Monday, February 13, 2012

Again, what if...?

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What if there were another advanced species on Earth?
Still from "Planet of the Apes," a 20th Century Fox film. (2001)
Would we break bread with our brainy cohabitants or be locked in battle?

By Natalie Wolchover 
What if Neanderthals, who bit the dust just 28,000 years ago, had instead wised up and were now living next door? Or what if, during all these millennia that humans have been evolving, some unrelated creature had evolved cognitive and technological prowess in keeping with our own? Another scenario: what if humans had split into two separate species — the original gangsters, and a successful evolutionary offshoot? 
These are all perfectly reasonable histories of the world that would have resulted in two advanced species of Earthlings living side-by-side today. They're just not the histories that happen to have happened.
But what if they had? Would we break bread with our brainy cohabitants or be locked in a constant battle for supremacy?

Oh, them – just ignore them 

In this hypothetical world, there would be three possible relationships between humans and "others," said William Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History. The most likely one is that competition for resources would cause us to fight, constantly. 
"Given knowledge of how humans behave within their species — the endless inter-tribal conflicts and wars that have sadly gone on for many thousands of years — I think that whenever resources become an issue, or competing ideologies become an issue, you get conflict," Harcourt-Smith said. If one of the species was slightly cleverer or stronger or developed better technology than the other, the former would eventually decimate the latter, reminiscent of Humans vs. Neanderthals


If, after tens of thousands of years of clashes between Humans and Others, no one had come out on top, the two species might have gradually drifted toward equilibrium, either by populating geographically separate regions of the globe or by adapting to require different resources, Harcourt-Smith said. Others might have developed an appetite solely for fish, for instance, while Humans might have specialized in animal husbandry, and come to find fish disgusting. 
In either of those cases — if we lived in different regions or utilized different resources — Humans and Others would have developed cultural systems in which we were taught to avoid one another. That's what other species do under the same circumstances. "As long as there isn't competition, species just ignore each other," he said. "Two monkeys living in the same tree, for example — if they're not going after the same resources, they don't interact." 
Roddy McDowall on the set of Planet of the Apes, 1968
Image via ThisIsNotPorn


But what might our imaginary friends/enemies be like? Granted, they could look like anything — could have evolved from apes, elephants, dolphins or some other creatures — but Harcourt-Smith believes there are three traits the Others would definitely need in order to be technologically advanced. 
"First, you need cognitive abilities that allow you to construct things, to conceive of abstract ideas or conceive of an object with many moving parts, each of which has a function. You must have forward planning and be able to think outside space and time in an abstract sense, in order to create that object," he said. 
Second, they must have a way of manipulating objects, both with great strength and with great finesse. We manage this with our hands — amazing structures that can grip objects very powerfully but can also perform tasks that require great delicacy and dexterity, such as sewing with needle and thread. "Imagine that, in another creature, their feet develop these incredible abilities, or their tongues," he said. 
Lastly, cultural transmission is essential. It's uncommonly rare to find a single human who knows how to build a computer from scratch, starting with mining the raw materials. Or, for that matter, someone who knows how to build an irrigation system, or a gun. Rather than reinventing the wheel over and over, humans pass down knowledge from one generation to the next. We also have job specialization within our societies to make them function more efficiently. For a nonhuman society to achieve similar technological progress, they too would need some sophisticated form of communication.

Humans 2.0 

There's one more scenario that must be considered: Could another group of highly intelligent Earthlings someday arise? According to Harcourt-Smith, in the long term (millions or billions of years out), all bets are off. "We don't know what the future holds — how other species of advanced mammals might evolve," he said. For that to happen, some cataclysmic event would have to cause the human population to plummet in order to clear the way for a competitor. 
Alternatively, he said, a group of pioneering humans could venture into space and settle somewhere else. The new environment would cause them to undergo rapid evolution and then, some 100,000 years later, they would have become a distinct species that might still interact with the same old humans back on Earth. 
"The other possibility is through our own making — genetic engineering and such. Putting human genes into animals and goodness knows what. But you never know. It's certainly possible."
Text via MSNBC

Why Haven't All Primates Evolved 

into Humans?

