Friday 15 May 2015

SMARTS Update: If Everything Is SMART, What’s Left To Eat?

My new book,SMARTS tells the stories of modern scientists who are finally getting a grip on the nature of intelligence, who or what displays it, and how it can be used.

For a long time in the West, we didn’t study intelligence at all, we just made pronouncements. We named ourselves Homo sapiens because our intelligence, our wisdom, was our defining characteristic, setting us apart from the rest of nature. The story of human intelligence as told by the religious is nothing if not presumptuous. We are assured that we are made in the image of God and our capacity to reason is the divine expression of our God-given souls. Though our bodies will decay, our souls will live forever in Heaven or in the Other Place. (There won’t be any animals in either locale.)  David Hume was one of the first Western philosophers who dared to call this nonsense and to focus instead on the physical nature of reason. He saw intelligence as a product of our senses, emerging out of our struggles for life in complex environments.  In other words, intelligence is a product of the interplay of adaptive systems, a remarkable insight for his time.

By the early 20th Century, the home of human intelligence had switched from the ephemeral soul to the neural cells of the human brain. Scientists of the period were also convinced that there is a hierarchy of human wisdom. The smartest humans were supposed to be rich, white, Anglo-Saxon males, while African blacks were at the opposite end of the scale.  Most women were deemed to be stupider than most men because most women have smaller brains.

Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, argued that intelligence is an inherited phenomenon. He developed what he thought were proxy physical measures that could predict who would, or would not, be intelligent. He hoped to improve the “race”  by figuring out who should breed with whom, and who should not breed at all. He called his science eugenics. His followers and their students eventually developed IQ tests as better means to measure the intelligence of adults and to predict the possibilities for children. IQ tests became the dominant method by which schools measured children’s intellectual prospects, and legal systems decide whether or not a person may be held legally responsible.

Though it later became obvious that high scores on IQ tests require a certain kind of literacy and a certain kind of abstract thinking (generally found in the homes of the well-educated), for decades, aboriginal children who barely spoke English were tested in English, as were new immigrants from Eastern Europe and Hispanics.  Needless to say they didn’t do too well. Through the averaging of IQ test results, whole nationalities were written off as being-- as the Nazis put it-- subhuman.  The Nazis were not alone in practicing eugenics. In Canada and the US, those with really low IQs were locked away from society supposedly for their own good but also for the so called mental “hygiene” of all the rest. Many were sterilized, many more were abused, and/or died of untreated diseases. In Germany, under the Nazis, they were killed outright.

In other words, the science of intelligence is deeply rooted in the very worst forms of human politics.

Off and on for about 150 years, if any animal appeared to be smart, the human observer of such cleverness was held to be at fault, reading in capacities that could not be there. This flaw even had a name — anthropomorphism. Animals, plants, every living thing but humans were seen as robots, helpless to do anything but respond automatically to any stimulus. Though Charles Darwin and his son Francis did many interesting experiments to test the cleverness of various animals and plants, for many decades after Darwin’s death no one in science wanted to be associated with the sin of anthropomorphism.  In the early 1920s, an Indian scholar named Bose did fascinating studies on plant electrical signals, the same kind of electrical signals (action potentials) that human neurons generate. But his work was soon forgotten. The idea that animals and plants cannot be as intelligent as we are, or have feelings as we do, remained unchallenged in most labs until well past the middle of the last century. It was a convenient idea. It made it possible to treat everything alive but us as commodities for sale. Only outright cruelty was outlawed and the meaning of cruelty became a moving target.

But by the late 1970s, due to Jane Goodall’s work studying chimps in the wild, all these old ideas about the nature of intelligence and who displays it were being re-examined.  Goodall famously found that wild chimpanzees make and use tools, have complex structured societies, make war, hunt cooperatively, experience love and despair. In other words, they are a lot like us. Soon scientists in all kinds of different disciplines began to compare the behaviors of a wide range of animals to the human gold standard. Ants, bees, birds, all manner of primates, cetaceans large and small, became the subjects of comparative studies. While some behaviors seemed to be hardwired, others were invented on the spot to deal with circumstance, and there was a lot of learning and remembering going on. For a while, language seemed to be the main frontier separating humans from the rest of nature. The linguist Noam Chomsky insisted language is a product of the human brain alone. But others disagreed and asked: could a chimp be taught human words and syntax if immersed in a human society?  What about dolphins and killer whales who make sounds for their own communications, surely they too could be taught human languages?

