Does evolutionary convergence prove God?

Over at BioLogos, Darrel Falk, president of the outfit, presents the “evolutionary convergence” argument for God in a piece called “Was humanity inevitable?” The piece is accompanied by a Wisconsin Public Radio interview centered on Cambridge University paleontologist Simon Conway Morris and his ideas about the relationship between God and evolutionary convergence.  It’s well worth listening to, for Conway Morris’s views are criticized by others as well as receiving some surprising support.

Briefly, evolutionary convergence is the observation that some unrelated groups of animals or plants have, though natural selection, converged on similar “designs” when they find themselves in similar environments.  The classic examples (I talk about some of these in WEIT) are the placental and marsupial mammals (both, for example, have evolved mole-like forms), the vertebrate and cephalopod eyes, the fusiform shape of dolphins, fish, and ichthyosaurs, and the euphorbs of the Old World and the cacti of the New.  Convergence shows that, sometimes, genetic variation will hit on similar adaptive solutions in similar environments. It’s nether hard to understand nor difficult to accept.

Some religious biologists, however, think that God is behind this phenomenon.  I have no idea why, for the prime example they always use is human intelligence, and human intelligence is not convergent with the intelligence of any other unrelated creature.  Our mental complexity is an evolutionary one-off: like feathers or the trunks of elephants, it evolved only once.

Somehow, though, religious scientists like Conway Morris want to argue that the evolution of human-like intelligence was inevitable.  Behind this view, of course, is the faith that God acted to create humans through evolution, and that human intelligence, capable of apprehending and worshiping a God, is the acme of that God-driven process.  But why would the evolution of such an intelligence be any more inevitable than the evolution of, say, the elephant’s trunk?  I think the convergence argument for God is deeply misguided—in fact, it’s incoherent.

I’ve addressed the convergence argument before (go here, and, if you want more, trace the links back to my New Republic piece, where I discuss the issue in depth).

In the radio piece, however, Conway Morris repeats his claim, arguing that the evolution of “a sentient species, with an advanced civilization, in my view, is an inevitability.” Kenneth Miller seems to agree, but biologist Sean Carroll and philosopher Dan Dennett strongly disagree (I’m with them, of course).  Surprisingly, Richard Dawkins agrees that a high, human-like intelligence was an evolutionary inevitability, saying that, “Simon Conway Morris and I are very close. . . .but he thinks it implies some kind of theistic push and I don’t.”  I think Richard’s view here stems from his emphases on “arms races” in evolution, for high intelligence is a great way to win an arms race.

UPDATE: Richard explains in a comment below where and where he does not agree with Conway Morris’s claims about inevitability (he disgrees, of course, about any theistic implications).

Falk’s piece gives both sides of the argument, but he lets Conway Morris’s erroneous claims go unchallenged. Here is one:

Given enough time and resources, [Conway Morris} says, every ecological niche will be filled up by some kind of life form.

Now how do we know that? I think it’s complete twaddle, for there are some good examples of ecological niches that have never been filled. Here’s one: snakes that eat grass. What a great niche for a snake, but although they’ve been around for 125 million years, snakes have never evolved herbivory. Yet there’s plenty of room for such creatures!  (Of course, you can always say that such a niche doesn’t exist, but then your argument becomes tautological.)  Any biologist can think of such unfilled niches.

At the end, Falk punts the question into the arms of theologians: the intellectual equivalent of it tossing it into a black hole:

So is the near-certainty of human life front-loaded from the beginning? Was it predetermined from the Big Bang that human beings would eventually arise? Was it predetermined that God’s natural activity—that activity which upholds the universe and maintains all that is within it—would be sufficient for the eventual development of humans? Alternatively, was supernatural activity required for the creation of the human body? Does the Bible dictate one way or the other? Is it somehow less God’s creation if it took place through God’s natural activity? Is it somehow more God’s creation if supernatural activity was required? These are questions for theologians. Science is taking us up to edge as Conway Morris brilliantly shows. There, we meet the theologians, and there, we begin the journey’s next phase.

These are questions for theologians? They can tell us whether the evolution of humans was inevitable? Or that human evolution required supernatural activity?  Don’t make me laugh.  Theologians are completely incapable of answering those questions, or in fact, any questions.  Theology is not a way of finding out answers; it’s a highly developed form of rationalizing preordained conclusions.


  1. TreeRooster
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    “Kenneth Miller seems to agree, but biologist Sean Carroll and philosopher Dan Dennett strongly agree.”

    It seems that Dawkins has a good point in that high intelligence is like good hydrodynamics–a solution that should be hit upon multiple times. But that might not apply to self-conscious thought.

    • Justin Wagner
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. There’s no necessary link between high intelligence and consciousness. The sci-fi author Peter Watts explores this idea in his book ‘Blindsight’.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

        “There’s no necessary link between high intelligence and consciousness.”

        How about “as far as we know” ?

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Typical Theological thought process:

    So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. “What! No soap?” So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber…”

    No soap-> radio-> radioactivity-> quantum mechanics-> therefore: god!

    Don’t even think about mentioning neutrinos. (I had a lively 1964 Neutrino; four-on-the-floor).

  3. Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I think questions about evolutionary “inevitability” are really interesting, and I’m personally agnostic on whether human-like sentience was inevitable. But I’m curious where you got the sense that Falk is making a “convergence argument for God.” I don’t see than anywhere in his piece. On the contrary, the paragraph you quote at the end is a list of questions about the nature of biological reality.

    I completely understand your skepticism, and your stance toward theology. But here, I think, you have projected something onto Falk (and, perhaps, Conway Morris, though maybe you can quote him making a “convergence argument for God” elsewhere) that he didn’t write and that, I strongly suspect, he does not believe.

    In other words, I think you misread Falk badly. His piece is about convergence and what it means for theistic belief. It’s not (in my view) about how convergence can or should bolster theistic belief. I think that’s a big distinction, but of course YMMV.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      No, I’m not sure where Falk stands here, and I don’t attribute Conway Morris’s views to Falk, though I do think Falk is sympathetic to them.

      On the other hand, Conway Morris is completely behind the convergence argument for God, and has been for some years. Read the post I put up before. Believe me, in this case I know whereof I speak!

  4. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    While there’s clearly no drive toward greater complexity in any given lineage, it is nevertheless true that over time, an ensemble of randomly-walking lineages will tend to fill an ever-expanding region of complexity space, just as gas molecules fill a room. Maybe this is what Dawkins has in mind.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      There are some pretty big assumptions in there, say not dilution to effective vacuum. It didn’t happen for proteins, so why would it happen for other traits?

  5. KP
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Theology is not a way of finding out answers; it’s a highly developed form of rationalizing preordained conclusions.

    This is a good quote. I will use with attribution.

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      I was just thinking while reading this that this quote perfectly sums up my thoughts not only on this entire article, but my opinions entirely of theology.

  6. Ben Lopez
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    My understanding is that the extinction of the dinosaurs opened ecological niches that were filled in part by mammals. Without this probably no apes, and therefore no humans.

    Doesn’t this suggest that without the dinosaur killing meteor, evolution wouldn’t have led to humans?

    • Max
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Not at all. It just means that it wouldn’t have happened in exactly the same way or in the same time frame or with literally the absolute exact same results (maybe we’d have no little finger, or be colored slightly differently, or some other minor difference).

      Humans could have appeared with or without the extinction of dinos, or with their extinction earlier or later or more complete or less complete.

      I’m not saying I’m sure that humans were inevitable, just that I don’t think your concept is necessarily valid.

    • Tulse
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      It implies that the dinosaurs were sinful, and thus God sent an asteroid to wipe them out. (Note that He did a similar thing later to humans, only it is easier to ride out a flood than an asteroid strike.)

    • amphiox
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      The questions to ask here, I think are 1) if the asteroid had not struck, would the dinosaurs have survived to present day, or would they have gone extinct anyways at a similar or later date? and 2) if the dinosaurs had not gone extinct, could human-type and human-level social intelligence have evolved among dinosaurian lineages? After all, that lineage did indeed evolve several examples of sophisticated social intelligence, as crows and parrots can attest to.

      • HP
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        1) They did survive.

        2) You answered your own question.

        My limited understanding is that the latest evidence shows that a) non-avian dinosaur diversity was already in decline prior to the K-T event, and there are at least a few non-avian fossils (hadrosaurs?) that date to a few million years after the K-T boundary.

        Mass extinction events take place over millions of years. If you lived in the middle of a mass extinction event (and you most likely do), you probably wouldn’t notice anything unusual.

        • Matt G
          Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          The primate lineage may go back to as far as 85 MYA, according to the Wikipedia page. The earliest primates were treeshrew-like in appearance. To get to us involved about 15 speciation events (a rough estimate – perhaps someone else has a more accurate number. I know the answer can be found in The Ancestor’s Tale).

      • Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:43 am | Permalink

        Might dinosaurss have evolved more intelligence? Tyrannosaurs, with those little grasping hands, might have used them to hold tools and so on….

        As to snakes becoming herbivorous, doesn’t herbivorosity require a fairly voluminous body (elephants, cattle) unsuited for being long and thin and legless?

        • Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:44 am | Permalink

          I bet when dinosaurs evolved religion, THEIR God would have made YHWH look like a wimp!

        • Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

          There’s never a history of anything until it happens.

          Who’s to say that it’s physically impossible for a long, thin animal to digest grass? Perhaps such an animal could exist; it just hasn’t evolved yet.

          • Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

            Well, when animals take to the water, they tend to become fish-shaped: penguins, dolphins. When they live on grass, they tend to have roundish bellies: cows, elephants. Roundish bellies militate against legless slithering. I’m not saying it’s physically impossible, just that inhernet factors in the two conditions might work against each other. Snakes might make a breakthrough in grass-digestion that bypasses the need for bulbousness, but I’m suggesting there might be something of a natural obstacle there.

    • Dominic
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Without the Permian extinction perhaps mammal-like reptiles would have held sway instead of dinosaurs… we can speculate about potential dinosaurian intelligence –
      Who knows!?

    • steve oberski
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      This is touched on in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History”, the title being a deliberate reference to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where an angel helps a compassionate but despairingly frustrated businessman by showing what life would have been like if he never existed.

      Gould wrote: “Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.”

  7. Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I don’t agree with Richard that our intelligence was inevitable. There have been hundreds of millions of years during which there would have been no sign of our kind of intelligence turning up. Our intelligence does not seem to be a ‘universal’, like flight or eyes.

    • ChasCPeterson
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      human-like intelligence: once
      elephant trunks: once
      flight: four times
      eyes: hundreds?

      • Dominic
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        Eyes – a ‘master gene’ though?
        Trunks – tapirs have a rudimentary schnoz perhaps, but macrauchenia had a sort of trunk? The trunk goes with a short neck for an animal that is a herbivore of a large size. On the other hand a toxodon held its head low. This is not the point – the solutions to the ‘problems’ are limited by what is available to the body form of the creature concerned, so generalists can become specialists developing trunks, big brains, wings etc, but it is hard (impossible?) for a specialist to become a generalist as it has burned its bridges.

        • Dominic
          Posted August 15, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          Not suggesting the macrauchenia used its nose like a heffalump of course!

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure this “no sign” argument holds water. You could watch a randomly bouncing gas molecule all day and discern no sign of purpose or preferred direction. All the same, there’s no boundary you can draw around it that it will not eventually cross, given enough time.

      High intelligence may be the same. Local adaptation may exert no consistent selective pressure one way or the other with regard to intelligence, making it essentially a random walk along the intelligence axis. But there’s still no boundary you can draw that will not eventually be crossed (all else being equal).

      • Sick-E
        Posted August 19, 2011 at 12:35 am | Permalink

        Isn’t this a variant of the old Nitzschean idea of the inevitable return of any possible state of the universe, given that time is unlimited (“Wiederkehr des ewig Gleichen” in German, I’m not sure about the English equivalent)?

        In an abstract, mathematical model (“all things being equal”) this ought to be correct – but it strikes me as wrong given what we know (or believe) about the universe we live in. I think both the expanding universe model and thermodynamics speak against these endless permutations – only a Big Bounce-style universe would maybe allow for endless repetition.

        So if it is true that matter in this universe generally floats apart and local rises in complexity are actually an exception to fundamental principles, then I think the “eventually” in your argument is a bigger obstacle than you might think.

