Saturday, September 22, 2007

Smart birds spur scientists to rethink intelligence

The remarkable feats of intelligence of some (not most) species of birds, effortlessly surpassing that of apes, is spurring a reappraisal of the origin of intelligence:
Alex, an African gray parrot who lived in a Brandeis laboratory and possessed a vocabulary of nearly 150 words. Yet as remarkable as Alex was - he could identify colors and shapes - he was not alone. The songs of starlings display a sophisticated grammar once thought the sole domain of human thinking. A nutcracker can remember the precise location of hundreds of different food storage spots. And crows in Japan have learned how to get people to crack walnuts for them: They drop them near busy intersections, then retrieve the smashed nuts when the traffic light turns red.

[ ... ]

The intelligence of birds, which sit far from man on the evolutionary tree, has also forced a reappraisal of where intelligence comes from. Scientists once assumed that intelligence evolved out of physical need - animals got smart in order to exploit natural resources. But the brainpower of birds suggests that intelligence is actually a byproduct of complex social interactions. Living in a group requires an animal to juggle lots of information about its peers. So it's not a coincidence that the smartest creatures are also the most social.
This sounds like a far more promising account of the origin of intelligence, actually.

I've long been skeptical of claims that intelligence evolved as an aid to survival. The vast majority of life forms that have survived for millions or even hundreds of millions of years did not require - or acquire - intelligence. The newer notion that intelligence is spurred by the need for complex social interactions seems a bit closer to the mark, though not entirely satisfactory. After all, many insects have achieved complex social interactions without anything like what we humans regard as intelligence.
Nicola Clayton and Nathan Emery, another researcher at the University of Cambridge, showed in 2001 that only western scrub jays that had previously stolen food from other birds would always re-hide their food. Jays that had never stolen before didn't worry about being stolen from.

"These birds are projecting their experience of being a thief onto other birds," Clayton says. "They are thinking 'Well, I've stolen food, so this guy might too.' It's a form of mental simulation."

That, of course, admirably explains one of the uses of intelligence - once the bird has it - but does not account for its origin. As we all know, many birds are fairly stupid, and would likely be better off if they were smarter. But they do not become smarter on that account. It is reasonable to suppose that many species of birds have become extinct on account of a problem with their environment that they might have been able to solve if they had become smarter - yet they did not.

Of course, we all love a good mystery, and this one should keep us going for a long time.

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A fellow journalist's thoughts on neuroscientists and God

A journalist friend, David Warren writes,
I have met few neuroscientists in my time, but I have met a couple, & it just struck me that each was seriously religious. Ditto, brain surgeons. Whenas, almost every common-garden biology prof or grad student I've encountered was stark raving atheist. ... Well, I am famous for my small statistical samples.

The same thing seems to distinguish microbiologists & geneticists: this propensity, which I suspect is founded in what they study, to be religious. Whereas, people who study textbooks, as opposed to nature, tend not to be.

The more obvious, & demonstrable divide continues to be between scientists of any speciality "teaching" in universities, & research scientists, mostly employed in corporate-sponsored institutions, where results count. The former give the impression of being wall-to-wall "post-modern," the latter wall-to-wall "born-again." And the distinction is once again between those who study nature, & those who study personal gratification.

It would be fun to see a "large" statistical sample. One does run into neuroscience grad students who are atheists, after all. On the other hand, there is Mike Egnor.

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Scientist apologist John Lennox to debate atheist Richard Dawkins October 3, 2007

Flash! Daniel James Devine live blogged the event last night.

Go here for the Hack updates.

A friend writes to say that apologist and scientist John Lennox will be debating Richard Dawkins in Birmingham, Alabama, October 3, 2007, courtesy of Fixed Point. Lennox is the author of God's Undertaker: Has Science buried God? and Dawkins is the author of The God Delusion. My friend tells me that Lennox is "well known as a speaker all over the world, but especially in Europe and the former Soviet block." Here's more on the debate. I have not yet turned up the resolution of the debate (as in, Resolved, that ...) - are they still working on it?

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If you do not take your sugar pill placebo, you are more likely to die?

Apparently. One thing that Mario and I discuss in some detail in The Spiritual Brain is the placebo effect: The way we often start getting better when we believe we will. In one study, according to "Do We Realy Know What Makes Us Healthy?" (New York Times),
The lesson comes from an ambitious clinical trial called the Coronary Drug Project that set out in the 1970s to test whether any of five different drugs might prevent heart attacks. The subjects were some 8,500 middle-aged men with established heart problems. Two-thirds of them were randomly assigned to take one of the five drugs and the other third a placebo. Because one of the drugs, clofibrate, lowered cholesterol levels, the researchers had high hopes that it would ward off heart disease. But when the results were tabulated after five years, clofibrate showed no beneficial effect. The researchers then considered the possibility that clofibrate appeared to fail only because the subjects failed to faithfully take their prescriptions.

As it turned out, those men who said they took more than 80 percent of the pills prescribed fared substantially better than those who didn’t. Only 15 percent of these faithful “adherers” died, compared with almost 25 percent of what the project researchers called “poor adherers.” This might have been taken as reason to believe that clofibrate actually did cut heart-disease deaths almost by half, but then the researchers looked at those men who faithfully took their placebos. And those men, too, seemed to benefit from adhering closely to their prescription: only 15 percent of them died compared with 28 percent who were less conscientious. “So faithfully taking the placebo cuts the death rate by a factor of two,” says David Freedman, a professor of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. “How can this be? Well, people who take their placebo regularly are just different than the others. The rest is a little speculative. Maybe they take better care of themselves in general. But this compliance effect is quite a big effect.”

There is so much we don't know about the relationship between the mind and the body.

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