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Brain evolution
How did we get so smart?



Exploring how human beings are "infovores" whose brains love to learn. Children may enjoy Sesame Street's fast pace because they get a "click of comprehension" from each brief scene. From hand-held DVD players to hundred-inch plasma screens, much of today's technology is driven by the human appetite for pleasure through visual and auditory stimulation. What creates this appetite? Neuropsychologists have found that visual input activates receptors in the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward, and that the brain associates new images with old while also responding strongly to new ones.

Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions -- motion, speech, self-awareness -- shut down one by one. An astonishing story. Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor studied her own stroke as it happened -- and has become a powerful voice for brain recovery.

Mirror neurons are used to imitate others and acquire language





Brain Evolution and the Function of Music

The Relationship of Music to the Melody of Speech and to Syntactic Processing Disorders in Aphasia
The Neurosciences Institute, San Diego, California 92121, USA

Two new empirical studies address the relationship between music and language. The first focuses on melody and uses research in phonetics to investigate the long-held notion that instrumental music reflects speech patterns in a composer's native language. The second focuses on syntax and addresses the relationship between musical and linguistic syntactic processing via the study of aphasia, an approach that has been explored very little. The results of these two studies add to a growing body of evidence linking music and language with regard to structural patterns and brain processing.

The Evolution of Music in Comparative Perspective
In this paper, I briefly review some comparative data that provide an empirical basis for research on the evolution of music making in humans. First, a brief comparison of music and language leads to discussion of design features of music, suggesting a deep connection between the biology of music and language. I then selectively review data on animal "music." Examining sound production in animals, we find examples of repeated convergent evolution or analogy (the evolution of vocal learning of complex songs in birds, whales, and seals). A fascinating but overlooked potential homology to instrumental music is provided by manual percussion in African apes. Such comparative behavioral data, combined with neuroscientific and developmental data, provide an important starting point for any hypothesis about how or why human music evolved. Regarding these functional and phylogenetic questions, I discuss some previously proposed functions of music, including Pinker's "cheesecake" hypothesis; Darwin's and others' sexual selection model; Dunbar's group "grooming" hypothesis; and Trehub's caregiving model. I conclude that only the last hypothesis receives strong support from currently available data. I end with a brief synopsis of Darwin's model of a songlike musical "protolanguage," concluding that Darwin's model is consistent with much of the available evidence concerning the evolution of both music and language. There is a rich future for empirical investigations of the evolution of music, both in investigations of individual differences among humans, and in interspecific investigations of musical abilities in other animals, especially those of our ape cousins, about which we know little.

Universal Footprint: Power Laws



Dear Val,

What in the world could the answer be to the following question: " Our brains expanded at he same rate in (exponent about 1.5) evolution as did the antlers of giant deer and horns of giant sheep! ... Why?"
And why are periglacial environments, environments poor to the naked eye, richer than tropical environments, which seem very, very rich?
How does the PERCEPTION of what's trash and what's treasure, of what's a resource and what's not, feed into the equation?  Seemingly the bigger the brain, the more likely its owner is to see resources where smaller brained creatures obstacles and emptiness.  But is this true?
Deer presumably inherit the strategies that tell them what is trash and what is treasure--what is food and what is not.  They don't make discoveries that turn yesterday's waste into tomorrow's resource, the way human inventors do.  And deer don't have the repository of solutions inventors draw from, then add their discoveries to--culture.
So why do the same formulae apply in the case of deer and of humans?  Why do deer find the north, with its eight months of scarcity, richer than the south, with its twelve months of lushness?
Where does the technology that produces clothing,  shelter, and tools for hunting and harvesting fit?  What analog of this technology is available to the deer?
Are deer antlers useful for anything--for scraping lichen and moss off of rocks, for example?  Or are they simply what most of us have always thought--gaudy displays of excess evolved to appeal to the females of the species?
And why does the gaudy display of excess show up so often in a cosmos that we think obeys strict laws of frugality?
How does this extravagance fit into the notions of economy that underlie Paul Werbos' Laplaceian math?  And how does this excess production of new form fit into a universe that many think is ruled by the form-destroying processes of entropy? ~ Howard Bloom

Dear Howard,

You asked two questions: What in the world could the answer be to the following question: "Our brains expanded at he same rate in (exponent about 1.5) evolution as did the antlers of giant deer and horns of giant sheep! ... Why?"