    • H.H.
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      Well, “our level” of intelligence is a high bar to set. Eyes evolved multiple times, but “eagle eyes” didn’t. If we look at the more general property of just “intelligence,” then we find that many birds, mammals, and even reptiles do exhibit some degree of intelligence. Animals apart from ourselves have been observed to understand abstract concepts such as numbers and counting, object permanence, symbolic representation or the concept of self. Some can use reason in problem solving, learn rudimentary language, or use tools.

      So intelligence is not unique to human, by any means. The difference is a matter of degree.

  8. Matt G
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    If (very) high intelligence is so great, why hasn’t it evolved more often? Clearly, nearly all species seem to get along just fine without it. As I constantly tell my students, a big brain is expensive. In humans, 20% of energy expenditures go to fueling it. I would say that high intelligence is highly likely, but certainly not inevitable. And of course we are just talking about Earth and carbon-based lifeforms, right?

    • amphiox
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      But what if it simply takes this long for all the pre-adaptions necessary for human-level intelligence to appear?

      Note that of all the modern lineages with high (if not human-level) intelligence, nearly all of them evolved that intelligence relatively recently. Even the cephalopods probably evolved their sophisticated intelligence during the Cenozoic. In the Mesozoic, the most intelligent creatures(well, biggest brained) we know of had an EQ similar to that of a below-average chicken. And there has been a rough trend towards increasing EQ in many lineages over time.

      Humans could simply be the first for earth. None evolved earlier because the neural pre-requisites had not yet had sufficient time to appear, and none can evolve currently due to niche exclusion.

  9. Karel de Pauw
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Time to dust off George Gaylord Simpson’s arguments for ‘the non-prevalence of humanoids’?

  10. Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Two points. First, the fact that anything much more advanced than algae took more than half the age of the Earth to evolve makes me suspicious about any claim of inevitability in evolution.

    Second, human intelligence has existed for a geologically very short time. Human fossils are rare (all which have been found would fit in the back of a pickup truck); presumably, in the future it will be products of technology more than fossils which will be our legacy (and they are probably more important, now that our primary evolution is cultural). Can one rule out a non-technical (or, considering geological processes over large timescales, even a technological) intelligence, comparable to our own, having arisen once or even many times in the history of the Earth? How long have humans been on Earth? What is the resolution in the fossil record 200 million years ago?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      The late “advance” was a bottleneck phenomena.

      Multicellularity (say, spore bodies & nitrogenous bodies) and complexity (say, biofilms) evolved many times in bacteria but didn’t get anywhere in size respectively specialization.

      The bottleneck was the endosymbiosis with mitochondria, since its slimmed genome opens up the energy available for protein synthesis & maintaining a large genome with a factor ~ 10^5. (Re Allen, IIRC.) Bacteria can, and do, multiply their core genome to increase energy budget in larger structures, but doesn’t get the energy boost as they drag around the whole genome.

      Now endosymbiosis is certainly likely even outside eukaryotes, it has happened any number of times. But somehow the mitochondria symbiosis differ.

      • Marella
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

        Which is why I think it’s most likely that if there is life elsewhere in the galaxy it is bacteria. Eukaryotic life seems to have taken a very long time and only happened once. Not an easy thing to achieve obviously.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      As for fossils, surely traces of technology counts as trace fossils? AFAIU proponents of the Anthropogene era proposes to use as marker the readily distinguishable radioactive layer that stems from the nuclear arms development in the 60’s.

  11. Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Were we inevitable?

    Yes, of course we were. Our own ego demands it.

    (I think that’s the basic argument, condensed to its minimalistic structure).

  12. steve oberski
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    At the end, Falk punts the question into the arms of theologians: the intellectual equivalent of it tossing it into a black hole

    It’s more like a cesspool, it is possible to enter and exit again, but you end up covered with shit.

  13. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    So, why do they call relate this to convergence at all? As you point out, it’s a completely different topic. The debate is over contingency and directedness, whether a deity used His noodly appendage to direct evolution toward human intelligence. The problem with such speculation is that we have absolutely no evidence to suggest that it’s true.

  14. Greg Esres
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    “snakes that eat grass.”

    Is that really a niche? That strikes me as an example of a creature filling a niche, not being one.

    • ChasCPeterson
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      This is Lewontin’s example:

      For example, no organism makes a living by laying eggs, crawling along the surface of the ground, eating grass, and living for several years. That is, there are no grass-eating snakes, even though snakes live in the grass. Nor are there any warm-blooded, egg-layng animals that eat the mature leaves of trees, even though birds inhabit trees*. Given any description of an ecological niche occupied by an actual organism, one can create an infinity of descriptions of unoccupied niches simply by adding another arbitrary specification.

      -“Adaptation”, Scientific American, 1978

      *(Evidently, Lewontin was unfamiliar with the hoatzin.)

      • TreeRooster
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        Wow, thanks for the hoatzin link! I was about to wonder whether anything light enough to fly could have the stomach(s) needed for breaking down leaves, and here is the fascinating answer. The downside is that the bacterial fermentation earns it the name “stinkbird” (actually not a downside since this seems to help keep it off the menu.)

        • Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:00 am | Permalink

          It’s only our subclassification of herbivorous and fructivorous that makes the hoatzin seem unusual. Haven’t fruit evolved to use birds (and mammals, including us) as a seed-dispersal mechanism? If birds started to evolve to eat leaves, with nothing in it for the plants, the plants would evolve a defence mechanism – and that is what happened in New Zealand, between the moa and the matagouri (Discaria toumatou), which is spiny.

        • Notagod
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

          Yes, I didn’t know of the hoatzin either, very interesting.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        I guess by that definition, a grass-eating snake IS a niche.

        Still, that seems to go against a lot of the usage of the word. I remember some commentary about how the finches of Galapogos moved into unoccupied niches due to the absence of many land animals that commonly filled those niches. Based on the definition above, those niches are still unfilled. 😉

        I would have thought, for instance, that cows and grass-eating snakes would have been considered competitors for grass-eating, and an ecology already filled with cows would have made it very difficult for a grass-eating snake to evolve.

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      I would like to also question whether snakes that eat grass constitute a niche, because specifying the taxon of the organism seems unnecessary to delineating a niche, though I suppose that part of the problem is that there is not a good definition of niche (see also: species).

  15. Posted August 15, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    I don’t think I ever used the word ‘inevitable’. I certainly don’t think humanoid intelligence was inevitable on this planet. Presumably many would agree with me that, however unlikely something is on any one planet, given enough worlds (and there probably are enough worlds orbiting the ten thousand billion billion stars in the known universe) it is very likely that there are humanoid levels of intelligence elsewhere in the universe. That is the whole basis of the SETI project, which has respectable support, including from Carl Sagan as quoted in the broadcast.

    I have discussed this kind of question in the last chapter of The Ancestor’s Tale, in which I call for a systematic study of the frequency with which various evolutionary pathways have been followed in Earth history. Eyes, for example, have evolved independently several dozens of times. If not inevitable, eyes seem pretty likely. Stings have evolved about a dozen times independently. Flight has evolved four times (in insects, pterosaurs, bats and birds). Echolocation (sonar) has evolved four times (bats, toothed whales and two families of cave-dwelling birds). Recursively syntactic language (and arguably human culture in its wake) has evolved only once so far, as far as we know. That suggests that it was not inevitable on this planet, but not very unlikely either.

    What I find ridiculous is the suggestion that, even if something like human intelligence WERE inevitable, that would have any theological significance whatsoever. On the contrary, the whole point of the convergent evolution argument, which Conway Morris and I both strongly urge, is that unaided natural selection produces complex and convergent adaptations WITHOUT any design. Conway Morris didn’t seem to be suggesting in this broadcast that convergent evolution implies God. That idiotic suggestion seemed to come only from the Biologos commentator (as you might expect). There is some indication that Conway Morris tends towards something like the same argument in his book, but he is never very clear about it.

    It is utterly baffling to me how an intelligent and educated man like Conway Morris can seriously claim to be a Christian. When I asked him, he didn’t appeal to science at all (that would be pretty silly) but instead said that he finds the historicity of the New Testament convincing (which is very silly indeed).


    • Posted August 15, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      My apologies if I misinterpreted your view (it’s been a long while since I read Ancestor’s). I was working from what you said starting at 10:00: “[Conway Morris] is one of the very few biologists who agrees with me and I am one of the very few biologists who agree with him. . “. From that I thought the agreement was about his contention that “a sentient species with an advanced civilization” was inevitable on Earth.

      • Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        No, you didn’t really misinterpret me. The question of the likelihood or ‘inevitability’ of something human-like evolving seems to me a rather minor question of quantitative guesswork. I do have a fellow-feeling with Conway Morris over the general power of convergent evolution. I feel closer here to Conway Morris than I do to Gould’s ‘contingency’. But I am leagues away from anyone who draws theological conclusions from convergent evolution. Indeed, I am positively infuriated by the suggestion, as I am sure you are.


        • Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:11 am | Permalink

          Notice that if it could be proved that intelligence was inevitable, therefore God, and if it could be proved that if intelligence was highly unlikely, therefore God. Coming or going, God always wins.

    • eric
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Recursively syntactic language (and arguably human culture in its wake) has evolved only once so far, as far as we know.

      Interesting side note, but many animals have evolved the capability to understand a very wide variety of audible signals, including ones from other species. It is only the capability to make an equally wide variety of audible signals that is uncommon.

      We humans seem to think that our ability to send denotes more intelligence than the ability to receive. But (and I know I’m getting a bit circular here), the prevalence of the latter might indicate that it provides much more of a survival benefit than language. Language, IOW, may simply be icing on the cake.

      • amphiox
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        It’s more than just making and understanding audible signals, though.

        It’s recursive syntax. As far as we know, that is unique to humans. There are other animals out there with very complex auditory communication systems (cetaceans, some birds, groundhogs, etc), but none of them have recursive syntax (pending further discoveries, of course!), beyond the very barest of rudiments.

        • HP
          Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

          Can you clarify what you guys mean by “recursive syntax”? I’m familiar with the term from algebra and computer science, but I don’t know what it means in the context of human language, and neither does Google.

          (I suspect that what you and RD call “recursive syntax” is what lingusts call simply “syntax.” But now I’m curious . . ..)

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted August 15, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            “The boy the cat the rat bit saw died.”

            That’s recursive syntax, since it embeds similar syntactic structures one within the other to arbitrary depth. Human (and computer) languages exhibit such recursion; animal utterances such as honeybee waggle-dance have syntax but not recursion.

            • Posted August 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

              “The boy the cat the rat bit saw died.”
              Yes, that’s exactly what I meant by recursive syntax, thank you. I once examined the possibility that other, non-communicative, kinds of animal behaviour might be organised along similarly recursive lines, but it wasn’t very convincing (R.Dawkins, 1976, Hierarchical organization: a candidate principle for ethology. In P.P.G.Bateson & R.A.Hinde (eds): Growing Points in Ethology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 7-54).

          • Peter Ozzie Jones
            Posted August 15, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

            Terry Winograd in his PhD & program SHRDLU:



            is parsed by his code but causes a stack overflow in my brain!

        • Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

          As a matter of fact, recursive syntax is most likely not unique to humans. There was a paper published in Nature Neuroscience just a little while back about this issue. See

          What birds have to say about language

          Bloomfield, Gentner & Margoliash (2011) Nature Neuroscience 14, 947–948.

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Understanding a wide variety of signals doesn’t make a non-human animal a language user. Linguistics and cognitive science draws a distinction between communication and language. Recursive syntax is one of hallmarks of human language and it’s notably absent in communication systems of non-human animals living with conspecifics. I take it that that was Dawkins’ point in bringing it up.

        • Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          As a matter of fact, recursive syntax really isn’t a hallmark of human language. Recursive syntax is a theoretical construct invented by linguists to model the way we use language. The accuracy of that model is debatable. Real sentences spoken and processed by real people don’t have recursions. They have embedded clauses but the nesting rarely go beyond 3 levels. The Chomskyian distinction between competence and performance is highly problematic.

          Furthermore, as noted in a previous entry, we discover more and more animal communication systems with complex features that a Chomskian linguist should recognized as recursive. See Bloomfield, Gentner & Margoliash (2011) Nature Neuroscience 14, 947–948.

          • Posted August 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink


            Even if we can say, meaningfully, “The boy the cat the rat bit saw died,” who ever would, reporting such an event?


            • Marella
              Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

              Well no-one, because it is utterly graceless and confusing.

              • Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:20 am | Permalink

                Any objection to translating it into plain English? “The boy who was seen by the cat that was bitten by the rat died.” Otherwise it would be more intelligible written with brackets – The boy (the cat (the rat bit) saw) died – but hardly English.

