Friday, November 09, 2012

Is Intelligence Over-rated

Those of you who read my blog regularly (Hi Mum!) will know that one topic I return to regularly is intelligence, and what is it good for, if anything. I was reminded again of this topic when I read about a new  human species recently identified from fossils found in Kenya, taking the number of concurrent species to at least three. As the following picture (taken from the BBC article above - thanks Auntie – who presumably took it from the original article in Nature) shows, our ancestors and relatives had several attempts at being us before they got it right.

So what happened to the other species? The conventional view is that they failed to adapt. The environment pulled a fast one on them, and they couldn't cope. H. sapiens pulled ahead and left the others in the dust because, our (that is, H. sapiens’ ) intellectual elite informs us, we were ‘superior’ in some way. We were smarter, more adaptable, or ‘fitter’, to use Darwin’s term.

But maybe we were just lucky. Maybe evolution didn't select us. It just hasn’t got round to getting rid of us yet. It has just dusted of its hands after disposing of H. floresiensis, and now its turning its attention to us. Not that we haven’t been standing in full view, hopping from one foot to the other, with our hand in the air shouting ‘My turn, my turn’. Certainly, the way we are screwing with our planet could only be construed as a challenge to the evolutionary process. “Come on then evolution, show us whadya got?” 

Story lines for the ‘we lasted because we’re smarter than all the others’ scenario are obvious, and can be found in several Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies and magazines, often with some accompanying time travel, or the pathos of watching the last Neanderthal slowly wasting away because the bullies, sapiens, are taking all the food.

However, I don’t think the ‘we’re still here because someone had to be last’ scenario has been fully exploited in literature. Current end of the world movies are a little exuberant for my taste. All that going out with a bang when a real artist would see the drama and tragedy in going out with a whimper.

Since I am not convinced that intelligence is a necessary outcome of evolution, I think it would be interesting to describe us slowly becoming extinct because we couldn't run fast enough, couldn't photosynthesize, couldn't breathe underwater or couldn't take to the air and soar without landing for weeks or months (as the albatross can do) while the ground beneath us is ravaged by one or more of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Becoming extinct because we couldn't agree on the problems with the environment, or couldn't suppress out aggression and our itchy fingers on the nuclear trigger is too mundane.)

To look at it from another angle, a story could describe why other traits are superior to intelligence, why man faded away because other animals or plants adapted better to the changing environment. The ultimate come-uppance tale would be mankind extinguished because he could not adapt to the environmental changes he had caused, while other animals could.

We could speculate that intelligence is such a useless adaptation that we are lucky to have got this far and we're only hanging on by our finger nails anyway. Human intelligence has lasted no more than two million years, a pitiful performance put beside whatever the dinosaurs had that kept them going for about a hundred and fifty million years. It’s probably less successful than having long shaggy hair and curved tusks almost long enough to scratch your backside with and living on the arctic tundra, or living at the bottom of the ocean and eating squid for supper on a Friday night.

The interesting part would be, what are we missing that will result in our downfall. The characteristics listed above are obvious contenders, but I’m sure there are other ways we could fail to adapt, perhaps characteristics that have yet to make their appearance.

Or a Stapledon-esque panorama of life on Earth from the first prokaryotes to the ultimate life-form, where the rise of mankind is little more than a pebble on the road. And the ultimate life-form? I think it would be something that could leave Earth when it detects that the sun’s time is up, and migrate through the interstellar waste to another, younger star system.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The future of disbelief

