Sunday, August 21, 2011

Building better monkeys

After a model by J. H. McGregor. PROFILE VIEW ...Image via Wikipedia

Most of my thoughts for this post come from an article in The Republic out of Columbus, Indiana.  It was titled "Building a Smarter Ape?"  and can be found here:
sand sculpture of the three monkeysImage via Wikipedia

Of course it talks about the new Planet of the Apes movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  It reports that increasing the size of the brain alone wouldn't allow apes to attain most human qualities.  Agreed.

It also claims that apes can be trained to use sign language.  Disagree.  Apes can learn signs, but that is very different than sign language, which is an entire set of languages with complex grammar, dialects, etc.  American Sign Language is one of these, a full language.  Signed Exact English is where people spell out the letters to make words in English, and very different from ASL, or any of the other sign
Image via Wikipedia
languages.  Apes can learn signs.  Not sign language.  For example, the given example from Gary Marcus "They say they want more bananas, or they want to be tickled, not, "I wonder what would happen if France defaulted."  The apes wouldn't say (or sign) "I want a banana."  The sign would be more like this "banana I I I banana want banana I banana want want banana banana" The English language usually structures sentences subject verb object (I want a banana).  I thought I heard that American Sign Language usually has a different setup (like I banana want).  The ape never learns the preferred structure.  It throws out the needed words at apparently random intervals.  I'm not totally sure it would even get the verb word in there.

The article makes some interesting points about how some humans, because of developmental defects, have chimp sized brains, but that they, even with deficits, are much more advanced than apes.  The author also explains that neanderthals had larger brains than we do, but had no art or symbolic thought.  I read a research article that seems to refute this, saying that neanderthals were smarter than we give them credit for, but whatever. 
Brains-frImage via Wikipedia

The author of the article then gets into questions of advantages of a bigger brain.  Some theorists suggest that "varied climates required early hominids to be craftier" which is ridiculous to me at least, as there's all kinds of animals that lived in varied climates.  Maybe they are craftier, but they are certainly no closer to being human than the apes are.  Others, the author says, think that bigger brains allowed them to get more mates.  Again, this strategy would be equally effective for every other species that mates, but humans are different from all of them. 

A final thought with regards to why the bigger brains is that having the father involved in child care allowed more kids to be raised, and for kids to have longer developmental periods (no other animal has an 18 year development period. :)  This leads up to my favorite quote of the article "the no-strings-attached mating strategy of male chimps might be limiting their brainpower."  I love it. 
Monkey and babyImage by doug88888 via Flickr

Of the listed reasons for a bigger brain, it is the only one that I can't immediately rule out.  The others though seem to be possible driving causes for a bigger brain, whereas this one doesn't show a cause, but rather, a way that would allow for bigger brains to develop. 

My reasoning on the issue, which is equally scientific (that is to say unscientific, just as these others are as yet unproven hypotheses) is that we have bigger brains, because we needed bigger brains, to allow us to do the things that God our father in heaven wants us to do.  Or to not do those things, according to our wishes. 

Actual science on this issue would require us to recreate human beings at multiple points on our proposed evolutionary path in the same environments that they were in, and then get out of the way and see what they do in terms of does the smartest guy get more girls, or are smart genes picked up over time by moving to different environments, or is there a point at which the males start helping to
'Cavendish' bananas are the main commercial cu...Image via Wikipedia
care for the children, at which the brain starts to grow and other uniquely human traits begin to develop?  This is one of those few cases where animal models can't really help, because the issue under investigation is how humans became different from the other animals, and so only human subjects will do.  Unless actual human experiments are done, this whole field is left to grasp at ideas and let others critique them, with individuals stating their opinion without being able to test it.  Not science.  Kind of like religion, except for the different beliefs with regards to provenance of knowledge. 

Anyway, the article finally gets into the issues of genetically altering apes to make them more human.
Ape-ManImage via Wikipedia
While this couldn't definitively answer issues of how humans got to where we are, it would be very interesting, and could give some strong clues.  I think it's a great idea.  Mwa ha ha!
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