              • pj
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

                My German is rusty, but I remember (more or less) the example we had of recursive grammar:
                Die die die die die Bäume zerstören berichten belohnt werden.

      • Dan L.
        Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        Not all human languages are necessarily recursively syntactic. Daniel Everett maintains that the Piraha language he decoded is not recursive.

        From my perspective, it’s even more interesting if recursively syntactic language is a cultural innovation rather than an evolutionary one. If it’s true, score one for memetics.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      I hope the general idea of some appreciable amount of likelihood for humanoid levels of intelligence (whether a result of likelihoods from convergent evolution or arms races) is factual.


      “Recursively syntactic language (and arguably human culture in its wake) has evolved only once so far, as far as we know. That suggests that it was not inevitable on this planet, but not very unlikely either.”

      Yes, not fully unlikely. But AFAIU the inherent observer selection, as users of the same recursively syntactic language, makes it impossible to tell how likely. You can propose any non-zero number and it is valid, I think.

    • Starbuck
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      No theological significance? Wouldn’t it make sense under the worldview that God set up the laws of the universe to obtain that result? At least the findings would be consistent with the idea.

      • TomZ
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        “Wouldn’t it make sense under the worldview that God set up the laws of the universe to obtain that result?”

        Sure, and of course to allow for a god that COULD set-up these laws there must be a God’s God that allows for a result (god) that could allow for our results? And then that God’s God’s God set up that 2nd order god to allow for a god that would allow for a god that would allow for our results…

        Any finding can be “consistent” if you rationalize everything post hoc.

        Existence of scientific laws does not imply a lawmaker.

        • Starbuck
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

          I wasn’t just pointing to the existence of laws, but to the idea that God set up the laws to yield the result of the emergence of humans. What would be inconsistent with this is if it was found that humans are improbable given the laws of the universe and the intrinsic properties of molecules. The issue of “who created God” is a separate one.

          • Notagod
            Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            It is possible that jesus christ sucked It so by your thought process It did.

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink

      I don’t disagree in any way with this. It was the suggestion of the inevitability of human intelligence on Earth that I found hard to accept.

  16. Jim Thomerson
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    The George Gaylord Simpson comment was about his 1964 article, “The Nonprevalence of Humanoids”, Science 143, P. 770. Perhaps someone could post a link to it.

  17. Stan Pak
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    If Sean Carroll became biologist and Sean Carroll became physicists does this prove that Sean Carroll was inevitable?

  18. Sergey
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Now, we know that:
    – universe exists for 13.7 billion years, and it follows physical laws all that time;
    – humans are one of the results of this natural process;
    – the only source of randomness known to modern physics is at quantum level.

    So, if humans are not inevitable, the only thing which could prevent us from appearing is random events at quantum level. The question is than, can (single?) random events at quantum level influence such macroscopic events as speciation?

    • Yair
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Think about it this way: the state at the beginning of the Big Bang contained no information about which galaxies would form, and hence about which stars and planets would form in them, and of course which planet will develop life and intelligence. It contained only enough information to deduce the gross pattern of future history, but not the specifics of it. All the specifics are the result of random quantum events. Everything that matters – from the formation of our sun and galaxy to the identity of the person you meet next – is ultimately due to a random, not-very-likely, quantum fluctuation.

      • Sergey
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:48 am | Permalink

        >the state at the beginning of the Big Bang contained no information about which galaxies would form

        If I’m not much mistaken, modern cosmology assumes that initial distribution of mass (and galaxies in turn) in universe is a result of quantum fluctuations at the early stages after big bang. Those fluctuations do indeed have macroscopic effects.

        But I’m a bit skeptical about possibility of such effects on later stages of universe. We may have as many random(?) configurations of gas molecules inside soap bubble, but it macroscopic configuration will be sphere in any case. And I think it may be the same in many other cases – many random events at low level result in the same outcome on larger levels.

        We may have not enough initial data / calculation power / knowledge of physical laws / … to do the calculation and show that humanoids are inevitable, but, if we rewind time back again to some point after cosmological inflation and restart everything one more time, are you sure it will not result in universe where I’m typing this answer now?

        If we do not have a free will to alter our behavior in case the time was restarted, does the universe have a free will not to create us? If it do, where from does it come from? Our Sun produce energy from reactions between elementary particles, but given the amount of material the end result does not depend on random behavior of single particles. That meteorite which wiped out dinosaurs, mentioned by someone else in the discussion, was moving by gravity laws, and it does not have a free will not to come here. The same gravity laws condition formation of galaxies, stars, planet systems – and this seems to be a deterministic process.

        It seems to me that most people here believe that quantum events do not affect functioning of our brains, but do they affect evolution process? It seems like single mutations can be result of single quantum events, but is this enough to drive a whole evolutionary process in one or another direction? In order for mutation to be successful appropriative external conditions at macro level should exist, and if such conditions do exists, than it can be possible to have many different at micro level but similar at macro level ways to exploit this possibility, as convergence shows us. And what about other types of mutation, for example gene duplication followed by separation of functions, does it depend on quantum events or not?

        There is certainly a possibility that cellular machinery works as a kind of amplifier, making quantum effects on DNA “visible” at macro level, but I’m really not sure that this is a case. If not, than given a humans do exists, they are inevitable.

        • Posted August 17, 2011 at 12:06 am | Permalink

          Sergey: Lots of questions.

          The gas model is perfect – the initial state has enough information to tell us where pockets of gas will form and even their pressure, yes, but not the location of each molecule in them – which is the analogy to the location of each sun. Simulations of the emergence of the universe are hence always statistical, comparing statistical properties of the resulting universes – often in many runs of the simulation – with statistical properties of our own universe.

          This is what our current laws of physics predict. It’s always possible we’re missing more insight, and that things are determined, but I frankly doubt it.

          I believe individual random mutations can indeed change the course of evolution. This is a big debate in evolutionary theory, though, and isn’t quite settled. At any rate, the cosmology above makes it clear humans aren’t inevitable even if evolution is deterministic (which, again, I doubt).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      “the only source of randomness known to modern physics is at quantum level.”

      Randomness is a many-valued term. Here I think you mean genuine stochasticity; contingency and non-predictivity from deterministic chaos are both contributing uncertainty to physics.

      • Sergey
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        If a model of, say, system of bodies moving in complex gravity field is unstable, than it means that we can not predict outcome of the movement. But does it mean that the result of the movement will be different if we return in time and restart it from exactly the same position? Does it mean that this result may be different because of some quantum events happened randomly during movement?

        If the answer to both questions is “no” than the result of movement is inevitable, and we, humans, can be such a result.

        In fact, if you need some truly random data, as it is a case in cryptography, than you have a difficult problem. Sources of randomness are not easily obtainable.

  19. Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Now how do we know that? I think it’s complete twaddle, for there are some good examples of ecological niches that have never been filled. Here’s one: snakes that eat grass. What a great niche for a snake, but although they’ve been around for 125 million years, snakes have never evolved herbivory. Yet there’s plenty of room for such creatures! (Of course, you can always say that such a niche doesn’t exist, but then your argument becomes tautological.) Any biologist can think of such unfilled niches.

    Reading this reminded me of a guy who is convinced that God plays a role in evolution because (you should all get a kick out of this) multi-cellular life could never have arisen because all the niches were taken.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      How do you fit herbivore intestines in a slim snake body? It sounds to me like you are wishing for pigs to fly. =D

  20. Yair
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    As a physicist, I completely agree with Dawkins’ point about inevitability on the cosmic scale but would caution that just about anything is “inevitable” in that respect. I think the more interesting questions are how common intelligence is on the one hand, and how universal are its characteristics on the other.

    By the latter I mean this – everyone is focused on “intelligence”, but we humans are far more than that. How common are the features that *matter* to us? Clearly, even in other worlds that *did* evolve intelligence the aliens won’t be *humans*. But the energetics of computation imply that they would have a massively-parallel, low-voltage brain as that maximizes energy efficiency. The need for such a massive parallel brain seems to indicate the need for large multicellular organisms. This implies two-gender sexual reproduction is likely (or does it?). The development of technology requires a society, and such a sexually-reproducing one entails its own psychological and moral building stones such as Loyalty, Pride, Honor, and so on.

    This is only a brief sketch, but my idea is this – while human-like beings may not be inevitable in the sense of “likely” on a given planet, it may still be that much of what is characteristic of humans is inevitable in those cases where a technologically-capable race does develop.

    • HP
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      The need for such a massive parallel brain seems to indicate the need for large multicellular organisms.

      Well, slime molds can solve certain types of topological problems much faster than either humans or digital computers. (E.g., Finding the smallest possible network that connects widely distributed food sources while avoiding obstacles.)

      Given suitable evolutionary pressures (like, say, a snake that eats slime molds), who knows what they could achieve?

      • Posted August 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but slime moulds don’t know that it’s a topological problem!


  21. saintstephen
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Science is taking us up to edge as Conway Morris brilliantly shows. There, we meet the theologians, and there, we begin the journey’s next phase.


    Theology is like that bum with a cardboard sign, hoping to hitch a ride across the border with accommodationist scientists like Conway Morris.

    (Oh yes, baby, I’ll keep going, because Falk has given us a very apt analogy):

    Theologians are like diseased rats lurking in the dank crevices of docks, waiting to stow away in the cargo holds of departing science ships.

    Theology is like the mud on a scientist’s shoes, poised to stain the freshly-mopped floors of a clean research laboratory.

    Theologians are like flies perched beside kitchen doorways, waiting to buzz inside and lay their disgusting eggs on the fresh meats of science.

    (Plenty more available upon request.)

  22. Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Convergence to assist in the emergence of the one species solely capable of its own extinction. It’s all so clear now.

    • amphiox
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Humans aren’t, actually, the only species solely capable of its own extinction. When it comes right down to it, virtually every species is.

      Humans (perhaps) may be unique only in that we have the ability to anticipate our own self-destructive tendencies, predict them, debate them, and then do it anyways.

      • Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        The only species capable of subsidizing Lee Raymond.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        The calciferous and sulfurous waste sediments that the K-Pg impactor made a mass extinction out of, was likely accumulated by ancestors of the very life forms that went extinct.

        When our waste looks like something on the order of the cliffs of Dover, I say it is time to take stock. (If not sooner.) :-/

  23. Tulse
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    So the thing that was only generated once on this planet is the thing that the Christian god was keen on? Why not the things that are far more frequent, such as Haldane’s comment about beetles, or even unicellular life?

    • amphiox
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      He has ADD, obviously. Kept getting distracted from the original plan by tangents. The beetles were a major relapse (went off the meds for too long).

      A miracle it got done at all, really.

      • Marella
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

        LOL, god has ADD, that explains everything!

  24. John K.
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    This “evolutionary convergence” argument seems a lot like a variation on the “fine tuning” argument, with very similar problems. Since we only have one sample of life emerging anywhere (i.e. our planet) it seems to be quite a leap to assume anything was inevitable or not. No honest assessment of likeliness can be made from a single sample. High intelligence may lead to rapid enough changes in environment that make intelligent life unsustainable in long evolutionary time frames. Who knows?

    It makes no sense to make assertions about inevitability or rarity until we have more samples. Show me some extra-terrestrial ecosystems and then there will be some ground to stand on, until then the answer has to remain mostly in the unknown.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      Inevitability isn’t about probability or statistical frequency; it’s about logical necessity. Is it an unavoidable logical consequence of evolutionary theory that high intelligence must emerge eventually? Number of samples shouldn’t matter for that.

      • John K.
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        Stating that something is an unavoidable consequence, or inevitable, is a statement of 100% probability.

        It is similar to buying one goldfish that died the first day, then saying its untimely death was inevitable. After 10 goldfish meet the same fate, you may be on to something, not before.

        Empirical evidence is required, otherwise you are just waxing philosophically about a “destiny” that can make no predictions and explains nothing.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 15, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

          Gravity waves are an inevitable consequence of general relativity. It’s not a matter of “100% probabilty”; if the theory is correct, the waves have to exist, whether or not we ever observe them.

          • John K.
            Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

            I am failing to communicate my point. We have a single observation of life, arising on our planet. There have been large amounts of time when life existed on our planet with no high intelligence. As such, we have no real basis for deciding if the high intelligence was inevitable with the passage of enough time or an unlikely yet lucky occurrence.

