Extreme ironing © b1ue5ky, creative commons BY-NC-SA 2.0

Life may be ubiquitous in the universe, forms and structures may crop up independently in very similar forms, but at the moment it seems as if human life is unique on our planet. The Cambridge Palaeobiologist Professor Simon Conway Morris made a name for himself by studying the Burgess shale, which is one of the earliest records of soft-bodied animal forms. From this work, he developed an interest in convergent evolution – the idea that independent evolutionary processes hit on the similar solutions again and again. Now that convergence has blossomed into a field of its own, Simon has turned his attention to human and animal intelligence. At this year’s Faraday Institute summer course he described some of his findings so far, which I will summarise here in my own words.

Crows and their relatives can do some extremely clever things, and so can primates. Both sets of creatures have arrived independently at a set of mental tools that equips them to solve problems, including imagination and the ability to anticipate future events. The question is, however, can these animals reason? It seems not. A crow can be trained to bend things into hooks and use them to solve problems, but it takes a very long time to learn that skill by trial and error. These animals don’t seem to be thinking rationally.

We are derived from animals though our evolutionary history, but there seems to be something very different about us compared to our intelligent non-human cousins. Simon thinks he has seen some hints about what that something might be.

A dog can be taught to delay gratification, but only for a short time. A chimp might use a twig to dip for termites, but it cannot use one tool to make another. Compared to the two thousand year-old analogue computer found in Antikethyra, these behavioural triumphs pale into insignificance. And while animals may have culture, they don’t seem to be aware that they have it.

Humans imitate, using our imaginations to understand how processes can lead to an endpoint, but animals emulate. People can also reason in a more creative way, connecting completely different things to produce new solutions. So although chimps may seem to make war together using similar techniques to early hominins, they are doing nothing of the sort. There is no strategy and no discussion, but simply a pack of individuals together in one place.

What about teaching? A teacher has to have an understanding of their audience so they can pace their delivery to the stduent’s capacity to learn. Ants may be the only example of animals that can genuinely teach, while others are only responding to cues. For example, Meerkats give their very young pups a dead scorpion, slightly older pups get a live but defanged scorpion, and the oldest pups get an intact dangerous one. It turns out, though, that the adults are simply responding to calls that the pups make. If you change the call, the food type changes.

Mirror recognition is often used as a test of animal intelligence. Human babies can usually recognise themselves in a mirror at around 18 months old. Other animals that have passed the mirror test include elephant, chimps, gorillas, orangutans, dolphins, killer whales, magpies – possibly even monkeys, manta rays, and ants. But can these creatures take an interest in each other, mentally ‘stepping into others’ shoes’ as we do?

There are also clear differences in the use of language. Some animals have calls, but are these vocalisations a proto-language? Simon thinks not. Human language involves embedding multiple meanings in a message, showing a real depth of understanding. An analogy has also been made between birdsong and language, with baby birds going through a ‘babbling phase’ like infant humans – but the similarity is superficial.

A connection has been made between human and humpback whale music. Perhaps there is a similarity here? Human music is full of meaning. We can be inspired by something like birdsong, but that is then taken into abstract contexts and used to convey deep emotion. Is that what whales are doing when they gather to sing together? Perhaps not.

Humans have an incredible capacity for cooperation, as a look at any large city will show you. We can also do things that seem completely mad, like skydiving or extreme ironing. Play is a sign of intelligence, and humans can do it to a remarkable degree, even in adulthood. Are there differences here from other naimals?

What about numbers? Fish have a similar ability to humans at assessing approximate numbers. This is a kind of early numerosity, but it is sensory rather than rational. Humans can do something different, which is to explore an abstract reality using mathematics.

The ultimate question for Simon at the moment is, what if the human brain is not like a computer but an antennae? What if mind is independent of us and we access it? Music, language, mathematics, and other aspects of what makes us unique might be aspects of that mind. The archaeological record certainly seems to show a process of discovery of these things by hominin species over the millennia. What if we have access to realities that other animals have no been able, so far, to reach? This antennae-like quality of our brains might allow us to reflect on aspects of God’s reality, including love, unselfish behaviour, and all the other things that make us distinctively human? Science may not give us the ultimate answers here, but it’s an intriguing idea.

The full recording of Simon Conway Morris’s talk will be posted on the Faraday Institute website in the coming weeks.

Further reading

Crows as Clever as Great Apes, Study Says