The necessity of dexterity for civilization

Today’s SMBC highlights something about humanity that is often overlooked, something that any extraterrestrial intelligence that builds a civilization would have to have.

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Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – The Mammal Conspiracy

We often talk about the intelligence of dolphins, whales, cephalopods, elephants, and other species.  But something all of these species lack is an ability to alter and control their environment, at least in any detailed fashion, a capability that is at the heart of building a civilization.  When you think about the evolutionary steps that were necessary for humans to have the dexterity that we do, it starts to look like we were the benefactors of a very lucky sequence of events.

First, there needed to be a three dimensional environment like the interlocking tree branches that made the primate body plan adaptive.  Second, the primate line needed to evolve an intelligent line (the great apes).  Third, there needed to be a change in environment that led to some of those apes coming down from the trees to tall grasslands where walking upright was adaptive, freeing their hands for work other than locomotion or hanging.

Only then do we have the stage set for human intelligence to evolve.  Of course, it’s completely conceivable for alternate factors to lead to the evolution of those capabilities.  But the fact that, despite a number of relatively intelligent species in the animal kingdom, it’s only happened once on Earth should give us pause before concluding that it’s at all common for a civilization building species to evolve.

Intelligence and dexterity aren’t the only factors by the way.  Mastery of fire as a tool also seems crucial, something that seems to rule out water dwelling species like cephalopods, who if they lived longer, might have a decent chance at manipulating their environment.

Fermi’s paradox is the question which asks, if extraterrestrial civilizations are common, why weren’t we colonized long ago?  The rarity of the combination of intelligence and dexterity might give a pretty grounded answer to that question, and that’s before we even consider the likelihood of other evolutionary milestones, such as sexual reproduction or multi-cellular life.

So, when thinking about the evolution of human intelligence, be grateful for the existence of jungles and grasslands.  Without them, we might not be here, at least not with enough intelligence to discuss our evolution.

9 thoughts on “The necessity of dexterity for civilization

    1. Thanks. I have seen that talk and found it as uninformed as most of the AI alarmism. What bothers me about Harris in particular, is that he’s a neuroscientist and should know better. But there is a faction of neuroscientists whose knowledge of psychology is nonexistent. It appears Harris is in that faction.

      Or, as you ponder, he may be merely jumping on the new bandwagon. Either way, it’s all increasingly making Harris someone whose views I’m learning to ignore.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He has a degree in neuroscience, but he has not done any research or work in the field. One needs to practice a profession to claim being a professional. I hesitate to call him a philosopher either since he seems to be fairly ignorant about philosophy. He seems to make a living expressing controversial views on a subject, stirring up a heated debate about it, and selling a book. He has pulled this trick with science-morality topic, the free will. Now he’s getting onto AI alarmism.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Apparently Harris has a 1997 B. A. in philosophy from Stanford, and was incited to write his first book by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Given its popularity my though is that his publisher suggested, “It might not be a bad idea if you picked up some prestigious letters after your name…” Regardless in 2009 he did receive a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA.

      When I looked him up on Wikipedia after his “contest days,” I believe it gave the same essential information as today, but began merely with, “American author…” Today they it reads, “American author, philosopher, neuroscientist…” I think they had it right the first time.

      I certainly don’t have a problem with non scientists writing about science, but pretending to be a scientist because that’s how your fans want to perceive you, does seem a bit much.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. It’s interesting to note that dexterity or intelligence are not needed for survival at all. Take tortoises, for example. They are very slow, yet they live for over 150 years and have been around for 220 million years. They survived the dinosaurs and they may survive humans as well. And, of course, plants don’t move (in a sense animals do), are being eaten by the
    animals all the time, yet seem to survive quite well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely true. I read something years ago that the species most likely to survive a nuclear war would be cockroaches, although I suspect tardigrades have them beat in that regard. In evolution, quantity has a better track record than quality.

      But the single celled organisms will outlast all of us. As the sun increases in brightness over the next billion years, the earth will gradually become uninhabitable. The last life will almost certainly be those single celled organisms. They will be last, as they were first, the bookmarks of the age of life on the earth. (Assuming of course we haven’t figured out a way to move the earth farther from the sun by then.)

      Liked by 1 person

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