I need a little help understanding Evolution

53


Discussion by: Eliot

If our brains evolved somewhere on the African savanna then they should be compatible with the savanna.  But we see that Newton, almost single-handedly, created Calculus just to explain the movements of the planets and that he formulated the Law of Gravitation.  A guy who lived 350 years ago and who probably never traveled more than a hundred miles from his place of birth could have told me how much I’d weigh if I was standing on Mars.

From this I conclude that our brains are compatible not just with that African savanna but with the Universe.  But to what end?  A seagull can fly in order to find food and a mate and to avoid pray.  But that seagull can not achieve supersonic flight.  He would have no need to fly at mock 8 as it wouldn’t do him much good.

Shouldn’t our brains be just large enough to help us survive the savanna and reproduce?  When I consider people like Einstein or Hawkins I think, Well look at that, a seagull that can do Mock 8.  How’d that come about?  Can anyone help me with this?

53 COMMENTS

  1. From what I understand (which admittedly isn’t much) Homo sapiens brains evolved from the intake of protein which allowed a greater intake of energy to power the brain. Homo sapiens weren’t the only group around during our gradual evolution. We didn’t jump straight from a common ancestor to Homo sapiens, there were stages in between, each stage developing greater brain capacity than the last. Our brains were able to quickly adapt to changes in climate and environment and this is ultimately why Homo sapiens came out on top. Our brains are folded to store massive amount of information. We may have evolved in the African savannah but we didn’t stay there. We migrated and therefore adapted. Also, the amount of intelligence an individual has is proportionate to brain volume. A bird’s brain volume is significantly smaller than ours which means they only have limited space to store information. The fact that we have the human brain has the ability to adapt quickly is probably why our brain became more folded and larger than our ancestor’s – ultimately leading to the ability to store more information to and understand the universe in a more meaningful way. I’m sorry if this didn’t help of if I was off the mark a bit, I am sure there are other people in this forum who have more knowledge on the subject than I do and I hope they will help to elaborate!

  2. Firstly we have evolved since the African savanna, so there is some compatibility with more modern life.

    Regarding our brains being compatible with the universe, I would say that we really are not compatible with the universe. Almost all of our understanding we refer back to things we understand well. It is more than coincidence that physics is littered with references to home, like electromagnetic FIELDS, radio WAVES, STRING theory, RED shift. We only understand the universe by referencing it back to our middle world brains, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_World

  3. The really great thing about the human brain is that we’re able to communicate, store and pass on information in the form of writing. This means that we don’t need to keep starting from scratch, but can accumulate and build on prior knowledge. Look where this ability has led?

  4. Interesting point, but I wonder if there is some teleological ideas here, ie that evolution occurs under the guidance of some purpose in one place? Humans have intelligence adaptability built in – I suspect it was that adaptability that enabled pre-modern humans, not very large animal with no natural weapons to survive in the open savanna at all (ie to deal and compete with hyenas, lions you need fire, spears etc). Increased abilities in spatial awareness, planning and so forth would be advantageous. The parts of the brain involved – and indeed the brain generally – is flexible ie unlike say bones can quickly re-connect and change. Thus, evolved brains with ingenuity in hunting etc would have the potential for quite different functions.

    There are plenty of savanna animals that basically evolved and stayed there – but consider elephants, which have (I think|) been able to move into neighbouring desert regions that pose significant challenges. However, they rely on size and tusks for defence – humans on the open plains would only have their wits to fall back on.

  5. As others have pointed out, our evolution didn’t stop in the Savanna. But also, our brains haven’t evolved to work out physics or solve the mysteries of the universe, all of these things have had to be learned, not arrived at simply by thinking.

    What we have evolved is a creative problem solving method, that innitially aided us in surviving in the wild, but that very same tool, with hardly any adaptation, with the combination of language and the passing down of knowledge, enables us to solve more and more complex problems by building on the knowledge of others before us.

    We’re still essentially the same species that was barely dreaming of building the pyramids, the only difference being the vast accumulation of knowledge that we’ve built up over the last few thousand years.

    Our main evolutionary trait is simply creative thinking, that allows us to take mental shortcuts which saves time and energy and was therefore extremely useful in the survival of our ancestors.

    • In reply to #7 by Seraphor:

      As others have pointed out, our evolution didn’t stop in the Savanna. But also, our brains haven’t evolved to work out physics or solve the mysteries of the universe, all of these things have had to be learned, not arrived at simply by thinking.

      What we have evolved is a creative problem solving method…[etc]

      Yes. We look at other animals and see the strength of the hyena’s bite, the deadliness of the cobra’s venom, the speed and agility of the gazelle, and are able to understand those degrees of ‘specialisation’. But we baulk at our own specialisation – our brains. We have the largest brain/body-weight ratio and it tells – we are endlessly adaptable because of it. And some of us excel – Newton among them (notwithstanding that Newton may have had a head start, since he perhaps had Asperger’s Syndrome).

      There is still no complete agreement about why our brains grew so big, but it does seem to have happened after we began to walk upright – in other words, our brains grew as our hands were freed up to do new, creative, things. Fire may have helped too, since cooked food is easier to digest, so that our ancestors didn’t have to spend all the time scavenging for something else to eat.

      These may have been the beginnings, but the brain is very capable of adapting to new circumstances. In some ways, though, we have never left the savannah, since we are very poor at imagining (for example) huge numbers – millions, billions or so – or things on a cosmic scale. We have evolved to understand the world we live in.

  6. I can attempt to offer a reply though of course please think through my arguments for yourself.

    I would say you need to focus on what the Savannah actually gave us rather than differences between that and other environments.

    1.) The ability to work in teams towards the goal of survival.

    2.) The ability to act very quickly to danger or opportunity …

    3.) ….but learn from our mistakes and imperfections and adapt our behaviour.

    4.) The ability to build tools.

