Proof from Intelligence (2)

Divine Gift or Solvable Mystery?

Suppose, for argument’s sake, we claimed long-term memory as definitive proof of the intellectual superiority of human beings over all its peers. Suppose that a few decades from now, scientists crack their current roadblocks and come up with a complicated but complete understanding of the brain processes responsible. Obviously, we’d look like fools for casting our chips on a losing bet, and begin looking for some other mystery of intelligence to claim as a divine gift.

But how can we tell the difference between a divine gift and a solvable mystery?

A divine gift could never be understood by scientific means. A solvable mystery will be, if you don’t mind waiting a while. In the here-and-now, though, both are equally baffling. You can’t tell how long you’d need to wait, because then that mystery wouldn’t be much of a mystery. Turning to holy texts isn’t much help, as I’ll outline in another chapter.

We’re stuck in something like the Prisoner’s Dilemma (see the Morality proof), with four possibilities:

It’s a Divine Gift

It’s a Solvable Mystery

Treat it as Divine

No problem!

You look like an idiot when it gets solved.

Treat it as Solvable

Either you’ll run into proof it’s divine, or it’ll perpetually be studied with no direct answer

No problem, plus you know more about the world!

If we treat this portion of intelligence as divine, we reach a dead end where we no longer study it in detail. You could argue this saves energy, since if we treat it as solvable when it really is divine we’d just grind our gears forever. That won’t happen; the process of evolution ensures all species have a certain level of curiosity, since a little exploration might lead to fertile new areas with no competition. Human beings will always search for answers, via science or some other means, no matter what the question actually is. Instead of saving energy, treating something as divine will simply shift our curiosity elsewhere, and have no net savings.

That assumes everyone treats that problem as divine, of course. If different religions have different ideas of divine, the off-limit topics will get studied anyway. In the case of intelligence and the brain, the Gelung Tibetan Buddhists are willing to give science a try:

In a final decision, the Society [for Neuroscience] will move forward with the Dalai Lama’s lecture at Neuroscience 2005 in Washington, DC, as planned. At its July meeting, the SfN Council expressed overwhelming support for proceeding with the Dalai Lama’s talk on “The Neuroscience of Meditation.”

(Fall 2005 Neuroscience Quarterly, official publication of the SfN)

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation. […] If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

(Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the Gelung Tibetan Buddhists)

Treating the components of intellect as solvable mysteries makes more sense, in every case.  Importantly, this reasoning can be used against any claim of a divine gift, not just intelligence. Examples of this include a designed universe (Fine-Tuning) or designed body (Teleological), moral guidance (Morality), or any Miracle.

Cogs in the Machine

But before I get further side-tracked and forget, we should return to memory.

I hope you noticed that some parts of intelligence seem to have little to do with intelligence. A good short-term memory is certainly helpful when solving problems, but only as a helper to some other form of processing. There’s otherwise little special about short-term memory, and it seems widespread across all life. Indeed, an experiment done by Keir G. Pearson[37] suggests that cats can remember a barrier they’ve seen for a few seconds after it goes out of view. Interestingly, if they also step over the barrier with their front legs, they will remember to step over with the back ones even after a ten-minute long distraction. Even goldfish, which urban legends claim have a memory lasting only a few seconds, can actually remember some things for a span of three months.[38]

Long-term memory has been studied to a ridiculous level. We know new permanent memories are formed by creating proteins which decrease the resistance to transmit signals between neurons. Memories are not stored in any single place, but seem to be tied to global patterns of brain activity. There’s an alphabet soup of receptors involved: NMDA, AMPA, CaMKII, PKC, and many more. The interactions between all of them are complicated, and this has kept scientists from understanding the full mechanics of it.

Still, it just doesn’t have the type of specialness that we’d attribute to the actions of a god. Why is that?

Part of the reason may be that it seems easy to expand. If we know, say, elephants can keep the current location of seventeen to thirty family members in their head,[39] we can easily picture another creature that can manage twice as many. That skill is a mere numbers game, and bumping up its capacity is probably as easy as enlarging some part of the brain.

However, I suspect the main reason is that it doesn’t seem mysterious. Decades of research have taken their toll, and even our limited knowledge of memory suggests there’s a good mechanistic explanation of the entire process out there.

Both reasons are variations on the same theme: if a machine can do it, it can’t be special. For instance, Gordon Bell estimates that he could archive all the books, photos, mail, and movies that a typical person encounters in a lifetime in about one terabyte of computer storage.[40] In comparison, I own a computer that can store four lifetimes, and I could add one more in exchange for a day’s wages. This computer can also do math much, much faster than I ever could, has a reaction time that makes mine look positively glacial, and can crunch through more data than my poor brain could ever hope to, all while making fewer mistakes and never getting tired.

This also applies to biology, as well. We understand how human arms and legs work in excellent detail, from the force absorbed by the skeletal structure to the conversion of ATP[41] into mechanical energy. While our artificial versions are not nearly as efficient or flexible, we have no reason to suspect that’ll be permanently true.

Thanks to this, we can cut out a few categories of intelligence. Memory gets chucked completely, as does processing speed, reaction time, and kinesthetic ability. I’ll also invoke the mechanical argument for visual and auditory processing, logic and mathematics, and spatial intelligence, though I want to go into more detail than can comfortably fit in this introduction.