And why are periglacial environments, environments poor to the naked eye, richer than tropical environments, which seem very, very rich?

They are good questions, which I think I can answer. In the first, the similarity extends much beyond the fact that both, horns and brains, grow within or from skull bones! Large antlers/horns as well as brains stand, in an odd way, for supreme, highly adaptive all-round ability, for supreme competence and confidence. However, let me start at the real beginning.
Antlers as well as the cerebral cortex (the largest part of the brain) are both tissues of low growth priority. That is, they only grow when the blood stream has supplied all other tissues with their required energy and nutrients. Antlers and brains thus both depend for maximum growth on superabundant food of the highest quality. The brain in addititon to that superlative nutrition requires hard, but diverse exercise in order to grow. It's like a muscle: no exercise, no growth! The broader the range of abilities mastered the larger the brain! Brain size is not related to excellence in a task, but in many tasks. Therefore, very large brains can only occur together with an athletic body and large body size. And that is the very picture of our wild, ice age ancestors from the upper Paleolithic in the cold, but productive periglacial zones. (It also applies to Neanderthal). The average Cro-magnid, athetic, six-foot plus, and with a brain 20% larger than moderns was a superior human specimen to Val Geist on every count!
As to antlers, they also grow only if there is lots and lots of excellent food. However, here is the rub! In deer societies the females occupy the most secure ground and graze the daylights out of it. For females and young the primary goal is security from predators, and they will gladly accept second rate food to achieve that. Consequently, males cannot thrive on the land occupied by the females. If they want to eat well, as they are driven to do as only large males are successful breeders so chosen by females, they must seek superior feeding grounds. However superior feeding areas are insecure. That is, to eat well is associated with much greater danger from predators and, consequently, more  males get killed than females. Therefore, the larger the antlers of the male, the better he has succeeded feeding in very dangerous areas while outwitting and outrunning predators. Since antlers are tissues of low growth priority their size is directly related to superior competence of the male precisely the male the female will choose for mating.
There is no escape from this: to grow into a superior specimen the young male deer must leave the poor feeding grounds of mother where he was born and raised and seek boldly, cleverly, persistently - the best food in the most insecure, dangerous localities. His antler size proves his success as a hero! The bigger the more heroic and smart his conduct.

That's within a species.

Big antlers turn on deer fames and big intelligence in human males turns on females. So big antlers and big brains are probably organs of sexual selection, formed by ladies choice!
Now antler size in deer and brain size in humans progress in size, stepwise from the equator outward towards the poles. Each step away from the Equatorial Forests towards the poles increases the climates seasonality and severity as shown by Savannah, Steppe, Deserts, Temerate zones, Periglacial, Arctic/Alpine. Ungulates and omnivores many times, but Primates only once, bud off discrete “species” or “forms” from the tropic to the Arctic. Note: in this progression of new “forms” each has to del with the consequences of increased seasonality, with increasing extremes in climate, with ever wider fluctuations temporally and geographically of resource abundance. Food availability and security demands are totally different in spring, than in summer, than in fall, than in winter. The further from the equator, the greater the demand on the diversity of skills and information to be mastered and brain size keeps pace with that. Another important point: as poulations are limited by the scarce food supplies of winter, they are increasingly overwhelmed by the abundance of foods during the productivity pulse of summer. So, no productivity pulse in tropical moist forests, some pulse in Savannah, good pulse in steppe, better pulse in temperate zones good, large pulse in cold temperate, sharp but tall  productivity spike in the Arctic/Alpine. During the productivity spike individuals enjoy freedome from want or luxury. The further north the greter the luxury except for time! Towards the Arctic the spike becomes shorter and shorter not enough Time to grow! Summer in the Arctic is very productive, but too short to allow luxurious body growth.
And another factor: in the tropics leaching drains fertility from the land making it nutrient poor except where nutrients are washed into soils deposited by rivers alluvial soils. In the north glaciatons have liberated fertility from ground up rock. Ergo, our glaciated north is filthy rich in fertility. Filthy rich! Therefore the progression of species adapts each species to incasing seasonal luxury totally missing in the moist tropics. In the tropics ferocious competition for nutrients drives species into narrow specialization increasing biodiversity. Each species, though is of minimum design and struggling to make ends meet. In the north, one species does what several species do in the tropics, lowering biodiversity. Also, logically, each northern species grows during the productivity pulse and stores fat for the bad times ahead in winter lacking in tropical forms. Ergo, we are filthy fat and chimps and gorillas are not!
Now lets quickly go through the species progression south top north in the only primate lineage anthropoids - which was able to achieve this, what has been achieved many, many times by ungulates. Note the rogression inro climatic severity and its ecological repercussions.