            General relativity is getting a bit off topic, but the theory of general relativity does not inform and control reality. General relativity is a cleverly constructed model that describes and predicts observations of reality. The observation of gravity waves will strengthen the case for the theory of general relativity, but there is a possibility that the model is partially wrong or incomplete. We have to observe gravity waves or their effects to honestly assert they exist. They are no more inevitable than planetary motions dictated by Newtonian physics.

            • Alan
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

              “…general relativity, … there is a possibility that the model is partially wrong or incomplete.”

              All theories become “wrong” in a sense when subsumed by a higher theory. But GR is right within its limits.

              And you cannot doubt the correctness of GR wrt pulsar timing data. That space-time is curved in the presence of mass is a fact and this shows up re pulsars, GPS system corrections, frame dragging, Einstein Rings etc.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

              Apparently I’m not communicating my point either, which is that there’s a difference between empirical and theoretical reasons for expecting something to happen. Empiricism deals in probabilities; theory deals in logical inevitabilities. I’m not claiming that we can be certain that gravity waves exist without actually observing them (although there is very good indirect evidence); I’m saying that they’re an inevitable logical consequence of the theory (whether or not the theory is correct).

              Getting back to intelligence, the question on the table, as I understand it, is whether there’s any theoretical basis for thinking that the evolution of intelligence is in some sense inevitable (as distinct from empirically probable). You don’t need large data sets work out the logical consequences of a theory (although obviously data is important in deciding whether the theory is correct).

      • Ichthyic
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:35 am | Permalink

        “Is it an unavoidable logical consequence of evolutionary theory that high intelligence must emerge eventually?”

        short and accurate answer:


        that it could emerge is of course, consistent. That it MUST emerge is not.

        There are many ways to meet various selective pressures. Nobody, and i mean NOBODY, can begin to prove that there are specific existing selective pressures that are exclusively best met by the evolution of any specific form of intelligence that can be defined.

        Richard’s questions regarding the evolutionary pathways of intelligence in Ancestor’s Tale are unanswerable, simply because we can only guess at what various selective pressures might have been, but will never really know for sure, let alone whether those pressures were even specifically conducive to intelligence as we define it for ourselves.

        …as has been mentioned several times, intelligence as a trait is no more inevitable than an elephant’s trunk, and there ARE other ways animals have evolved to feed on the same things elephants do.

        To think we were somehow “inevitable” as a species dominated by its use of intelligence is at best projected hubris, even if such a projection might be expected.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          “Inevitable” doesn’t have to mean it’s the only or even the best solution to a problem. If it’s merely a likely solution, and there’s enough time available for all likely solutions to be tried, then it becomes inevitable. That’s the sense of “inevitable” that I take Conway Morris to be using.

  25. RFW
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    The inevitability of any aspect of evolution is a vexed question but there seem to be a few answers lurking in the mist of our ignorance.

    I was recently fortunate enough to chance across a copy of John Maynard Smith’s anthology “Evolution Today.” Though the papers reprinted in it are all about 30 years old, a lot of it came as a surprise to me.

    It appears that life is almost certain to arise under the right conditions; that the formation of DNA and RNA is almost a certainty; that DNA and RNA are as they are simply because of chemistry and energetics. All this with the proviso “given enough time.”

    What are much less likely (and hence take much more time to arise) are eukaryotes; multicellular organisms, and “complexity”, that is the occurrence of organisms with different types of cells taking on different functions.

    The simplest proof of these assertions is seen in how long it took different classes of organisms to arise. Bacteria or bacteria-like organisms have been around a very long time, eukaryotes considerably less, multicellular organisms (e.g. sponges) even less, and organisms more complex than a sponge even less.

    Then contemplate Homo sapiens, which arose about 100,000 years ago. I’ll stick my neck out and say the entire evolutionary lineage leading to H. sap. is extraordinary unlikely, as our species introduces nothing new in the way of biological evolution.

    • Duncan
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      True, but it’s reasonable to think that intelligence, just like eyes, is the sort of thing which could evolve without a spinal cord and so (too) without something paralleling our exact evolutionary history.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      That maps to a bayesian probability argument. By the same token anything that can be divided in steps quickly becomes very unlikely.

      I think it is very unlikely bayesian probabilities are good models. 🙂

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:37 am | Permalink

      …but no more unlikely than an elephant’s trunk.

  26. Duncan
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I dunno; it might be personal bias having met the man but I find Conway Morris position reasonable enough; this phenomenon, which no one has a particularly convincing explanation for and which (plausibly) coincides with the sort of thing you would expect to see if this belief I hold for other reasons turned out to be true can be explained by this belief I hold for other reasons. As far as I understand it, SCM isn’t claiming that other people ought to see the Cambrian explosion as evidence for God, merely that God is his own preferred explanation for it. This might fall short of certain scientific explanatory norms, but it doesn’t seem an unreasonable view to hold.

    As for the intelligence thing, as far as I recall Dennett’s position is that it isn’t inevitable but it is a very Good Trick and so given enough time, and the right prerequisite circumstances, it is highly likely that evolutionary processes will cotton on to it. To think otherwise – that human intelligence is so marvellous that it’s re-evolution in other circumstances would be improbable – would be to overestimate the ‘unique wonderfulness’ of human intelligence, which would itself be contrary to Dennett’s views on things.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Magic as explanation? Always unreasonable, I say.

      Unless you are on a magic show.

  27. Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink


  28. Dominic
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Inevitability of intelligence – are we not back to free will &/or the predestination arguments again?

    If there is a hand & a brain, a hammer will be an inevitable invention. Hang on, the hammer must also influence the development of the brain/hand as well. Anyway, hammers (& anvils) are found in sea otters, humans, anything else? (thrushes use an anvil). Does this mean a god invented the hammer or foresaw that it would be invented? Of course not! If you need to hit something a rock will do. Given enough time the rock became a tool kit.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:40 am | Permalink

      “If you need to hit something a rock will do.”

      THAT ^ is the true logic of evolutionary theory.

      this continuing conceptualization of something being an “inevitable” product of evolutionary theory is NOT consistent with our observations of it in the field.

    • Notagod
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      Along with birds that drop shelled animals from high altitude.

  29. Alan
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Re Stephen Hawking’s idea of God not being “necessary”.

    1. You can’t have intelligence without consciousness, whether physical or nonphysical. Sticking with physical-based consciousness at the moment, you can’t have this without atoms, then chemistry, then biochemistry etc…. But all this is based on quantum physics with all it’s properties. Wave functions, nonlocality and all this built into the fabric of this universe.

    2. But once you have quantum physics and then physical-based consciousness you get observers, us, bits of the universe looking at the universe and producing meaning.

    3. OK, we could all get wiped out by a natural event but this doesn’t matter as somewhere else in THIS universe, consciousness will arise because the laws of physics are the same everywhere in this universe.

    4. Hawking’s “no God idea” doesn’t explain why the universe just has these properties to produce bits of it (us) pondering itself, all because it has weird (and true) quantum physics running through and through the universe. No quantum physics, NO consciousness.

    5. One can say OK the multiverse explains this, an infinite number of universes with different properties, but how come this one has life and mind in it. There seems to be a principle at work. Life-mind universes get selected and created. For me that hints at a higher something else at work – kind of God-like. Hawking can’t rule it out, no-one can. And he can’t make statements like he did. He is wrong to be so certain.

    6. For me the data is in also re the evidence for nonphysical intelligences, scientific NDE studies and evidence from e.g. The Scole Experiment, so whatever is going on in this universe, intelligence, both physical and nonphysical are being selected, for some reason. Of course, in a sense they are together.

    7. Also re point 6, there may be hints here of the idea of a personal God, or at least some kind of deep intelligence beyond the physical. The universe then has such properties that allows such to exist. Why is this so?

    8. Then the so-called “physical” and “non-physical” aspects of intelligence hint at perhaps something deep at work here.
    We all value meaning in our life and I have always wondered at the importance some universities carry out studies on ethics and related studies and studies linking this with theology. In what I say above there seem to be hints at the importance of meaning.

    A pure materialist would say, no, no, we are all chemistry. But then he is not looking at this rather bigger picture – and a universe run by physics and information, not biology.
    There is this information-like nature to the universe from quantum theory so the materialist view is quite weak.

    • Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      But once you have quantum physics and then physical-based consciousness you get observers, us, bits of the universe looking at the universe and producing meaning.

      Please don’t abuse quantum mechanics like this. It really hates it when you do that.



      • Dominic
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

        quantum quantum quantum!
        I was looking at a mirror when I said that…

        • Posted August 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          “I’m here! (But you can’t know what my momentum is!)”


    • Ryan S
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Ramtha? Is that you?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Overall, the take-home message from your comment is that you really don’t understand physics. It is errors upon errors.

      But then this:

      “The Scole Experiment”.

      This is pure anti-science BS, no one has even reviewed it, as these things are a dime the dozen.

      I’ve told you so before; please take your anti-science trash from this science site, it makes a LOLcat weep.

      • Posted August 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

        I find it very hard to credit that Alan is a postgraduate student in particle physics. I really, really hope his thesis will be more coherent than that drivel and more grounded in empiricism and the scientific method than his “defence” of Scole in the “The exorcists” thread.


        • Alan
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:28 am | Permalink

          Weak comment.

          You are again ignoring the large number of scientist witnesses. I am just reporting this -science can openly talk about multidimesional physics and the universe as an information system (Seth Lloyd and others) or purely mathematical (Tegmark) but cannot even begin to consider the possibility of non-phyiscal intelligence within it.

          • Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:40 am | Permalink

            Weak comment.

            Thanks for warning us in advance! 😛

            You persistently ignore the lack of any real scientific rigour in Scole, in both the conduct of the investigations and the interpretation of the evidence. It’s just not scientifically credible. (Torbjörn put it more colourfully.)

            And it’s quite disingenuous of you to characterise scientists’ disinclination to investigate Scole as a refusal to “even begin to consider the possibility of non-phyiscal [sic] intelligence within it.” I think a very large number of scientists are quite open to the possibility but, because of the continued lack of credible evidence, will have concluded that it is very unlikely to exist.

            And that, sir, is quite enough — more than enough! – on the matter.


            • Alan
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:18 am | Permalink

              “…non-physical intelligence within [the universe]…I think a very large number of scientists are quite open to the possibility…”

              Good! And as I said, if such is true, why is the universe structured this way? Why does it do this?

              – and no cheating, I’m not talking about downloadable brains, a la Ray Kurzweil! Anyway they’re physical.

              • Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

                Sorry… Why is the universe structured in what way? Why does it (the universe?) do what? (Does the universe do anything? Are you ascribing agency to the universe?)


    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      “You can’t have intelligence without consciousness, whether physical or nonphysical”

      utter twaddle from your very first sentence.

      No reason to read further.

      In the future, could you please abbreviate your twaddle to make it quicker to scroll past?


    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:44 am | Permalink

      “2. But once you have quantum physics and then physical-based consciousness you get observers, us, bits of the universe looking at the universe and producing meaning.”

      Meaning is in the wiring and firing of neurons. It’s got nothing to do with “Quantum”.

      • Alan
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        Meaning is on all levels. In fact if you formulate QT using the Bohm interpretation the idea of “active information” pops up and you can argue meaning is informing the level above and so on.

        Why do you choose your level where meaning rests?

        Also in a particle collision information is exchanged and the products carry on. There’s your meaning but on another level.

  30. Alan
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    In fact Prof. Henry Stapp has made these tantalizing comments:

    “…for those who want to believe that there’s somehow a cosmic mind (laughs!) working, this is something that they can point to and say well this looks like it’s moving in that direction.”

    Note Henry Stapp is the quantum physicist on the AWARE study, an international team of doctors/scientists studying near-death experiences.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:46 am | Permalink


      nothing more to say, really.

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Or, slightly less rudely: Stapp is a crank.

  31. Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Alan, you’re begging the question of directed outcomes which the teleonomic argument further eviscerates as science itself pace Mayr and Simpson evinces do direction!
    Haughty Haught prefers to feel that the Cosmos wanted matters to evolve how they did when randomness and selection pellucidly show no direction and thus no divine director! Randomness and selection,as Leucippus probably would have stated, that natural necessity is the efficient, primary, necessary and sufficient cause-they contrary to Aquinas are the Primary Cause and contrary to Leibniz the Sufficient Reason!
    Selection itself is a natural efficient cause, not needing that divine director.
    Supernaturalists special plead and beg the question that God is in a different category from other existences and exempts Himself from the questions what made and what designed Him. Some supernaturalist is trying to turn the table on us by querying why if naturalists can find Existence eternal , then why can’t supernaturalists claim the same for Him? We know that Nature exists and that natural causes and explanations work whilst the supernatural must overcome [Google:] the presumption of neutralism.And they must provide evidence rather than the personal explanation efficient cause that natural efficient causes don’t suffice to explain matters.
    They ever are using the arguments from personal incredulity and from ignorance whilst we skeptics use the conservation of knowledge for our incredulity- the real thing!
    Supernaturalists are trying to use reason to overcome reason! Note that argument from reason- the self-refutation of naturalism.
    Logic is the bane of theists.
    John Haught is as credulous and sophistic as Norman Geisler and- Sylvia Brown[e!