The ascent of man
Ben Mauk
Humans did not evolve from apes, gorillas or chimps. We are all modern species that have followed different evolutionary paths, although it is true humans share a common ancestor with some primates, such as the African ape.
The timeline of human evolution is long and controversial, with significant gaps. Experts do not agree on many of the start and end points of various species. So this chart involves significant estimates.
To say we are more "evolved" than our hairy cousins is just wrong. (See how long you last naked in the Congo Heartland, and then tell me who's got the evolutionary upper hand.)
Thinking that a species evolves in order to survive is to put the cart before the horse. Genetic mutations happen all the time, without fanfare and often without any measurable change in the organism's lifestyle. In general, the mutations most likely to be passed to future generations are those that prove useful to either individual or species survival.
The "usefulness" of a mutation depends largely on shifting environmental factors like those of food, predators, and climate, and also on social pressures. Evolution is a matter of filling ecological and social niches. African apes are still around because their environment has encouraged the reproductive success of individuals with different genetic material than ours.
Evolution is an ongoing process of trial and error, of which all modern primates are still a part.

Spoooky Reading 


By linking sounds to patterns of brain activity, 

scientists may be on the way to helping us hear 

the thoughts of other people.

By Emily Sohn 
mind reading
After mapping out the brain’s electrical responses to each sound, the research team found that they could predict which of two sounds the brain was responding to. Click to enlarge this image.  Corbis
By looking only at maps of electrical activity in the human brain, scientists were able to tell which words a person was listening to. The discovery is a major step toward being able to “hear” the thoughts of people who can’t speak.
"If someone was completely paralyzed, or if a patient had locked-in syndrome with no movement, but the brain was still active and we could understand it well enough, we could develop devices to take advantage of that and restore communication," said Brian Pasley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
"It's still very early," he added. "And a lot of work still needs to be done."
For decades, scientists have been trying to understand how our brains manage to process audible sounds and extract abstract meaning from words and sentences. As part of that effort, lots of work on animals has helped narrow in on the brain regions involved in hearing and responding to sounds.
To see how those findings might be applicable in people, Pasley and colleagues enlisted the help of 15 patients with epilepsy or brain tumors who had electrodes attached to the surface of their brains in order to map out the source of their seizures. With electrodes in place, participants listened to about 50 different speech sounds in the form of sentences and words, both real and fake, such as "jazz," "peace," "Waldo," "fook' and "nim."
After mapping out the brain's electrical responses to each sound, the research team found that they could predict which of two sounds from the study set the brain was responding to, and they could do it with about 90 percent accuracy.
Decoding the brain's perception of sound in this way, Pasley said, is sort of like learning how a piano works.

"If you understand the relationship between the keys and their sounds, you could turn on the TV and watch someone perform with the sound off," he said. "And just by looking at what keys were being pressed, you could understand what sounds were being played."

The new work represents a substantial step forward both in what we know about how the brain processes sound and in potential applications for people with disabilities, said Jonathan Wolpaw, chief of the Laboratory of Neural Injury and Repair at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center.

Like devices to allow people to use their thoughts to move robotic arms, there might some day be brain-machine interfaces that give speech to people who have lost it.
"This work could be extremely relevant if you had someone who could no longer talk and you wanted to use the brain signals produced while the person was thinking about what he wanted to say to provide artificial speech," Wolpaw said. "The techniques they have developed are definitely relevant to how you'd go about doing that."

Still, many hurdles remain before applications become practical. The new study looked at just a limited number of sounds that make up the English language, for example, and many words are likely to produce identical electric signatures in the brain. The study also focused only on how the brain hears sounds. Further testing needs to explore whether electrical patterns are the same when people also try to say or imagine those sounds.

For now, the new work represents an important and incremental advance that will likely lead to many more.

"The results are quite encouraging," Wolpaw said. "They've gone farther than others have gone. There's obviously a long way to go, but this is a big step."
Text and images via

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