    5.) The ability to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next

    All these are transferable abilities that have helped us survive in other parts of the world outside of the Savannah. This is very typical of evolution and crucial to understanding it. A trait that evolves because it solves one problem can often solve other problems and so open up new environments for the species.

    All of these above traits help us in doing science apart from 2. For example passing on knowledge, i.e. culture, was the crucial foundation to science and without it science could never have got started. As Newton said “he was standing on the shoulders of giants”. It is 3. – the ability to think about what we are doing that has been the driving force behind science, philosophy, culture and even religion.

    So what about 2? The ability to act quickly – without the time needed for thinking. These become in us prejudices and habits and biases. We often call them “instincts” though I doubt that they are often innate. This is what makes us in a sense ill-adapted to do science. So if you are looking for the mark of the Savannah, for a limitation imposed on us by our past, this is it – our tendency to act before we reflect.

  7. Yeah , our imagination and vision is breath taking. But even these are ‘learned’ , what would you be without culture and education? What would you be if you couldn’t speak and communicate accurately with people. An analogy would be a computer with poor software. Also you should bear in mind that all this exposure to learned phenomenon actually physiologically changes the brain and it’s capacity. Google ‘London Taxi Drivers’ and ‘brains’ , and you will see some research on this. So there is evidence that the power of thought and the sheer need for adaptiveness , actually physiologically causes changes in the brain to accommodate this.

  8. Interesting question. I think what is going on is that once in a while there can be happy accidents in evolution. By that I mean an oganism can evolve some capability for one use and it turns out that the capability can be applied in very different ways as well. One example would be feathers. My understanding is that birds at first evolved feathers just because they were a good way to stay warm, it turned out later that they also provided the aeronautical properties that would facilitate flight.

    The other thing is your question says something interesting about the universe. That the laws that govern it are essentially universal. The law of gravity is the same in Chicago or Alpha Centauri. Most modern people probably just take it as a given that this is true but when you think about it there is no logical reason it has to be.

    So in the case of the human brain what evolved was a capability to do things like planning, modeling the world, etc. There are so many ways that gives an animal an advantage in finding food, mates, and shelter but it also turned out to be useful in all sorts of other ways that we are still figuring out.

  9. Well look at that, a seagull that can do Mock 8. How’d that come about?

    Usually I ignore spelling/grammar errors but that one kind of stuck out. fyi its “Mach” not “Mock” The name comes from a very interesting Austrian scientist Ernst Mach.

  10. Newton’s world contained apples falling, all kinds of reasonably precise data about the positions of planets at various times.

    All he had to do was discover the math to fit that data. Ordinary math was not sufficient. He had to invent differential and integral calculus. But it was not as though he was creating it purely in the abstract. He had real numbers about how celestial bodies really did behave. He did not experience the solar system, just a very imperfect early record of it. Even without any calculus, you can by experiment figure out that dy/dx x^2 = 2x. He presumably had lots of examples to help him know when he was on track.

    Newton was evolved to live in Woolsthorpe England, not in the spaces between the planets.

  11. Shouldn’t our brains be just large enough to help us survive the savanna and reproduce?
    There is a constant competition. It is not enough just to survive and reproduce. You have to reproduce with the fittest female to produces the strongest offspring.

    Your brain is quite general purpose. It can help you scheme, seduce, create weapons, talk people out of attacking you, get a better deal on trade, create allies, organise a coup…. All those things and many more will give you an edge in your survival/reproduction game.

    You can make a case our run-away intelligence was a very bad idea. It lead us to invent nukes, corporations, and all manner of tools for destroying our planetary ecosystem. We have no restraint. We do it because can.

  12. Mutations are random. The bad ones kill you before you breed, and don’t spread. The neutral ones have no affect and may or may not be passed down through the ages. The ones that help an animal survive and have lots of offspring get passed down.

    Our brains were not evolved with any purpose or compatibility in mind. It was undirected, natural selection of random mutations that led to humans having the brains they did. Evolution was not “aiming” for brains suited to the savannah. I’m quite happy that a brain that helped us survive on the African savannah also has the potential to learn calculus, and in the case of a few very intelligent people to create calculus. We have the brains we have due to a series of happy accidents.

  13. ” If our brains evolved somewhere on the African savanna then they should be compatible with the savanna. “

    You need to think through the ramifications of brains evolving on the savanna and how much more complex that evolution would be than you think it is..

    Think social interaction.

  14. There are a number of flawed assumptions and reasoning in your question. But the question stil deserves an answer. First the flaws.

    Newton: no, he did not develop calc. “single-handedly”, he built upon the work of many others before him. He also could not have predicted the weight of a person on Mars, because he had no idea the mass of Mars (this could not be done until the value of G could be deduced experiementally and at least one moon of Mars had been observed long enough to determine its orbit).

    Deduce…compatible…universe: This does not follow at all. Better to simply say that it appears to you that our brains are much “smarter” than they need to be to survive on “the savanna”.

    I think the best hypothesis to explain the evolution of the brain is that of a kind of “tipping point” — a few million years ago our apelike ancestors became just smart enough that other (non-smart-ape) species posed little competition, and our main competition was each other and other closely related “smart ape” species. So it was not surviving “the savanna” that mattered — we had to survive each other. This created a feedback loop that pushed rapid evolution of the brain. You might say that today, we are just barely smart enough (on average) to out-compete our recent (tens of thousands of years ago ore more) ancestors.

    Still, when we look at great mathematicians, artists, and so forth, we may rightly wonder at how that fits into evolution, as you say surely this is beyond anything we needed to win the past survival game, right? Or is it? First it is worth pointing out that for any trait, natural variation in a population means there will always be a few ‘extreme’ individuals in that particular trait. There will always be someone who is in the to .001 percentile, so to speak. I will dare to say that the vast majority of humans come nowhere close to being able to do what Einstein or Newton did — and indeed are much more like extremely smart chimps. We can communicate and learn from each other, mimic each other, learn to pound a nail with a hammer, learn to push a buttons on a cash register, etc. — but how many can invent the hammer, nail, or cash register?

