Sunday, January 13, 2013

One reason learning ain't good

A clever experiment conducted by Mery and Kavecky, showed that artificial selection for learning ability in fruit flies produces high learners and non learners. From an evolutionary point of view, learning should either serve reproduction and survival.

The cost of building, maintain and learning is a high one, as learning means making mistakes of things one haven't learned yet. Sometimes, these mistakes could lead to death.

The mind is also costly to build (and maintain) and the fruit fly study shows this very well. The experimenters gave real fruits to some of the flies and pieces of poisoned artificial fruit to the other flies. The flies learnt relatively fast that banana was smelling like banana but was bitter like hell. 

Consequently the flies learnt to associate the smell of a fruit with a bad taste. Some of the flies learnt this every well. At a later stage, the experimenters breaded all the good learners for about 10-20 generations and obtained clever flies. Who would have thought flies could ever be smart? But voila, in a later stage, the experimenters took all the non-learners (the really dumb flies), and bred them for 10-20 generation and obtained stupid fly offspring, which were unable to associate the bitterness with the taste of the fruit. Some never learn, right?

Now, here comes the nice part of the experiment. The researchers locked in a jar all smart fly offsprings along with all the stupid fly offsprings and make them compete for food. Who do you think won? I know, all college students hoped the smart ones won, so they can reduce their cognitive dissonance. If the stupid ones win, why are we in college, then? 

But, surprise, the clever ones lost out. Boo-hoo! No learning was required to get food so the benefit was not necessary. The clever flies were competitively inferior to stupid flies and were paying an extra cost. They probably had bigger brains and more wiring but it turned out that this new big brain was too costly and when competing they lost out.

Similarly, Conrad Lorenz said there is a cost of learning and that humans have an innate mechanism to recognize their own infants. If we had to learn how they look like, we could make mistakes and these mistakes would be too costly for the species. When a single mistake is too costly, learning is not required and thus costly mistakes are avoided by the strategy of not having to learn.

Additionaly to what was said above, if you ever wondered how our brain will look like 10.000 years from now, we can predict based on recent findings that although the human brain increased from 850 to 1100 cc (homo erectus) to 1300 - 1500 cc (homo sapiens sapiens) a new decrease took place.

Recent studies showed explicitly that the human brain shrunk again in the past 30.000 years with 91 cubic inches (the size of a tennis ball), in spite of our enriched environment. What does it mean? If a richer environment makes a bigger, better brain, how comes our brains shrunk? Is our modern human brain getting more specialized? Is our actual brain an intelligence in a nutshell? If things go on as they do today, in the next 10,000 years will have to squeeze everything into a 1275 cc, the size of a MKII Mini Cooper S engine. A Mini Cooper is a fancy vehicle driven by domesticated sapiens, adapted to a crowded city with no parking spots and a devilish traffic. I know we would rather go for a Bugatti Veyron with a fat engine of 7993 cc, just in case we need to run for my life if a predator is behind. Compared to Mini Cooper which goes from 0 to 60 mph in 10.3 seconds, the Bugatti reaches that speed in 2.4 seconds. Surely, the comparison between the human brain and a car engine is a bit farfetched and neural connexions don’t work on the same principle as the engine cilinders, even if a bit of internal combustion takes place in both.

So how will such a tiny brain will perform in the future? What sort of abilities will it have? You how much I like to speculate so here we go. If we take the Flynn Effect into consideration, the same enriched environment and better nutrition will lead to the substantial and long-sustained increase in intelligence. According to these calculations, the IQ increases 0.3 points/year and between 3-9 points /ten years. Romania has an average country IQ 94 and U.S. 98. So, by year 12.042, Romanians will have, let me calculate, yes, an IQ of 743.7. So what will we be able to do with such a brain?

For one,  due to the technological pampering and vocabulary intuitive gadgets and spellcheckers we shall have less words, less thoughts and maybe less feelings. Our social skills will limp and we shall become estranged. If technology will replace human company, our mirror neurons will no longer be needed, and compasion and empathy will disappear. Love will be replaced by sexual fitness as unique criterion of mating. Choosiness will lead to genetic “rich” and genetic “poor”, and equality will be a concept long forgotten. Did I mention our receding chins which will have to chew on the over-processed foods? In a genetically divided world, the lack of words would lead to lack of thoughts. Unfortunately, the absence of War will not mean Peace, Freedom will not be slavery, and Ignorance shall not be strength, let alone bliss (see “1984” for further details). Future ain’t bright, let alone pink. Yuck!