-Why did humans take so long to evolve? Is human level intelligence maladaptive?
-What effect does each level of the hierarchy in biological systems have on system energy utilization?
-How do/can humans help the empower of the planetary biological system?
This post is meant to compliment the next post, so I am going to try to get the other one out at a quicker pace than my normal 2-3 weeks. I apologize for the figures, sometimes what I have in my head is better than the execution.
Evolution and Intelligence in the Prison of Historical Contingency
Historical contingency is a key aspect of evolution. It is the fact that evolution is constrained by all sorts of things that happened in the past. My favorite hypothesis and example of historical contingency is that: the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs led the survival of charismatic megafauna that mostly had very efficient breathing apparati. Birds, which evolved for flight, survived because they have amazingly efficient breathing for the respiration necessary for the action of flight and perhaps for high altitude flying. Today’s extant mammals most likely come from a group that lived underground and needed more efficient breathing and because they had more efficient breathing were able to weather the cataclysm. To accomplish this, we are decedents of a group of mammals all missing the bottom half of our rib cages. The beauty of historical contingencies are that the mutations necessary may not be immediately adaptive or competitive to the current entrenched set of adaptations, but win out in a new environment.
This brings me to one of my favorite experiments of all time. In an experiment that spanned 30 years, Blount et al showed evidence for historical contingency at the molecular level. They started with 12 cultures of E coli in a minimal glucose medium with excess citrate. The initial stock of E coli did not have the ability to use citrate as an energy source. After 20 some years and 31,500 generations, one of the twelve colonies began utilizing the citrate and population and diversity drastically increased in that one culture. They could trace back the event to some seemingly unadaptive mutation between generations 15,000 and 20,000 by rerunning the experiment on frozen cultures. The fact that the scientists did not see the ability to utilize citrate develop in a week or in all twelve populations after some ridiculous amount of generations does not mean that utilizing citrate was maladaptive for these E coli; Just that some quark in history was necessary to bridge gap.
Historical contingency understood in this manner may be one explanation of why human type intelligence takes so long to arise. Intelligence seems to be reaching a high level in few species, such as whales and dolphins, but they may reach a plateau due to historical contingencies. Humans may have hit the evolutionary jackpot by not only to have developed high intelligence, but the necessary secondary traits such as: efficient breathing (from the massive extinction event above) and a nibble opposable thumb.
The Empowerment of the Energy Hierarchy
The development of the biological energy hierarchy happens, like most energy hierarchies, from the bottom up. First a system for capturing some energy source self organizes, like photosynthesis (primary producers). It takes time for this first rung to organize, become resilient, and expand. Next another system (primary consumers) develops to utilize the energies from the system below. Again it takes time for this system to organize, become resilient, and expand. The higher an individual organism is on the hierarchy, the smaller in number and turnover time but greater in territory, scale, and influence (Figure 1). This process is iterative and creates multiple smaller levels with greater scale, territory, and influence one on top of the other until there isn’t enough energy to create another level or it is beyond our purview to understand it. One of the important aspects is that each level maximizes empower. This means that each level reinforces the other levels utilization of energy. No individual level is more important than another. The lower levels feed higher levels large power circuits, while the higher levels feed back smaller but of higher quality control circuits. It is imaginable that with each new level of the hierarchy added that the levels below become more efficient and pervasive, such that more energy flow and utilization is accomplished by each additional level in the hierarchy. (Figure 2)
Humans are at the top of the biological hierarchy and perhaps are a new rung. It takes time for the hierarchy and complexity to develop. EO Wilson suggests that after large extinction events it takes 10 million years to recover complexity and near Armageddon events much longer. It is foolish to believe that human level intelligence just pops up all the time. Further hampering the development of organisms like humans is that they take a long time to organize and be tested, since organisms higher in the hierarchy are fewer and have slower turnover time. The development of the biological hierarchy really is a form of historical contingency that furthers the explanation of why human level intelligence takes so much time to develop and is not maladaptive.
The seeming maladaptiveness of humanity’s intelligence might also be a function of the organization and testing stage of a new rung on the biological hierarchy. It appears for a time we were playing our role at the top quite nicely. It may only take more time and testing to get to a point where humans play the role of maximizing the long-term empower of the biosphere like every other organism and we can laugh at the thought of the maladaptiveness of intelligence.
The Emergist has a Dream
The dream is that humanity values and reinforces all levels of the hierarchy equally. From this dream, I have three wishes. The first is that we utilize fossil fuels in a manner that maximizes the long-term empower, transformity and emergy store in the biosphere. In this way, humanity can work to create more space for humans in a post fossil fuel world (figure 3 Wish a). The second linked to the first is that we create space for other organisms on our rung or higher on the hierarchy. This is kind of like in the book Ishmael where Daniel Quinn suggests humanity should step back from the abyss and welcomes other intelligences (figure 3 Wish b). And finally, that we somehow help push the long-term survival of the complexity life on earth into the future 20 or 100 million years. Prepare life in some fashion for the inevitable day when another super continent forms and the sun is emitting too much energy for carbon based chemistry. My only thoughts would be to endow or spread plants in very distant future (200 million years) with a method to control their albedo. Something a kin to what aspens may already do, but on a planetary scale. Odum seemed dead set against geoengineering, but I think he could forgive my indiscretion at the end of time. Though we may have a lot of time to ponder my dream.
-Be a steward of the biosphere
-Work to create and preserve more climax environments
Next Time: The Overgrowth of Control Circuits and the Rise of Autism (I have a need to get back to my darker side.)