    Still, this does not yet get at your question, because Newton and Einstein (and many many others) did(do) extraordinary things with their brains that seem like exceptions that go beyond just being in the top .0000001 percentile of smart apes.

    This gets at the crux of what intelligence really is. I would put forth that what we most typically mean by intelligence amounts to “generalized pattern detection”. Animal brains are very good at recognizing patterns in their sensory stimuli, including patterns that occur over time. Animals use those detected patterns to predict the future and make decisions (lion: if I turn this way, the gazelle will doge that way, where my friend is waiting in the grass [not in literal words of course]). Understanding and predicting more and more complex phenomena requires detecting patterns built from other patterns built from other patterns. Patterns within patterns. Patterns of exceptions to patterns. The human brain is basically a web of billions of pattern detectors. Those pattern detectors were extremely useful in out-competing out not-quite-as-successful relatives.

    Now we come to Newton, and Einstein, and others. What they did with their mathematics is actually not all that different, qualitatively, from what ordinary people do every day when we learn new things, solve little problems, and so forth. It’s all just general pattern detection, but applied (somewhat obsessively, no doubt) to a particular specialized subject. Their “pattern matching” ability was somewhere in the top .01%, making them “genetic freaks” of a sort, but a few “freaks” (in any particular trait) are to be expected in the population. But what they did with their brains really is not all that different from what our ancestors “on the savanna” did with theirs — its just pattern detection. Humans “on the savanna” evolved to be incredibly good at pattern detector in order to survive and reproduce in competition with… other humans who were almost as good.

    Why humans and not other animals? Our ancestors just happened to reach that “tipping point” first. If we wiped humans of the earth this instant, I have no doubt that decendents of chimps, or gorillas, or baboons… or maybe raccoons or squirrels or rats… or (given enough time) maybe some kind of sqid… would reach a similar tipping point and become the next species of gifted pattern detectors.

  15. Shouldn’t our brains be just large enough to help us survive the savanna and reproduce?

    Humans aren’t as fast or as strong as many animals on the savanna. We needed a special talent. We were successful hunters and gathers due largely to our large brains that helped us to be adaptable, to outwit other animals (and other humans), and to work together. The larger the brain, the better we were at all these things that increased our chances of survival and reproduction.

  16. ” Shouldn’t our brains be just large enough to help us survive the savanna and reproduce? “

    Wallace thought along this line and his answer to this ” problem ” was that a magic man done it! What is your answer?

    Darwin already knew that sexual selection solved much of the brain problem here.

  17. When our ancestors adapted to life in the savannah, their bodies had a legacy of life in the trees. For a large primate to live in an arborial context, evolution would have caused them to develop certain features that would have assisted their survival, namely, long arms and large grasping hands (and feet, but hands are critical here), accurate binocular vision with excellent depth perception and a brain capable of modelling the action necessary to successfully flee a tree-borne predator.

    Transpose these features into the context of the savannah, and they might appear a poor adaptation. However, the modelling power of the primate brain, the dexterity of the grasping hands and the high resolution binocular vision proved to be particularly adaptable to the use of tools. Once our primate ancestors started using tools to their obvious evolutionary advantage, those individuals best adapted to tool use became the survivors. This started the species on an evolutionary path that has led it to become the most successful of all animals. The tools this animal has developed during this long evolutionary period have accelerated the species development. Things like grand unified theory, the international space station, the internet and medicine are all a legacy of what started as adaptations to a life in the trees.

  18. Addendum to the “tipping point” perspective, from the viewpoint of computer-science, and assimilating the brain to an abstract machine.

    It is often the case that, when adding processing power to a machine in order to solve a specific problem P1 which you could not solve before, you actually end up with a considerable leap* in processing power, whereby you can suddenly solve not only P1, but a whole range of problems P2, P3,… Those may actually be much less trivial than P1.

    The brain may have undergone the same kind of process: gradually improved to solve some very specific savannah-related problem, but as soon as it could do that, the new feature got co-opted for much more general aims.

    • [Specifically, I refer to computational complexity theory. For easy formal examples, consider finite-state automata vs their pushdow counterpart; if you develop pushdown to parse the language { a^n b^n | n in N }, then suddenly you can also parse every programming language in existence: that's what I refer to as a "leap". See the Chomsky hierarchy -- of languages and their machines -- for more language-related examples. The phenomenon exists at pretty much every level whithin the complexity classes. ]
    • In reply to #22 by Gamall Wednesday Ida:

      It is often the case that, when adding processing power to a machine in order to solve a specific problem P1 which you could not solve before, you actually end up with a considerable leap* in processing power, whereby you can suddenly solve not only P1, but a whole range of problems P2, P3,… Those may actually be much less trivial than P1.

      You are saying that there are problems such that for processors p and processing time t that an incremental increase in p can yield an exponential decrease in t? I thought the standard model for distributed computing was that the best increase you could achieve in theory was to reduce t by dividing it by p. I.e. if I can solve a proI’mblem in ten minutes on one processor the best improvement I could possibly hope for would be to solve it in five minutes with two.

      • In reply to #23 by Red Dog:

        You are saying that there are problems such that for processors p and processing time t that an incremental increase in p can yield an exponential decrease in t?

        No. My argument deals with computability, or expressive power (ie what can be expressed/encoded/computed/decided at all, regardless of how long it takes, so long as it’s finite time). A simple machine (eg. finite state automata) may not be able to solve a certain kind of problems at all (eg. matching parentheses in a string), but a simple improvement of the machine (eg. adding a stack) will not only solve this apparently trivial problem, but also open a whole world of apparently more complex, but in fact essentially similar problems (such as parsing pretty much any programming languages).

