Sunday, May 04, 2008

Intelligent life on earth: evolving, devolving, or revolving?

I recently watched a re-broadcast of the 1972 film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. This may have sensitized me to the news story (which came to my attention via Posthuman Blues) of orang-utans using spears to attempt to catch fish as well as learning to swim. This, in turn, is reminiscent of recent reports of chimpanzees in Senegal using spears to catch and kill bush babies, their own primate brethren and preferred lunch, which they eat in a sashimi-like raw form, un-barbecued, having not yet played SimEarth or Civilization to the point where they realize the importance of acquiring the Fire technology.

But it is not just spear technology that our primate brothers are excelling in these days. Another recent report found that rhesus monkeys had the ability to estimate arithmetic sums visually only a little worse than university students. Before you hire a rhesus monkey to do your taxes, consider the fact that human intelligence (at least as measured by IQ tests) has been rising for decades, in a mystery known as the Flynn Effect. The accelerating pace of human evolution, 100 times above baseline levels, is probably not sufficient to account for changes in IQ observed over time frames as short as 10 years or less (unless a whole lot of people at the very bottom of the IQ scale are winning the Darwin Award, and the death rates are not high enough for that).

It strikes me that the documented rise in human IQs and the anecdotal rise in animal IQs are related. Some of the proposed explanations for the rise in human IQs are the increasing complexity of the environment, which surely applies to the novel use of tools by chimps and orang-utans. It may also be a case of them acquiring tool use by observing human use of similar tools. Alternatively, the explanation could be some kind of environmental toxin or virus which causes runaway growth of brain cells. It's better than the inverse!

(I've sometimes wondered what the affects would be of an epidemic outbreak of Information Thirst Virus, which would cause painful sensations if a person were not continually consuming information and learning. As far as I know this premise has not appeared much in science fiction as has, say, the perhaps overexploited premise of Flowers for Algernon.)

Interestingly, rising primate IQs (as measured by scientists at APE CONTROL) was part of the story in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, too. One report has Ape IQs rising by 3% a month, which alarms some officials, who have pre-knowledge of the coming fate of man (from Zira and Cornelius), but which is brushed off by another as "Productivity has also improved by 3%!"

(Pssst! Notice the orange jumpsuits apes were forced to wear, a motif appropriated by the Bush administration for their large-scale violation of human rights.)

I myself have seen many examples of animal intelligence. Just this last week, I watched a cat quickly scurry across the four lanes of traffic in Bunkyo-ku's Hongo-doori after carefully waiting for the rush of passing traffic to quiet down to nothing and pause in the pulse of changing lights. It wouldn't take many years or generations of (dead) cats to evolve that ability. I remember being similarly impressed at stray dogs in Taipei obediently sitting and waiting for the traffic lights to change before trotting across the street, mingling with pedestrians and scavenging around for food. Crows here in Japan seem to know which days are garbage days and wait for it to be put out, then using their visual abilities to identify tasty-looking bits of trash (through the transparent bags we need to use here for easier waste sorting) and then tearing strategic holes to pull out what they want. But my most indelible memory is of a zoo in Sumatra (or possibly Java). I came across a not-very-big old-style concrete cage about the size of a living room with iron bars around the outside and bars (the iron kind) inside for the orang-utans to swing on. Adult orang-utans are very large, shaggy, and intimidating, especially when they swing forcefully. I think they may be basically gentle, however. They have very amazing long fingers and very human eyes --more human than human, perhaps. A man was reaching out across a little fence which kept us back, and offering an orangutan a lit kretek cigarette. The orang-utan accepted the lit cigarette gracefully, and several of the orang-utans were offered and accepted kreteks. I was also a smoker at that time and offered a kretek and a Marlboro, as I recall, and the Marlboro was briefly drawn on and then thrown to the ground in an interspecies gesture of disgust. Kreteks have more tar and nicotine and are also sweeter, of course. It seemed appropriate to me that, if the orang-utans (Man (orang) of the Forest (utan)) were to be kept as prisoners, they at least deserved the simple pleasure of a cigarette accorded to most POWs. Anyway, the appreciation of smoking was somewhat amazing in itself, as you generally do not get that in your cat, dog, or typical barnyard, zoo, or wild animal. However, what really impressed me was the way the orang-utans carefully pressed the kreteks against the cold steel bars of their cage, and gently rolled them to cool all sides of the smoldering tip to prevent it from burning too quickly and being wasted between drags! It reminded me of similar techniques practiced by connoisseurs of other valuable smoked herbs. Ever since, orang-utans have been my favorite animal, and one I respect and consider very nearly human.

Before coming to the conclusion that the rising tide of human saturation of the earth's environments is lifting all boats of human and animal IQs universally, consider the dialectically opposite proposition. Aren't humans reducing biodiversity, clearing and simplifying habitat, and driving species like the Baiji dolphin and other intelligent species to extinction, thereby dumbing down the entire planet? (not to mention the effects of television) Or do these two effects (smart-up and dumb-down/extinction) cancel out and just add up to some kind of rotation of dominant species, e.g. reptile, cetacean. mammal, insect, etc.?

I don't know, Dave. There is not enough information.

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