Language needs no introduction. You already know the power of language, because you’re decoding it right now. Without language, we would have no way to indicate we’re planning a big hunt tomorrow, describe the motions of the planets, or enjoy pictures of cats with captions added. Surely no other animal can claim to be nearly as advanced.

Unfortunately, we can’t be sure. We have not decoded the language used by elephants or whales, for instance, so entirely possible that they’re top of the heap. Whales in particular have access to one trick that we’ve only duplicated in the last few decades. They communicate with a series of clicks and yelps that can be heard from thousands of kilometres away. If you’re a fan of submarines, you might know about the “SOund Fixing And Ranging” channel. It’s a layer of water that acts much like an optical fibre; sound waves that enter it never leave, they just bounce around within the layer until they fade out, which can be the length of an entire ocean. We’ve spotted Humpback Whales taking advantage of this, so we know at least one species uses SOFAR on occasion.

It’s a staggering thought. For millions of years before us, whales had access to their own World Wide Web.

Elephant calls can carry pretty far themselves, thanks to their low frequency, but alas there is no SOFAR near the ground.[42] Like many other animals, though, elephants do have specific calls for specific instances. When elephants are menaced by bees, they’ll make a distinctive call that causes other elephants to take defensive measures. Lucy King, and others at Oxford, have tested this call by playing back several different versions of it to wild elephants. Altered calls didn’t result in head-shaking, used to keep bees away from the pachyderm’s face, or the tossing of trunk-fulls of dirt to keep bees from everything else.

Prairie dogs have an elaborate set of calls that warn not only what type of predator is approaching, but what size, shape, colour, and speed it has. All that is strung together in a basic grammar. Based on that information, prairie dogs can actually recognize the predator as an individual, and adapt their responses to it. Different colonies even have different accents, suggesting this chatter is a learned behaviour instead of hard-wired genetics.

C.N. Slohodchikoff wanted to confirm that, so he set up a simple experiment where plywood cutouts of a coyote, skunk, and an oval were randomly brought towards a dog colony. The warning call for the coyote was close to, but not quite the same, as the call for a normal coyote. All three received very different calls, even though two of them weren’t predators. That fact reinforces the theory that this “language” is learned; both the oval and skunk are novel situations, since skunks are nocturnal, so if alarm calls were hard-wired in via evolution you’d expect both calls to be similar.

Admittedly, this proto-language is nowhere near as complicated as ours. That doesn’t prove prairie dogs cannot develop a true language, only that they haven’t had the need to. The verbal skills of non-humans may be dormant, sleeping contentedly until some twist of fate forces them to develop.

Parrots, while ranked as one of the smartest birds to grace the skies, were considered too stupid for complex language. Their brains lack a folded structure called the cerebral cortex, which helps pack a ridiculous amount of neurons into a tiny area and was thought to be necessary for high-level intelligence. Humans, dolphins, and chimps all have this structure.

Irene Pepperberg disagreed, and decided to prove her point by picking up a random parrot from an ordinary pet shop, and trying to teach it our language.

Alex exceeded all expectations. He could recognize 150 words, including five shapes and seven colours, and could string them together in a sensible manner. One memorable day, he was presented with an apple for the first time and asked what it was. His response: “ban-erry.” While he didn’t know what an apple was, he knew about bananas and cherries. This strange fruit seemed to be a cross between the two of them, so he created an appropriate word on the fly.

Another time he was presented with a tray full of coloured blocks. When asked “What colour two?,” for instance, he would examine the tray, find that there were two red blocks, and answer “red.” After Irene had asked him about the “three” blocks several times, and Alex correctly responded with “blue” each time, he started replying “five” instead. Irene tried to coax the correct answer out of him, but eventually gave up in frustration and said “fine, what colour five?” Alex replied “none,” as there were no set of five blocks with the same colour.

He wasn’t confused, merely bored with the exercise, and was acting up like a human child would do in the same situation.

Alex would apologize if he ticked off one of the researchers, though he was never taught this. When he got bored of testing, he would ask to be put back into his cage; again, he was never taught that. He was taught the difference between “I” and “You,” to retrieve any number of any type of object from a tray, and as shown above understood the concept of “none.” He understood relations between objects, like “different” or “smaller.” He sometimes practised his lessons on his own, yet never saw any-one or -thing doing the same, and would help the researchers train other parrots, even though he was never taught to.

Pepperberg estimates he was as intelligent as a five-year old human, or the smartest dolphins and gorillas.

And speaking of primates: recent research by Catherine Hobaiter and others at the University of St. Andrews have shown that wild chimps can communicate with at least sixty-six different gestures.[43] It’s a good reminder that there are more ways to speak than through sound.


[39] According to a study by Richard Byrne published in Biology Letters, DOI:10.1098/sbl.2007.0529


[41] Adenosine-5′-triphosphate, the molecule all Earth life runs on. A human being consumes its body weight of the stuff in a single day!

[42]  A similar layer of air might exist at higher altitudes. A top-secret research project that would have confirmed this was cancelled, unfortunately, but not before one of their test balloons made a big splash near Roswell, New Mexico.