Going back to world of science this week and the next, I’ve been revisiting what are the two biggest mysteries in life to me (drawing a bit on the previous modicum on Drake’s Equation).
- Why did human-level intelligence take so long to evolve?
- Why do we not see evidence of runaway intelligence in the visible universe?
The reason why I like these two questions are they are pretty fundamental questions on life in existence. But at the same time, they are logical questions that should have some fairly defensible scientific solutions to resolve them – but are heretofore unanswered. We should and hopefully one day will know the answers – unlike so many other bold why questions just a step further from these two that will ultimately be unanswerable. As such, they are the biggest low hanging fruit out there for science to pursue – if I had nine lives, this would be two of those lives.
So this week #1 – Runaway Intelligence Spark:
This has long been an obsession of mine, dating back to when I was an avid Stephen Jay Gould fan throughout high school. Heck, I’ve even posted questions online trying to get to the bottom of this (that link is baseline reading for my thoughts here). Frankly it is utterly baffling why intelligence has not evolved beforehand – and even more baffling, why we don’t have an adequate answer to that question.
The freakishness (randomness) of intelligence in evolution is palpable in looking at just how quickly it took over in our species. a mere few hundred thousand years – a blip in evolutionary terms – resulted in a runaway scenario in which we now dominate every aspect of our planet.
So I’ve read everything I could on what happened, and lots of theories of how that “what” happened. But none adequately explain why it happened in the first place, and even more importantly why it didn’t happen earlier – life has had thousands of human species lifetimes to create higher intelligence.
Even just tracking down a catchphrase in science that singularly captures this question “why” and not “how” question is elusive. The Behavioral Modernity Question? Cognitive Revolution? The Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis.
So, the answers in the textbooks and forums all ring hollow and incomplete to me. A parade of genetic changes are listed as being the crucial element to allow for homo sapiens to spark the runaway intelligence(*): Bipedalism, opposing thumbs, social hierarchies, the human baby defenselessness, development of language and human vocal chords, the Interbreeding Theory, the Replacement Theory, etc. – and trust me, I could go on and on with traits and environmental influences that are presented as the crucial item to spark evolutionary intelligence.
And really, is it so implausible to think that intelligence shouldn’t be among the first traits to be selected for all the way back to multi-cellular evolution? Seriously, think for a moment on that thought – it actually seems quite logical.
Many theories fail to understand time spans on a geological level as opposed to homo sapien level. I also struggle with the idea that there just was not enough accumulated DNA baggage to allow for sufficient diversity in the genome to support the growth of intelligence.
But you can take any one of these traits and find places in the evolutionary tree where such a trait could be inserted into previous species. Surely evolution – with all its variety – has explored all of these items before. For instance, hunting bipedalism is rife in the reptile world – surely persistence hunting is not something new.
So if you dig too deeply, then many biologists apologetically fall back to a “well it was the simultaneous development of all of these all together”. It is the simultaneous hit of all these mutations that made the runaway intelligence moment. And we now know that the “junk DNA” theory is proving false, as we discover the increasing role of RNA in cell activities.
So that idea begins to ring true. You need accumulated DNA/RNA baggage to allow for sufficient diversity in the genome to support the growth of intelligence. We have in our genome DNA to support breathing under water. Or a tail. Or so many other adaptations that are not needed for our specialization. And thus, the theory is, we needed enough of these to reach critical mass to make all of those items identified above (*) be expressable with a mere mutation. And then, we just wait for the roulette wheel to hit 00 ten times in a row.
OK – that might have validity. But spend a day on YouTube. Just alone in my LinkedIn feed (yeah, business feed!), I’ve seen wild Beluga Whales playing catch (although the full story here), Dolphins clearly having fun with an airpipes and blowing bubbles, Cats feeding their housemate dogs parts of their meals. I
ntelligence is just a step away in so many species that have been around millions of years – and that is just limited ourselves to the mammals of the Paleogene/Neogene. What of the 100 million years+ of bipedal reptile carnivores? And for that matter, why didn’t intelligence runaway in dolphins just a few millions years ago?
So that’s my modicum of thought – my renewed obsession this past week on DNA baggage. In the end, I do not have any step further – but this has been the thought active in my mind.