Friday, December 17, 2004

The Cost of Thought

I've recently noticed several people discussing this theme. (I even made use of it myself in my post on the Buridan's Ass paradox.) Carl Zimmer writes:
Intelligence is no different than feathers or tentacles or petals. It's a biological trait with both costs and benefits. It costs energy (the calories we use to build and run our brains) which we could otherwise use to keep our bodies warm, to build extra muscle, to ward off diseases [...] it is by no means a given that intelligence is always a net plus.

He goes on to note that we can breed fruit-flies to be better at learning, but then they do worse in competition than the dumber ones.

PZ Myers explains his pessimism regarding the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence:
[T]here doesn’t seem to be any evidence for a predisposition to favor intelligence in biology. Features like multicellularity, photoreception, long sharp fangs, flight, etc., pop up in life’s history over and over again, independently; but intelligence? Feh. The universe doesn’t seem to like smart guys. We happened once, and what’s more, we seem to be teetering at the end of one long chain of improbable events in the history of one marginal set of lineages, of which most of its members are in decline.

I admit to having some fondness for intelligence, so it's disappointing to learn that there probably isn't as much of it in the universe as I had hoped. Though we only have one planet's worth of data here to analyze. Perhaps this is really a question for synthetic biology to answer?

PZ also lists a few other reasons why we shouldn't be surprised by the lack of aliens on our doorstep. My favourite:
Once an intelligence has ensconced itself in a comfortable shell of civilization, there’s no further incentive to be smarter, and there’s even pressure to be less clever and fit in. Maybe civilizations reach that point where they invent TV, and then everything goes downhill.

PZ's post is also picked up by Brandon at Siris, who makes a very interesting point:
[W]e have fairly good reason to doubt that, even on the questionable assumption that there are lots and lots of intelligent species, most of them would ever reach considerable technological advancement. An immense amount of our scientific development, for instance, is tied to size of our moon. Who knows how we would have developed scientifically and technologically if we never experienced total eclipses? [...] I think it is sometimes too easily assumed that the history of human intelligence shows some special predisposition to science, in a way that is parallel to (and as problematic as, or more problematic than) the assumption that the history of life shows some special predisposition to intelligence.

Lastly, Mixing Memory has a related post on the costs of consciousness specifically:
In a great deal of philosophy, thought and consciousness are synonymous [...] However, most of what we do, and I would even say most of what we "think," is largely unconscious, or at least not under conscious control. While this may seem like a negative, it's actually a pretty good thing. Conscious thought is effortful. Not only does it take up cognitive resources (e.g., attention) which places limits on the number and complexity of the tasks that we can consciously perform, but it also takes up a whole lot of physical resources. This makes conscious thought fairly inefficient. It's fortunate, then, that our brains are designed, as a friend of mine often says, to avoid "thinking" (where thinking is synonymous with consciousness). Most of what goes on in the brain is automatic, relatively effortless, and thus uses a much smaller portion of our cognitive and physical resources.


  1. Not everyone agrees with PZ Myers's view. Robert Wright, for instance, has written a book arguing that the appearance of intelligence was very likely once evolution got going. He also argues that cultures tend to develop towards greater complexity and technology. I don't have the expertise to arbitrate the opposing claims, but if you want to see the other side of the argument Wright's book is called Nonzero, and there's a relevant excerpt here

    Posted by Blar

  2. IQ's are apparently getting higher - in fact by a pretty significant degree each generation.
    But of course that is probably due to better food education etc.
    I think intelligence is sometimes selected for sometimes not. I guess when one expects too much one can often get surprised
    now a fruit flys bread for intelligence probably have all the normal inbreeding problems and thus dont win competitions. If you look at just about any task peopel ahve intelligence helps and it was HUGEly beneficial when political intrigue was required for survival. now it is less important but largely because we are socialist. anyway TV level intelligence is likely to persist long enough to permit genetic engineering 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  3. I think we're probably alone as semi-intelligence in at least this galaxy. I'll see you Wright's book and raise you one of Peter Ward's. That said, I tend to think that (proto) "life" is just one of the common manifestations of matter in the universe. But life that evolves enough intelligence for cultural complexity and technology is a shot in the very big and inhospitable dark. We're here and thinking about it, so we tend to look at it as a good possiblitiy that it can happen elsewhere. Any little change in galactic circumstance or Earth history and nobody'd be here to care. 

