Saturday, September 10, 2005

Human brain still evolving





The human brain is continuing to evolve, apparently moving towards ever-greater intelligence.


I can't help but wonder what the Fundamentalist -- er, "Intelligent Design" -- contingent has to say about this. As I understand it, creationism holds that human beings are pretty much perfect the way they are, having been created instantaneously by God.

In two related papers published in the journal Science, University of Chicago researchers report that two genes linked to brain size are rapidly evolving in humans.

"Our studies indicate that the trend that is the defining characteristic of human evolution -- the growth of brain size and complexity -- is likely still going on," says Bruce Lahn, lead researcher for both papers and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "Meanwhile, our environment and the skills we need to survive in it are changing faster then we ever imagined. I would expect the human brain, which has done well by us so far, will continue to adapt to those changes."


I'm especially interested in the neurological demands that -- according to Lahn -- come as part of a richer, information-oriented future. When does current human wetware reach its limits? Could a human as we know him/her pass for functional in a society four- or five-hundred years more advanced than our own?

Ironically, I think the future may be a substantially easier place in certain day-to-day respects. For instance, today it's simpler than ever to interface with computers thanks to intuitive, graphical interfaces. Democratized computing and access to electronic media entail dramatically revved-up usability; simply compare today's information ecology, with its ubiquitous wi-fi hotspots, to the era of behemoths like ENIAC.

Perhaps we're in the midst of a species-wide upgrade, soon to be usurped by a redefinition of intelligence itself if something like the "Singularity" comes to pass. Of course, there's also the possibility of a massive intellectual decline along the lines of the Eloi in H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine"; the aforementioned Fundamentalists certainly don't bode well.

10 comments:

Boogey_Man said...

I wouldnt worry to much about 'fundies'. They have largely been tamed since the Reformation. While they may complain and denounce this or that bit of info to come out of labs they will in the end accept most of it. Despite protestations to the contrary they will come to terms with inarguable scientific discoveries. They have done so in the past and will continue to do so because deep down they know the Western tradition, the scientific tradition has proven itself more correct, more productive and more conducive to human rights and peaceful human expression than anything else we have tried in the last six thousand years. Look as the orthadox jewish community. Different than mainstream America to be sure but still functioning, productive members of society. I feel that in time the most hard core 'fundies' looking like this. Untill they start strapping TNT to themselves and blowing up busses in the name of Jesus Im not going to sweat it that they believe strange things and pray funny.

As for the evolving brain...
Natural selection would seem to favor the high IQ in an information environment. However those with the jobs requiring big brains (and thus earning the big bucks) tend to have far fewer children than those farther down the info-skill/pay grade. Wouldnt any advantage the big brains pass on to their kids be swamped out by the much larger numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled labor kids?

Perhaps if the big brains preserved their bloodlines by only breeding amongst themselves. An info-nobility living in gated communities. People with massive, soft heads covered in ropy viens, they live most of their lives on the web. They are lords and masters over a vast number of illiterate manual laborers. The latter are simple brutes with callus covered hands and smaller braing mass than the normal humans of an earlier era.

W.M. Bear said...

Natural selection would seem to favor the high IQ in an information environment.

Actually, the type of selection in operation here is called "cultural selection," a little-studied branch of anthropology. In fact, average IQ does seem to have increased substantially over the last century during which it's been measured. I seem to recall seeing that IQ 100, which is the benchmark "average" IQ would actually be about IQ 110 based on the benchmark IQ 100 of a century ago. This means an increase of several points per decade, I'm guessing largely because of the influence of technology on the types of mental activity that IQ measures, although this has by no means been "officially" established (although the increase in IQ itself is a proven fact). Supposedly, IQ measures "innate" mental capacity (whatever that means) but studies have also shown a strong dependence on unbringing, exposure to a variety of stimuli, etc., so the notion that the increase is due to living in an increasingly technologically oriented society is not at all far-fetched.

Mac said...

An info-nobility living in gated communities. People with massive, soft heads covered in ropy viens, they live most of their lives on the web.

Very nicely put.

Weevee: ogger (an ogre with a blog?)

JEFM said...

Hi Bear,

What you are describing is called the Flynn effect. There is much speculation about its interpretations ... a popular one among us psychologists is that people are just getting used to IQ tests, tasks in them are not so challenging anymore ... this and better diets, along with substantially "stimulant" stimuli are helping.

However, I see an intellectual decline ... of catastrophic proportions coming up ... and it's just because of sheer power of numbers.

Jon

KennyJC said...

"However, I see an intellectual decline ... of catastrophic proportions coming up ... and it's just because of sheer power of numbers."

I don't see this as true. Certainly fundies are using todays easily obtained information to reinforce their ignorance, but that seems to be a trait only of Americans and not quite other western societies.

W.M. Bear said...

Actually, I've seen quite "intelligent" people (by any IQ measure) buy into Christian fundamentalism in a big way. The type of intelligence that IQ tests measure really has very little to do with people's sense of reality or basic viewpoint that allows them to get sucked into various forms of religious fanaticism. I am seeing an appalling increase in this kind of fanaticism both in America, the Middle East, and even elsewhere.

Modernism and postmodernism (really a version of modernism) are nihilistic at the core. This is why terrorism is so rampant and so closely associated with modern life. I think in an attempt to escape this nihilism, people go for what they seeing is the absolute certainty of believing in some (it doesn't seem to matter which) religious dogma and then BELIEVING IN THEIR BELIEF. It is this "believing in your believe" that actually segues the mind over into fanaticism and most exoteric religions encourage exactly this mental strategy because it gives them total control over the believer's mind.

JEFM said...

I do Kenny,

When you put very smart people (with high "g" factors and high IQ results) in the middle of everything, surrounded everywhere by average Joe's, these levels tend to decline, they are absorbed by the genetic pool. Unless the smart ones start breeding within themselves ... creating an "elite" ... oh well, what the hell.

Nevermind.

Jon

W.M. Bear said...

Unless the smart ones start breeding within themselves ... creating an "elite" ... oh well, what the hell.

One interesting side effect of space colonization including lunar and Martian settlements with permament populations may exactly this kind of thing. It would seem that there will be a kind of "self-selection" for intelligence operating on those who join these projects, so that, ultimately, the "space children" will evolve into much more intelligent populations than the "parent" population back on earth.

stankan said...

70 thousand years is a long time in human history.

I would argue that brain size will not be a genetic advantage to propagation of the species while our present society exists. Intelligence is not necessary for survival anymore.

Stan

W.M. Bear said...

Intelligence is not necessary for survival anymore.

It will be for space-, asteroid-, and planetary settlers. Which was exactly my point about self-selection.