Sunday, May 13, 2012

We're as intelligent as we ever were

I was reading a couple of articles about some animals with some rather unique interests this morning.  One was about orangutans in the Miami zoo who were given iPads and have been using them to "draw, play games, and expand their vocabulary."  Another was about a musically inclined elephant named Shanthi who plays the harmonica.

It was suggested by an elephant keeper in the video with the elephant article that because the elephant lives in captivity and doesn't have to perform all the tasks it would need to perform in the wild to stay alive, it is able to expand it's horizons in other areas of interest.  So I got to thinking, could these animals become more intelligent as a species over time if they were continuously held captive?  If Shanthi can play a harmonica now, could a descendant of hers a 100 generations from now be the pachyderm equivalent of Mozart?  Could the descendants of the orangutans playing with iPads a 100 generations from now be writing programs?

Well, no, probably not.  Because it then, of course, dawned on me that we have been keeping various types of animals captive for 1000s of years now.  Horses are still perfectly content to let us ride on their backs and pull wagons and dogs are still content to guard homes and play fetch.  An elephant playing the harmonica is probably not really indicative of higher intelligence, but of personal preference.  Shanthi probably found that by blowing on the harmonica, she could make a sound that she enjoyed hearing and get a response (clapping) from people she enjoyed receiving.  While on the other hand, another elephant may not care about the sound as much.  Just as if you took two people, one, who say, enjoyed the sound of bagpipes and learned to play them, and one who didn't enjoy the sound of bagpipes.  That particular personal preference indicates nothing about the level of intelligence of the two people.

And each species of animal is known to have a certain range of intelligence.  Orangutans are regarded as the most intelligent animal, while horses are not all that bright.  But we, of course, are the most intelligent species on the earth and I think it is safe to say that orangutans will not take over the world and subjugate us.

Our range of intelligence as a species basically seems to stay the same.  We even have a test to measure our individual intelligent quotient (IQ) in that range.  Of course, some people have a higher IQ than others, but for the most part, humanity as a whole stays within that established range or intelligence.  And even though individual IQ levels vary, an individual's own IQ typically changes little, if at all, throughout their life.

What changes with each generation though is not it's level of intelligence, but it's level of knowledge to build upon.  So while we may be flying around in airplanes with iPads and cell phones when people as recently as a couple of centuries ago didn't have any of that stuff is not because we are more intelligent than they were, but because each generation has had a certain level of existing knowledge to build upon.  For instance, years ago, you had big desktop computers.  Some people were brought up on those.  At some point, someone had the idea that if you could use a smaller screen and compact all those components together more tightly, you could get a laptop computer that was more portable.  Then at some point someone had the idea that if you could just interact with what you saw on the screen by touching the screen instead of using a keyboard and a mouse, you could make a computer even more portable as a tablet.

While the history of computers is really more elaborate than that, the point is, you couldn't have gone from an abacus to an iPad overnight.  There had to be successive generations of innovations to get to that point.  A farmer coming in from a day of farming a 1000 years ago couldn't have sat down one night and built an iPad from scratch.  But someone educated in existing computer science of the 20th and early 21st century could build upon that knowledge and take it to the next level.

So the point here is that our intelligence as a species hasn't really changed.  That it has been observed that history tends to repeat itself I think is even more evidence of that.  And we can look back in the historical record and see that even thousands of years ago, people of the generation then still seemed to be within that same range of intelligence as a whole (even if there wasn't a test to measure it at the time).  For instance, in the 1st century AD, the Greek mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria was known for developing steam power.  While he was intelligent enough to devise various steam powered devices including a steam powered pulley system for opening doors of a temple, most people of the era were farmers or performed some sort of basic skill or labor considered necessary for the lifestyles of the era.

To take this a step further, as someone who doesn't believe in the theory of evolution, I find this as additional evidence to dispel that theory.  While most who expose the fallacy of the theory of evolution do so by pointing out flaws in the theory from a biological standpoint as well as the general lack of hard evidence, I think by observing that our level of intelligence seems to stay within a certain range as well as each animal species, we have evidence that our minds have not really evolved either.  Only our level of knowledge.  So while humanity, barring any apocalyptic end of the world scenario, may one day be traveling the galaxy in spaceships (and, by the way, although it is unlikely, according to one engineer we could build a spacecraft as large as the Starship Enterprise in 20 years!), it won't be because the generation who does so is more intelligent than the prior generation, it will be because the prior generation provided the necessary knowledge to build upon.

But children always think they are smarter than their parents anyway, don't they? :)


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