In a world crippled by religion, superstition and ignorance, belief is still a crutch for many. The importance of objective evidence, gleaned from multiple repeatable observations, is still rejected by many in favor of primitive cognitive behaviors that had already served their purpose when we believed the world was flat and the centre of the Universe. It isn't going to get any better anytime soon.
As I drove around town on my weekly quest for groceries, I caught the tail end of an interview on CBC.
Brent Banbury was talking with a software developer named Dan Schultz about software that rates the claims of politicians and is able to calculate their position on a scale of how close they came to meeting their promises, measured on a scale that ran from ‘Kept the promise’ to ‘Pants on fire’.
 The uses of this kind of software are limitless. It can tell you which political party is honest, or, if you prefer, which is the most dishonest. It can tell you who is telling the truth about climate change, whether a policy espoused by a politician will have the results he claims, which brand of household cleaner to buy, which religious followers actually practice what they preach and which preach what their holy books actually say, which educational program will best prepare your child for the ardors of life three decades hence, etc. Every step in life can be guided by computer generated information based on objective analysis of the facts.
This sounds great. Joe Public is now to be presented with computer generated information on the trustworthiness of everything from his favorite politician to his favorite heath supplement. There’s just one problem. No one is going to believe it. Recommend the toothpaste that is best for your teeth. Nope, I always use brand X and I’m staying with it. Recommend a Korean Hatchback. Nope, I always buy Detroit Iron. Expose a candidate as dishonest. Nope, he supports my kneejerk issue (gun control, gay rights, immigration, whatever). The advice will be ignored for a whole range of reasons or, more accurately, excuses.
Already, people ignore the evidence for evolution or climate change in favor of what they believe, as if prefacing a sentence with “I believe…” gives their statement credibility that it wouldn’t otherwise have. If people don’t believe scientists and experts, statistics and other objectively derived information produced by their fellow human beings, can we expect them to believe computers?
The story line of course is a ‘rebel against the machine, exterminate the scientists kind of thing, either dystopian if it ends badly for the scientists, or utopian if the disbelievers get their come-uppance (because they don’t use the computers for some reason) and/or the scientists are vindicated by events.

Another possibility is end of the world, computer models predict the eventual triumph of global warming, but politicians don’t want to believe it because their constituents don’t believe it. The computers warn us but we ignore them.

Perhaps also our reaction to this computer generated advice may determine whether we are visited by advanced aliens. If they look at us and see we keep ignoring good advice, even when the outcome of ignoring it hurts us, they’re going to think us a bunch of morons and go on to the next planet.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dark Day

It looks like I’m not the only one at the Speculation game. The British Broadcasting Corporation, my favourite source of science, sporting and general news, is at it as well, encouraging speculation by its readers.

This article describes one of these bizarre events that cannot be explained, like hoof marks trailed across snowy Devon, or the abandoned Mary Celeste, and asks their readers to speculate on what happened.

To say these incidents can’t be explained is perhaps misleading, there is no shortage of explanations. When I was in primary (elementary) school, my class was once set the task of writing a story to explain the disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste, so it is a safe bet that there were several explanations right there. Mine was that the crew were abducted by a passing slave ship that disappeared below the horizon just as the Mary Celeste came into view from the Dei Gratia. But there is no way to select the correct explanation.

The problem with these events is their uniqueness. If they happened once a month, we could test our explanations against the facts and quickly reach a conclusion. But these events happen once, ever. And they typically happened some time ago, so whatever evidence there was, is now lost. So, unless they do repeat, we are without any verifiable explanation. Your explanation is as good as mine

But back to Dark Day. The BBC, having solicited explanations, published the best of them . Interesting, but mundane.

These explanations are what we would have expected, an assorted mixture of aliens, weather, and large objects hurtling through space and only just missing causing another mass extinction on Earth. These explanations are dull because they refer to standard mechanisms known from fiction, science or history. Each sounds like the plot of a novel we read just last year. What would be more interesting and, given the rarity of these events, quite likely, would be an explanation in terms of a mechanism completely unknown to us, a mechanism as rare as the outcome that was recorded. What is referred to in planning as ‘the unknown unknowns’. We can’t describe them because they’re unknown.

What would be more interesting than the explanations would be the events and lives that were changed by Dark Day. Perhaps a murder committed in the dark of day, or a murder avoided, an assignation missed, a child lost, a cow rescued, a lion escaped from a zoo, a sighting of Sasquatch, superstitions driving people to do things they would not have done on any other day. Did someone think it was the end of the world, did someone wake and think he had slept through the day, did someone meet an alien and think it was the devil?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mining an Asteroid