    • Alan
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:59 am | Permalink

      I’m just interested in the idea that if we have souls and there is the possibility of continuation of consciousness (CC – scientific work is ongoing in this) why is the universe like this?

      Why is it structured so that this seems to happen? Biology and evolution doesn’t cover everything. Although evolution is true (re this blog) it’s not the last word.

      Does the multiverse, for instance, “select” life-mind possible universes? People in this field wave the wand of “anthropic selection” to account for this but this begs the question. And it’s not just tautology – this goes beyond the weak anthropic principle (to answer an anticipated comment! 😉 )

      Why life-mind universes and especially those with a possible CC? And our universe is a known data point.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:47 am | Permalink

        “it’s not the last word.”

        one can invent any fiction they like and say it’s a necessary one.

      • Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:11 am | Permalink

        Re the anthropic principal, this universe is as it is. That we are here to contemplate it is simply contingent.

        As Lewis Wolpert said, in debate with WLC, “It may be a very small probability, but that’s tough luck The fact that there is the probability at all is why we’re here. That all those those constants fit with the actual functioning of the universe, that’s the way it is. Yes, it’s very improbable. Tough luck. You just have to live with it.”


        • Alan
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

          “…this universe is as it is. That we are here to contemplate it is simply contingent…”

          You are still within the weak anthropic principle which is why I said above:

          “…it’s not just tautology – this goes beyond the weak anthropic principle (to answer an anticipated comment!)…” – yours.

          WAP was effectively “revised” with Bousso and Polchinki’s > 10 exp(500) universes and the cosmological fine tuning (far more FT than the combination of the other constants). Because the cosmological FT is so fantastic then maybe it is NOT a multiverse coincidence that our universe popped out pregnant with the possibility of life, mind, meaning…
          Maybe “life-mind universes” are selected out – otherwise it’s just an incredible coincidence.

          I am arguing also that if non-physical intelligence is real, and there are indications that we may survive bodily death, then to answer your question above:

          “Why does it (the universe?) do what?”

          Then why does the universe have properties that allow the possibility of “continuation of consciousness”. And it couldn’t do this without QT and a basically information-like character to the universe.

          Hence, as I said above, Henry Stapp’s comment in the video above is tantalizing.

          • Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

            Well, there is nothing that, to my mind, suggests there’s a need to go beyond the weak anthropic principle. In fact, it never struck me that this deserves to be a “principle”: It was always intuitively obvious to me that “our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers” (Brandon Carter). (To the point that I’ve never been moved to read the copy of Barrow and Tipler that’s been sitting on my bookshelves since 1988.) So, I stand very firmly with Wolpert.

            The possibility of the multiverse only coincidentally assuages the philosophical discomfort that some people have with the idea of our existence being a happy accident of the nature of this universe. It arises quite independently of any urge to “explain” an anthropic universe.

            To go beyond this to suggest that there is something at work in the multiverse (the existence of which is not yet even tentatively established, pace the results from WMAP) that favours universes that will at some point yield conscious entities is only wild speculation.

            “otherwise, it’s just an incredible coincidence” — “Yes, it’s very improbable. Tough luck. You just have to live with it.”

            Does the universe have properties that allow the possibility of “continuation of consciousness”. What are those properties? How would they allow consciousness continue? But then: What is consciousness anyway? Is it something that even can continue once the brain dies? (Maybe, in the way described in Greg Egan’s “Learning to be me”* — but without technological intervention?)

            Speculating about such properties of the universe before we’ve resolved the mind-body problem in favour of dualism (which, I hold, we won’t) is, quite frankly, just wanking.


            * SPOILER ALERT: Although, of course, it wasn’t the protagonist’s consciousness that continued, only a copy.

          • Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

            PS. “Because the cosmological FT is so fantastic…” No, it isn’t. See Stenger, God : the failed hypothesis.


  32. Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    evinces no direction

  33. Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    overcome the presumption of naturalism
    Ir helps to proof read besides use spell check!

  34. Divalent
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    If human-like intelligence was inevitable, what took it so long? The basic land version of the vertebrate body form, complete with a central nervous system, has been around for what, 350 million years? (And if not for the KT impact, it most certainly wouldn’t have happened. Thank God for that?)

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      If the heat-death of the universe is inevitable, what’s taking it so long?

      • Ichthyic
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:49 am | Permalink

        is the heat death of the universe one of many potentially selectable fates the universe can take, depending on various selective pressures?

        oh, it isn’t?

        you mean the two things are even remotely comparable?



        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

          If there’s a point to your post (other than personal insults), I’m not getting it.

          The point I’m making is that inevitability doesn’t come with a guarantee of fast action. If something is statistically certain to happen eventually, then it’s inevitable. “What took it so long?” is not a refutation of that. (Although come to that, it took only about half the expected lifetime of the planet for human intelligence to emerge.)

          If you’re somehow under the impression that I think inevitability implies Jesus, you’re mistaken. Nowhere have I said anything like that.

          • Dan L.
            Posted August 17, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

            I still don’t think the two questions are really comparable. If human intelligence is inevitable (which I don’t think is at all the case) then it’s probably inevitable in a different sense than the sense in which the heat death of the universe is inevitable.

            For the heat death of the universe not to happen the laws of physics would have to be different than they are. For human intelligence not to evolve we don’t need different laws of physics, we just need very good (or very poor depending on your perspective) luck — magnetars, comets, supernovae and other extinction level events with the appropriate timing.

    • Notagod
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      Certainly not any of the christian’s gods. As to the “God” that you suggest, you must be a particularly callous person to invent such a god.

      However, if you want to thank something that is real, you can revere life that is on the planet.

  35. Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I am surprised that you say human intelligence is not convergent with the intelligence of other unrelated creatures. Some cetaceans, wolves, some birds, some cephalopods, have problem-solving ability convergent with ours. You can of course rule out the convergence by choosing a sufficiently strict anthropocentric definition of intelligence, but that is cheating. It does not seem impossible that in a few hundred million years, animals from any of these other groups will be able to do things that would require human-like intelligence. Several of these animals already have what could be called “cultures” and some have complex oral traditions that they pass on from one year to the next. And of course this is what we should expect from evolution (no god needed). The belief that human intelligence is qualitatively different from that of other animals is the position usually taken by religious thinkers, not evolutionists. Maybe I am missing something about your position?

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:49 am | Permalink

      comparable /= convergent

      • Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

        Explain. Unless you want to play theologian and define the issue away, intelligence does not seem to me to be any different from other characteristics that can arise by convergence.

        • Dan L.
          Posted August 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

          The”problem-solving ability” of the species you mention almost certainly predates the sort of “problem-solving ability” that is worth causing “human intelligence.” The latter has only been around a few hundred thousand years while the other species you mention haven’t necessarily changed much in a few million. You can look at this “problem-solving ability” as convergent evolution up to the point of great apes — the mental acuity of chimps is probably about as good or better than any other species you can name.

          Human intelligence is a divergence from the club of generalized “problem-solver” species. There are many species, usually omnivorous generalists, that display a great deal of intelligence relative to the rest of the animal kingdom. So the convergence you’re talking about is pre-human. So far, it’s not clear that any other species is being selected for human-like intelligence.

          • Posted August 18, 2011 at 5:21 am | Permalink

            But why isn’t this a matter of degree rather than kind? The phylogenetic pattern of intelligence in birds suggests that it HAS been evolving at different rates in different groups, and thus that it is probably still evolving and improving in those groups which benefit most from intelligence. Give them a bit more time…

            • Dan L.
              Posted August 18, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

              It could be a matter of degree rather than kind, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s not enough information to determine that. So stay skeptical.

              • Posted August 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

                Yes, you are certainly right that if we are too loose with our definition of intelligence, we make the question meaningless. Too strict, and we end up defining away the problem and enshrining us as unique. I guess my point is that we should guard against excessive anthropocentrism just as surely as we should guard against anthropomorphism.

                Our degree of skepticism towards non-human intelligence is influenced by what we perceive as the most reasonable null hypothesis. The principles of evolution suggest the most reasonable null hypothesis is that intelligence, like any other characteristic of organisms, can evolve in more than one way, in more than one lineage. The view that humans are unique is the preferred null hypothesis for theologists, but not for evolutionary biologists. I would be inclined to demand stronger evidence for the latter view than for the former. But you are right, we do need good evidence either way, and we should be careful not to fool ourselves.

  36. Posted August 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with the human inevitability/convergence argument, and have a hard time fathoming why Dawkins agrees with Morris on this point. It’s one of those things that seems to play into the hands of religionists, while not having a lot of evidentiary support as you claim. Arms races in evolution and many other instances of convergence can be explained more parsimoniously by parallelophily (if I am using this term correctly)in that it makes perfect sense that somewhat related animals would because of their genetic (and ultimately phenotypic) similarities produce similar solutions after exposure to similar environmental pressures, because they of course had common ancestors that provided them with a common genetic starting point from which similar evo-devo changes could be made that would allow them to arrive at these common solutions. The placental flying squirrel and its marsupial counterpart are both mammals that hang out in trees. The genetic mechanisms that allowed their convergent adaptation of skin flaps that attach their bodies to their appendages would be very similar in spite of their having had tens of millions of years of separation from their common ancestor.

    It’s for this reason and others that the inevitability of humans on this (or any other planet)seems like the stupid rationalization of the faithful (or whimsical astrobiologist)complete with preordained conclusions that you correctly point out.

    • Posted August 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      That’s not Dawkins’ argument, as I understand it. It is not the inevitability of humans but the inevitability of human-like intelligence. As I mentioned in the post above yours, the idea that humans are so special has always been the traditional religious doctrine; it is surprising to see many non-religious commenters (and Jerry too) defending it. Human-like intelligence is almost certainly not a one-off deal. There are clear foreshadowings of intelligence in other animal groups. Why imagine that we are special? That is not the logical evolutionary position.

  37. NoAstronomer
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    If sentience is inevitable then why didn’t the dinosaurs evolve it? After all they had 150 million years to do so. The apes did it in only around 8 million years*.


    * Debatable, could well be longer depending on which animals one considers to be sentient.

    • Posted August 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      Dinosaurs only took a little longer than mammals to evolve the beginnings of intelligence. Crows and parrots, descendents of ancient reptiles, show some signs of intelligence and problem-solving nowadays, as do many other animals. Intelligence is phylogenetically widespread. This suggests that it is inevitable, given enough time, and given a complex but predictable environment.

      • TreeRooster
        Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        For a thought provoking and fun perspective on this I recommend “Bears Disover Fire,” one of my all-time favorite (and Hugo award winning) short stories. Terry Bisson; I’ve got to find some more stuff by him.

        • TreeRooster
          Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

          ..that is “Bears Discover Fire”..

    • Alex SL
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      It probably takes a very long time to evolve a complex brain – you could just as well ask why the first vertebrates did not invent a closed circulation system with a bicameral heart within the first eight million years. Apes are sitting on hundreds of millions of years of increasing complexity and merely made the last step.

  38. Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    You know, I’m kinda surprised nobody’s mentioned the Fermi Paradox, yet.

    If technology-producing intelligence were inevitable (and sustainable), SETI would have picked something up by now.

    I think we know enough now about the chemistry of abiogenesis to be fairly certain that any planet with an environment within shouting distance of that on Earth will have life. And, statistically, we know that there must be millions such planets in the galaxy. It’s only a hundred thousand lightyears from this side to the other; H. sap. has been around long enough for a round trip message (though it’s only been a half a century or so that we’ve been able to hear anything). Granted, there are power concerns at getting a signal across significant distances, but there still should be ample numbers of civilizations within shouting distance…if it were inevitable. Or even more likely than not.

    Of course, we could be the first…but even that speaks strongly against inevitability. A billion years here or there…there’s still more than ample opportunity for somebody else to have gotten to where we are long ago.