Many now know the awful story of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee studied at Columbia University by Herb Terrace and his associates. Nim was a male chimp trained from birth to be human by living with a human family. (He was handed over as a two weeks old baby to a former graduate student of Terrace’s who breast fed him, the better to immerse him in human culture.)  All went well until Nim entered his aggressive, juvenile years. He bit one of his trainers so hard that the study was closed down. Nim was hustled out of his luxurious home (the former president’s mansion on the Columbia campus), where he kept his own pet cat, to a new life behind bars, first in the same breeding/lab where he’d been born, then in a biomedical lab, and then in a “sanctuary”  where he lived by himself for many years. He died young. Terrace insisted that his language experiment had been an abject failure and that Nim never learned any syntax and no ape ever would. That made it hard for others to get grants.  

Still, many researchers continued to work at teaching great apes to talk.  You will have heard the story of Koko the Gorilla, and of Kanzi the bonobo genius who can signal his ideas with a series of abstract symbols called Lexigrams. In Hawaii, Louis Herman taught his dolphins two different computer-generated artificial languages, but then switched to studying other forms of their intelligent behavior as the language funding was cut off.

As new ideas about intelligence and who displays it spread from discipline to discipline, the idea that all animals display it, have a personal identity, and feel pain, began to replace the old dictum against anthropomorphism. Now, the equine specialist Dr. Marthe Kiley-Worthington tells her peers at conferences that it is utterly obvious that all animals do think and feel and any notion to the contrary must be proven, not the other way around.

The fact is that the more questions about the nature of intelligence asked, the more we learned about specific kinds of intelligence displayed by specific kinds of animals. It turns out that Hume was right: intelligence is of the body and bodies are shaped differently by different circumstance. Yet certain capacities seem to be shared. We have known for a very long time that ants from the same colony will fight to the death to free a nest-mate from danger. But only now do we ask: is this the same kind of altruism that sends a human dashing into a fire to help someone in danger? Some say yes, others insist no. We know that crows remember the faces of humans who scare them for as long as two years. We know an octopus will remember us for the good and the bad we do. These insights have led to ethical concerns about the very studies that generated them. The confinement of elephants and chimps and orangutans and cetaceans in zoos, labs, and game farms, seems plain wrong. Is it fair to lock up an adult male chimp in a five foot by five foot cage and run experiments on him that would never be permitted on a human? Please read The ChimpTrainers’ Daughter blog for more.

As these truths have been unveiled, more and more of us want nothing to do with the testing, breeding, using, killing and eating of animals that feel and think.

Many have turned to plants as an alternative.

SMARTS also describes the study of the intelligence of plants. People like Susan Murch of the University of British Columbia, Anthony Trewavas of the University of Edinburgh, Stefano Mancuso of the University of Florence, Frantisek Baluska of the University of Bonn and Monica Gagliano of the University of Western Australia have shown that plants learn, remember, predict change and behave -— which in plants means grow--accordingly. In other words, they argue that plants are intelligent, and have feelings. Mancuso and Baluska insist that plants process information in incredibly sophisticated ways by means of the action potentials generated at the tips of their root systems. They argue that these networks act like the neural networks in human brains through which we think, learn, remember and predict. Mancuso and Baluska use the phrase plant neurobiology to describe this study.

They like to remind their readers that the great Charles Darwin once argued that plants are intelligent and their root structures may operate like human brains. Mancuso and Baluska focus on the electrical signals plants produce. Murch and others focus on the chemical products of plant cells. They all argue that plant chemical signals (compounds that transform the shape of other molecules as they interact with them, and thus alter what they can do) produce intelligent patterns of growth. Do plants feel pain? They certainly make compounds, such as ethylene, which have been used as anesthetics on humans. Baluska argues that they use ethylene to stifle the pain they feel when a leaf or branch is damaged due to wind, rain, or a predator at work.  Murch says that the production of such compounds at such sites are akin to human screams.

Do plants, like chimps, have a sense of self, versus the other?

Many experiments show that they do.

Do they communicate? The molecules they make alert others of their own kind to impending danger, entice animals to enter their flowers to carry their pollen away, or tell animals to leave them well enough alone, or else. So, yes. They communicate.

So is it ethical to kill and eat plants? 

Mancuso, who says he has been plagued by emails from vegans concerned about the implications of his work, makes a curious argument. He says that by the measure of biomass alone it is obvious that plants are the masters of this planet and we humans are their slaves. Plants, he reminds us, make up 98% of the living things on earth, and without plants, humans would survive only a short time. Without humans, by contrast, most plants would manage very nicely.  He believes that certain agricultural plants, like wheat, corn, rice, made a conscious choice thousands of years ago to align their interests with humans', adapting to farmers’ needs even as human farmers protected them from predators. By sacrificing themselves to our hunger generation after generation, we have spread them over most of the planet’s surface.

Plants use us, Mancuso says.  We do their bidding, we are their slaves, not the other way around.  

In other words, if we can turn plants into our slaves, why not? 

That is a revolutionary’s argument. And the science of intelligence is nothing if not a revolution.

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