    Posted by OGeorge

  4. If we were not alone we could probably see their work without considerable difficulty.
    Worse yet we would probably have alread met them - I see no reason why a species only a little more advanced than us would not expand at somwhere near the speed of light leaving some sort of representative to contact or anihilate other species. At the speed of light it takes the tinyest fraction of hte 20 billion odd years old universes life to fly across the galixy. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  5. Nice to see you guys discussing evolution for once. The idea that conscious thought isn't an evolutionary advantage seems a bit odd to me. The purpose of consciousness is that it allows us to predict in advance by imagining whether a particular event will be 'good' for us or not. It means we don't actually have to go out there and thump the big guy, we can imagine in our heads what the fight will be like and hazard a guess at what our chances are. This is a huge advantage. The reason intelligence has only evolved once (PZ Myers) is only a question of relativity. We're not 'absolutely' intelligent, we're just more intelligent than the other evolutionary creations around at the moment.

    I have a different take on why aliens haven't visited the earth yet.

    Consider how unbelievably big the universe is. For each grain of sand on the earth, there are a million stars. Now that’s a brutally large number of suns with orbiting planets that could provide the necessary conditions for life to exist.

    Statistically, therefore, there must not only be millions of intelligent life-forms out there, but half of them must be more technologically advanced than we are. Which means we've got a question to answer. How come we haven't seen them yet? If you consider that a hundred years ago we'd only just achieved powered flight, and then sixty years after that we were on the moon, it's just staggering to think where we're going to be in a million years time.

    So what's the explanation for the lack of aliens?

    The reason is that they've got nothing to gain from expanding their technology. But not because they're not intelligent. Why do we desire to contact aliens or to explore space? It's to make ourselves feel good - to improve our sense of 'well-being'. The reason Armstrong went to the moon is because he wanted to achieve something, to be respected by his peers, to be admired by the girls - he wanted to feel good.

    So, all those aliens out there - they also want to feel good. But they've all realised (as we will ourselves in the next hundred years) that there are better and safer ways to feel good than going into space. You simply re-wire your conscious mind so that you feel good all the time, regardless of what happens in the world around you.

    If you don't like the 'motivational hedonism' take on this, replace it with 'desire fulfillment'. If people always act to fulfil their present desires, and you can fulfil those desires by re-wiring your conscious mind so that you believe you've fulfilled them, then you've got a much more effective solution to the problem of desire-fulfilment than that of trying to conquer an unpredictable and competitive world.

    The way to end human misery isn't to race into space or to build more fuel-efficent cars - it's to invent drugs that remove the sensation of misery.


    Posted by ConsciousRobot

  6. Blar - thanks for the link, I'll have to look into it (though isn't Wright an "intelligent design" advocate or something?)

    GeniusNZ - re: your 'inbreeding' complaint, scientists know how to do controlled experiments! Two groups of flies were bred (separately) by the same general method - the only difference was whether they were selected for fast- or slow-learning. Then, come competition, the dumb ones fared better than the smart ones! (It's all in the linked-to article.)

    CR - I don't want to get too off-topic here, but I've got to make one quick correction:

    "you can fulfil those desires by re-wiring your conscious mind so that you believe you've fulfilled them"

    No, you can't. If you have a desire that P, then that desire is fulfilled if and only if P is true in fact. What you're thinking of (the mere belief that P is true) is 'desire satisfaction'. Again, all this is covered in my post on desire fulfillment. (You're welcome to continue the discussion there.)

    Back to the aliens... I think the statistical argument is fallacious. It neglects the possibility that life on Earth was a unique fluke. And even if life is out there, you're neglecting PZ's argument that human-like intelligence (by which I take it we mean the ability to use logic and think rationally - which can be taken as an absolute standard of sorts) is a biological / evolutionary anomaly. 

    Posted by Richard

  7. > scientists know how to do controlled experiments!

    I think you still ahve a problem - your average fly is probably ALREADY being selected for in relation to learning (in every day life) the same things you are puting extra selection on.... That - and selecting for slow learing may be more difficult. you may get flies htat just don't like your reward mixed in with ones that fail.


    > Consider how unbelievably big the universe is.

    we were talikg about in this galixy.

    > Why do we desire to contact aliens or to explore space? It's to make ourselves feel good - to improve our sense of 'well-being'.

    ever read the foundation series? (particularly the last 3) expansion is also about security - if you are very advanded but only have one planet a hostile force could probably destroy you. As in foundation it is perfectly rational for a species to design a automated protection system that blazes a path before it. Any smart civilization should consider the possibility and realise that regardless of their pleasure machines having a presence throughout hte universe was a good idea. any way would oyu not have selection for those who did not wnat to sue plesure machines? and in stead just reproduce as fast ans they can and expand?


    Posted by GeniusNZ


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