Tuesday, 17 October 2017

So What's So Special About Humans?

Whales and dolphins have rich ‘human-like’ cultures and societies

Another creationist claim has been falsified (not for the first time, obviously) but this time fairly comprehensively.

The claim is that for a list of reasons, humans are a special creation, endowed with special qualities and abilities, that separate us from the other animals, justifying the claim that the purpose of 'creation' was to create mankind, and all the rest is just there for our use.

It's not good enough that were are unique, just like any species is unique, hence being a distinct species. Humans have extra-special characteristics that makes us uniquely, unique, apparently.

The list will normally include something close to the following:

  • complex alliance relationships – working together for mutual benefit
  • social transfer of hunting techniques – teaching how to hunt and using tools
  • cooperative hunting
  • complex vocalizations, including regional group dialects – ‘talking’ to each other
  • vocal mimicry and ‘signature whistles’ unique to individuals – using ‘name’ recognition
  • interspecific cooperation with humans and other species – working with different species
  • alloparenting – looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
  • social play

Of course, morality will often feature in the list, but morals are the rules that regulate cooperative behaviour and make many if not all of the items on this list possible. And none of this is possible without self-awareness - without knowledge of one's own existence and place in the scheme of things.

But now, a collaboration between scientists from The University of Manchester, The University of British Columbia, Canada, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Stanford University, United States has shown that this list is but a small part of some ninety characteristics that whales and dolphins share not only with humans but also with other primates.

The study, published yesterday in Nature Ecology & Evolution, has linked the complexity of Cetacean culture and behaviour to the size of their brains.

Abstract
Encephalization, or brain expansion, underpins humans’ sophisticated social cognition, including language, joint attention, shared goals, teaching, consensus decision-making and empathy. These abilities promote and stabilize cooperative social interactions, and have allowed us to create a ‘cognitive’ or ‘cultural’ niche and colonize almost every terrestrial ecosystem. Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) also have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains. Here, by evaluating a comprehensive database of brain size, social structures and cultural behaviours across cetacean species, we ask whether cetacean brains are similarly associated with a marine cultural niche. We show that cetacean encephalization is predicted by both social structure and by a quadratic relationship with group size. Moreover, brain size predicts the breadth of social and cultural behaviours, as well as ecological factors (diversity of prey types and to a lesser extent latitudinal range). The apparent coevolution of brains, social structure and behavioural richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates. Our results suggest that cetacean social cognition might similarly have arisen to provide the capacity to learn and use a diverse set of behavioural strategies in response to the challenges of social living.

Kieran C. R. Fox, Michael Muthukrishna & Susanne Shultz
The social and cultural roots of whale and dolphin brains
Nature Ecology & Evolution
(2017) doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0336-y


Copyright © 2017, Rights Managed by Nature Publishing Group
Reprinted with kind permission under licence #4211351043596 (Oct 17, 2017)

Regrettably, the main body of the report is behind a paywall, including the complete list of common characteristics, but the accompanying press release from Manchester University explains:

The study is first of its kind to create a large dataset of cetacean brain size and social behaviours. The team compiled information on 90 different species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises. It found overwhelming evidence that Cetaceans have sophisticated social and cooperative behaviour traits, similar to many found in human culture. The study demonstrates that these societal and cultural characteristics are linked with brain size and brain expansion – also known as encephalisation

[...]

Dr Susanne Shultz, an evolutionary biologist in Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said: “As humans, our ability to socially interact and cultivate relationships has allowed us to colonise almost every ecosystem and environment on the planet. We know whales and dolphins also have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains and, therefore, have created a similar marine based culture.

“That means the apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure, and behavioural richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates on land. Unfortunately, they won’t ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs.”

[...]

[The team] argue that large brains are an evolutionary response to complex and information-rich social environments. However, this is the first time these hypotheses have been applied to ‘intelligent’ marine mammals on such a large scale.

Dr Michael Muthukrishna, Assistant Professor of Economic Psychology at LSE, added: “This research isn’t just about looking at the intelligence of whales and dolphins, it also has important anthropological ramifications as well. In order to move toward a more general theory of human behaviour, we need to understand what makes humans so different from other animals. And to do this, we need a control group. Compared to primates, cetaceans are a more “alien” control group.”

Dr Kieran Fox, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, added: “Cetaceans have many complex social behaviours that are similar to humans and other primates. They, however, have different brain structures from us, leading some researchers to argue that whales and dolphins could not achieve higher cognitive and social skills. I think our research shows that this is clearly not the case. Instead, a new question emerges: How can very diverse patterns of brain structure in very different species nonetheless give rise to highly similar cognitive and social behaviours?”

So it's not now even possible for 'theistic evolutionists' to argue that a creative intelligence guided human evolution in such a way as to allow intelligence and social cooperation to develop for some reason, since this research shows that cooperative intelligence and similar patterns of behaviour can evolve with a different brain structure. As so often with evolution, with enough environmental pressure, if it is possible given existing potential, beneficial characteristics will evolve using whatever structure are available. There is no guiding plan or objective, yet an intelligent designer would surely use a method tried and tested in one species for the same function in another, especially for species which are in taxonomic terms relatively closely related, all being mammals with the same basic body plan.

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