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Is human-level intelligence only possible in land-based mammals?
February 18, 2011 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Given enough time and the right circumstances, would it be possible for non-land-based mammals to develop human levels of intelligence? What about non-mammals, land-based or otherwise?

The question here is twofold : is human-level intelligence necessarily a mammalian trait? And if so, is it specific to land mammals?

Assume here an "alternate earth" where all the necessary building blocks of life are there, but things are a bit ... different. Maybe there's no land above sea level. Or maybe it's mostly swamp. Or perhaps the atmosphere is a bit different. Or maybe the planet is the size of Jupiter and doesn't have a moon. Whatever. Could a different set of ecological/planetary conditions (over a sufficient span of time) lead to intelligent life that's vastly different from homo sapiens?

As for my definition of human-level intelligence : it wouldn't necessarily have to result in New York City and Anna Karenina (which would be difficult to create without land or trees), but the mental ability to create such things.
posted by Afroblanco to Science & Nature (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dolphins are thought to be among the most intelligent mammals other than humans.
posted by dfriedman at 10:07 AM on February 18, 2011


And look into the notion of the singularity for the question of whether human-level intelligence is a mammalian trait.
posted by dfriedman at 10:08 AM on February 18, 2011


And as a follow-on : would it even be possible for non-primate land-based mammals to develop human-levels of intelligence?
posted by Afroblanco at 10:09 AM on February 18, 2011


The question is an interesting one, but it's empirical and ultimately unknowable. Unless we find another planet with water-dwelling intelligent life, or water-dwelling life develops human-like intelligence here on earth, we can't know for sure. Until it actually happens and we observe it, we have to accept that it might not be possible.

The probability of it existing is another question. The trouble is, we don't know what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for human-like intelligence. We're not even sure what human-like intelligence is, exactly. There might be conditions of which we're unaware that could produce human-like intelligence. But we can't know any of this--thus, we can't know the probability of the existence of human-like intelligence.

But, a priori, why not? It's possible.
posted by smorange at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


It may help to think about some of the developments that are thought to have allowed humans to leap forward in intelligence. There are a few that I'm familiar with: larger social organizations, modifications to the birthing process (and attendant female anatomy) to allow for larger heads, walking upright (which freed our hands for tool use), and cooking.

For the first: while most cetaceans live in small groups or alone, there's no inherent reason they couldn't evolve to live in larger ones. Certainly a lot of fish live in large groups, and the ocean doesn't lack for space.

For the second: I'm no expert on cetacean anatomy, but again I think they could manage to adapt to larger brains proportionate to their body size.

For the third: This could take a while. Bottlenose dolphins can do some grasping with their mouths, but it lacks the flexibility and fine manipulation of hands. The arm structures of cetaceans are extremely vestigial at this point, and I think they may be on an evolutionary dead-end in that regard. It's hard to see what selective pressure would cause them to revert to having proper arms and hands.

For the fourth: this seems tough at first. Obviously there's no fire available underwater. But there are deep sea vents that continuously let out superheated water that's more than hot enough to cook with. The tricky bit would be the dolphins figuring out how to put their food in there without burning themselves, especially if they don't have hands.
posted by jedicus at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I honestly cannot see why not. I believe manipulation of the environment to be key to closing the feedback loop that allows for self-awareness ("I am here, and I know I am here because I make these things happen"). I do not think that intelligence would develop particularly quickly, or at all, in completely asocial animals, though they could evolve to become asocial after intelligence.

Ask yourself, "What problem does intelligence solve?" Evolution simply isn't fast enough once you get competitive. First you get a neural net in place smart enough to associate stimuli with outcomes, and that is nice and all, "Hey, stick around here, there is food," but after a while everybody is doing that, so you have to blast past those guys. What if you had a whole platform for transmission of behaviors which were previously evolved, hard-wired, over hundreds of generations, or learned through painful trial and error, only now the behaviors could simply leap from successful individual to another of the same species? Monkey see, monkey do. With enough introspection, novel behaviors could emerge from something beyond trial and error — an internal, predictive model of the universe with features like object permanence and motion lets an organism to try out behaviors in-brain rather than in-world. Next, communication, the ability to describe those behaviors rather than seeing them. I don't have to watch you bake a cake if I can read a recipe.

None of those steps requires fur, lactation, internal gestation, or self-sustained homeostasis.
posted by adipocere at 10:20 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is difficult to answer, but I have read that the tool using mutation can only spread if there are materials around to turn into tools. If not, then it doesn't get passed around to the next generation because it provides no benefit. Human intelligence is linked to tool use, so I think its very unlikely that a non-tool using species could ever get as smart as us.

Generally, evolution only makes us as smart as we need to get by. Turns out you need to be pretty smart to use complex tools and master complex language. Dolphins will never be at human levels of intelligence because they'll never get over the tool hump so they tend to have the smarts of your average border collie. Or a bazillion other reasons why intelligence on the level of humans didn't independently evolve. It may be an especially rare mutation that can only spread under very specific circumstances.

As far as "mental only" goes, well, we can see how smart things are by how they act in their environment. I dislike the idea that animals that spend all day working to catch fish, avoiding predators, and searching for suitable mates are really reciting complex poetry in their heads or somesuch. That's something of a romaticised notion. There's also some good arguments on intelligence that is non-human, but smart in its own right, like tool-using birds and octopus. Smarts in general are hard to quantify. All tests are going to be biased on how we ourselves think.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:21 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


it's empirical and ultimately unknowable

What does this mean? If something is empirical it is measurable and therefore knowable.
posted by dfriedman at 10:21 AM on February 18, 2011


I think the difficulty in answering this question is that a society of higher intelligence wolves, or Grey Parrots, or any other non-primate would probably not use tools in the same way that we do and thus wouldn't resemble us very closely.

Dolphins are highly intelligent but use their intelligence (as far as we can tell) primarily for communication and coordinated hunting. I imagine super smart canines would be similar to that model. Whales use their intelligence for what can best be described as long-distance song/poems and/or pack hunting. Grey Parrots use their intelligence for cross species language skills and were much better than humans at it until perhaps the last 50 years and we only surpassed them there because of computers. Dogs use their intelligence for symbiosis with human beings, which is a highly effective strategy for them but wouldn't make sense without humans on the planet.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:23 AM on February 18, 2011


Intelligence, maybe - technological development, probably not. This gets covered in classic sci-fi not infrequently ("The Songs of Distant Earth", for example) and the critical factor that stops underwater development is lack of access to metals and metalworking. The underwater society essentially is stuck in the Stone Age because they can't find, say, bronze, and have no way of working materials that they do find (can't make fire underwater).
posted by backseatpilot at 10:23 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you have any idea how smart cephalopods are? They can solve some complex puzzles. I've heard two different stories (one first-hand) about octopuses sneaking out of their aquaria, nomming down the creatures in another aquarium, and returning to their home aquaria, leaving their handlers baffled.

I have trouble answering this question because I have trouble understanding what premises might lead you to believe that "intelligence" is a mammalian, land-based, or primate-specific trait. In fact, if I were selecting non-ape animals for "creepy smart", I'd go with crows, dolphins, and octopuses/cuttlefish.

As for the question of the evolution of so-called "abstract thought" . . . I'm personally partial to the hypothesis that our intellectual evolution was powered by social factors, and, particularly, by sexual selection for intelligence. The nice thing about sexual selection is that it imposes no intrinsic ceiling on how far a trait can evolve -- the selection will run out when variation runs out, or when the benefits from sexual selection are counterbalanced by the costs of maintaining the trait, but there's no limit in the trait value itself. However, that doesn't mean that social factors are the only possible powerhouse behind abstract intelligence, and I do think an intelligence with a different etiology would seem very alien to us. (Note that crows and dolphins are social animals, but cephalopods aren't.)
posted by endless_forms at 10:24 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, like everyone is saying, this is a very difficult question to answer. Have your read Ishmael? The allusion at the end is that the stewarding of intelligence in lower animals via evolution is the duty of humans. It is a powerful image.

The real question, I think, is what do we mean by 'human levels of intelligence?' It isn't all that clear the non-human animals have lower intelligence capacities so much as different intelligence capacities.

You say architecture, urbanity, culture are the definitions of human intelligence, but these are really just manifestations of human intelligence that are largely the result of language acquisition, for language is really what makes things (in the case of Tolstoy, quite directly, in the case of NYC, less directly but just as integral) of the sort you mention possible. The ability to label things, to begin to think abstractly in concepts, etc. Now, is it possible for animals to achieve similar advanced language abilities as humans? Well, that's another very difficult question. If your a Chomsky person, perhaps you think that humans have a unique complex in the brain that is suited for language that other animals lack. In that case, you may want to say no, animals could never achieve language. But given a million or a billion years of evolution? Certainly then it would be wholly possible for non-human animals to develop the requisite physiology.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:32 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


What does this mean? If something is empirical it is measurable and therefore knowable.

In the context of my comment, I thought it was relatively clear. It's not an a priori question. Because of this, and because we haven't observed human-like intelligence, and because the conditions that we'd need to know in order to build a probability function aren't practically measurable, it's unknowable.

What's the probability of a tiger existing? That's basically unknowable unless you know what is necessary/sufficient for a tiger to exist. While that's an empirical question, it's unknowable because there's no way you can know what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for a tiger to exist--or rather, you can't exhaustively know them. And that's because you can't see everything in the universe--or outside of it, if anything exists outside of it. It's unknowable by us.
posted by smorange at 10:35 AM on February 18, 2011


"Is human-level intelligence only possible in land-based mammals?"

"Given enough time and the right circumstances, would it be possible for non-land-based mammals to develop human levels of intelligence?"

Why do people do this with the contradictory questions?

To the first:
no

To the second:
yes

This seems obvious to me, especially when you consider that several animals have switched from being water to land based and vice versa several times. Richard Dawkins talks about turtles doing this several times in "The Greatest Show On Earth". Recently, sea otters have moved back to the water after being a land-based weasel like animal. For reasons like this, it's entirely possible that *humans* could evolve to be water-based animals.

But along a different line, there's nothing specific to our intelligence that requires us to breath air. We could have gills and live underwater and it would not affect the advantages that we've gained from evolving a big brain. We may have had to evolve opposable thumbs or something first, but octopuses have arms that are pretty useful for many of the same things we use our hands for, and they're quite intelligent.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:43 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Octopi, dolphins, and ravens score very high in intelligence. Intelligence is not directly linked to ape-ness or mammal-ness.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:50 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nthing cephalods. Besides being able to escape aquarium tanks, etc., octopuses & their relatives have complex social behavior and communication. For example, cuttlefish communicate using color patterns, and a large part of their brain is devoted to controlling their pigmentation. They can show different patterns on different parts of their body, and move the patterns around to follow other organisms (e.g. show a courtship pattern towards a potential mate and a threat pattern at a rival, at the same time, while all three cuttlefish are moving around). There was a Nova program a few years ago that showed a lab using computer screens to influence their behavior. Very intelligent, and also very alien which is great if you're interested in some kind of sci-fi or exobiology extrapolation.
posted by wps98 at 11:13 AM on February 18, 2011


I think you need to rephrase the way you are asking this question.

Rather than human level intelligence, perhaps you would be better served by thinking about this as "human type" or perhaps "greater primate type" intelligence if you want to be more inclusive. After all, our brains developed a certain way due to the unique ecological niche our ancestors ended up filling and the selection pressures associated with success in said niche. We started walking upright and communicating mainly with facial expressions and verbally so our brains evolved a certain way to facilitate that. The selection pressures on a cetacean are very different, and while they are definitely intelligent its not really applicable to measure their intelligence against ours as its like comparing a saw with a hammer, two very useful tools, but very different in their application and function.

In short, you need to look at why we evolved to be the kind of smart we are, and how other species would possibly need to follow along a similar evolutionary path to have a comparable form of intelligence.

So, yeah its possible, but in my opinion there are no other species on earth that would meet the criteria at the moment.
posted by BobbyDigital at 11:20 AM on February 18, 2011


As for my definition of human-level intelligence : it wouldn't necessarily have to result in New York City and Anna Karenina (which would be difficult to create without land or trees), but the mental ability to create such things.

I think this is the difficulty in answering this question right here -- at present, we are barely beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to how to even define intelligence. It's entirely possible that in the case of dolphins, they're already at that level of intelligence, but we just haven't got the means to measure that, largely because we know so little about the species in question. The issue of how to measure human intelligence is a murky one as it is.

That being said, though, I don't see why another species couldn't develop a high level of intelligence. There are already smart social creatures out there, and given enough time for those smarts to become an evolutionary advantage, I don't see why it wouldn't happen.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:44 AM on February 18, 2011


Wittgenstein's "If a lion could speak, we would not understand him" seems apropos here. We don't know what "intelligence" would look like among dolphins, because we are land-based primates. What are aquatic tools? Aquatic machines? Aquatic symphonies?
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:57 AM on February 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


In my opinion, intelligence is in part driven from being a predator, in part driven from having higher metabolic costs associated with being warm blooded, in part driven from being at least partially social (pseudo-monogamy, parental care, etc.), in part due to the ability to move fast (run, fly, swim) through one's environment, and lastly in part due to a body plan allowing for tool use.

Being cold blooded in my opinion wouldn't kill your chances but would limit the probability due to the lesser volume of foodstuffs one would need to consume over evolutionary time to hone intelligence. The last one, a body plan conducive to allowing tool use, is probably the most important in reaching human intelligence. An organism could have moderate intelligence but be unable to make that last leap if their evolutionary trajectory limited their ability to evolve grasping features.

So, to answer your question, sure. Intelligence in water is probably less probable due to the drag associated with grasping features, but still possible.
posted by pwb503 at 12:04 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


More anecdata:
Raccoons are pretty smart, and good with their hands. In Toronto, we put out our compost in plastic bins with latched lids that were designed to be raccoon-proof. A friend told me that within a few weeks of the green bin program being launched, one latched green bin on her street was broken into by a raccoon. The next Monday several were toppled. Within a few weeks, all over her neighbourhood, this was happening. Raccoons have learned how to manipulate our stuff, and they're relatively sociable with each other. It wouldn't surprise me at all to hear about them quickly developing tool use, verbal and non-verbalized communication, and pack cooperation.
I don't know if they'd care too much about architecture, though, since they don't seem to be too bothered by cold or wet. I once sprayed one quite liberally with a super soaker water pistol during a backyard barbecue, and the damn thing just blinked at me and kept eating our pizza.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:05 PM on February 18, 2011


Okay, I feel like we're getting too tripped up here on the definition of intelligence. Yes, it's hard to define. But for now, let's just say "human level of intelligence" means "brain function that is capable of growth and development over the course of a lifetime" at a level of complexity that is similar to that of a human.

So, in other words, crows may learn to use a stick to dig for insects, and dolphins may learn new hunting methods, but neither of these are anywhere near human levels of complexity.

Also, "human level of intelligence" should imply that they can do something with that knowledge -- which could mean shaping their physical environment, or simply sharing knowledge with each other in some way.

Hope that clears things up a bit.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:13 PM on February 18, 2011


Are you allowing for the possibility of uplift? Because that really opens the doors on who/what can achieve human-like intelligence.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:14 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, "human level of intelligence" should imply that they can do something with that knowledge -- which could mean shaping their physical environment, or simply sharing knowledge with each other in some way.

I think dolphins and apes already can do both.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:18 PM on February 18, 2011


Also, "human level of intelligence" should imply that they can do something with that knowledge -- which could mean shaping their physical environment, or simply sharing knowledge with each other in some way.

Lots of animals already do this. Insects build complex structures complete with fungus farms and teach each other skills; corvids use tools.

I say this not to bust your chops, but to highlight an issue with how we understand the concept of "intelligence".
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:47 PM on February 18, 2011


I think other species, on this world or on alternate worlds, are only going to rise to a human level of intelligence/accomplishment, if they can become as cruel/murderous/efficiently evil as humanity has demonstrated it can be. Nothing we find in nature has put upon our species the selection pressure we have developed in war, and over the brief history of the last 200 years, since perhaps the Crimean War, we've gotten absolutely expert at this business, vastly expanding our scientific knowledge and exploitation of our world in the process.

Because of war, we aviate as we do, and have extended this now to rudimentary interplanetary exploration by robot, guided by optical and radio astronomy. Because of war, we have antibiotics, vaccines, and much of modern surgical practice. Because of war, we compute and communicate electronically. Because of war, we have become expert submariners, and at least limited prospectors of depths of our oceans where few other species can find purchase to even visit. Because of war, we support, as a species, a lower average life span and far higher birth rate than we could, otherwise, thus providing for ongoing biological evolution in our own species, even if that slow genetic drift pales in comparison as a driving force of our development, compared to murder and war. Because of war, we have had pressures to explore physics and science subjects otherwise of little interest to daily survival, mastering atomic energy and weapons development, and now standing perhaps, 50 to 100 years from sustainable fusion power development.

Thus, I believer that any species that aspires to our greatest successes must be willing to be the amoral bastards we are, also. If they are unable to murder, to enslave, to torture, to commit genocide upon their very like brethren, and to do so relentlessly, and nearly continuously, to the demise of hundreds of millions of members of their own race, in search of what excellences we have thus accumulated, they're simply not willing to pay the price of such intelligence. And no other life form we've yet encountered have been as maniacally ruthless and murderous as we.

I think there is good reason for that, too; I'm not sure this planet, or any other could sustain two or more such races, concurrently.
posted by paulsc at 1:18 PM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I suspect they cannot, as long as humans are around- competition for resources will probably tend to ace out latecomers.

Absent humans, I'd suspect that rodents will reach sentience prior to cephalopods, but that may just be mamaliocentrism talking.
posted by jenkinsEar at 1:46 PM on February 18, 2011


Personally, I think anything is possible when it comes to biology. You just need to allow enough time. And the right selective pressure, which is a key issue here. The functional capacity of octopuses, ravens, dolphins etc. indicates that greater intelligence can evolve separately, but "can" only gets you so far. There needs to be a major survival advantage to having the sort of higher intelligence you're talking about for such intelligence to evolve. And while it may seem as though being more intelligent should always improve an individual's chance of survival, this isn't actually true. There is a serious cost involved, which can be evolutionarily disadvantageous in many if not most circumstances. Specifically, when we consider humans, these include the increased time taken to develop (18 years is a long time) and teach your offspring (our habits are, by and large, learnt rather than instinctive). Also, the increase in brain size comes at the cost of cephalopelvic disproportion and a number of other potentially life-threatening complications during pregnancy. So clearly there has been a high selection for intelligence throughout our own evolution, such that we can bear the costs associated with this advantage.

One can't say that the evolution of "human-like" intelligence is a rare phenomenon, since we're in a first-at-the-post scenario. We are the first species to demonstrate this level of cognitive function, so we are the ones debating this question. Who knows what might have happened if we waited another 150 million years.

So as much as it can't be truly answered until we actually see some Abyss-style cities, I think that it is entirely possible for both non-land-based and non-mammalian animals to evolve into more intelligent organisms. But I agree with backseatpilot and damn dirty ape about the tool and technological limitations. If all humans, apes and monkeys were wiped from the face of this earth, I would think that the next contender for world domination would more likely be a land-based animal with the ability to grasp items rather than a water-based creature that cannot. There's only so much you can do without the right equipment.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:02 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sidhevil and Empress Callypigos : see my second paragraph.

So, in other words, crows may learn to use a stick to dig for insects, and dolphins may learn new hunting methods, but neither of these are anywhere near human levels of complexity.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:16 PM on February 18, 2011


So, in other words, crows may learn to use a stick to dig for insects, and dolphins may learn new hunting methods, but neither of these are anywhere near human levels of complexity.

Yes, I saw that you said that, but I wasn't talking about crows using sticks; I was talking about crows that make tools out of sticks by shaping the sticks to use. And insects that are documented to teach other insects specific skills, not animals learning stuff through trial and error.

You have to define what you mean by "a human level of complexity" because "making tools out of sticks" was a big advance for humans at one point in our history as a species.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2011


tylerkaraszewski We could have gills and live underwater and it would not affect the advantages that we've gained from evolving a big brain.

The available oxygen in water is much less than the available oxygen in air which places some ugly limits on metabolic rate. Granted, there's always the possibility for slow intelligence that way if you get past limited lifespans.

But a part of me objects to the notion of levels because it falls into the trap of thinking of intelligence in terms of a quantity scale rather than a collection of qualitites. Humans just happen to have a collection of mind-organs that, as a gestalt, produce cultral artifacts like citites and literature. Whether another species can develop a compatible set of mind-organs that allows for the creation of common understandings is an open question. Ant colonies and supercomputer clusters are super-human intelligences, just not not in ways that are remotely recognizable as mirroring our own.

kitsch: One can't say that the evolution of "human-like" intelligence is a rare phenomenon, since we're in a first-at-the-post scenario. We are the first species to demonstrate this level of cognitive function, so we are the ones debating this question. Who knows what might have happened if we waited another 150 million years.

The fossil record isn't exhaustive. You can only catalog the species that have been found to exist, you can't exclude the possibility of undiscovered species or populations. We don't even have a full accounting of our extinct hominid relatives from the current epoch, and those populations faced heavy bottlenecks that could have wiped them entirely from the fossil record in a few billion years.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Using a stick as a tool" is one thing, and many animals do that; "shaping a tool out of a stick" is another level of complexity.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2011


As an example of this problem, there's no scientific consensus on how to compare intelligence within Homo sapiens. G is a highly contested construct. My view is that g probably exists, but we don't have entirely unbiased, reliable, or valid tools to get at it. And it's probably an anthropocentric construct that gets even worse should we start testing machine or animal intelligences.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:36 PM on February 18, 2011


I think it's pretty naive to assume that humans are inherently more complex or advanced than other species. More advanced at what? And what exactly does more advanced mean? Do you mean better? How do we know what's better? If we're judging this from a purely human viewpoint, obviously we're better at doing "human" things. We build wonderful things with our hands, but dolphins don't even have hands so how can we possibly compare humans with dolphins. We have no idea what their world is like, so how can we begin to judge it? My point is, if and when we come across "high-level" intelligence (whatever that is), we won't know it, because we can't judge it by our own standards.
posted by smokingmonkey at 2:52 PM on February 18, 2011


Sidhedevil : I think I see where you're coming from. But the question is : given enough time, will that stick-shaping ultimately turn into something more impressive, like a symphony or an equation or a love letter? Or is there something inherent to avians that prevents them from going any further?

(also, apologies to Sidhedevil and EmpressCallipygos for misspelling your names upthread; I was posting from my phone)
posted by Afroblanco at 3:33 PM on February 18, 2011


Why should a hyper-intelligent bird care about a love letter or a symphony? And who is to say they would need the crutch of mathematics to figure out how the universe works on all its different levels?

You seem to be lumping intelligence and culture together. There is no reason sentient intelligence would be bound up in a human shaped box. Human-style culture is a completely different matter, and requires a lot more similarity.
posted by HFSH at 5:58 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The question is tough because "human-level intelligence" is hard to define. We need to know what the necessary and sufficient conditions are. But to try to answer it, I'd give three examples of what I'm guessing we're all imagining: Usage of tools, structured communication, and abstract experimentation.

1. Usage of tools.

At it's most rudimentary level, there are a number of non-hum (and even non-primate) species which do this, many without anything approaching what we would consider "human level intelligence." Beavers build dams, birds build nests, ants build colonies, etc. These are all ways in which these creatures manipulate their environments in order to better ensure the perpetuation of their species/genes, and they are all somewhat remarkable when you really think about them. Somewhere way back was presumably the first bird to consider putting twigs together to better incubate her eggs, which either made for stronger chicks (due to the more efficient incubation) or more protected ones (due to tree-top defenses from many natural predators.) So this is not a small thing. But it is not the end of the line, either, and I think there's a big distinction which (and I might be wrong here about some animals) marks one of the major differences between humans and other species:

We make tools which we use to make other tools. We didn't just build clay huts; we eventually began to make hammers and chisels. And it's not just the making of these tools which was such an important step - whoever first used a sharp stick to cut things or a sturdy bone to hit things was taking the step of finding a value in an object which by itself had little or no value beyond that which it could help to create. And for this to take off as a trait really requires a bit of dexterity.

So here's where we run into our first roadblock. One can imagine the heat-vent-cooking method jedicus described above. One can also imagine dolphins or something similar stumbling across this method by accident and taking to it. Perhaps a ruptured bit of coral or something falls across one of these vents, and serves as a decent aquatic hot-plate. One can even imagine, then, that one of the dolphins is clever enough to push coral across other heat-vents in order to create this effect on its own. What's next?

Well, the cooking practice would need to become prevalent enough in the pod that some devolution would probably need to take place. They would need to become dependent enough on the cooked fish that raw fish would be unhealthy for them, such that if they did not have access to the cooking equipment they would need to create their own. And that's where things start to suck for our evolving pod because with all of the leaps I've made it is very difficult to imagine even brilliant dolphins devising a way to create heat in the absence of a vent, or to (more likely) create a "hot plate" in the absence of the natural material. And even if they could devise a way, manual dexterity will not have been a preferred
trait, so how are they going to pull of their plans?

2. Structured Communication.

"Lesser" animals definitely have the capacity to communicate. Wild canines can use diversion and ambushes to lure prey into traps set by other canines, for instance, and similar tactics are seen in dolphins and whales and so on. Obviously every animal with vocal chops can make a variety of sounds with different simple meanings. "Meow" means "I want." "Purr" means "happy." "Hiss" means "back the fuck off." Etc. But structured communication requires more than that. It requires language.

Language is not beyond the capacity of "lesser" animals either. Parrots, dogs, and apes have shown the ability to learn it, not just with repetition but with a comprehension of meaning. Moreover, they can teach it to others of their species. An ex of mine had the mind-blowing experience once of having a conversation with a gorilla (in sign language, of course.) This would be cool enough, but the added twist was that no human had taught the ape sign language - he had learned it from his adopted gorilla mom.

There is absolutely no reason to believe that dolphins could not learn to communicate with humans if the methods were devised to teach them something they could imitate. They are very smart and very social creatures, after all. For all I know, different pods already have their own rudimentary languages of squeaks - nothing would surprise me there - so there's the very distant chance that human interference wouldn't even be necessary. The trouble comes with writing anything down.

In an aquatic environment, it is difficult for me to imagine any development of a process by which to preserve knowledge beyond oral tradition, especially considering, again, the lack of dexterity. Things just simply don't preserve well down there. As all we have to go by is our own history... man had enough down-time to draw cave paintings. Those eventually became heiroglyphics, which eventually became a reliable alphabet, which eventually had rules of grammar attached to it. Dolphins definitely have the down-time, but their environment makes any form of preservation of knowledge nearly impossible.

Mind you, written language is not a necessary condition here, but I'd call it a sufficient one. It requires an understanding of oneself, of the identity of others, the comprehension of "teaching", object permanence, and the ability to communicate. And it is also what, in our human experience, all future intellectual evolution has been built upon.

3. Abstract Experimentation

Simply, the ability to try new things in order to determine what works better so that those methods and ideas might be applied to future things. This is what we do that no other species on earth does. And even if an individual is not involved in doing this himself, the fact that others in the society are and are sharing this knowledge advances the intellectual capacity of all members.

But if your environment and physical capabilities strongly resist both the use of tools and the preservation of knowledge, you basically can't have this. WIthout records and tools there is no science, just instinct born of observation and survival of the fittest.

So as cool as it would be, I sadly don't see it happening for our watery friends.

(Mind you, I'm not even close to being a biologist, marine or evolutionary or of any other stripe. I'd LOVE to find out that I'm wrong about any and all "facts" presupposed within this comment.)
posted by Navelgazer at 6:03 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The fossil record isn't exhaustive. You can only catalog the species that have been found to exist, you can't exclude the possibility of undiscovered species or populations. We don't even have a full accounting of our extinct hominid relatives from the current epoch, and those populations faced heavy bottlenecks that could have wiped them entirely from the fossil record in a few billion years.

You are right of course. Absence of proof can never be truly used as proof of absence. I think it's unlikely though, for the following reason: Humans aren't alone in their intelligence. Chimpanzees and Orangutans, who we diverged from 5 and 11 million years ago respectively, have incredible cognitive abilities. That means that 11 million years ago there were primate-like animals on this earth that were pretty damn smart, even if they weren't using stone tools in the way of early hominids. And that means that the intelligence of humans has been a long time coming. So long, in fact, that there is an entire family of intelligent animals to which we belong. So we wouldn't be talking about a single, highly-capable species that slipped off of the face of the planet due to an unfortunate series of events. If some organisms came close to our level of cognitive function, then one would predict that there would be a lot of other related (extant) species that would still have high cognitive capacity. One such group, as has been mentioned, are the cephalopods. But until somebody teaches a squid sign language, I don't think they belong in the same cognitive league as the primates.