    No…for what it’s worth, there can be no question but that we are a vanishingly rare exception. Shirley, there must be others somewhere out there…but you can bet your bottom dollar that you’ll never personally know for certain. It’s rather doubtful any human will ever find evidence of any extraterrestrial intelligence — not after the searching we’ve already done and come up empty.



    • Alex SL
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      Well, I recently read that nice and comfy solar systems like ours may actually be much rarer than previously assumed, which I found rather depressing. I was kinda hoping that there is lots of life out there, but gas giants with extremely eccentric orbits seem to be the norm rather than the exception, and that would make it very hard for habitable planets to exist. Then again, maybe our methods of detecting planets are simply too biased towards those giant planets at the moment.

      As for the Fermi paradox under the assumption of the availability of many habitable planets, I always found the combination of two factors to be a sufficient explanation: (1) It may well be impossible to fly to another star system and survive – impossible not as in a human could not fly to the moon in 1850, but impossible as in a human cannot visit the centre of the sun. (2) Complex societies destroy their own livelihoods through over-consumption and overpopulation, so they don’t last long enough to invent interstellar flight or suchlike even if it were possible.

      That does not mean that the universe cannot be swarming with sentient species living on a hunter-gatherer or subsidence agriculture level.

    • TreeRooster
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      Can’t resist another Terry Bisson reference. This time he’s actually put it on his website. I give you “THEY’RE MADE OUT OF MEAT.”

      On the same note, this xkcd cartoon:
      The basic idea being that maybe we are really late bloomers, or hopelessly less intelligent than the rest of the civilizations out there.

      Carl Sagan was a little more hopeful, as in Contact. As a counterpoint, if you need another depressing point of view, try Stanislaw Lem in His Master’s Voice. Well worth the read if you’ve ever thought about interpreting an extraterrestrial message.

      • Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

        Bisson is awesome, especially that story.

        I don’t think Sagan in any way thought that Contact is any more plausible than Star Wars. I enjoyed the novel, but it seemed much more an exercise of, “take these pop culture and religious tropes and run with them.” Sagan, the author of the Demon-Haunted World, can’t but have noticed that the conclusions aren’t in any way realistic — no matter the warm-n-fuzzies they painted.



    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 15, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      …there’s still more than ample opportunity for somebody else to have gotten to where we are long ago.

      Seems to me you’ve answered your own question. The galaxy may well be teeming with technological life, but the chances of any of it matching our primitive level are vanishingly small. We’d be likely to detect them only if they’re either deliberately trying to get our attention, or engaging in astro-engineering projects so huge we can’t miss them.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      Don’t call me Shirley.

      • Dean Buchanan
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        or inevitable…;)

    • Alan
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Re the Fermi Paradox:

      The 1952 Nash-Fortenberry sighting is famous. The pilots estimated the speed (lower bound) of the objects at 12,000 mph, well beyond the technology of the day.

      From another article:

      “…Bill Fortenberry was lost in a Boeing B-377 Stratocruiser crash in the Pacific Ocean, with all onboard. In the early sixties, Captain Nash transferred to Germany, and for the next 15 years flew the Berlin corridors before retiring from Pan American. In a recent interview for the Sign Oral History Project, a still vivacious Captain Nash provided their concluding supposition…”

      Captain Nash –

      “Looking at the thing shook us up. We stared at each other, and all of a sudden there was this realization that our world is not alone in the universe. Because, nothing could have advanced to that degree of scientific progress without some of the intermediate steps having become public knowledge, or, at least known to the people who were flying.

      Bill had just come out of the Navy and was fully acquainted with their latest developments. We just knew that they were not from this planet. I know to this day, that it was nothing from this planet.”

      • Tulse
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        Boy, spiritualism and UFOs. All we need is homeopathy for a woo-trifecta.

        Alan, I think your credulity meter is broken.

        • Alan
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

          And your reply to the pilots?

          You can’t seem to distinguish the “reportees” from the “reporter”.

          What would you say to these pilots?

          While we are here:

          and note the commenters.

          The foreward to this book was written by John Podesta, one of Bill Clinton’s top advisors.

          The scientists, pilots and military officers, including generals, who speak in this are above your pay grade.

        • Alan
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

          From the site:

          “…Kean has brought together over a dozen highly credible aviation witnesses and official investigators – including five generals and a former U.S. governor – who reveal the facts about UFOs in riveting, personal accounts written exclusively for this book. John Podesta, White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton and co-chair of President Obama’s transition team, provides a foreword.

          Kean offers a practical and achievable plan for US Government involvement in a step-by-step process to uncover what these unidentified objects are – and ultimately, what they may mean for all of us.”

          Sorry, but where are you in all this Tulse?

          Watching the Simpsons? Reading comics?

          • Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

            Feynman again:

            Some years ago I had a conversation with a layman about flying saucers — because I am scientific I know all about flying saucers! I said, “I don’t think there are flying saucers.” So my antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it’s impossible?” “No,” I said, “I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely.” At that he said, “You are very unscientific. If you can’t prove it impossible then how can you say that it’s unlikely?” But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible. To define what I mean, I might have said to him, “Listen, I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.” It is just more likely. That is all.


            • Alan
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

              Yes, I know the Feynman quote, but you must speak to the pilots!!! What would Feynman say to them? He would listen, I believe.

              My father was a top pilot BTW (UK Navy and Civil) and was honestly baffled (and interested in these reports). Spoke very much like Michael Swiney below. Here is where you get the real meat of these reports.


              The description here about this is from a UK sceptic, but to HIS credibility posted this, “…the most impressive UFO incident ever reported to the Ministry of Defence”


              • Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

                Oh, I’m sure he would listen — and then say exactly the same thing.

                Is this the time to mention The Invisible Gorilla again? (And see the “The checker shadow illusion redux” thread.)

                Btw, I have seen a UFO — but never a “flying saucer” of any kind.


          • Tulse
            Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            Sorry, but where are you in all this Tulse?

            Watching the Simpsons? Reading comics?

            No, I’ve been doing neuroimaging and clinical psychology research, and teaching about mental disorders (including psychosis).

            I’ve also followed space research quite avidly, and in my youth had a huge interest in “fringe science” (UFOs, ancient astronauts, Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, etc. etc.).

            Then I grew up.

            • Alan
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

              What does that mean “I grew up”? (and if you don’t insult me I won’t you – we are all educated here)

              Are you saying the pilots above (and others) are not “grown up”. To this day they say the same. Would you tell them to their faces that they are not “grown up”.

              And let me remind you of the technology of the day, of which with a moments reflection you are well aware – basic electronics, no onboard AI, turboprop, jet and rocket technology. That’s it.
              Humans in 1952 could not make this – period.

              • Tulse
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

                if you don’t insult me I won’t you

                Oh please.

                Look, the simple principle is that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. And the claim that aliens have come across the vast distances of the cosmos to fly saucers around our airspace and occasionally stick probes in people’s backsides is indeed extraordinary. Indeed, it would perhaps be the most important discovery in human history. So yeah, it needs more than just the word of a few pilots (however worthy and sincere they might be) in order to swallow.

                Come back when you have some tangible evidence that independent, objective scientists can examine at their leisure using conventional lab techniques. Until then, such sightings are no more convincing that claims of elves in Iceland or Finmen in Orkney.

            • Alan
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

              “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” – Sagan

              But radar data combined with eyewitness accounts (for visual confirmation) is “physical evidence”. Again, what would you say to these pilots, ATCs, radar experts – these are scientific men like us, faced with your “extraordinary evidence”.

              The Belgium UFOs of 1989-1990 – Physical evidence


              These objects perform 40g accelerations. You can see the speed and direction changes on the F-16 cockpit videos (see here and below). And picked up on three radars simultaneously. Multiple witnesses.

              The interview with the plasma physicist, Prof. Leon Brenig is very good.

              “All the flying characteristics are highly strange. We have a lot of observations of such triangular platform which was hovering silently without any apparent action on the air above a farm during 20 minutes. Why above a farm? What does it mean?”

              Radar video here and expert analysis of all radar info:


              The radar expert Prof. Emile Schweicher says this after studying data from civilian, military and F-16 radars:

              “I’m going to be fired by my colleagues, but I think that, extraterrestrial intelligence is very highly likely”.

              The objects were videoed as well. Here then is physical “extraordinary evidence” – no nuts and bolts but it counts.
              BTW, the Colonel in charge of tasking those fighters 20 years ago is now a Major-General and still gives lectures on these sightings.

              Still unexplained.

              • Ben Lopez
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                In regards to lights in the sky. There is no way to determine how far away the objects are from you, and therefore no way to estimate the speed. It is not possible to know that the moving lights represent 40g accelerations.

                Also three lights will always look like they define a triangular perimeter, unless they are in a straight line.

                The description of “without any apparent action on the air” is evidence against against not for your interpretation. A hovering object must disturb the air in some manner.

              • Tulse
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

                radar data combined with eyewitness accounts (for visual confirmation) is “physical evidence”

                No, not in the usual sense of the term. And all that is not extraordinary evidence.

                these are scientific men like us

                Oh, so it’s “us” now? Since I’m no longer just watching the Simpsons? Thanks.

                picked up on three radars simultaneously

                So these beings have such advanced technology that they can allegedly travel across vast light-years of empty space and perform aerobatic tricks unparalleled by humans, yet they don’t have the level of stealth ability we’ve had since the 1990s?

                Honestly Alan, there are people who have video of yogic flying, who report eyewitness accounts of the Loch Ness Monster, who have photos of Bigfoot, who claim evidence for elves and homeopathy and chupacabras and therapeutic touch and yetis and pyramid power and biorhythms. All of these, like extraterrestrial visitation in UFOs, are extraordinary claims, and none of them, including extraterrestrial visitation in UFOs, have extraordinary evidence to support those extraordinary claims.

                I think we’ve exhausted what can profitably accomplished by our exchange. I’ll give you the last word.

              • Alan
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                “…no way to estimate the speed. It is not possible to know that the moving lights represent 40g accelerations…”

                Radars can exactly determine velocities.

                If you look carefully at the videos I gave, you can also see the velocity changes (speed/direction changes) on the F-16 cockpit displays.
                These are real-time videos (there was a camera in the cockpit) which the Belgian airforce released.

                And as Professor Schweicher says, there were actually “four radars” involved, presumably a few on the ground.

                “without any apparent action on the air”

                But it is a technology. The question is, could humans build this in 1990 and why would they test it over a city? The Americans denied it was theirs and one of the F-16 pilots said he did not think it was a prototype.

      • Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, Alan, but UFOs are the astronomer’s Sasquatch.

        You can do interstellar travel slowly, relativistically, or (for the sake of discussion) superluminally.

        The common thinking is that the first is most practical because it uses the least amount of energy. It comes in two flavors: “sleeper” ships that remain dormant for millennia, and “generation” ships that are self-contained habitats.

        Unfortunately, the first fails to account for the fact that any and all gasses will sublimate through inch-thick steel containers over that sort of a timeframe, all forms of rubber (gaskets, hoses, etc.) will long since have crumbled to dust, metals in contact will have long since welded to each other…in short, you can launch the ship, but without regular maintenance, it’ll be stone cold dead long before it reaches its destination.

        That brings us to generation ships. These make no sense whatsoever. The energy requirement to keep a super-advanced civilization going for tens of thousands of years is staggering — simply unrealistic. And, if you can live for tens of thousands of years away from a solar system, what possible interest could there be in going to another one?

        So, that brings us to relativistic travel. Again, the energy requirements are insane. Take all the energy the human race currently uses for an entire year, and that’s just barely enough to send a shuttle-sized mission to Proxima Centauri in a decade. No civilization will be able to afford even Christopher-Columbus-style missions to other stars until they’re harvesting a significant fraction of the energy from their star. Hold on to that last thought; we’ll come back to it.

        Last is faster-than-light travel — Star Trek and the like. Great for space opera, but not only does it require physics that contradicts everything we’re confident of, the few remaining loopholes where it might still be possible would require so much energy that you’d maybe get one trip per star. As in, turn an entire star into energy, in one burst, to power your wormhole for the Enterprise to go through.

        So, of all of these, the only vaguely-theoretically-not-impossible option is relativistic travel, which requires such an energy budget that you’ve either built your Dyson Sphere or you’re well on your way to doing so. But, again: what possible reason could such a civilization have to use so much energy to travel to another star?

        There’s only one reason that makes even the remotest kind of sense: because they’ve got an energy crisis, and they need to start plugging in to another star.