        The question of “how long it takes” is related — the whole point of computational complexity theory is to estimate the difficulty of problems wrt. space and time requirements — but that’s not where I wanted to get with this argument.

        PS: I dropped a bunch of keywords at the end of my previous message; if you search for them you will find more info — just be careful not to end up reading on Kolmogorov complexity theory instead, that’s something else entirely.

        • In reply to #25 by Gamall Wednesday Ida:

          No. My argument deals with computability, or expressive power (ie what can be expressed/encoded/computed/decided at all, regardless of how long it takes, so long a it’s finite time). A simple machine (eg. finite state automata)

          I think I get what you mean and if I’m understanding you correctly I agree absolutely. I think you mean that its conceivable that there was a stage in the evolution of our ancestors where something happened to our brains that increased their general computing power. I.e., they moved up on the Chomsky hierarchy and our brains went from something that could process Finite State Automota to something that could process context sensitive grammars. I think that’s highly likely. You can model animal communication using an FSA but to model human language you need context sensitive grammars. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Chomsky say this explicitly but I’ve heard him say other things regarding the synergy between evolving the capability to parse language and do general computing (e.g. handle recursion) and I think he would agree as well.

          • In reply to #26 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #25 by Gamall Wednesday Ida:

            No. My argument deals with computability, or expressive power (ie what can be expressed/encoded/computed/decided at all, regardless of how long it takes, so long a it’s finite time). A simple machine (eg. finite state automata)

            I think I get what you mean a…

            Yes, you get the gist of my argument.

            Note that I just used FSA and the Chomsky hierarchy as examples, which are of special interest as they stand at the intersection of linguistics and theoretical computer science. The general idea that adding new features to abstract machines often unlocks more possibilities than one bargained for applies beyond and besides that.

            I don’t think I’ve ever heard Chomsky say this explicitly but I’ve heard him say other things regarding the synergy between evolving the capability to parse language and do general computing (e.g. handle recursion) and I think he would agree as well.

            disclaimer : I come from the Th. Comp. Sci. angle, not biology, linguistics or neurology,…

            A nice exception to the above seems to be the Pirahã language, which is regular, so far as I heard.

            But language is not the sole task assigned to the brain. The human brain trivially has at least the power of Turing machines (ie. computers, by the Church-Turing thesis), since you can train a human to simulate a Turing machine on paper — disregarding the “infinite memory” thingy, and reliability issues; both also arise with computers.

            Whether the brain has more power is open, but it is unlikely, since no existing or imagined computational model is more powerful than Turing machines; and yes, that includes quantum computers (trivial by Savitch’s theorem).

            The fascinating thing is how terribly easy it is to achieve Turing-completeness; anything that has a reasonably-sized rewritable memory store is pretty likely to end-up Turing-complete, unless there is some arbitrary discipline that restricts its actions. So any kind of activity that triggers a feedback loop (like complex social interactions, where success is a competition and not just overcoming a fixed obstacle) would seem pretty likely in my book to evolve Turing-complete brains sooner or later.

  19. The environment under which our specie has evolved has changed multiple times. Natural selection does not operate in a vacuum. The environment is an important component of the evolutionary process. Our current traits, physiology, anatomy, cognitive abilities, etc. are all products of our specie adapting over time, through natural selection, to the changing conditions under which we as a specie lived at various times in our past. Your questions seem to imply that you think our evolution has been stagnant. We no longer live in the savanna, or at least most humans don’t. And the species from which we evolved branched out from the savanna millions of years ago.

    When you ask the question “But to what end?” you have left science and entered philosophy. Evolution has no inherent direction nor purpose. So there was no predetermined goal or target as natural selection and the other secondary evolutionary mechanisms worked on us. As Stephen Jay Gould use to say, rewind the evolutionary clock and begin again and you get a different outcome. Perhaps you get sentient creatures, perhaps not. And if you do, it is almost a certainty that it would not be homo sapiens again.

  20. Firstly: Newton was a hell of an an outlier.

    Secondly: Evolution doesn’t just take place as a result of competition between species. Arguably, competition within a species is far more dramatic in its effect.

    It isn’t about surviving on the savannah. It’s about outsmarting the other primates in my tribe so that I can survive longer and (from the perspective of evolution) wind up with more grandchildren than the other people in my tribe.

  21. Read the previous 27 comments first. In particular, read the comments by s.k.graham, the computer geeks, the people who mentioned language, and the tipping points. This comment extends them. Erectus or somebody in the path from him to us had rudimentary sign language.

    To live on the savanna without language or consciousness, we needed a much larger brain than you would have thought. We had to memorize where every fruit tree was, how to sharpen flint, etcetera, without awareness and words. We had to learn to make spears purely by imitation without being able to communicate. Biologically fully modern humans emerged 200,000 years ago. They looked like us, but they didn’t think like us.

    50,000 years ago we invented spoken language. Language allows us to greatly simplify our knowledge as well as our communication. Language is recursive, a very powerful part of a computer programming language. Language is a thinking tool. Language allows you to break down your knowledge so that you can name a location without actually going there. Language developed slowly. At first there were very few words.

    10,000 years ago, we began to invent consciousness. Before then, everybody was schizophrenic. Schizophrenic people are greatly disabled compared to most of us. We re-organized our minds, keeping the same hardware. This change is still going on, which is why religion still plagues the world. Even most religious people of today are not as disabled as schizophrenics.

    5,000 years ago we invented counting and written language. Then we invented math. We invented science between 500 and 400 years ago, from Copernicus to Newton. We invented computers in the 1940s.

    This is terribly incomplete, inaccurate, over-simplified, ungrammatical and abbreviated. It is just a rough outline. I hope it helps.