Larry Page and James Cameron want to go to an asteroid and mine it. Well, strictly speaking, they want someone else to do it. Someone will set the explosives and wield the pickaxe and Larry and Jim will make the big bucks. Such is capitalism. But first Larry and J.C. have to get their miners there.
Mining asteroids isn’t easy. After all, it’s mostly rocket science. There is also the matter of staying on the asteroid when Newton’s third law of motion is trying to push you away with each strike of your pickaxe. But these are small problems.
Two bigger problems face those who would pursue commerce in space, speed and cost.
 Speed is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, if people are involved, speed matters because people get old, they get bored and they want to do other things than sit in a tin can while it makes imperceptible progress toward Mars or Jupiter or the asteroid belt. For space travel to be more than a scientific trifle, for it to make economic sense or social sense, people must be able to get where they are going fast, or at least subjectively fast.
 The second reason speed is a problem is because it is important to realize a return on your investment as soon as possible. No one is going to invest in a venture that doesn't pay back for fifty years. By the time you've made enough money to invest in space, then waited for the profits to come home, it’s too late to have any fun spending the profits. Speed is also important because stuff changes. If the price of gold is x dollars per ounce when you invest in an automated satellite to extract gold from an asteroid, it may be a fraction of that or a multiple of that when your money comes back to you. Too much risk. You need speed to reduce risk. Of course, you could set your gains up as a college fund for your grandchildren but human beings are notorious for wanting instant gratification and avoiding risk, and a fifty-year return doesn't meet these criteria.
 Cost matters because… well cost always matters. The reason we aren't all building rockets to the Moon is that it is just too darn expensive. The main challenge for private space ventures isn't getting into space, it is doing it cheaply. After the failure of the 'reusable shuttle' to save money, private space entrepreneurs are tackling the issue of reducing cost. And they are succeeding. That is why private space launches are becoming more popular, because they are cheaper. And over the next ten, twenty years, they will continue to become cheaper and more reliable. Once that happens, mining an asteroid is a feasible project.
So where are the stories in all this. Well, I think the speed of travel is already well addressed, mostly in those horrifically morbid movies about trips to Mars, and the more optimistic stories of generation ships. But most science-fiction doesn’t accept the speed, it gets rid of it with hyper-drives and wormholes. But there is still scope for stories about investments gone wrong or returns delayed. Actually, this has also been done I think, just think of those stories of medieval merchants waiting on a boatload of precious metals and rare spices to return from the Americas or the Far East. Just update the technology.
A story around the cost of spaceflight sounds mundane, but I think it could be done. The story would probably be about the technology that makes spaceflight cheaper, technologies such as spaceships grown as crystals, or living creatures, or designed by computer and perfected by evolutionary programs that eliminate unsafe or expensive design features.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


The notion of panspermia  has been in the news lately. And soon  it will be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

The idea that life on Earth came from another planet has been around for a while but now it appears that other planets could have been seeded from Earth. 

Life may come to another planet from Earth, but that planet might already have its own life. This raises the possibility of two great kingdoms of life waging war on an evolutionary battlefield. The carbon based life forms against the silicon based life forms. Interesting, but unlikely. It seems that since there are organic molecules drifting round in space, and since these probably give rise to planetary life, the organisms would be similarly carbon based. Furthermore, unless there are multiple different strands of DNA that can produce any of the proteins that life relies on, it is probable that all life shares the same basic components of the DNA code.

Asteroid or comet hits are fairly common. We know of several on Earth and within the past decade we have witnessed a comet impacting Jupiter. Given this, the ejecta of such collisions must be littered throughout space, teased into globs and streams by the dynamics of space. We can imagine interstellar space cris-crossed with streams of life bearing planetary ejecta, perhaps seeding planets millions of light years away.

Most of this life probably consists of dormant spores that can survive the extreme conditions of outer space, but let’s assume for a moment that some of this life is normal living matter, maybe a rock with some cracks that harbor extremophile bacteria. Is there any reason why they could not survive, breed,  adapt and evolve in outer space?

And despite adapting and evolving, would they still yearn for the warmth and nutritional riches of a planet, would they migrate, perhaps in great herds, from planet to planet grazing, fattening, breeding perhaps before setting off into space again. And would they be, as most grazers are, followed by carnivores and scavengers?

This effectively makes the galaxy and perhaps even the entire universe, a single ecosystem, and we are in that ecosystem, sedentary (at least at present) creatures among the migrating competitors. It is perhaps a step too far, but one can imagine humans, velociraptors, ants, squid and condors travelling between the stars, competing with each other for dominance in different planetary ecological niches. Perhaps this could be achieved by sending ‘generation ships’ between the stars loaded with out most prolific or versatile species. Or perhaps the competition is between the evolved intelligent descendants of these animals, not competing with warfare but to see who can best survive the evolutionary pressures of each planet, pressures such as global warming or cooling, volcanic action, rising sea level, desertification and disease.

So much for the notion that the galaxy is fundamentally inimical to life. Or perhaps it still is. Perhaps most of the universe cannot support life, but tolerates its passage, and reserves its musty fetid corners for life's infestations.

Could life take control of this mechanism, using asteroid impacts to spread to other planets as a plant on Earth uses the wind to spread its seed. A life form with a long term view could prepare itself and just wait, but I think that evolution is not that patient. A more intriguing idea is that once they are ready, they are able to summon the asteroid. Any  idea how that could be done?