        You’re not going to get to that level of technology and energy consumption without exponential growth. If you can grow outside your own solar system, that growth will continue exponentially. Pick even generation ship types of timeframes, and you find out that, had the dinosaurs developed interstellar travel, they would have already used up all the stars in the galaxy — and probably Andromeda, too.

        Nobody’s sucking the Sun dry; ergo, all UFOs are phantasms.



        • Alan
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

          You did not explain the obervations. The scientists/pilots/radar experts who witnessed did their analysis.

          The conclusion is that humans could not build these objects. Read especially the 1952 Nash-Fortenberry sighting above or the 1952 sighting by the RAF pilots in the video above.
          These sightings are especially important because of the technology cut-off – it is quite clear humans did not have this technology in 1952.

          Regarding Belgium and in general, “that does not leave much else” – in the words of General Wilfried de Brouwer – the officer (then a colonel) who sent the F-16 jets up to chase the Belgian objects.

          As I said he still gives lectures on the “ET nature” of these objects.
          Perhaps you should turn to him for more information.

          I think he also contributes to the book above, “UFOs On The Record” by Leslie Kean.

        • Alan
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

          “…UFOs are phantasms.”

          Phantasms do not appear on four radars, some military ones, performing 40 g accelerations and are seen visually.

        • Alan
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

          We humans are not “typical” observers in our galaxy because any “technological” civilization will be at least hundreds of thousands of years older than us technologically due to the age differerences of stars. Or less, which puts them in the realm of simple tools.
          We have had electricity and its applications for around 150 years. Whatever form an extraterrestrial intelligence has taken, they will have around at least a several hundred thousand year lead on us technologically, conservatively.

          And they may just be flicking around in our space, using some future applications of physics and dodging our best efforts to catch them. To solve this? Just follow the best cases, as observed, and see where they lead.

          • Dan L.
            Posted August 17, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

            If the evidence is as convincing as you say it is (I’d dearly love to get my hands on the radar data) then why hasn’t it convinced anyone but this handful of people cited in the book?

            Also, what makes you think pilots, generals, and engineers are less susceptible to confirmation bias and memory degradation than other people?

            Again, we’re talking about the most important fact about the universe that has ever been discovered since the beginning of human civilization. If the evidence is actually compelling, why doesn’t anyone buy it? If these men are convinced, why aren’t they writing their own books, trying to get on TV, etc.? The most important fact in the history of human civilization and they seem rather apathetic about it all in all. One lousy book.

            This is ignoring all the circumstantial stuff about the aliens. Presumably they came a long way…why? If it’s to make contact, why have they just been hovering for a few decades? If it’s to study us, why don’t they do a better job of hiding? Obviously letting us know they’re there is going to change our behavior and foul the data.

            The notion that extraterrestrials have visited earth is indeed an extraordinary claim, requiring more evidence than the say-so of a few dozen people and radar data that has apparently disappeared. (If it didn’t appear, why aren’t UFOlogists around the world waving copies of it over their heads in triumph?)

            • Alan
              Posted August 18, 2011 at 12:28 am | Permalink

              There is more good material.



              by the former head of Space Sciences at Stanford University (from a review panel of scientists) – they are cautious but say science should investigate. Scientists know about this.

              “A comprehensive investigation of encounters with unidentified flying objects, all the more riveting because it is both skeptical and scrupulously objective”

              and a very full paper with cases here:


              I think the best cases represent an ET presence. The Swiney/Crofts sighting above, e.g.(and if you look carefully there are others like this) cannot be denied.

              or the NARCAP site.

              I think this is very complicated as far as complete and open recogniton of an actual alien presence around us – difficult words but it’s a yes/no question, frankly.

              Can you imagine the implications and responsibilities for governments of openly recognising aliens in our airspace? Governments are meant to safeguard airspace, not have it openly flouted by a superior “technology”, or whatever it is.

              And what is “their” agenda?, is THE question? -they are here for a reason clearly. What is it?

              Actually I also think the contributors to Leslie Kean’s book do talk, regularly. There was a National Press Club talk a while back also – google it.

              Also Edgar Mitchell (6th man on Moon) has said he personally knows many people, engineers etc. who have said it’s true. What does one say to that? The issue is big but not just openly acknowledged.

              • Tulse
                Posted August 18, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

                And what is “their” agenda?, is THE question? -they are here for a reason clearly. What is it?

                Apparently it’s to stick things in people’s backsides…

              • Posted August 18, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

                I think they’re brain probes. That’s the shortest route to UFO believers’ brains (or so I understand).


              • Dan L.
                Posted August 18, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

                Can you imagine the implications and responsibilities for governments of openly recognising aliens in our airspace? Governments are meant to safeguard airspace, not have it openly flouted by a superior “technology”, or whatever it is.

                This is conspiracy theory thinking. This is being out on a limb and reaching out and grasping at possible reasons to believe things that aren’t actually true.

              • Posted August 19, 2011 at 12:01 am | Permalink

                Take a look at the UCS 2011 Cartoon Contest Contestants … maybe #2?


              • Alan
                Posted August 19, 2011 at 1:13 am | Permalink

                A guy is banging his keyboard late one night, mildly apoplectic. “Come to bed”, yells his wife from upstairs. “Someone’s wrong on the internet!”, he screams back.

                On the other end of this exchange (?) Rex (dog) is with his friend Dubya (pliant poodle), randomly bashing his masters keyboard with his paws. Turning to Dubya, “On the internet no-one can tell you’re a mutt.”

              • Alan
                Posted August 19, 2011 at 1:29 am | Permalink

                Present company excluded, but of course!

                (addendum to August 19, 2011 at 1:13 am)

            • Alan
              Posted August 18, 2011 at 12:37 am | Permalink

              The best analysis I have read on why society and, openly, governments, find it difficult to deal with this subject is that it challenges our societal anthropocentric view.

              “Sovereignty and The UFO”

              by Professor Alexander Wendt and Professor Raymond Duvall.

              “Modern sovereignty is anthropocentric, constituted and organized by reference to human beings alone. Although a metaphysical assumption, anthropocentrism is of immense practical import, enabling modern states to command loyalty and resources from their subjects in pursuit of political projects. It has limits, however, which are brought clearly into view by the authoritative taboo on taking UFOs seriously…”


            • Alan
              Posted August 18, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

              “This is conspiracy theory thinking.”

              But curious why some best cases above are not even acknowledged properly.

              There was one in the US, at Chicago O’Hare airport in 2006 – but not a peep officially.
              Here was a remarkable object hovering (illegally) over an international airport and then accelerating and punching a hole through the clouds (and in doing so generating 9.4 kJ/m3 locally in the cloud layer).

              Anyway, scientists at least gave it the full treatment:


              The authorities ignore it, the scientists conclude unexplained. Why the difference?

            • Alan
              Posted August 19, 2011 at 1:26 am | Permalink

              Present company excluded, but of course! 😉

            • Posted August 19, 2011 at 1:49 am | Permalink


              Actually, I don’t think I’m the one that’s barking here…


              • Alan
                Posted August 19, 2011 at 2:13 am | Permalink

                Then I’m in good company with some of the scientists above (I met Peter Sturrock once at a meeting, he’s a serious fellow, esp. with his background) – but I did really mean most commenters here aren’t “muttish” – just a funny story I recalled.

                BTW, you mentioned a UFO sighting you had. Anything interesting? I have a fascinating interview with a family but you can go first.

  39. Alex SL
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    “Our mental complexity is an evolutionary one-off: like feathers or the trunks of elephants, it evolved only once.”

    Two related thoughts here. First, somebody has to be the first to evolve an adaptation, even if sentience will now regularly evolve in new lineages because brains of birds and mammals have become complex enough. Maybe we are simply the first, but in the next 100 Myr there will be three other sentient species. If you go back in time to the moment where flight evolved for the first time, you might be tempted to consider it a one-off, but looking back now, it is a clear case of rampant parallel evolution – take a look at this:

    Second, sometimes an adaptation confers such an impressive advantage that lots of different lineages evolve it in parallel (e.g., eyes), but sometimes an adaptation may confer an impressive advantage but be so complex that the first lineage to evolve it manages to rearrange the fitness landscape in a way to guarantee that nobody else can acquire it any more. Where once a smooth hill flank had to be climbed, there is now a deep valley in which a half-baked upstart competitor would have to compete with the first, already fully specialized lineage before becoming as well adapted to the same niche as they are.

    An obvious example are the land plants. Surely it stands to reason that the colonization of the land by complex multicellular plants is an inevitability – all that open space, and no competitor. But it only happened once! Once the first land plants had evolved out of the green lineage of the many groups of “algae”, and had become well adapted to the new environment, that route was probably effectively closed to the red algae, the heterokonts and all the various and sundry other photosynthetic lineages of eukaryotes. Similarly, many of the gliders mentioned in the above link could probably radiate into large groups of flyers if there weren’t such efficient flyers around already.

    So maybe sentience is a rare occurrence, but I am not convinced by the data available. Several lineages of birds and mammals seem now to be in a good position from which a couple million of years under the right environmental conditions could select their brains for sentience, especially corvids, some parrots, cetaceans and other apes and monkeys; then again, we are probably going to drive most of them extinct over the next 200 years, especially the mammals, and the cetaceans have the added disadvantage of not having anything for hands, so they are probably out anyway.

    • Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      Yep! See Comment #35.

    • Sergey
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      The problem with birds is that they do not have hands.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:51 am | Permalink

        but hands are inevitable….


        • Sergey
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:27 am | Permalink

          Not for birds. The basic body plan with 4 limbs was settled long ago and it does not seems like it can be changed by evolution now. And in birds front limbs are highly adapted for flight, so it is unlikely again that they can be used for other function. Flightless birds may be?… But there again should be some initial predisposition for grip, and it does not look there is any… Oh no, I think birds are helpless.

          Tentacles can be a solution, though. But again, not for birds.

          • Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink

            Birds in several not very closely related genera use tools (Galapagos finches and corvids, for example) and some have amazing vocabularies (including sounds to indicate different kinds of predators). They have cultural beliefs (idiosyncratic local behaviors based on collective experience). They pass down some of their experiences to the next generation.
            Don’t rule them out so quickly.
            But yes, perhaps cephalopods could some day build starships before birds figure out how to unscrew a light bulb (I think cephalopods already can learn to do that.)

            • Sergey
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

              Oh, I know that many birds are highly intelligent creatures (and it is quite interesting, because their brain lack neocortex, which is often connected with intelligence).

              But they never developed civilization, although they have more time for it than primates. May be absence of hands was important factor in it, or may be they just do not have to solve difficult problems – they always can fly away from them 🙂

              • Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

                What is “civilization”? As I said, birds solve problems, use tools, acquire a culture, and pass information on to the next generation. They are on the road to where we are now. They are not travelling as fast, but that doesn’t mean they won’t arrive some day.

              • Alex SL
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

                “although they had more time for it than primates” is silly. All life forms on this planet are, as far as we can tell, descendants of the same ancestral, first bacteria-like organism that appeared in abiogenesis. Thus they all had exactly the same time to evolve sentience, but apparently only one lineage happened to be under the right circumstances to enter the necessary positive feedback loop to result in civilization. (So far.) Really, what you wrote is like a noble saying that their family goes back to 1066 AD. Duh. So does mine, so does everyone’s, only medieval serfs did not keep records as well as the noblepersons.

                Lou Jost,
                If you only care about culture and tool-use, the difference between humans and some animals is quite gradual. However, if you define a civilization by the added criteria of agriculture and division of labour, humans are unique. (Atta has agriculture and division of labour, of course, but then again no tool use or culture.)

              • Posted August 17, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

                Alex, by defining “civilization” specifically enough, we can always get to say that humans are unique. But every one of the criteria you mentioned have been found in non-human animals. Once they have cultures and intelligence, the other aspects of civilization could follow.

              • Dan L.
                Posted August 17, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

                Lou, by defining civilization loosely enough we can come to the conclusion that every living thing on the planet is intelligent. This is not useful for learning about intelligence, civilization, OR living things.

                You can go on and on about why humans aren’t any different from all the other animals, but the question remains: why are humans so different from all the other animals?

      • Alex SL
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:34 am | Permalink

        Birds don’t have hands – but have you ever seen a parrot eating? Sitting on the branch with one foot and holding a nut in the other? And corvids are remarkably with using their beak to manipulate objects. Sure they would not be as good as we are at fiddling with small items, but this is about the potential for sentience, not about beating humans at clock-making.