    • In reply to #28 by Asteroid1Miner:

      10,000 years ago, we began to invent consciousness. Before then, everybody was schizophrenic. Schizophrenic people are greatly disabled compared to most of us. We re-organized our minds, keeping the same hardware. This change is still going on, which is why religion still plagues the world. Even most religious people of today are not as disabled as schizophrenics.

      It sounds like you are saying that schizophrenia is some kind of genetic defect where the schizophrenic is somehow missing some benefit that the rest of us have, that schizophrenics somehow don’t have the “consciousness” capability that evolved 10,000 years ago (not sure where you get that number). And it also sounds like you are saying that schizophrenics somehow aren’t “conscious” the way the rest of us are. I have never heard that from anyone I consider a reputable psychological researcher.

      What schizophrenia is exactly is IMO still an open question. There are various theories and there are medicines that work reliably with most schizophrenics but even knowing exactly why say drugs like Thorazine work is not completely understood. It almost certainly has something to do with neurotransmitters like dopamine but beyond that, at least from what I know, there is no consensus yet.

      But I’ve never heard anything indicating people think what is going on is some genetic flaw where schizophrenics are missing out on the “consciousness” adaptation that the rest of us have.

      I do agree that a complete theory of schizophrenia will have a lot to do with having a mature theory about what it means for a human to be conscious. Most theories about consciousness (e.g. Marvin Minsky’s “society of mind”) involve that humans have many different “voices” (what to a computer person might be considered parallel processes running in the brain and communicating with each other). I think what is going on with schizophrenics (and this isn’t my original idea) is that the normal control mechanism for those parallel processes has broken down.

      So lets take me as an example right now. Somewhere there is a process in my brain reminding me that I’m a bit hungry and haven’t had breakfast yet. The main process is focusing on issues of psychology and the overall control mechanism is saying focus on completing the comment before you eat. In a schizophrenic what I think goes on is that those “voices” that we all hear in our head get turned into actual voices (auditory hallucinations). Also, that the control that most of us have over our internal thought processes breaks down for schizophrenics which is why they view their “voices” as real individuals with minds of their own.

  22. If our brains evolved somewhere on the African savanna then they should be compatible with the savanna.

    Err it is. And our bodies are too, up to a point. We can’t quite do differential calculus in our heads, but our physiological adaptation is pretty much bang on. Our range of physical activities are pretty much limited by that physiology.

    As for the evolution of knowledge, it’s another matter. What do you think will happen if all those 1,000′s years of knowledge suddenly collapsed and nobody knew nothing about the world? We’d go back to a more primitive type of society, people like Hawking and Einstein would never have a chance to shine, and we would all have to start all over again. Our current societies can support those people who can do away with day-to-day survival and entirely dedicate themselves to further knowledge.

    The evolution is not so much physiological, but social.

  23. If our brains evolved somewhere on the African savanna then they should be compatible with the savanna

    there are a few logical errors you’ve made and pointed out by others but i’d like to add that since evolution requires no intelligent boss man, there are no limitations put on ability other than natural pressures. this means that while a species might spend thousands of generations adapting to a single environment, there are no laws that say they are adapted for one environment only.

    Homo Sapiens is an example where brain capacity has helped them spread all over the world. if you look at nature you will see many examples of invasive species; evolved over millions of years for one environment suddenly find there way into another and take over.

    one example is tha Cane Toad. introduced into Australia recently and now a pest. It evolved in America but if a visiting alien were examining life on earth, without knowing it was artificially introduced, might conclude it evovled in australia if it were allowed to breed until it reached a naturally stable population.

    As for the human intelligence growing, it’s a mistake to see intelligence as a logical destination. it evolved, very quickly, due to a number of feedback mechanisms, most likely sexual selection being the main one which can be the answer to any exteme in evolution (don’t think about segulls doing mach 8 so much as peacocks managing to fly dispite a pointlessly huge tail). this in itself must be driven by nature. Becoming bipedal allowed areas of the brain, already quite complex, to excell at other jobs. communication being one, toolmaking being another, and these in themselves create a positive feedback loop.

    The mistake is to think human brains are particularly special, or to assume intelligence doesn’t exist in other animals with much smaller brains. what you take as the “human experience” being a herd-ape that you are, has been evolved not just biologically but also culturally. Newton’s brain was no better than a well functioning 100,000 year old human brain, but thousands of years of social culture has made use of it in a way that would be pointless to an early human wandering the savanah.

    I would suggest two books to help you understand. Clive Finlayson’s The Humans Who Went Extinct to explain the evolutionary pressures that resulted in your sub-species becoming the planet’s Cane Toad, and Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained to help you look at your human experience and intelligence from a different angle

    • In reply to #33 by SaganTheCat:

      The mistake is to think human brains are particularly special, or to assume intelligence doesn’t exist in other animals with much smaller brains.

      You can think that human brains are particularly special and still think that intelligence can exist in other animals. But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is something special about human brains that differentiates us from all other animals. I’m not even sure where to start to justify that its so obvious to me. To think otherwise would place you at the very extreme end of the nature nurture debate, in favor of nurture over nature. I would just say read Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate, it shows overwhelming evidence of what is special about human brains compared to other animals.