However, once all this speculation is done and new and wondrous ideas have been penned and flow from the printing presses, one unresolved problem still exists. One problem that panspermia has never addressed. Where did life first arise, which planet gave rise to the first living thing in the universe? And could we trace life back to that planet? That would be a challenge worthy of a great expedition. Of course, it is likely that life arose many times independently, but even so, somewhere, a long time ago, the first life wriggled and squirmed, and perhaps we are its children.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Body

This article appeared on the CBC web site in late 2011. What makes this interesting is the obvious preparation that went into the disappearance. And the newspapers add an element of intrigue. If the deceased lady was just trying to sneak into the States, why the newspapers? The identification papers are obvious, the letters reasonable, but why the newspapers? One can only deduce that she was from a parallel universe and wanted to compare events in our universe with those of her previous universe, or that she was from the future and she planned on investing in some promising stocks, or maybe having a flutter on the gee-gees.

But her plans came to naught with her unfortunate demise. Doing a body swerve round the most obvious and mundane explanation for her death, that she was abducted by aliens, subjected to anal probing and having her short term memory erased, then returned, by an incompetent trainee transporter operator, to the wrong side of the river where she was set upon by a posse of redneck vigilantes who, on seeing her materialize out of nowhere, made the obvious deduction that she was an Islamic terrorist, and flung her back into the river in the hope that she would return to Canada, land, as all redneck vigilantes know, of atheists and Islamic terrorists, but where she was dragged to the river bed by a couple of angry teenage catfish and drowned, then drifted down river a couple of miles before returning to American soil, we should probably consider some less plausible possibilities.

I can't help feeling there is an s.f. story here, but I can't think what it is. What if the newspapers were from the future and the government hushed them up (as governments are reputed to do on a regular basis), or if the identification papers identified someone who was still living, perhaps a young girl or an old woman, or someone still living in Montreal, so that the story was to explain where her duplicate came from. Or perhaps it was impossible to trace the person who was identified. Or what if the autopsy revealed that though she looked human externally, inside her organs were different, or she was different at a cellular or DNA level.

Finding an unexplained body is not new to literature. The idea has already been used by John O’Hara in his novel Butterfield 8 following the discovery of Starr Faithfull’s body in 1931, but John O’Hara was not a science fiction writer so left a vast and fertile field for the rest of us.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Intelligent Life

As new planets are discovered every day and the search for life in and beyond our solar system becomes more and more an issue of when and where rather than if, we start to ask; what will we find first, a fossil or a living creature, a single cell or a green man with six limbs and a brain the size of an asteroid?

Since simple life precedes complex life, it seems reasonable that there is a lot more simple life than complex life in the universe. We can also assume that almost all organisms that have ever lived are now dead. It therefore seems most likely that the first proof of life we will find will be a fossil of a single cell organism, an alien prokaryote.

Perhaps that’s for the best. We don’t want to meet the creature of Neil de Grasse Tyson’s “fascinatingly disturbing thought. At best that would be bad for humanity’s collective ego, to find that we were the stupid white men of the galaxy, at worst it would be fatal to our species, perhaps to our entire planet.

An intriguing possibility is that we will find life and not recognise it or more likely, find intelligent life and not recognise the intelligence. If our understanding of life or intelligent life is too Earth-centric, we may not recognise it when we find it on another planet, or, as Olaf Stapleton suggested , in deep space.

About forty years ago I read Stanley Weinbaum’s short story ‘A Martian Odyssey’. At the time, I though the different Martian life forms that Weinbaum described a little unlikely, because I couldn’t understand their functional morphology or behavior. Now I realize, that was the point. That is exactly how life on other worlds will look to us. Inexplicable. Another point to take from Weinbaum’s tale is that just because we have plants and animals for our complex organisms, doesn’t mean we will be limited to two, particularly these two, kingdoms on other planets. There will be life forms that will not be animals or plants. The science of Biology will take on a whole new lease of life as we start to gain some understanding of the underlying principles that apply to all life, not just life on Earth.

So, what is life? At least in our Universe, I offer this definition. Life is a self-sustaining, self-propagating complex collection of molecules capable of controlling its own destiny. Not too difficult to spot, one would think. One would look for something that could move uphill, seek out or avoid sunlight, heat acidity, pressure or conservatives. It would be capable of locating, ingesting and metabolising other living matter, and now and again, split into two while having a bit of fun doing it. Even on a planet such as this, it may be difficult to predict what form life will take, but we will probably recognise it when we see it.

