Friday, October 02, 2009

Reptile brain: Even reptiles don't have one, or not exactly, anyway

In "Reptile Brain: Fight or flight response"(Nora Lockwood Tooher, Lawyers USA, April 13, 2009), we learn about the "fight or flight" response of the "reptile brain" (the part of the brain that humans share with reptiles), and how it might help in convincing juries.

It did not convince me, and I am scheduled for jury duty at some point. As I mentioned to a friend a few days ago, nothing to do with intelligence is ever that simple:
The only person I ever knew who knows a lot about reptiles – he has tagged many alligators for conservation research (which meant climbing into the water and wrestling with the big ones) – laughs at the concept of the reptilian brain.

Here are some things he told me:
Alligator cows behave pretty much the same way as mammal cows if their offspring are threatened. The offspring den with the mother for months or years and often ride around on her back. She may carry them in her mouth down to the water after they hatch, and she doesn’t swallow them.
So the reptile does not need a mammalian brain in order to have primal feelings.

Of course alligators are not especially smart, but how many mammals are? Every porcupine I have ever met has been intensely stupid. It’s easy to understand why. The porcupine spends most of his time alone up a tree, and his quills stand up when he is frightened on the ground. Intelligence would be wasted on him because he doesn’t have any problems that could be solved by intelligence.

The question of whether intelligence is needed could be an interesting concept in understanding the evolution of intelligence. It might help us understand why some birds are vastly more intelligent, in the sense humans understand, than other birds and most mammals, even though their brains are dissimilar to ours.

Of course, any such inquiry would raise issues for materialism.

My alligator-wrestling friend pointed out that the reason he won his fights with big alligators has nothing to do with superior intelligence but rather, the reptile is exothermic and therefore quickly exhausts his energy supply. A human is endothermic and therefore can fight for hours. So if the fight is over in minutes, the human will usually win, assuming he has not sustained a serious injury. And the reptile splashes back under water wearing a conservation tag or a radio tracker.

Fight or flight? Not necessarily, according to my friend. In his experience, alligators sometimes use a third option, they just reduce their metabolism to next to nothing. He actually witnessed that when he was tracking an alligator which he had outfitted with a collar that provides radio signals of metabolism. When his boat passed over the area where he knew the alligator had hidden itself, the signal suddenly declined to zero.

Of course, the alligator could not keep up a zero metabolism indefinitely, but it wouldn’t usually need to.

My researcher friend’s subsequent research showed that a number of reptiles and marsupial mammals could “freeze” in this way. The tactic is well known among Virginia opossums, of course.
I think real intelligence research would best blow clear of simplistic theories like the "reptilian brain." It is far easier to see the harm they could do than the good.