  24. In reply to #31 by Gamall Wednesday Ida:

    Whether the brain has more power is open, but it is unlikely, since no existing or imagined computational model is more powerful than Turing machines; and yes, that includes quantum computers

    I agree with everything you said. On the quantum computing thing its one of my pet peeves. You take two things that most people don’t understand (computers and quantum physics) and its a breeding ground for every woo peddler. Depak Chopra, Robert Lanza, and many others have written endless nonsense about quantum computers and how our brain must be one because you know entanglement! (I’m not exaggerating much the arguments have about that much actual substance) When in reality quantum computers as you said are still F’ing Turing Machines! (you said it more reasonably). They can solve certain kinds of brute force search problems (cracking codes is the only one I’ve ever heard) a lot faster but they aren’t some magic breakthrough that will make conscious computers (there was actually an article posted on this site a long time ago that claimed that) and there is absolutely no evidence that the human nervous system or brain can in any way interact at the quantum level. (of course every thing material can be described at the quantum level but what I mean is there is no evidence humans can interpret or consciously influence events at the quantum level)

    • In reply to #35 by Red Dog:

      When in reality quantum computers as you said are still F’ing Turing Machines! (you said it more reasonably). They can solve certain kinds of brute force search problems (cracking codes is the only one I’ve ever heard) a lot faster but they aren’t some magic breakthrough that will make conscious computers

      Actually in a sense they are weaker than Turing machines, as they run probabilistic algorithms only — instead of getting an answer, you get an answer that’s true with a certain probability. One has to deal with that to get answers with a high probability of correctness, generally by repeating the test until the needed bound is obtained.

      For that price, you get a restricted version of massive parallelism; but not actually as strong as that afforded by non-determinism. Apparently, the best known algorithm for trying 2^n potential solution vectors in brute force runs in time 2^(n/2), which is very nice, but not game-changing for “interesting” problems (i.e. NP-hard).

      Relevant link to a blog post on the subject.

      It’s a shame I can’t seem to find any such blog post on Savitch’s theorem (or its quantum version), but as a trivial corollary to it, it is known that PSPACE = BQSPACE = NPSPACE. In other words, if you need a polynomial amount of memory to solve a problem on your computer, neither quantum computing nor even perfect non-determinism changes that. You can use less memory (square root of the previous amount), but it’s still a polynomial amount.

      • In reply to #37 by Gamall Wednesday Ida:

        Actually in a sense they are weaker than Turing machines, as they run probabilistic algorithms only — instead of getting an answer, you get an answer that’s true with a certain probability.

        Are you sure about that? I read an article a while back, forget if it was in Scientific American or Nature but it was in a publication with that kind of stature and I’m 90% certain it said (which based on my very limited understanding of quantum computers I would think to be true) that they are still Turing machines. Unfortunately, I can’t locate that article now but I looked briefly at the blog post and didn’t see anything that implied they aren’t Turing Machines but I only glanced at it.

        Of course we have veered way off topic again so shouldn’t keep going on about it anyway but that’s a relatively important distinction.

        • In reply to #38 by Red Dog:

          it said that they are still Turing machines.

          I am sure they might have said that, for instance in the context of refuting the claim that they are more powerful than Turing machines.

          But, as I said, if one wants to nitpick, they are not entirely comparable, as the notion of computation is not exactly the same, for the reason I gave. The complexity classes that apply to the different models are also different; contrast PSPACE and BQPSPACE* (Bounded-Error Quantum PSPACE).

          This being said, it is a technical distinction which is of a limited interest to this discussion. I probably should not have brought it up. Anyway, unless you’re speaking at a conference on complexity theory, no one will throw tomatoes at you for saying that quantum computers are (equivalent to) Turing machines. It’s a very good approximation of the reality, of the same order as saying that the earth is a sphere instead of an oblate spheroid or an ellipsoid :-).

          • I just realised that I forgot the P in BQPSPACE in my last post. Too late for me to edit it.
  25. The mistake is to think human brains are particularly special, or to assume intelligence doesn’t exist in other animals with much smaller brains. what you take as the “human experience” being a herd-ape that you are, has been evolved not just biologically but also culturally. Newton’s brain was no better than a well functioning 100,000 year old human brain, but thousands of years of social culture has made use of it in a way that would be pointless to an early human wandering the savanah.

    So are you claiming that with the right social environment a gazelle could eventually figure out Netwon’s laws of motion? I can’t imagine Newton doing what he did if he were raised in some pre-industrial culture. So culture is a necessary cause for a Newton but it is IMO absolutely not a sufficient cause. You could try putting as many gazelles as you wanted through Oxford and none of them would be able to do differential calculus.

    There actually has been research on this. During the 1970′s psych and linguistic researchers in the US were all adopting primates to raise them in human social environments and teach them sign language. The idea was (which would support your claim) that the only reason primates didn’t learn language was that they lacked the ability to make the appropriate range of vocalizations and social environment. These researchers thought (as you seem to) that there is “nothing special” about the human brain when it comes to language.

    American Sign Language (ASL) is also a language in the sense of the Chomsky hierarchy we were talking about below. ASL is a language in a computational sense exactly like English or most other human languages. The goal of the experiment was to show that primates could learn ASL and master grammar the way a human could. And all the reviews I’ve read of that research agree that it was a failure. The primates learned lots of signs and they learned how to combine them in simple ways “give banana me now” but they didn’t learn the actual grammar of ASL. Getting back to the computational models we were discussing below, you could model the way the primates used ASL using an FSA. You could never model a competent human signer of ASL that way.

    There is an interesting book Nim Chimpsky:The Chimp Who Would be Human that documents one such story and in that book the lead researcher says he was wrong and that Chomsky was right. (He named the chimp as a dig at Chomsky who believes that there is something special about the human brain that enables humans to learn language in a way no other animal can)

  26. Life was designed by a much higher power than any of us can comprehend. When one “believer” in the religion of Darwinism can produce one living cell that lives for 5 seconds, I will listen to what they have to say. Until then, it is self evident that they are talking out out of their ass. Evolution is unmitigated, unvarnished, delusional fiction. The emperor has no clothes kids.I feel to compelled to tell this deluded lot: DON’T DRINK THE LEMONADE.