The interesting thing about other planets isn’t just what kind of life they will give rise to, but what evolutionary pressures on such a planet can produce in the way of complex, or even intelligent life. Not only do I think there is a story there, but I think if you define your planet and describe its geology and history, you would be able to identify its evolutionary pressures and thus define an environment with realistic life forms with their motivations, challenges and accomplishments.

But, what is intelligent life? Here, I have no definition to offer and so I turn to the hypothetical ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ (to hijack a legal term), and suggest that he might see, not an indivisible whole, but a collection of components such as language, memory, abstract thought including speculation, tool making and problem solving. In any individual human being, these skills are more or less developed. And in any animal, these skills are more or less developed. We see some of these components in animals as diverse as bonobos, dolphins, parrots and octopuses, but only in humans do they all come together and reach their full flowering in Beethoven’s 9th, Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’ or the Blue Mosque of Herat.

So if intelligence is a collection of parts, what would an animal be like who has a slightly different collection of parts, who perhaps lacks a tool making ability but can read minds. This may seem odd (and using mind reading as an example is, I admit, stretching your credulity a little) but let us briefly consider the possibilities.

First, let us detour a moment to consider some other peaks of evolutionary development, swimming, flying, communication. A whale and an octopus have radically different approaches to moving round in water. A bird and a bumble bee use different properties of air to fly and men who create vibrations in the air and ants that spread chemicals, use radically different mechanism to communicate. So is it unreasonable to suppose that human intelligence is not inevitable, but is only one solution to the evolutionary pressures faced by our ancestors? Humans have not developed the cooperative society of bees and ants, the ability to communicate over hundreds of miles like whales, the coordination of swarms of birds or fish or the inertial navigation of birds, eels or salmon. Perhaps other intelligences would incorporate some or all of these skills.

So given this possible variation, what would other types of ‘intelligence’ look like. So far it seems that S.F. authors have been rather conservative in speculating on this. In ‘Calculating God’ Rob Sawyer introduced creatures that could recognise up to 25 items without counting (humans can only manage about 4 or 5) and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’, describe creatures, ‘Moties’, that have such good visual judgement and such quick reactions that they had no need of traffic signals and avoided accidents on their roads merely by avoiding each other, often by only a few centimetres. Sawyer’s ‘Neanderthal Parallax’ also gives us a few ideas, though he is much more inventive when describing Neanderthal culture.

But if we look into the ever-dependable Wikipedia, we get some hints. Plant intelligence is probably the most alien to us. Artificial intelligence could give us some ideas. Another Wikipedia article adds a telling comment. “What is considered intelligent varies with culture.” A recent book on Neanderthals raises the possibility that our close cousins may have been different from us in several ways, such as not being willing to adopt new technologies, a practice of many religious sects of our day. So even on Earth, we see considerable variety. What then will the intelligent organism on another planet behave like?

Of course, the problem isn’t so much finding intelligent life (after all, if it is intelligent, it will probably be hiding from us) as recognising it when we stumble over it. First consider how we recognise life on Earth? Let us acknowledge that we have a head start in that since we currently belong to the only intelligent species on earth, we start recognizing intelligence by recognising ourselves. But what behaviours do we demonstrate that would indicate intelligence? The diurnal lemming like migration to and from work? No, I don’t think so. The fact that we board obviously manufactured dirty, smelly, polluting conveyances to do so? Probably. Trips to the store to collect our groceries? Again, probably not. The fact that we enter out airmiles number as we checkout? Definitely. Our annual migrations across country to indulge ourselves in the pleasures of snow or sunshine? Definitely not. The fact that we apply sunscreen once we get to these new locations? Possibly. The fact that we return again next year with renewed optimism, despite the broken leg or sunburn that spoilt our previous vacation? Absolutely. Keeping other animals for our own use? No, ants do that. Teaching them to fetch. Yup. Fighting? No. Waging war? Indisputably! Staring in wonder at the stars? No. Thinking there must be a god up there making the stars move across the sky? You bet.

So when we reach our alien planet, perhaps it is the artifacts and detritus of intelligent life we look for, rather than intelligence itself, the rubble, pollution, carnage and chaos that comes with intelligence. We look for the creators of that ugliness and there we find intelligence.

And if, as seems likely, we are looking for intelligence in creatures now extinct, it is appropriate that we look for what they have left. Space exploration isn’t for biologists or psychologists, it is for palaeontologists and archaeologists. These are the sciences of interstellar exploration. (See the novel Chindi for an account of archaeologists exploring the galaxy.)