are going to be logical and scientific. All the Klingons are aggressive. I think that the lesson of earth is that if there is life out there and SETI somehow makes contact then they will be just like us. A little of everything!


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