    • In reply to #40 by mikeje:

      Life was designed by a much higher power than any of us can comprehend. When one “believer” in the religion of Darwinism can produce one living cell that lives for 5 seconds, I will listen to what they have to say. Until then, it is self evident that they are talking out out of their ass. Evolution…

      Take a look at some of the substantive scientific discussion on this thread. Do you not feel even a little embarrassed leaving such an empty comment? And its the kool aid you aren’t supposed to drink not the lemonaid. But whatever you do watch out where the Huskies go and don’t you eat that yellow snow. (Although you would probably feel right at home at St. Alphonzo’s pancake breakfast)

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0Qw3Foa_XE

      • your’e right was the cool aide. I stand corrected. I did notice that you had nothing to say about the one cell in the lab. If all this is somehow science, I would reasonably think that you would at least address my point, and that lacking, makes my point,

        In reply to #41 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #40 by mikeje:

        Life was designed by a much higher power than any of us can comprehend. When one “believer” in the religion of Darwinism can produce one living cell that lives for 5 seconds, I will listen to what they have to say. Until then, it is self evident that they are talking out…

        • In reply to #42 by mikeje:

          your’e right was the cool aide. I stand corrected. I did notice that you had nothing to say about the one cell in the lab. If all this is somehow science, I would reasonably think that you would at least address my point, and that lacking, makes my point,

          Your comment on the cell just highlighted some open questions in biology that’s all Science is never complete and there are always open questions. That’s one of the things that make it fun.

          • In reply to #43 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #42 by mikeje: Open question? This has to be the most basic question in all of biology. I think we could all agree that life forms are a physical, chemical, and I’m sure a few other accurate descriptive terms that I haven’t thought of, machine. As such, if we have even a cursory understanding of living entities, the most brilliant among us should reasonably be able to produce it in the lab. But we can’t. I think it will happen and I hope I’m around to see it. At that point, we will be at a whole new level of scientific understanding of life and with that lots of questions will have been answered. Exciting, isn’t it? In the meantime, all I ask is that science is separated from speculation. I come from a physics background, and quite frankly, very little postulated in these forums passes for science in my view. I perhaps started off here a little vitriolic, but my intent is pursuit of reality. The truth exists, and what I or anyone else thinks about it is irrelevant. Just my 2 cents.

            your’e right was the cool aide. I stand corrected. I did notice that you had nothing to say about the one cell in the lab. If all this is somehow science, I would reasonably think that you would at least address my point, and that lacking, makes my point,

            Your comment on…

          • In reply to #44 by mikeje:

            In the meantime, all I ask is that science is separated from speculation.

            Good news ! Your wish is granted !

            In reply to #40 by mikeje:

            Life was designed by a much higher power than any of us can comprehend.

            This is a very good example of baseless speculation that definitely needs to be separated from science. And has been, thankfully. Happy?

    • In reply to #40 by mikeje:

      Life was designed by a much higher power than any of us can comprehend. When one “believer” in the religion of Darwinism can produce one living cell that lives for 5 seconds, I will listen to what they have to say. Until then, it is self evident that they are talking out out of their ass. Evolution is unmitigated, unvarnished, delusional fiction. The emperor has no clothes kids.I feel to compelled to tell this deluded lot: DON’T DRINK THE LEMONADE.

      Are you being serious?

      On the basis that people say what they mean and mean what they say, I have quite a few points of difference with this post.

      The ‘living cell for 5 seconds’ test seems to say that believers in a religion X must be able to replicate the creative claims of that religion in order to establish their credentials.
      On that basis, Christians should be able to turn water into wine – if only for 5 seconds.

      Evolution as a fiction is a complex claim, though one that is often made. The complexity lies in the ‘fiction’. Is mikeje suggesting that evolution was deliberately invented as a story – but (unlike the usual works of fiction eg novels) is portrayed as non-fiction?
      In which case, I am not sure how mikeje is ‘saying what he means and meaning what he says’ if by evolution as ‘fiction’ he means ‘lies’.

      But what would the ‘fictions’ (or lies) be in evolution? Is mikeje saying that geology is a fiction (lie) and that, contrary to the appearance of places such as the Grand Canyon, rocks are not in strata with the oldest at the bottom and that these strata contain different sets of fossils? Maybe fossils themselves are not living remains. Is mikeje saying that geologists and palaeontologists set out to deceive (write fictions, lies) or that they were misled, perhaps? (And yet, despite the evolutionary fictions, oil companies seem to have astonishing luck in applying the evolutionary fictions through micropalaeontology to repeatedly find new reserves?) And that in the (fictional or deceitful) dating of fossils the quite separate field of radioactive decay, that is quantum mechanics has been misappropriated – QM maybe itself another vast area of fiction, that despite its fictional nature by chance makes some very good predictions and only by sheer fluke has been fictionally applied to making semiconductors for computers, etc.

      Is mikeje likewise suggesting (or accusing) anatomists of incorrect (forged) illustrations or photoshopped images of structures that purportedly show relatedness across species – both in embryonic development and in adult forms (eg skeletal plans, organ structures). Perhaps yet another field, of biochemistry, is run by creative artists masquerading as scientists who have concocted delusions such as DNA and genetic relatedness, or other biochemical versions of comparative anatomy such as the remarkable (but presumably fictional or misleading) similarities between the metabolic pathway for sugar, so very similar across species, including humans, snails, amoeba and bacteria?

      So, if evolution and thus biology is a fiction, so too are earth sciences, physics and chemistry – and that the applications, in plant breeding, mining, computing etc are all based on fictional premises that by chance and our good fortune yields results such as the oil and gas we use to fuel our lives or the IT that links us. If mikeje is right then most of the scientific and engineering world is inhabited by charlatans or fools – but successful ones. One wonders why Theists have not made a fortune from turning tap water into vintage Burgundy. (Maybe they do and that’s how there comes to be so many huge and often lavishly furnished churches).

      Returning to mikeje’s ‘cell test’, I take from this particular demand for unequivocal and direct experimental proof of evolution by Darwinists that theists have to hand unequivocal and direct experimental proof of ‘design by a much higher power’.

      And if not – why not?

