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I was listening to public radio the other morning, one of the regional programs, and they were discussing the inevitability of evolutionary intelligence. The topic was based on Dr. Simon Morris’ work at Cambridge University in evolutionary paleobiology entitled, “Darwin’s Compass: Why the evolution of humans is inevitable”. Basically, he postulated that even from multiple, independent starting points evolution will converge – given appropriate conditions on appropriate planets – resulting in similar organs, similar structures for similar purposes and even similar levels of intelligence. I won’t delve too much more into his explanations but you can find them here if you want to dive into it further.
The latter did get me thinking. Through numerous areas of biological research, we’ve seen numerous examples of life’s ability to grab hold even in some of the most extreme habitats present on Earth. We’ve seen the potential for the formation of life is much easier and much more frequent than we initially thought. Could the same case be made for intelligence?

A couple of opponents of Morris’ research stated they felt this inevitability of humanoid intelligence was simply wrong or that the thought that the universe formed just so we, humans, could come into being was preposterous. When you put it that way, then yes, it is. But I think they miss the point. I don’t think Morris was talking about “humanoid” intelligence, in a physiological form we find popular or comfortable. I think he was talking about intelligence in general whatever physical form a species may take. A bit later in the program they referred to Carl Sagan and an explanation he gave for what SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is looking for, which speaks to the potential variety of intelligent life. I can’t find the exact quote but the essence was SETI searches for intelligence; in any form it may take, wherever it may exist – on land, in the sea, in the air -, in whatever innumerable states of being imagined or unimagined; which has reached a level sufficient to send out radio signals that we may be able to detect.

This all hit me as quite interesting.

***Disclaimer: Now before anyone with a firm grasp on biology or genetics reads any further, please note this is just me having a little speculative fun with how we gauge intelligence in ourselves versus how we gauge it in other species. I’m just playing around so please do not get too upset with me***

We have examples of higher intelligence here on our planet which, to an extent, support this evolutionary tendency. Chimpanzees are a common reference for this with their tool use, transmission of learned behaviors and fairly recent acknowledgment of their culture. But what other species exhibit these characteristics? Three came to mind almost immediately as I began thinking about this; killer whales, dolphins and elephants.

Both dolphins and killer whales, which are more related to dolphins than whales, transmit learned behaviors between individuals and offspring, exhibit fairly complex problem solving abilities, tend to have complex social structures and seem to grasp the preservation of life. I have more knowledge of these instances involving killer whales than dolphins just because that’s where my own research branched out to but they both exhibit many of the same behaviors.

Killer whales are shown to have distinct dialects between social groups and across regions. That is pods from New Zealand will have distinct differences in dialects from those in Puget Sound and the resident pods of killer whales off the coast of Washington State have differing dialects from transient whales that occupy the same general area. These differences speak strongly to transmission of knowledge between individuals and among groups which leads to the ability to “teach”, so to speak, other skills to other individuals like one’s offspring such as hunting strategies, coordination during hunts, problem solving and tool use.

Killer whales in New Zealand have taught themselves and their offspring how to hunt stingrays and to avoid the stinger. These are the only pod of whales who consume these rays and they developed a unique method to catch them.

Whales observed in Antarctica were observed actively adapting to a particular situation as they coordinated a hunt to catch a sea lion sheltered on a small ice sheet.
Later it was noted the whales allowed the sea lion to return to the ice suggesting their actions were meant as a training session for younger whales. There is another pod which frequents an island chain in the south Atlantic, I believe, that was hunting baby sea lions as they first venture to the water’s edge by surfing up onto the beach grabbing those who ventured too far out. The whales waited until a large enough wave ran up the beach riding it, half stranding themselves and grabbing the young sea lion. They then rocked their bodies out of the shallow area with subsequent waves. This also appeared to be a teaching session since there was one experienced whale going first who then allowed other, apparently, younger whales to try with varying levels of success. In one instance they returned a captured baby to the beach further suggesting this was not solely a feeding activity.
[I thought this 2nd video was just interesting to include]

There are numerous instances of these behaviors with killer whales. For dolphins, a couple of instances come to mind. One was where bottlenose dolphins were observed using conch shells to catch fish which swam inside them to hide. Another is a proven instance of a mother teaching a daughter how to hunt rock fish using a piece of a sponge on their snouts. The sponge was thought to be used as protection from the fish’s venomous spines.

Now moving back up on land, research on elephants has been moving in some interesting directions with new findings illustrating a previously unknown complexity of language. Researchers have identified vocalizations in ranges at the fringes of human hearing which are only now being studied in depth. There is also a particular instance I’m reminded of where a female elephant became mired in a mud hole. Other members of the group surrounded the hole with some pulling off tree limbs, using them to reach out to the other. The attempts unfortunately failed as she could not hold on tight enough and she eventually died from exhaustion. Afterwards, the entire group spent an elongated amount of time in what can only be called a morning period. They each approached as close as possible to her body, walking slowly and murmuring in low tones. This went on for quite some time. This event displays elephants’ ability to use tools and illustrates their apparent comprehension for the preservation of life and for its loss.

One of our primary adaptations specific to humans, our key trait that defines us, that places us apart from other species on Earth is said to be our formation of culture. While there are many definitions of culture most can be summed up as;

“ A system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning “

If this is how we generally define culture, and by association intelligence, given the higher level we hold ourselves above other species inhabiting the Earth, then there is at least some intriguing, or at the very least speculative, support for this hypothesis of evolutionary convergent intelligence. Given enough time and appropriate conditions who knows what leaps ahead these already intelligent species may take.

What would facilitate these leaps? Well, there might be some surface commonalities each of these species exhibit that could lend to some clues. Now, I won’t pretend to delve into the biological or physiological processes for these evolutionary strides forward but what if there are characteristics that help facilitate those biological changes. Based on these three species, they are all fairly long lived (dolphins 20-50 years, killer whales 50-80+ years, elephants up to 70 years), they live in complex social groups and have a demonstrated ability for the transmission of knowledge within groups and across generations. Is it possible these, among other conditions, are components for the development of higher intelligence? Or maybe I’m just falling too much into Lemarkian inheritance? Or perhaps I ended up taking this more from a cultural perspective of intelligence rather than a biological, evolutionary view of it. I suppose I’m posing the question, would biology alone result in the development of intelligence or would it take some social component which would facilitate the further development of any predispositions in select individuals? Or does the evolved intelligent species have a predisposition to form these social groups?

Either way, it’s compelling to think about. After all our understanding for what is required for the formation of life has changed over time. First, we thought sunlight was a requirement but that was altered with the discovery of deep sea life thriving around volcanic vents. From there water was considered the defining requirement but that is being reconsidered, theoretically at least, with the discovery of liquid methane on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, after all there is bacteria here on Earth which thrives along oil deposits.

Given the change in those basic assumptions then the time may not be too far off where we reexamine how we view intelligence or at least the form it comes packaged in.

I’d be interested in hearing any of your thoughts.