I was talking to somebody today, and the topic veered to math, and its uniqueness to mankind.
Math is abstract, counting, comparing values, larger, smaller, creating artificial structures to lead to a practical result. Sure sounds like only humans possess such qualities on this planet.
But is it because something inherent to humans takes place, or is it just because we are the first?
If you look online there are hundreds of videos of animals doing odd things. I’m not talking about trained parrots that repeat mindlessly, although some parrots can perform some complex tricks.
Two things I have seen:
- I will start with this, since it’s not related to math but fascinating nonetheless. Animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror. Sure, some animals will attack their reflection, others interact with it as if coming across another member of its species. But some see themselves, and know it’s them. They will pick out something they can’t see directly, like a leave or a fly, and swat at it, on themselves, not on the reflection. So they understand such an abstract notion as self, and reflection.
- Adding, and multiplying. Sure, adding is simple. The horse can clop three times when it hears the number three, and another two times for the number two. And it is us that do the adding, to five. But what about multiplying? There are animals that can perfom such tasks easily. You can’t train an animal to multiply every single digit combination. So that leaves the animals intelligence.
So, what does this mean? Do animals copy us in thinking, emulating abstract thought? Sure, it happens in humans. I know, not just undergrads that go through the motions in calc, but grad students and even math professors that just parrot a theorem over and over until they seem to understand.
But do they? Do they get it? Probably no better than some chimp. But then again, there are those that go beyond, and think, and come up with new ideas. Professors or chimps? I know, right?
There must have been that first chimp that figured out, that if it took a branch, stripped it of leaves, made sure it was straight, it worked perfectly to snag ants from their burrows. Some birds have learned to fish, using bread. They overcome the urge to just eat the bread, so they can drop it in the water, and wait for the fish. That is not just fascinating, its eery!
Orangutans and chimpanzees learn sign language, and express abstract emotions, sadness, happiness, missing somebody. So is it a stretch to believe they cannot comprehend other abstract notions such as math?
I think not. And this leads the the real interesting question.
Is intelligence an evolutionary imperative? Is intelligence inherent to life itself?
If given the time, would chimps evolve to have language, culture, technology? Would an octopus society evolve in 200.000 years? Would crows learn to write and teach their offspring of the lessons they have learned in life?
I think so. It would be a matter of time. We were the first, and we took over the planet, and shaped it to our need, stunting the intellectual growth of other species. We were the first, for whatever reason. Maybe we were the smartest, or just at the right evolutionary place and time, or maybe God. Either way, we are the apex, but if we are gone, I am sure other species would fill in the void. They present the basic qualities, curiosity, problem solving, learning, and teaching.
So if life tends towards intelligence, then is it a stretch to believe that on an alien planet, if live exists then it too shall evolve towards a similar society and culture of the apex intellect? They may not all be at the same time, but I think so.
Then why have we not made contact? That is a question for another post. There are many reasons why not. Many indeed.
Signed, Somebody that watches way too many animal videos online
Photo: Chimpanzee Ayumi at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University