        • Sergey
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          > this is about the potential for sentience, not about beating humans at clock-making.

          I do not think intelligence is possible without extensive complex manipulations of external objects.

          >have you ever seen a parrot eating? Sitting on the branch with one foot and holding a nut in the other?

          No, I do not, corvids are more common in my part of the world. But it does not sound very good. If it is sitting with one foot, which is unstable and require extra force and some balancing efforts. How will you dig a hard ground with a shovel or a hoe in such position?

          And it is working on ONE object. How it will handle two at the same time? And when we need to operate with three objects, mouth really helps… and when it is impossible to use mouth, for example when soldering, I really do not mind having an extra set of tentacles – this will be completely impossible for birds.

          Do you think creature with a body plan of a bird will be able to tie a knot? In “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman there are imaginary intelligent creatures called Mulefa, which use trunks to manipulate objects. In book they have to work in pairs to knit fishing nets… Now one beak is enough to tap on keyboard, but many “simple” activities found at low technology level require extensive use of both hands, often with a help of legs or mouth.

          • Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

            Maybe you are unlucky enough to live in an area of low bird diversity. Where I live, birds like oropendolas and caciques (icterids, like cowbirds) weave beautiful hanging basket nests several feet long from the tips of palm leaves. The weaving is remarkable. Hummingbirds have enough dexterity to weave nests made of spider webs. Elsewhere, bowerbirds construct enormous complex bowers, and megapodes excavate big holes in the ground for their nests. Parrot dexterity is awesome, and balancing on one foot is not hard (most birds even sleep on one foot!). Foot+beak is potentially almost as good as two hands. Perhaps the need for cooperation between birds when more “hands” are needed will drive the evolution of more complex language?
            Also, some birds already hunt cooperatively, like lions.
            Anyway, you are definitely underestimating birds.

            • Dan L.
              Posted August 17, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

              Some spiders produce webs with mechanical parts — their typical prey are mosquitos that “test” landing sites with their feet before setting down so they don’t get caught by typical webs. The webs of the spider in question are spring-loaded so that even the light initial touch of the mosquito sends it flying towards the mosquito ultimately trapping it. A very clever assembly made entirely of webbing then slowly pulls the web back into its initial spring-loaded state.

              Now this is all really cool stuff, but it in no way demonstrates that spiders are intelligent. Instead, it demonstrates that living things with very limited intelligence can develop incredibly complex behaviors through natural selection.

              Because of these facts and the fact that humans naturally anthropomorphize natural phenomena to make sense of them, the default attitude towards apparent intelligence in animals should be skepticism. When an animal does something clever like construct a bower we have to ask whether the animal is in fact clever or just doing a clever thing. The spider shows that the latter can be true for even quite astonishing levels of cleverness.

              • Posted August 18, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

                Yes, of course I agree that neither my bower-buildinge nor nest-weaving examples are evidence of intelligence. That wasn’t why I mentioned them. It was a response to Sergey saying that birds are poor at manipulating their environment (specifically, that they could not tie knots, etc) because of their physical limitations, and that this would make it unlikely that they could eventually evolve advanced intelligence. My examples show that birds can make complex manipulations of their environment in spite of their physical limitations.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

        If we define “hands” as “grasping appendages”, then birds do have them. (Just watch that osprey video.) The fact that they’re attached to their rear limbs is irrelevant.

  40. Derek
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Can we really claim that snakes don’t eat grass, even though they may not do so directly or even with intent? Many snakes eat grass inadvertently by eating mammals that have undigested grass in their stomachs. I have seen many snake droppings, but none containing undigested grass so I fell safe in assuming that the grass does not simply pass through the snake’s digestive system unchanged (as keratin frequently does). Are their any herpetologists who can tell us whether snakes can make use of the nutrients in the undigested grass in their preys’ stomachs? Or whether snake droppings contain cellulose or other undigested grass material that would indicate that snakes can make no nutritional use of ingested grass?

  41. Sergey
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    >there are some good examples of ecological niches that have never been filled. Here’s one: snakes that eat grass.

    But is it a really good example? It seems like evolution can not fill any niche available, it can only fill the niche reachable by evolutionary process – i.e. by a sequence of organisms, each with minimal difference from previous, and each capable of living on it’s own.
    So, to get a snake which eat grass there should be at first a snake which can nip off some grass, and which digestive system can make at least something useful from it… Is this likely?

    The niche can be here, but in fact it may be separated by a barrier, insurmountable for evolution. For example evolution can not flip retina in our eye, although it will lead to better vision.

    A more interesting question is than “if there is any niches which are reachable but not filled?”

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

      Lots of islands and temperate continental areas have empty niches. That is why invasive species are so destructive.

      Curiously, intact tropical rain forests have virtually no invasive plant species. They seem pretty tightly packed.

      • Sergey
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        But are those niches reachable by the evolution operating on local species? If not reachable or not enough time was given for it, than it is not a good example.

        The set of species available for evolution in given place and given time is one of the most important constraint on what evolution can achieve, I suppose. If the island had a population of birds and turtles, it will take a lot of time to evolve mammal terrestrial predator out of them, although that predator will have a good lunch if evolved somewhere else and transfered to the island.

        • Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

          The definition of a particular niche should not involve taxonomy, else we are begging the question. There is a niche for a predator on a given size-range of prey, perhaps narrowed down to a set of prey with particular characteristics and habits, but that predator niche can be filled by a mammal or a Komodo dragon or an eagle or a python.

          • Sergey
            Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

            The definition of niche may as well not involve taxonomy, but it does not matter in the context of original discussion.
            There are known niches which obviously can not be filled by evolution, like a human with retina in inverted position.

            But original situation is that:
            – We know, that some time ago on this planet there was niche for highly intelligent creature reachable for evolution.
            – This possibility was used, and homo sapience appeared.
            – The question is: was it possible for this niche, while it was still available, to remain empty?

            To answer this, we should not look for any niche imaginable, but only for those which are reachable, but not used.

            I do not know, but there may be some biological barrier which prevents formation of grass-eating-snake. To show that this is a good example for our problem one should show that such barrier does not exist.

            In an example with isolated island it seems to me that there was just not enough time (and may be not enough space as well) to form predator from available species.

            Evolution can not make miracles, we know that human formation was not a miracle, and we should not demand miracles from evolution to draw our conclusions.

            • Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

              I agree with you. Island gaps probably didn’t exist long enough for evolution to fill them.
              I think the same reasoning applies to birds and other animals that have only evolved low to moderate levels of intelligence and “civilization”. There just hasn’t been enough time for full development.

  42. Thanny
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t dare call human-level intelligence inevitable, but I do not consider reasonable the claim that intelligence has evolved only once.

    Brains have been getting more and more complex for millions of years, in thousands of species. There certainly seems to be a convergence on greater and greater intelligence. I think the fundamental problem people have in recognizing that fact is a misguided categorization of human and non-human intelligence as qualitatively different.

    Human intelligence differs in degree from that of other animals, not kind.
    To think otherwise is to be too much impressed by the one, and too little impressed by the other.

    • HuntingGoodWill
      Posted August 17, 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink

      If we define the framework of intelligence as the ability of an organism to use its environment to survive, then intelligence must mean the ability to develop “tools”, find “materials” and use more than one “pattern” to improve the survival rate by executing “reference-processes”.

      These would be perfectly ordered, completely deterministic entities of organized energy/matter. Without external stimuli, even the complexity of the system wouldn’t matter, because there would be no stimuli and it “all would be one”. Similar to a Bose-Einstein condensate state, with no fluctuations.
      We would perceive all processes as one, as we would perceive many atoms as one macroscopic “atom”.

      The external stimuli introduce an uncertainty, which in return produces diversity, but in the long run, creates selection.
      Things tend to possess the “need” to temporarily return to a synchronous state and in the end, create an equilibrium (when the external stimuli do not create potential to change into another state and thus create a potential to adapt).

      This is always a local process and only temporal.

      If all of this is true, then we should have “series” of species, which adapt, but do not create new “patterns” and “processes” (simple virus), some which create new “patterns” and “processes”, but do not adapt (species which reached some kind of “equilibrium”; there are probably many species which didn’t change much over the last millions of years) and the majority of the species, should be in a state which possesses the potential to both adapt AND create new “patterns” (these wouldn’t be single species, but a “sub-set” of species, say mammals) and then a tiny minority of species, which create more and more “processes” where the “patterns” are becoming less and less prone to change, because they are “encoded” in a point of “reference”, which is in an area all the “processes” and “patterns” gravitate to (complex, multi-cellular, multi-process “higher level of intelligence” species).

      These “reference-points” would have to become dominant over time, thus compress the data contained in the whole sum of “reference-points”, “processes” and “patterns”.

      So while the system would become more and more complex, less and less data would be necessary (compared to all possible states of the sub-systems) to create a unique “fingerprint”.
      Because no equilibrium can be reached (but the potential is always there), a “bi-polar” system would emerge in more and more complex systems. So there would be parts of the system which would become more and more dense with patterns and reference points, while the majority of the “raw data” would be indirectly referenced.

      If this were true, then the “lowest common denominator” (in central nervous systems, the brain) would have to be more and more complex AND ordered, the higher the level of “intelligence” is, while the data that the processes use to execute patterns, would become more and more distributed. More and more complexity would be created out of more and more diversity.

      So while we use the same data-system and have many points of reference in common (cells, organs, functions (eat/sleep, etc…), behavioral patterns), the higher level intelligence is able to create more and more reference points in an area, while simultaneously being able to execute more and more patterns which use widely spread “data”, DESPITE the necessity to react to external stimuli. We can see this tendency, to use an analogy, in the DNA.

      The system contains more and more data, runs AND builds more and more (new) patterns, while executing more and more processes in more and more programs, while compressing more and more data more and more efficiently AND the system being less and less prone to errors despite the widespread distribution of data.

      What qualitatively sets us apart from other intelligent beings is the ability not to only use, but to write software….to write software. So in essence to combine and use already available data and programs to create better and new programs (we build tools to build better tools).
      That’s the only QUALITATIVE difference I can think of.

      Sure, there can be other ways to “climb the ladder of intelligence”, but I am convinced this is how it works.
      And once you reach that level, after some time, you realize something. You are not only able to use your “computer”, manipulate new “data”, run more complex “processes” and bigger “programs”……………no, at some point, you start to “augment”, improve and even replace your hardware with better one.
      Looking at the advances in medicine, it looks like this will become widespread and “normal” soon.

      As far as live on other planet goes, let alone higher intelligence life, similar to our own? I guess that “normal” life is more common than we assume (given the size of the Galaxy/Universe and the number of possible candidates which could host it), but given the timescales it takes nature to create human level intelligence, we will probably not find anyone out there right away, who can visit us or talk back. 🙂

  43. jay
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I think that marsupial/placental convergence including the awesome Tasmanian wolf was engineered by the Australian Tourist board.

  44. Steve Smith
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    evolutionary convergence is the observation that some unrelated groups of animals or plants have, though natural selection, converged on similar “designs”

    It’s most fun when the “design” can be hijacked by parasitism. Here are seven wonderful examples that prove God’s awesome and abiding love:

    The 7 Most Horrifying Parasites on the Planet
    Sacculina is actually a not-at-all-hot female barnacle that is able to inject itself into various species of crab, grow inside them and eventually emerge from the carapace as a large sac. Right near his genitals.

    There, sacculina goes to work. She manipulates the crab’s hormones, sterilizing and basically emasculating him. Next, the parasite starts forcing changes in the crab’s body to make it resemble a female, presumably by causing a couple of huge crab boobs to flop out. As the final insult, she forces her victim to perform humiliating female mating dances.

    Finally when it comes time for sacculina to release her fertilized eggs–after having had sex with another sacculina on top of the poor crab’s genitalia, that is–the former male crab is compelled to release them into the ocean and stir the water with his claw, as if the eggs were his own.

    Where the crab’s genitals used to be, that’s sacculina.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Richard Dawkins on Conway Morrisby Guts The question of the likelihood or ‘inevitability’ of something human-like evolving seems to me a rather minor question of quantitative guesswork. I do have a fellow-feeling with Conway Morris over the general power of convergent evolution. I feel closer here to Conway Morris than I do to Gould’s ‘contingency’. But I am leagues away from anyone who draws theological conclusions from convergent evolution. But I am leagues away from anyone who draws theological conclusions from convergent evolution. Indeed, I am positively infuriated by the suggestion, as I am sure you are. here […]

%d bloggers like this: