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Evolution of Intelligence More Complex Than Once Thought 453

Posted by timothy
from the ah-but-humans-are-still-the-cutest dept.
palegray.net writes "According to a new article published in Scientific American, the nature of and evolutionary development of animal intelligence is significantly more complicated than many have assumed. In opposition to the widely held view that intelligence is largely linear in nature, in many cases intelligent traits have developed along independent paths. From the article: 'Over the past 30 years, however, research in comparative neuroanatomy clearly has shown that complex brains — and sophisticated cognition — have evolved from simpler brains multiple times independently in separate lineages ...'"
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Evolution of Intelligence More Complex Than Once Thought

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  • by flajann (658201) <flajann@linuxblo[ ]com ['ke.' in gap]> on Monday December 29, 2008 @06:56AM (#26256319) Homepage Journal
    If anyone assumes linearity in complex systems, it only shows they have no clue. In complex systems, linearity is the exception, not the rule.
    • Yes, Apparently the rule is that

      In Complex Systems, Linearity is the exception, not The Rule

      In other news

      Le Roi Est Mort. Vive Le Roi!

    • by azaris (699901) on Monday December 29, 2008 @07:17AM (#26256421) Journal
      The article doesn't mean 'linear' in the sense of 'linear dependence on a set of variables', but rather 'linear' as in 'sequence of events that follow one another as a direct consequence of the previous one'.
      • What, like in a Markov system ?
        • by jambox (1015589) on Monday December 29, 2008 @08:09AM (#26256665)
          I've just read the first 5 lines of the wikipedia article on Markov chains and am therefore the closest thing to an expert on this subject you're likely to find any time soon. Does the Markov property prohibit causal interdependence between events? That is to say, is it in keeping with a markov chain if a species develops a higher intelligence in order to evade an otherwise unrelated predator species? I would suggest not.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Artifakt (700173)

            I'm sure that first claim was tongue in cheek, so I won't bother to disabuse you of the notion that you're an expert, but you asked a smart question so:
            As a classical mathematical concept, Markov Chains are considered stochastic processes (with the word stochastic meaning damned near exactly what the average guy means by random).
            Evolution is a non-random process. (Evolution has two major aspects, Mutation and Selection. Mutation itself is random, but Selection applies a pressure that should be mathematicall

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by flajann (658201)

        The article doesn't mean 'linear' in the sense of 'linear dependence on a set of variables', but rather 'linear' as in 'sequence of events that follow one another as a direct consequence of the previous one'.

        I know, and even there I still maintain that any assumption of a simple causal relationship in a complex system with so many interconnected parts is also silly. Simple causal relationships are the exception, not the rule.

        • by Cowmonaut (989226)
          There is also a reason why the evidence they are presenting is in opposition of the linear growth theories regarding intelligence. At least, if the summary is anything to go by.
    • by linhares (1241614) on Monday December 29, 2008 @08:17AM (#26256691)

      As I've wrote before (f*cking IEEE paywall [ieee.org]):

      "Convergent evolution is one of the most impressive concepts of Darwinian thought. As stated in the literature, "It is all the more striking a testimony to the power of natural selection that numerous examples can be found in real nature, in which independent lines of evolution appear to have converged, from very different starting points, on what looks very like the same endpoint" [Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker, p. 94]. Eyesight is a good example of a remarkable biological tool that has appeared independently many times. For instance, the octopus' eye has evolved from a line independent of our lineage, and there are records of some 40 such "parallel" lines of evolution leading to the development of eyes [L. F. Land, "Optics and vision in invertebrates," in Handbook of Sensory Physiology, Vol. VII, H. Autrum, Ed. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1980, pp. 471-592]."

