Are humans “more advanced” than other organisms?

I recently had a discussion with a friend where he asserted that he was more advanced than, say, a plant. By the common connotations that come from the word “advanced”, we would have to agree that his statement was true. But it asks an interesting question: What do we really mean when we say we’re advanced?

To put the discussion in a proper framework, think in evolutionary terms. That means we can’t compare Albert Einstein to Sarah Palin and say, “Why, yes, he was more intellectually advanced than she is.” Of course that is true, but if we’re going to discuss evolution and what it means to be advanced, we’re necessarily comparing species, not individuals. That is what makes my friend’s initial comparison to plants a reasonable starting point.

But it is only a starting point. Because what are we comparing exactly? In terms of brain development, yes, he beats that plant handily. But what about in terms of ability to photosynthesize? Well, the plant just got a knockout in that round. Clearly there is a difficulty in making useful (and, in my view for this discussion, any) comparisons between species. Maybe we need to find a species that is closer in relation to humans. (It certainly would help for it to have a brain in the first place.) The animal I chose for the discussion and the one I am choosing for this discussion is the skunk. Jerry Coyne is the inspiration.

It does not always [evolutionarily] pay to be smarter, either. For some years I had a pet skunk, who was lovable but dim. I mentioned this to my vet, who put me in my place: “Stupid? Hell, he’s perfectly adapted for being a skunk!” Intelligence comes with a cost: you need to produce and to carry that extra brain matter, and to crank up your metabolism to support it. And sometimes this cost exceeds the genetic payoff. A smarter skunk might not be a fitter skunk.

A skunk is vastly more well adapted to life as a skunk than any human ever could be. All the things it takes to be a skunk? A skunk has them nailed down pretty well. The counter to this point was to say that if humans decided to destroy all skunks, we could. True enough. But does that make us more advanced? Of course our intelligence allows us to wipe out many other species, but the whole point of bringing up a skunk and its adaptation is to say that a comparison of intelligence is not valid for purposes of this discussion in the first place! (As always, you know I mean it when I use the lazy-man’s exclamation point.)

When we choose to compare intelligence in order to define what it means to be advanced, we have two massive assumptions going on. First, we’re assuming that intelligence is better than toothiness or having sharp claws or any other characteristic we see in nature. This assumption is untenable because some environments might call for all or any of those characteristics over intelligence. To put things in perspective, try thinking on an evolutionary timescale. So far I have only been comparing humans to other extant organisms (plants and skunks). But what if we go back 100 million years? 200 million? 500? 600? Any human put into an ancient enough environment would die. We know this because the right foods would not be available or because there would be no proper shelter or because the atmosphere would be poisonous or because our immune systems would not be evolved to cope with the bacteria and viruses present at the time or because…and so on. The assumption that intelligence is better than anything else is clearly wrong once we recognize that evolution and the ability of a species to survive depends largely upon environment.

The second assumption in this whole discussion is that we can even say something in evolution is “advanced”. We can say more complex or better suited to a particular environment, but “advanced”? That implies evolution is on the march towards some goal, to some end. That is not true. Science has demonstrated this again and again by showing what a contingent process evolution is. Take the Lenski experiments, for example. (I’m rather disappointed I never wrote about them here.) Richard Lenski and his researchers followed several lineages of E. coli for 20 years (in fact, they’re still following them). They would freeze samples every 500 generations so they could go back and re-run the tape of evolution should some fundamental change occur. And, eventually, such change did occur. Some E. coli were able to consume a natural by-product of their environment after nearly 30,000 generations. Lenski et al. unfroze the old generations to see just what enabled the bacteria to obtain their new found skill. As it turned out, they had to go back many thousands of generations; it wasn’t just one mutation, but at least three. The first two were effectively random. But they were necessary in order to get to the third mutation – the one that opened up a new food product for the colonies. But in the re-running of the tape, not all lineages re-evolved the new mutations. The chance involved in the process was too great to be inevitable; evolution is contingent.

So my answer to the question, Are humans “more advanced” than other organisms?, is to say it is an inappropriate question in the first place. There are several things we should not be assuming:

  • Intelligence is the best trait (whether to this point or in terms of possibility)
  • Evolution is goal oriented
  • The ability to destroy other species and still survive is a mark of advancement

I mentioned the argument for point three, but I have yet to address it. This one is pretty straight-forward, I think: We may be able to destroy many species, but that really only applies for large organisms. The vast majority of life is microbial. Since we would never be able to destroy it all (or even a minute fraction of it), does that mean it is more advanced than we are? What about all the bacteria we need to keep us alive? We certainly could not destroy all the mitochondria of the world and still survive.

Evolution is a contingent process that has no march towards any end. It is about the ability to survive. Our genes are interested in propagating themselves and that is why we are here. Life may mostly (though not entirely) be more complex since it first sprung forth nearly 4 billion years ago, but it always depends upon its environment – and that makes some characteristics more valuable than others. Sometimes.

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Weird pets

I was reading about the Canada lynx on Why Evolution is True and that got me thinking about all the weird pets people have.

First up are skunks. It’s unfortunately illegal to keep them as pets in some states (including Maine), but where it is legal, an owner can have their skunk’s scent glands removed so they don’t spray all over the place. They’re expensive to keep (needing a weird diet consisting of food better than what a lot of humans eat) and they’re apt to get into everything, but they’re known to be very friendly.

The closest I’ve come to a pet squirrel was one that used to come up to the porch for peanuts. Unlike all the other squirrels, he (or maybe she) wouldn’t run away when someone opened the door. He’d stick around, knowing food was likely coming his way. He stuck around for a few seasons, presumably dying two or three winters ago. (Squirrels can live up to 10 years in captivity, but tend towards 4 years in the wild.)

I don’t know much about raccoons, but the fact that they make me think of little train robbers when I see them forces me to include them.

The red fox is relatively commonly tamed. In fact, one well known experiment in Russia has consisted of researchers grouping individual red foxes by how friendly they are towards humans and then selectively breeding those individuals who display the most friendly tendencies. It has resulted in very dog-like animals; the foxes (now called the domesticated silver fox) wag their tails in excitement, whimper when left alone, and have lost their normal coloring pattern (the researchers did not select for color). Just like with all artificial selection, it’s a good example of evolution in action.

But even when decades of selection haven’t been taking place, the red fox still manages to be a decent, tamable pet.