Monday, December 21, 2015

Why Are We So Smart? Or Perhaps We're Not

Mankind bestrides Planet Earth. Why? How come we, alone, of all creation have eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

The answer, many say, is our large brain. Such, for example, is the implication of a recent Quanta magazine article: How Humans Evolved Supersize Brains.

But are human brains really the largest?

Definitely not: a sperm whale's brain, at around 7 kg, is six times the mass of a human brain (1.2 kg). And an African elephant has a brain four times the size of a man's†.

But not all humans have the same sized brain or the same brain power. So does the dominance of mankind depend on the rare individuals with unusually large brains? The evidence is not compelling. At autopsy the brain of the great Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev, weighed 2 kg, — which is impressive, but Anatole France, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, had a brain that was unusually small, weighing barely a 1 kg. Einstein's penetrating mind, resided within a brain of little above average weight, and the brain of Carl Friedrich Gauss, widely regarded as the greatest mathematician of all time, differed so little in mass from the average that some wondered whether he could really have been such a genius as people supposed.

But then it has been argued that what matters is not the size of the brain but the ratio of brain to body weight, the so-called encephalization ratio. On that basis, humans with an ER of 1:40, beat elephants, with a ratio of 1:560, massively. Remarkably though, birds come out ahead of humans with an ER of 1:12 — so much for bird brains. But the creature with the highest brain to body weight ratio of all, at around 1:10, is the tiny-brained shrew.  In such a small noddle, nerve impulses must flash from point to point almost instantaneously, which means that a shrew thinks about a million times faster than did Isaac Newton.

But if humans fail to come out on top either in brain size or encephalization ratio, how about wrinkles? The above mentioned Carl Friedrich Gauss was found on autopsy to have a truly wrinkly brain, more so even than Einstein's. So could it be the surface area of the cerebral cortex that dictates mental acuity?

But as it turns out, the wrinkle index doesn't work too well for us. According to an authoritative comparative study, the area of the human cerebral cortex, including the surface area of all the wrinkles, is 2.5 square meters, which is impressive compared with the cerebral cortex of a shrew at only 0.0008 square meters, a rat at 0.006 square meters or a cat at 0.083 square meters. But then it's not so great in comparison with a bottle-nosed dolphin at 3.8 square meters, a pilot whale at 5.8 square meters, or an African elephant at 6.3 square meters.

Another possibility is that our mental superiority depends on a particular lobe of the brain, namely, the cerebral cortex. This is the case made in the magazine article noted above. We have, apparently, more cells in the cerebral cortex than not only an African elephant (about three times as many, although compared with that of an elephant, our cerebrum has less than half the mass), but also our nearest relatives, for example the Western Gorilla (70% more, and more than three times the mass).

Phew, at least on a reading of the bumps our brains are best.

But such reflection on the physical properties and structure of the brain — about the workings of which we know little — may be the wrong approach to understanding human domination of the Planet. An alternative approach is to consider how the human mind differs functionally from that of other animals. And in that respect, the most striking difference between humans and other creatures is in the possession of language. It is language that enables humans to both share experience, and to think in symbols.

By thinking in words, mankind acquired two huge advantages over other creature. The first is a group mind. Humans think largely in words, and spoken words transfer knowledge and ideas to other minds with essentially telepathic precision. As the result of language acquisition, human knowledge, including technological expertise, evolved in accordance with the experience of an entire community. Insights of one, became the common knowledge of all. Understanding of the physical world applied to the practical affairs of life led to the evolution of technology. With advances in technology, wealth accumulated, and communities grew. Humans were no longer confined to isolated tribal groups of dozens or hundreds, but instead assembled in multitudes within an urban environment, where the exchange and elaboration of ideas accelerated.

The second great advantage gained through the acquisition of language was the ability to manipulate symbols and the ideas that they represent in accordance with either the whim of fancy or the rules of logic, the latter most highly developed in the field of mathematics. It is this ability, that has given humans almost godlike power.

At every stage in the advancement of ideas, the speed and extent of the distribution of human knowledge has accelerated. More technology meant more wealth, more wealth meant more people who could devote their lives to the elaboration of ideas, rather than the mundane necessities of primitive life. Improved technology facilitated the retention and transmission of knowledge: first record keeping, with notched sticks or knotted ropes, then writing, on clay tablets or paper, then printing, the telegraph, radio, TV and now Google. As a result, there has been an exponential growth in the human population and in accumulated human knowledge, virtually all of which is readily available to virtually every inhabitant of the planet by means of the Internet. It is by virtue of this development of the group mind that humans have advanced from bashing one another's brains out with rocks, to preparing for nuclear Armageddon.

So how clever are we, really? Morally and emotionally, no smarter perhaps than any other mammal, and certainly no smarter than a pre-human hominid napping flints to make arrow heads. Our dominion over the physical world, and in particular our power to destroy, have vastly outpaced our capacity to manage that power, for why else would we we tolerate idiots contending for access to nuclear weapons who so cheerfully threaten to punch their nuclear-armed opponents on the nose.

Humanity is at a watershed. Either we destroy the world, or we accept our mental limitations and work much more honestly and effectively for a sustainable future. The ambition for a secure human future no doubt underlies the globalists's plan for world empire, but their readiness to wage war to advance their agenda intensifies the danger they seek to defuse. We need a new approach. And in the meantime, the drive to colonize other planets provides the most promising second option. Dispersed among a million star systems, humanity could survive the occasional nuclear wipe-out, and could learn from the misfortune of those so destroyed, developing, in time, perhaps, the intelligence to live in harmony with our extraordinary technological capabilities.

† Source of data n brain size: A Short Dictionary of Scientific Quotations

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