  • by DrYak (748999) on Monday December 29, 2008 @07:01AM (#26256349) Homepage

    This proves that the Intelligent Designer:
    - has never been taught of proper design practice and re-use of previous work
    - has been sued by the other intelligent designer who built the previous brain for patent infringement and thus couldn't use the same brain but had to built a new one
    - is so messy that instead of trying to dig again her/his/its plans of the previous (intelligent) design for brains somewhere under a mountain of junk, restarting everything from scratch is a better alternative
    - isn't meticulous and precise enough be succeed making the same brain twice in a row
    - is so bored the she/he/it needs to reinvent the wheel every week or so
    - has Alzheimer's disease

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by wild_quinine (998562)

      This proves that the Intelligent Designer:

      An interesting post to be sure, but it proves nothing. You simply offer a list of alternative possible explanations, many of which are unlikely to hold in conjunction with the others. Allow me to suggest that it is perfectly possible to postulate other explanations, none of which could be remotely considered proof, which do not support your suggestion that there is no intelligent designer.

      What this research suggests, but not proves, is that there is a non-intelligent system at work in the formation of in

      • You might want to read this [slashdot.org]. I'll remind you later, since you'll probably forget. [mutters: senile old git]

        • You might want to read this. I'll remind you later, since you'll probably forget. [mutters: senile old git]

          Well I can see that you fully understand the concept of sarcasm.

      • by 0xdeadbeef (28836)

        I suppose it would be not so very different to a heuristic computer program, in that respect.

        Any sufficiently complex heuristic computer program is indistinguishable from intelligence.

    • - is artistic and enjoys exploring different ways of accomplishing the same thing.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by corbettw (214229)

        - is just another damn Perl hacker and enjoys exploring different ways of accomplishing the same thing.

        FTFY.

    • by Evil Pete (73279)

      Brilliant. This explains so much about the universe. God is a fuckwit. It's obvious now that I think about it. Yeah, ok just trolling the IDiots.

  • by wild_quinine (998562) on Monday December 29, 2008 @07:04AM (#26256373) Homepage
    In the 1960s many scientists believed that speech synthesis and speech recognition were just a few short years away. This was an example of progress in a field, and a new, exciting conceptual overview of a field, leading many to believe that the hard work had already been done.

    As people who work with computers, we already know that the hard work is never done. What we often forget is that new, exciting changes in our field, whilst just stepping stones, are progress nonetheless.

    I wouldn't make any big predictions for the future of our understanding, I think it's many years further off than we all hope. But I am always heartened to hear of progress, and optimism, in the field of scientific advancement.

    I am feeling particularly uncynical today. Let's enjoy each new step.

  • ... the same aspects of intelligence can arise independently in different species. I don't know if the article mentioned this (because its very long and I only had time to skim it) but this means the nascent potential evolutionary building blocks for intelligence are widely distributed in species in nature and given a chance will give riser to a smarter brain. Surely a more complex path to intelligence would be one that required specific stepping stones that only ever appeared in a small number of species a

    • by slim (1652) <john@hartn u p .net> on Monday December 29, 2008 @07:52AM (#26256559) Homepage

      this means the nascent potential evolutionary building blocks for intelligence are widely distributed in species in nature and given a chance will give riser to a smarter brain.

      It takes more than a chance - it takes evolutionary pressure. If something's already perfectly adapted to its environment without a brain, then it's unlikely to evolve one. A brain might even reduce the fitness of an organism (by diverting energy that could be better used for other survival/reproduction mechanisms).

      • by Viol8 (599362)

        When I said given a chance the evolutionary pressure was a given. You're not going to find an intelligent species arise out of the blue for no reason.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by slim (1652)

          Sure, I could tell *you* knew what you were talking about. But if you're not precise with your words, the ID crowd get funny ideas.

  • by slim (1652) <john@hartn u p .net> on Monday December 29, 2008 @07:23AM (#26256443) Homepage

    What I don't believe is the "many have assumed" bit.

    Parallel evolution is evident in all kinds of animal and plant features. I can't imagine why intelligence would be any different.

    I strongly suspect that most evolutionary scientists don't consider these findings to be surprising. Still, it makes a better headline if you pretend it's a shock discovery.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Hognoxious (631665)

      Still, it makes a better headline if you pretend it's a shock discovery.

      Just look where it was published. The phrases "military intelligence" and "plastic silverware" spring to mind.

  • Evolutionary Research SlowerThan Once Thought

    there
  • by jambox (1015589) on Monday December 29, 2008 @07:49AM (#26256541)
    So the upshot here is that the intelligence of any given creature is not a function of it's size or age (in evolutionary terms) but is very tightly geared towards the problems it likely faces in it's natural environment.

