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An Awesome Response to My Evolution Ponderings

March 2nd, 2010 · 5 Comments

Keith Owens, from East Aurora, NY sent this very intelligent response to my previous post Where are the Smart Caterpillars and Cool Humanoids?. This response came via Dave Harp, a friend and neighbor. Thanks to both Keith and Dave! Here’s Keith’s response in full:

First, taking the big picture, there’s no doubt at all that humans share common ancestors with the great apes, with all mammals farther back, and with all life even farther back. There’s tons of fossil, anatomical, and DNA evidence which proves that conclusively. It is a fact from many lines of evidence that we are descended from ape-like ancestors. All that evidence doesn’t just go away because there are aspects of the development of intelligence that we don’t understand.

Your friend is focusing on one aspect of biology, the development of intelligence in humans, that truly is very poorly understood. His observations are astute and interesting. But in skeleton, organs, immune system, DNA, everything, it is just dead clear that we ARE related to everything else.

So there are many interesting, speculative questions you can ask about human intelligence, but you can’t just say that ignorance of this one area disproves the whole edifice of biological evolution. It’s not completely understood how many features of life, for example, flight in birds, evolved. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the evidence shows, overwhelmingly, that they did. You don’t get to throw out a whole branch of science because there’s one thing you’re puzzled by.

But anyway, suppose your friend is right and human intelligence defies all attempts at understanding. I think that changes very little, actually. Humans are just one species out of millions. As shown by the fossils, and anatomy and DNA, there’s no doubt about the common descent part, so you’re left with supposing that something other than natural selection infused our particular species with intelligence at some point in history.

Maybe God did at some point, as many religious people believe. Or, maybe alien benefactors juiced up our IQ as in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Whatever. If that makes you feel better, fine (by the way, where did the intelligence of the aliens or of God come from?) It doesn’t change anything about our common descent or about natural selection for the rest of life on Earth.

OK, moving on to some of the details of the writer’s ponderings. Is the existence of humans as the sole intelligent animals really that big a mystery? I suspect not. I would ask whether your friend has looked into the subject at all, being so devoutly curious about it? There’s been TONS written on the subject, and although a lot of it is necessarily speculative, I think that these questions do have at least plausible answers.

Sagan’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” which I borrowed from you, is one example. Sagan would argue that the gulf between chimps and bonobos and us is not really all that gigantic. Maybe brains reach a tripping point where if you get so many neurons wired up, you get qualitatively smarter fast. I suspect something like that is true, anyway. Like Skynet from the Terminator movies in computers.

Would elephants benefit from being much more intelligent? That’s not clear, they’re just big herbivores, what do they have to figure out? Dolphins don’t have limbs. Possibly monkeys in trees had a complex environment, there’s a lot of math and physics involved in jumping from branch to branch and judging the distances, maybe that drove brainpower. Brains are “expensive” to develop (Dawkins’ recent book “The Greatest Show on Earth” goes into detail there) so there has to be an immediate, incremental benefit or it won’t happen. Evolution can’t plan ahead for the potential benefit of elephants more than one generation in the future—that’s a misunderstanding.

Why are humans the only sentient species, why don’t we have the Star Wars Cantina Bar scene? It’s a fair question. If you filled a bar with African Pygmies, Swedes, Chinese, Eskimos and Hoosiers, that might begin to look a little funny. We may indeed be on the way to branching, but that takes millions of years and we haven’t been at it that long. Also, like the author notes “perhaps they were the other humanoids and we just took ’em out.” I think it’s a mainstream theory that there were a number of early human species, Neanderthals and whatnot, and we did just take ’em out.

Then too, going more into speculation, I suspect that the FIRST species to develop sentience on a particular planet quickly fills the whole planet in a mere few thousand years, and directs resources in various ways to its own needs, thus preventing others from coming along.

