thought not static

where one think leads to another

the short lived lives of intelligent beings

Posted by thoughtnotstatic on 7 May 2008

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.
Friedrich von Schiller

“You do not usually get something for nothing. Now a new study reveals that the evolution of an improved learning ability could come at a particularly high price: an earlier death.” So begins the article “Critical Thinking” which appeared in April 24 2008 print edition of The Economist. This article, along with a more in-depth story the May 6 New York Times, cite recent research that shows while learning is a common ability in the animal kingdom, it is not necessarily an advantageous ability.

In the results of experiments with fruit flies, for example, researchers found “that their fast-learning flies live on average 15 percent shorter lives” while “flies that have undergone selection for long life were up to 40 percent worse at learning than ordinary flies.”

Scientist speculate one reason for this may be in that learning is not free – biologically, it takes tremendous energy – and that this may, in fact, divert or take energy away from other biological functions necessary for survival…

Dr. Reuven Dukas, one of the scientist interviewed in the NY Times article, suggests “learning evolves to higher levels only when it is a better way to respond to the environment than relying on automatic responses.” Another of the scientist involved in the research, Dr. Tadeusz Kawecki, “suspects that each species evolves until it reaches an equilibrium between the costs and benefits of learning. His experiments demonstrate that flies have the genetic potential to become significantly smarter in the wild. But only under his lab conditions does evolution actually move in that direction. In nature, any improvement in learning would cost too much.”

Given that human brains consume 20 percent of our caloric intake at rest, and that it takes years of learning to acquire the intelligence needed to survive on our own, the benefits of this learning must be huge in order to out weigh this cost. Yet, these recent findings indicate that, taken to an extreme, learning may extract a higher price than we think. As Dr. Kawecki’s puts it, “we could speculate that some diseases are a byproduct of intelligence.” Now, that’s what I call being too smart for our own good!

Of course, none of this takes into account the question of quality vs. quantity. Sure, being a little dumber may add a few years to the tail end of our lives. But so what? “The unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates famously remarked to the jury set to condemn him. Better to have learned and lost, than have never learned at all. I’d be interested to measure any correspondence between learning and pleasure.

However, it seems likely that the research of Kawecki and Dukas may go along way to explaining why politics works the way it does.

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One Response to “the short lived lives of intelligent beings”

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