    For example, even a spider can do quite tricky maths in order to work out how to spin a web between arbitrary fixed points, yet is completely flummoxed by even the simplest general knowledge quiz.

    So what I want to know is, what was it about human beings that caused us to develop the capacity to drive cars, build computers and walk on the moon?
    • by slim (1652)

      So what I want to know is, what was it about human beings that caused us to develop the capacity to drive cars, build computers and walk on the moon?

      I think the ability to construct "what if" scenarios in the brain is a useful trait for staying alive, and one where it's quite easy to see stepwise improvements as possible and beneficial. Increasingly sophisticated planning type activity, that could happen in increasingly evolved brains:

      • If I step over that cliff, I'll die
      • If I use that pointy stick I can get food out of that shell
      • If I fix that rock to this stick I can use it to hit things
      • ...
      • If we put some men in some of these suits and fire them in a rocke
      • by jambox (1015589)
        Fine, except chimps made it to the third step in that chain (well more or less) so it doesn't really explain much. AFAIK there are a lot of reasons that come together in a "perfect storm" - roaming lifestyle, opposable thumb, vocal capability and so on.
    • by GrahamCox (741991) on Monday December 29, 2008 @08:14AM (#26256677) Homepage
      For example, even a spider can do quite tricky maths in order to work out how to spin a web between arbitrary fixed points

      I don't think the spider is doing any maths. It's a bit like us when we can simply immediately point to an intercept between two curves on a graph. Finding the intercept mathematically is moderately hard, but just looking and seeing where it is is no effort at all. The spider's brain is just looking and seeing where to place the silk - it's no effort at all and he certainly won't be breaking out the spidery slide rule.
      • by jambox (1015589) on Monday December 29, 2008 @08:52AM (#26256825)

        It's a bit like us when we can simply immediately point to an intercept between two curves on a graph.

        When we do that, there is some maths happening in our brains, it just isn't conscious. You're right, that is exactly what is happening in the spider's case. However to "just point" to an intercept seems like an incredibly simple thing to us, but to do it with the amount of brain cells a spider has is quite a trick. Bear in mind this all has to come from sensory data - it has to find branches, blades of grass or whatever and make a decision whether it is feasible to spin a web there, using very rough input from it's eyes. Try writing software for a robot to do that - if you manage it you might get a nobel prize. Even in a very simplified virtual world with perfect data, there would be a fair bit of maths, even if it's just basic trig.

        • by GrahamCox (741991) on Monday December 29, 2008 @09:07AM (#26256899) Homepage
          I guess what I meant was there isn't any maths going on that we would recognise as having anything to do with finding the intercept between two curves. There sure is a lot of visual processing going on that is breathtaking in its capability, but however that works it's unrelated to the usual method of solving intercepts!

          One observation I made many years ago led me to realise that we mostly underestimate what even small brains routinely do. I was watching a hovering seagull while waiting at some traffic lights. It was scanning the road surface below for a few seconds, then swooped down and picked up the tiniest speck of food from the tarmac. This was on a busy city street with lots of litter and other debris on the road, such as small stones and gravel, cigarette butts, etc. The tarmac itself presented a "noisy" image background and yet the gull picked out that speck as being worth expending its energy on from a height of 30 or so feet while maintaining balance in flight in a gusty high wind with a lot of moving traffic around. The image processing required to do that boggles my mind! So much for bird-brains.

          It's not such a leap to suppose that intelligence, whatever it is, is far more common than we assume. What counts as intelligent for a dog, cat or even a bright bird like a Magpie is probably not something we'd really recognise. Every creature's intelligence is uniquely its own.
        • by azaris (699901)

          When we do that, there is some maths happening in our brains, it just isn't conscious.

          No, there isn't. Recognizing spatial structures and symmetries is a strong feature of the brain, but it's not mathematical reasoning, i.e. it does not necessarily lead to an unassailable logical truth. As an example, there are many "geometric truths" that one can convince one self of by drawing suitable geometric diagrams, but which turn out to be false if we attempt to prove them for example in Euclid's plane geometry.

          • by jambox (1015589)
            OK I should have said "calulation" and not "maths". Maths, as you said, is a representational system and a spider is indeed not capable of any maths.

            Your second point is mere nitpicking.
  • So they're claiming there's some chance intelligence may eventually evolve in politicians?

    I'll believe it when I see some solid evidence.

  • Turn It Around (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DynaSoar (714234) on Monday December 29, 2008 @08:11AM (#26256673) Journal

    Let's try the alternative:

    Comparative neuroanatomy findings indicate that all the various animals have identical brains that evolved identically, and that they all operate on a single function through a single pathway.

    I could go on but I'm not going to page through the article to pick at it more, and in so doing satisfy their click-through quota.

    I used to really like the old, stodgy, stuffy SciAm. It said what it meant clearly and didn't end up with an oral-pedal inversion by trying to say more than was warranted, or that it felt it had to pump up with hype in the name of market share.

    I like the new SciAm too, but I liked it better when it was called OMNI.

  • Recanted (Score:3, Funny)

    by CuteSteveJobs (1343851) on Monday December 29, 2008 @08:42AM (#26256783)
    I always figured one day humans would evolve into machines, and machines would continue to evolve.

    But Vista changed my opinion about that.
  • ....and realize your description can be as simple as you want to make it or so complicated, like in patent lawyer speak, that even a genius might have trouble following it.

    There are different levels of knowledge where the further away you get from core knowledge the more complicated and error prone or distorted knowledge can become.
    There is a cycle also to the evolution of knowledge, that it builds up to a point where it breaks down and a re-evaluation is done closer to the core, to again expand out in a mo

  • If creatures have evolved enough intelligence to use tools and anticipate the future, then why aren't all animals intelligent? As some of them have been around for longer than us, why aren't they smarter than us? Some adaptions, such as flight, or vision, or a poisonous bite might seem to have to happen all at once, but intelligence can come by degrees - adding a few more brain cells here and here until you have the right balance, until you reach some natural limit where the head becomes too heavy or uses

    • by Prof.Phreak (584152) on Monday December 29, 2008 @09:44AM (#26257161) Homepage

      Maybe clever creatures get too clever for their own good, such as putting brain-good before gene-good. ie: a smart male praying mantis may avoid murderous females.

    • by slim (1652)

      That, and the energy requirements of the larger brain. But it's not really that much larger, is it?

      Wikipedia: [wikipedia.org]

      Although the brain represents only 2% of the body weight, it receives 15% of the cardiac output, 20% of total body oxygen consumption, and 25% of total body glucose utilization.

      (I assume that's the human brain. There is a citation, but it's dead tree and I didn't go looking.)

      Brains are expensive things to maintain. If an organism can survive and replicate without one, then it's not worth the cost.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by vadim_t (324782)

      More intelligence isn't always useful to reproduce better, which is what matters for evolution.

      A bird that is born with a better brain that allows it to realize that it can pick a sharp rock and bash it against an egg with a hard shell to break it has an advantage: it now has more food available to it. It will be healthier (or survive) and will be more likely to reproduce.

      A cat born with a brain that allows it to realize that if it could perform the necessary operations it could build mousetraps to catch mi

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by slim (1652)

        Same thing for humans. A brain that makes you a supremely good programmer isn't terribly good at attracting women, especially when using that extra ability involves withdrawing from society to get things done.

        If you have to withdraw from society to get things done, then perhaps you're not as great a programmer as you think you are. The qualities that make a good programmer are in no way incompatible with getting on in society.

        The qualities that make a good programmer - abstract thought, application, problem solving, general geekery - have always been useful in society. People look to you for inventions and solutions, and are willing to pay for it.

        The 'programmer' in a prehistoric tribe, might be the guy who real

  • :-( sad (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Lord Ender (156273) on Monday December 29, 2008 @12:46PM (#26258851) Homepage

    Oh how I wish it were possible to have a discussion of biology on Slashdot without discussing mythology. Having to explain/defend the basic principles of evolution over and over to the the hordes of deliberately miseducated really is a tiring exercise.

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