And we just happen to be the first, plus we’ve only been this way for an eye blink in geological time. Intelligence may also be a sufficiently rare event that the lightning just doesn’t strike multiple times within millions of years of each other. Somebody had to be first. If the intelligent elephants had beat us to the punch, they’d fix things to their liking, and they sure wouldn’t tolerate primitive humans rising up.

Does Evolution contradict Genesis? Of course it does. Chapters 1 and 2 list how people, animals, plants, the sun, moon, stars, and water came along. It’s all in the wrong order there. Plus, Genesis Chapter 2 blatantly contradicts Genesis Chapter 1! I suppose believers think it is to be taken only figuratively, in which case it can’t contradict anything, after all.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 davidray // Mar 2, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Keith makes some good points that I appreciate and agree with, particularly about the evidence that all life evolved from the same beginning. I think there's nothing to debate there.

    Fortunately, my post wasn't about trying to disprove evolution. I was just simply trying to express some thoughts I have about it that seem still very mysterious to me. And kind of funny, to tell the truth. I think it's interesting that we imagine (via films like Star Wars) this huge diversity among humanoids, but so far there is very little diversity at all.

    I like Keith's description as the brain quest as a sort of race, and the first one to get a brain worth using earns domination over the planet. I hadn't thought of it that way.

    Here are two very interesting evolutionary tidbits. I'm providing them from memory, so if you're academic you're gonna have to find the references on your own. Sorry.

    1) There is archaeological evidence that wolves became dog-like in a very short period of time, and I'm not talking in geological time. Human time! The evolution of a wolf into a dog very likely occurred in less than 70 years. Yup. A human could have been born around wolves and died around dogs. That's what the fossil record suggests anyway.

    2) A Russian researcher devised a simple test for domesticatability among foxes in the 1950's as a way of making it easier to produce pelts en masse. He would put a thick glove on his hand and stick it in the cage with the foxes. The foxes that attacked it were destroyed and those that were curious or friendly were allowed to breed. Within a few short years, he was able to domesticate foxes, but in the process they took on rather dramatic physical changes. The shape of their ears changed, and they began to have previously unseen variations in color and markings on their pelts. They also began to bark, much like dogs.

    Isn't that crazy? Sometimes, evolution happens very fast. To Keith's point about evolution not seeing more than a generation ahead, I think it's very possible the intelligence lightning struck very fast.

  • 2 davidray // Mar 2, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    And, I suppose that since Keith has called me on the Genesis bit I'll have to post that soon. Just not today.

  • 3 Keith Owens // Mar 2, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Dave's friend Dave,

    Hey there, thanks for the kind words and public airing!

    On the evolution of the dog, one of the books I recommended, “The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins has some interesting stuff (he mentions the Russian fox experiment too). The thinking is, the original dogs/wolves more or less domesticated themselves by hanging around the edges or our settlements eating our garbage. The ones that were the most tame got the biggest helpings of table scraps, and that turned out to be a lot better deal for them than hunting things in the forest.

    One thing I wrote has been nagging at me and is probably wrong. The bit about human races being in the process of “branching.” Independent populations generally have to be isolated from each other by geography for speciation to occur, e.g., on islands or on opposite sides of mountain ranges or continents drifting apart. It probably was the case that our species' branching was proceeding on schedule, with everybody holed up in their separate continents, Africans, Norwegians, Aztecs, etc. But that's surely out the window now, with global travel being the norm and regular inbreeding between formerly isolated groups.

    All the better, imagine the wars we'd have it we WERE really separate species!

    Keith Owens

  • 4 tTechnology Details // Jul 6, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    i dont understand genetic mutations and natural section?
    genetic mutation is random dna change…
    natural section is the physical change of a species to better it self…
    how do they work together??? please help me i dont understand it? how could a random dna change better the survival of a species in the environment it is in?
    What really happens to us when we die?

    do we just rot? or turn to ash, then nothing else, OR is there another plane of existance out there?
    Technology Details

  • 5 Tech Info // Jul 8, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    I have heating problem in my notebook please guide me

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