Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Monday, March 21, 2011

Multiple intelligence test

This will sound like it's off topic, but it's not. Really. Even if it rambles. Some very intriguing discussion has been taking place recently on the apparent discovery that Neanderthal's were making highly sophisticated use of fire during their heyday some 400,000 to 30,000 years ago. This included a bit of home-spun low-oxygen chemistry in manufacturing sticky pitch to help with building better tools. Given the undeniably spotty nature of the data then it seems plausible that this species had plenty more tricks up its metaphorical sleeve.

There is something extremely spooky about all of this. We know that there was once more than one distinct hominid species walking around on Earth. It seems increasingly likely that they all had good, thinking, brains. Whatever happened to eradicate, or conceivably subsume, a species like Neanderthal we may never know. Nagging suspicions include the distinct possibility that we modern humans, or rather our Cro-Magnon ancestors might have had a hand in it. We're certainly still adept at genocidal behavior.

I think this has special relevance to discussions of 'intelligent' life in the universe. It's possibly of  critical importance. One angle that people take in trying to predict the likelihood of intelligence in the cosmos is the 'Rare Earth' hypothesis. This has cropped up before, so I won't go into detail here. This is really based on the notion that here we are, the sole "intelligent" life on the planet, and many distinct phenomena have to be just-so for that to have happened. A similar argument applies to any physiologically complex life. But let's turn the clock back to 35,000 BC. Now there's a world with at least 2 intelligent, but distinct, species of hominids walking around. It might be wrong to think that this was a freakish moment in Earth history. That would presume that our current status is an end-point, an equilibrium. It's no more so than the world of H. Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon (us), Denisova Hominin, and who knows who else. Yes, you can still make similar Rare Earth arguments for 35,000 BC, but eventually it has to be hard to deny that Earth was generating "intelligent" species with some amount of abandon - it'd be easier to assume that this isn't such a delicate phenomenon after all.

So the question I think this raises is whether we're missing something important about the nature of the rise of "intelligence" (as in technology, tool making, abstract thinking) on a planet. This impacts how we might search for it in the universe (from SETI to sniffing for signs of industry in planetary atmospheres), and whether it's likely to be looking around itself (listening, traveling, building signposts).

One question is: if we had today another intelligent species on Earth would we have the same level of curiosity for finding intelligence in the cosmos? It might just seem that much more mundane. Are intelligent worlds quiet and introspective because they just don't care?

Another, more sinister possibility is that multiple intelligent species can co-exist only for so long. Eventually resources become limited enough to force survival of the fittest and they annihilate each other. You might well say that this can happen for a single species just as readily. But imagine for a moment. This is another species we're talking about. What would you do if it was us or the dolphins, seriously? Whatever morality might exist will be worn pretty thin when it's your species on the line. This could lead to a curious resolution to the Fermi Paradox. The paradox is: given the age of the galaxy then if intelligent life is not incredibly rare should it not have spread enough for us to have already come across it? Perhaps intelligent life does occur in abundance. So much so that it usually crops up in several versions on a single planet, whereupon inter-species conflict wipes it all out again. Paradox solved.

What about us then? Perhaps the awful truth is that while we survived and Neanderthal's didn't, we weren't the smart ones.

11 comments:

막스 Max C said...

Imagine if we had more than one religion on Earth -- would we still be as fascinated to discover whether our religion is practised on other planets? Oh, hang on a minute...

kurt9 said...

Maybe, we survived and the Neanderthals did not because we were more adept at deceit.

My understanding is that the Neanderthals did not have spoken language and we did. The ability to speak evolved in us concurrently with the development of agriculture and the emergence of a parasite class (excuse me, a priesthood class - those who live off the the productivity of others are called parasites). In other words, verbal intelligence likely evolved to enable us to better deceive each other. Since the Neanderthals never had the ability to speak, they likely never evolved verbal intelligence and, thus, lacked the ability to deceive each other, or us. Their tool making ability makes clear they had visual-spacial intelligence.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it isn't too far-fetched to imagine that the Neanderthals could have made it to the Americas, and Homo Sapiens did not, and so things might have ended up with an encounter in historical times.

Caleb Scharf said...

I think it's still an open question as to whether Neanderthals had 'speech' (i.e. complex verbalization). A couple years ago there were respectable claims for the FOX2P gene in Neanderthal remains, a gene that seems directly related to language development. Studies of skull growth suggests that during the 1st year after birth Neanderthal brain growth and/or structure diverged significantly from that of H. Sapiens. What this really means for cognitive function is unknown.

montejo said...

The Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons are very closely related in the tree of life, so I don't think they are evidence that intelligent life frequently evolves. It seems kind of like saying that since there are 6 billion people in the world, intelligent life is widespread.

A really interesting interesting question is whether the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons interbred. I'm inclined to think they did not, for the same reasons Jared Diamond offered in The Third Chimpanzee. We probably killed off the Neanderthals after conflicts arose between the two groups. If the two groups were generally hostile to each other, it's still possible that breeding was attempted in isolated cases...

My take on the Rare Earth Hypothesis, by the way, is on my new and fantastic blog at: http://thecosmicparadigm.blogspot.com/2011/03/on-rare-earth-hypothesis.html

Caleb Scharf said...

My understanding is that at most we (and therefore Cro-Magnon) share only about 4% of our genome with that of Neanderthals. This a vastly different than today's situation, so in that sense, yes, I think it's valid to say that 'separate' but similarly intelligent species used to exist on Earth.

Eniac said...

Our and the Neanderthal's genome are more than 99% identical, this is even true for Human vs. Chimpanzee. The few percent Caleb mentions is DNA that was Neanderthal by descent, but then reintegrated into the human genome through cross-breeding. The evidence is now fairly clear that this cross-breeding did occur, albeit the scale is such that any effects on our genetics would be minimal.

Intelligence is such a powerful enhancer of survival that it allows its main protagonist to spread over the entire world, not leaving enough of a niche for other contenders to thrive. So, yes, I think we did in all the others. Not necessarily by active extermination, but quite possibly so.

Caleb Scharf said...

Yes, my confusion. From what I read I see that it seems Neanderthal and Humans had common ancestry some 600,000 years ago before diverging.

Nonetheless, it was certainly a very different situation 40,000 years ago than today, where we are a single species.

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