At any rate, the result is still the same. We don't know of any other "higher intelligence" lifeforms, extant or extinct, so we cannot determine the frequency/likelihood "higher intelligence" occurs. Nor how it happens, really. For all the problems discriminating what we mean by "intelligent", there is a qualitative difference between us and chimps. But how humans got to be so clever is still a matter of debate.
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:45 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think I see where you're coming from. But the question is : given enough time, will that stick-shaping ultimately turn into something more impressive, like a symphony or an equation or a love letter? Or is there something inherent to avians that prevents them from going any further?

And as I initially responded - I honestly can't think of a reason why it wouldn't, given enough time.

When I was speaking of apes and dolphins doing this already, I was thinking more of the "being able to teach an action to others" part. Specifically, I was thinking about something we saw here on the blue which featured a clip of a dolphin blowing a bubble ring as a toy to amuse itself with, and then showing other dolphins how to do it and so then there was a clip of all these dolphins suddenly doing these bubble ring tricks for no other reason than they were all bored on a Saturday. At least, so far as we could tell.

I admit that I have no real evidence for "why do I think it will happen in the future" other than "I don't see why there's any good evidence that it wouldn't."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:23 PM on February 18, 2011


Thank you all for your answers. This is an interesting discussion! Obviously, there's no "right answer" to this, but you raise a lot of good points -- and a lot of things I hadn't thought of before.

This does play into a larger question -- which I'll probably ask at some point -- "Why did we evolve such big brains, anyhow?"

I mean, I pretty much agree that you could never build NYC if you didn't have a way of writing things down. But the homo sapiens existed in their present form for a REALLY LONG time without writing. So here we had these brains that were capable of writing, but for a really long time ... no writing!

So it's an interesting question, and I'd definitely be interested in reading about this and discussing it some more.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:23 AM on February 19, 2011


If you're taking evolution to be the mechanism by which organisms change, then there are some problems with a few of these answers and perhaps even underlying the question as well. The notion that human intelligence is at a "higher level" than other intelligence doesn't fit with evolutionary theory. Also, the idea that you just need "enough time" for another species to develop "human level intelligence" doesn't fit with evolutionary theory.

The theory of evolution, as understood today, does not privilege complexity. In other words more complex animals are not "more highly evolved." It also doesn't have a direction or any kind of "levels."

There's no reason for any creature to develop what humans have developed except for humans. But this actually gives you a pretty good answer to your question: evolutionary theory suggests that any organism undergoing the same series of mutations, migrations, drift and selection that H. Sapien went though in the same environment that H. Sapien evolved in would end up having the same characteristics that H. Sapien has.

But more to the point, H. Sapien doesn't build ant nests or bowerbird stages or coral reefs or any of these things, we build our own kind of architecture, which is different and is suited for our needs. So, to judge the intelligence of a cephalopod by how fast it solves human puzzles, is like judging the arm-ness quality of a human against the number 8 and deciding we're 6 short. It's hard for us not to be species centric in that way, but evolutionary theory isn't and it's useful to remember that.

On the broader question, I think we have good reason to believe that there is a huge variety of very complex life in the universe, and certainly (somewhere) giant purple clams are wearing sun hats and riding bicycles .
posted by jardinier at 12:14 PM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


"... I mean, I pretty much agree that you could never build NYC if you didn't have a way of writing things down. But the homo sapiens existed in their present form for a REALLY LONG time without writing. So here we had these brains that were capable of writing, but for a really long time ... no writing! ..."
posted by Afroblanco at 2:23 PM on February 19

Eh, if you'll take the evidence of cave paintings 30,000+ years old, and 10,000 to 12,000 year old petroglyphs, as the first "writings" conveying something to posterity, or to "others," the topic was often, apparently, killing animals, for food, skins, etc. Sometimes, perhaps for their magic, and possibly, sometimes, for sport, or just because people in groups could kill large animals, and once in such groups, tended keep in groups, and keep killing animals.

Nowhere on the walls of such caves, or totem rocks, do we find representations of floor plans, street grids, or strength of materials studies or directions to good quarry sites. The first attempts at writing something down were, apparently, mostly tied to hunting, killing, and maybe, killing other people. Apparently, from the earliest art records we've been left, if you want to evolve quickly as a species, outstripping your brethren species notably, you want to get organized around communal killing, early on.
posted by paulsc at 12:26 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


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