The Cost of Intelligence

The New York Times reports on researching learning. Read the article
here and comments by Verlyn Klinkerborg here.
A few excerpts follow, it gets interesting even though I almost stopped reading after the first paragraph:

Lots of Animals Learn, but Smarter Isn’t Better
By CARL ZIMMER, May 6, 2008
“Why are humans so smart?” is a question that fascinates scientists. Tadeusz Kawecki, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Fribourg, likes to turn around the question. “If it’s so great to be smart,” Dr. Kawecki asks, “why have most animals remained dumb?”

Is this a joke?! Someone needs to set this guy straight about calling animals dumb! I kept reading. About how

learning is widespread in the animal kingdom. Even the microscopic vinegar worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, can learn, despite having just 302 neurons.

About research on learning by fruit flies by Reuven Dukas, a biologist at McMaster University:

Dr. Dukas hypothesizes that any animal with a nervous system can learn. Even in cases where scientists have failed to document learning in a species, he thinks they should not be too quick to rule it out. “Is it because I’m not a good teacher or because the animal doesn’t learn?” Dr. Dukas asked.

About the cost of learning:

being smart does not ensure survival.

This is the gist of this particular research:

In a paper to be published in the journal Evolution, Dr. Kawecki and his colleagues report that their fast-learning flies live on average 15 percent shorter lives than flies that had not experienced selection on the quinine-spiked jelly. Flies that have undergone selection for long life were up to 40 percent worse at learning than ordinary flies.

Dr. 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.

So the next time anyone asks me, if animals can communicate well, why don’t they do use it in the wild, I’ll add this new bit of knowledge about the cost of being smart to my usual response.

Verlyn Klinkerborg writes in the comments to this article:

Is there an adaptive value to limited intelligence? That’s the question behind this new research. I like it. Instead of casting a wistful glance backward at all the species we’ve left in the dust I.Q.-wise, it implicitly asks what the real costs of our own intelligence might be. This is on the mind of every animal I’ve ever met.



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