  1. primitive tropical moist forest ancestor with chimp/bonobo adaptations holding the genetic foundations for human evolution.
  2. the Savannah-adapted gracile Australopithecus form, breaking free from territoriality by adapting to the “selfish herd”. Surface forager in the most productive tropical ecosystems. Climbs trees and builds nests for security at night.
  3. The first advance into the dry, seasonal step braking radically with the anthropoid adaptation by (a) being able to survive predators on the ground at night, (b) discovers underground feeding for stored plant foods (tubers, corms, bulbs, roots) which are only accessible through digging sticks which in turn need to be sculptured with stone tools from tough branches covered densely with sharp spines (tools to make tools) (c) begin to tap into the huge protein stores as represented by the ungulate biomass of the steppe. (d) almost certainly: begin to explore the fat and protein rich foods hidden! in the inter-tidal zones along ocean shores as are steppe plant foods. All this generates additional profound changes away from the chimp ancestor. This is the Homo habilis/erectus form, the first true humans.
  4. With the first major glacitation about 1.9 m y ago, the beginning of the Pleistocene, this new form hardens its steppe adaptations and bypassing the desert begins to invade de progressively the temperate zones. About a dozen or more major glaciations follow, desiccating Africa merciless and exterminating all human advances north of the Eurasian mountain chains again and again. Still spread to Europe and Asia persist. This is the 1.5 my progression of our parent species Homo erectus.
  5. Huge penultimate glaciation 225 000 y ago desiccates Africa crisp and our parent species cannot make it and dies out. Two branches of it however transform to supreme desert conditions, a gracile form (us) and a robust form (Neanderthal). Jump in brain size!
  6. Neanderthal first and the gracile form later, invade the herbivore-rich periglacial zones in Eurasia, develop advanced technology and soon culture as we know it. Both are biologically grotesque and fat Ice Age giants within a fauna of grotesque and fat Ice Age giants (its all dreadfully “biologica!”). Superlative luxury body and brain development in both forms till Neanderthal fades away, and the superlatively developed European specimen fade away with the end of the last glaciation, being replaced by a small-brained starvation culture (Mesolithic) followed by agriculture (followed by genetic decay, and loss of brain size etc).
  7. Meanwhile, one late-glacial branch of the graciles branches out into inner Asia and develops even more brain in a process of neotinization. The supremely cold adapted mongoloid people evolve that colonize the Arctic/Alpine and north America, but only with and after mega-faunal extinctions (earlier attempts by ur-caucasoids and Ainu failed!).

So much for the thumb-nail sketch! Note: no other primate went past the horrific barriers of the African dry steppe! In crashing through we became humans.
So, antlers and brains both depend on ecological riches, and such are found increasingly the closer one gets to the fertile soils formed by glacial actions and warm, moist summers. However, the price to pay is acquisition of competence to deal with increasingly more complex ecological demands.

Cheers, Val Geist





While Americans debate human evolution, the pace of evolution itself is about to explode, says Scientist and Futurist Ray Kurzweil. In this century, he and others say, humans will reach what they call "the Singularity": the moment when man and machine, humans and their  technology, become one. Kurzweil foresees human intelligence vastly outstripped by computer intelligence and then wholly merged with that intelligence in this century, within a few decades.

A bot that passed the Turing Test



Software Tricks People into thinking It Is Human

I asked it if I am fat and
it said, "I don't know. You are a computer."

Clever Bot

I decided to test the online version, which is supposedly a bit more stupid than the version that passed the Turing test:
One of the disclaimers at the bottom of the page reads:
"PLEASE NOTE: Cleverbot learns from real people - things it says may seem inappropriate - use with discretion, and at YOUR OWN RISK"
So I decided to have a chat
Me: "Should I lose weight?"
CleverBot: "You should."
... and ended like:
Me [angry and frustrated]: Do you think all women should starve?
CB: Yes.
Me: You are sexist.
CB: I know . And I don't care.

Ok, so, definitely, CleverBot passed the Turing test for me. And it has well learnt from men....

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