      It is possible that mikeje was not ‘saying what he meant’ etc, ie that he is not serious in his post. In which case, this post might seem rather pointless. Mikeje’s purpose might simply have been to provoke – in which case it has been successful.

      But: such statements – they are not really arguments – are routinely used to undermine not just the science and hence engineering that underpins our daily lives, but, perhaps in the end more importantly, undermine the honest use of language and the need to try to see the world as it is, not as we might like it to be. Sweeping, brief and un-evidenced criticisms of science abound today – and arguably make the challenge of arguing for research that much harder, the progress in energy production, medical treatment etc that much slower.

      But wishful thinking of some great Designer not only stifles scientific curiosity and investigation, it risks closing the minds of everyone to the nature and wonder of the world as it is. Reliance on unseen forces and denial of evident ones induces a dangerous passivity in gaining knowledge, by discouraging our use of evidence, of our powers of observation and reason – the moral, political and practical consequences of which abound in history, modern politics and in many personal stories.

      • In reply to #40 by mikeje:

        Life was designed by a much higher power than any of us can comprehend. When one “believer” in the religion of Darwinism can produce one living cell that lives for 5 seconds, I will listen to what they have to say. Until then, it is self evident that they are talking out…[etc. ad nauseam]

        I cannot better the previous post, of course, but would just say that this is no more than the ‘argument from ignorance’ – as old as the hills. “I cannot believe that what you say is true, therefore it was magic” (or a god, or whatever).

  27. From what i understand: Clause #1 : evolution progresses in such a manner that every random mutation that the natural selection allows to survive in the gene pool( through successful reproduction) creates some modification in the overall physical structure of the organism.
    Clause # 2 : Every new structural additional may have some functional advantage in the environment which were favored over the other changes induced by other random mutations.
    Clause # 3 : But we can never say that this modification had “only this” functional advantage; it could , may be, have more functional advantages, given the environment changed and so it kept surviving and developing..
    going by these arguments, i feel , our brains , have this ability to do such amazing things , not only because of some specific advantage which the genes leading to its structure( among many other mutations) had in a population in the 17th century( we are continuously evolving as a whole), but also because it outperforms and it has many more additional benefits which could now be utilised in our new environment. If it hadn’t, we would have had some other capability…Talking about the limits; it can only be evaluated once we have a complete science of consciousness and understanding..because the limits which you think of is specifically imparted to your idea of reality , which is again imposed on you by your brain/consciousness…

    • In reply to #48 by bejoyed:

      From what i understand: Clause #1 : evolution progresses in such a manner that every random mutation that the natural selection allows to survive in the gene pool( through successful reproduction) creates some modification in the overall physical structure of the organism.

      Nope! A whole load are neutral and have no noticeable effect at all.

      Clause # 2 : Every new structural additional may have some functional advantage in the environment which were favored over the other changes induced by other random mutations.

      Or may not – as the case may be.

      Clause # 3 : But we can never say that this modification had “only this” functional advantage; it could , may be, have more functional advantages, given the environment changed and so it kept surviving and developing..

      Indeed – genetic changes often have multiple effects, Some may be beneficial, some deleterious and some neutral. Some may be recessive traits which only show up in a limited selection of individuals.

      going by these arguments, i feel , our brains , have this ability to do such amazing things , not only because of some specific advantage which the genes leading to its structure( among many other mutations) had in a population in the 17th century( we are continuously evolving as a whole), but also because it outperforms and it has many more additional benefits which could now be utilised in our new environment. If it hadn’t, we would have had some other capability…

      Human evolution of brains is over thousands and millions of years rather than centuries.

      Talking about the limits; it can only be evaluated once we have a complete science of consciousness and understanding..

      Not really! Specific aspects and properties can be assessed without needing a total explanation.

      science of consciousness and understanding..

      Consciousness is one of those terms which is ill-defied, and frequently bandied about as a magic ingredient, by those who do not understand the basics.

      because the limits which you think of is specifically imparted to your idea of reality ,

      This is psychology and philosophy rather than neuroscience.

      which is again imposed on you by your brain/consciousness…

      Many aspect of the workings of the brain, are now being understood. It is work in progress, but science is progressively providing the tools for the job!

      Scientists create first 3D digital brain
      Researchers have created the first high-resolution 3D digital model of the human brain, which they have called “Big Brain”.

      The reconstruction shows the brain’s anatomy in microscopic detail, enabling researchers to see features smaller than a strand of hair.

      It will be made freely available to neuroscientists to help them in their research.

      The model has been published in the journal Science.

    • In reply to #51 by Martin Hogbin:

      Science explains the universe in ways that are compatible with our human understanding – obviously.

      That reply was not intended to be offensive in any way.

      Just to explain a little. The universe is how it is. WE can never claim to kow how the universe ‘really’ works or even what that statement means. We use our savanah-evolved brains to try to make sense of it. Obviously, we can only make sense of the universe in a way that makes sense to us.

      Some eminent humans (such as Newton) have managed to make sense of the behaviour of physical objects in a way that makes sense and is useful top many other humans (because we have broadly similar brains). That is science.

  28. Evolutionary actions are derived from quantum waveform frequencies. Evolution is not reversible and probably controlled by gravity as demonstrated by orbiting satellites – time measurement is a derivative of evolution advancement.
    It is a scientific reality that ‘time’ as we know it is variable and that its duration is increased or decreased to match its evolutionary duration. One can then presume that a cosmonaut travelling through space for an extended period would return to earth older and not younger.
    Each and every spices of life is unique with its own evolutionary duration whether it is an individual entity or as a defined mass. Evolution allows for modifications to the various spices as a method of protecting their existence.
    The human life form has evolved through countless modifications over billions of cycles to reach its present state.
    Life forms can be compared with computers. The design of the hardware comparable to the design 0f the life form, the operating software (the soul) of the computer comparable to the initial operational requirement of the life form and a storage devise as way of storing new information.

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