Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Intelligence or Bust?

Jennifer Ackerman makes a convincing case for bird intelligence in her 2016 The Genius of Birds. Birds use tools, sing, live socially, navigate over long distances and have at least the rudiments of mind. The most intelligent have larger and more complexly organized brains. In her last chapter, Sparrowville: Adaptive Genius, she suggests that birds that have mastered living in human environments – house sparrows, members of the crow and pigeon families and others – have prospered because of their flexibility and intelligence. She speculates that “we humans, in creating novel and unstable environments, are changing the very nature of the bird family tree” by creating evolutionary pressures for species characterized by increased intelligence. Writ large, she wonders, is whether the changes being wrought by humans in all the areas we affect – from city environments, to deforestation, to climate change – favor the development of intelligence in species that manage to survive.

It is interesting to consider whether the new Anthropocene epoch that we seem to have entered will be one of those catastrophic periods of destruction that sweep away species that cannot adapt quickly enough to the pace and degree of change. Among those species that do adapt and even prosper, the key for many may be the development of greater intelligence. Some species may find other ways to survive, but many will go extinct. Intelligence (in the form of operational flexibility and adaptability) or bust may be the motif of the next centuries, including for human societies. And of course, it is not yet clear that intelligence itself is adaptive in the long term. We may be in the process of changing the world we live in faster than even we can accommodate.


MBishton said...

It's a lovely notion. But does it hold up?

Other meteoric or volcanic cataclysmic events in earth's history marked the sudden end of many species and the growth of others. Did they survive because of their superior intelligence or coincidence of being able to find food and procreate under those conditions?

We are polluting and warming the oceans, which is killing coral; a critical anchor to life in the seas. What form of intelligence will help them survive or succumb?

I think intelligence is one element that can help some species grow, as it has for us. But I wonder what proportion it is to each species' count of nucleotides; the balance of which may have a greater bearing on that specie's survival.

Gerard Gallucci said...

The elaboration of nervous systems and brains appears ubiquitous in animal evolution. This seems to have been driven by the usefulness of mechanisms that allowed the organism to interact with the environment with purpose. Not all species went this way but the "higher" ones did. With humans as the top predator - or to put it differently, the top organic actor influencing the global system and environment - we have made intelligence a defining characteristic and demand. This is true for us and for probably all higher organisms. Living things - plant and animal, or a mixture like coral - without a complex nervous system may well be defenseless in this Anthropocene epoch. Although in the end, the race may yet go to the dumb.

As to nucleotide count: DNA doesn't itself act but underlies action. Size may count but isn't necessarily everything. Apparently we have more genes than a chicken but less than a grape plant.