Monday, September 08, 2008

Rule of Thumb

A common idea in science fiction is dumb animals -- cats, dogs, pigs, dolphins, etc. -- evolving so that they have conceptual consciousness. I don't think it will ever happen in reality.

First, it would be cruel if an animal like a cat had concepts. They don't have opposable thumbs. They can't manipulate tools. They could use a computer keyboard only laboriously, tapping out letters with their two front paws. Even then, they would constantly be hitting the wrong keys. I do it often enough, and I have these superior fingers.

Worse, they can't talk. It would be difficult for them to learn concepts and even more difficult to communicate concepts.

And cats spend a lot of time grooming themselves. Licking themselves. How fast would that get old if they had half a brain? They would bore of it, or be embarrassed by it, and stop doing it. Then they would begin to stink.

Every aspect of a cat's life, from purring when petted to eating food from a bowl would be a source of humiliation to a creature with intelligence.

It would be worse for dolphins, who must live in water. Try reading a newspaper under water. To be condemned to an existence of endless swimming and eating live fish and making idiotic noises -- it would be a cruel fate to wish on a creature that could think.

Humans would be at a terrible disadvantage without the thumb. Which raises the question: How is it that humans evolved conveniently with conceptual consciousness AND the ability to speak words AND opposable thumbs? Is it a coincidence? Is it an argument for God? Wouldn't such perfection of form demand a designer?

I have a wild-ass guess as to why humans evolved with thumb, speech and a mind. I won't honor my guess by calling it a theory or a hypothesis; I won't pretend to be a scientist.

My guess is that the thumb and speech came first and then accelerated the evolution of consciousness. The pre-human creatures with thumbs would have been able to use their thumbs in countless ways with crude tools. Existence with a thumb would have rewarded the most intelligent of these humanoids. The one who first figured out he could pick up a rock and dash out the brains of his neighbor would have survived longer and had more children.

The ability to speak would also have accelerated the evolution of consciousness, as these pre-humans would have been able to give their concepts the auditory symbols of language. Without the ability to speak words, their minds would have remained in a state of chaos and percepts. Later they would write down their language with the help of those invaluable thumbs.

So that is why dumb animals with paws, hooves or flippers will never evolve conceptual consciousness. Without a thumb and speech, intelligence has no survival value.


Galileo Blogs said...

I may have the only cat with a proto-opposable thumb. He grasps the small knobs of my kitchen cabinets and opens them at will. He opens my stereo cabinet. Why, if he were only a little bit taller, he would open the front door and just saunter down the hall.

My cat is an evolved super-cat. He represents the future of the cat species. From his genetic endowment a new line of rational cats will emerge with fully opposable thumbs, and the ability to speak. Then I will really have to run fast to the cabinet when he orders me to open his food can and feed him. Of course, he would be able to do it himself then, but his habit of commanding humans will only be strengthened by his new abilities.

But, alas, none of this is to be. I snipped the promise of a new evolutionary future for cats when I had him neutered. However, before that happened (I found him on the street) I suspect he had the opportunity to create new kitties.

So, maybe the human race is doomed after all... Yes, the future is not Planet of the Apes, but... yes, you guessed it. I tremble for man!

Jennifer Snow said...

This theory was actually proposed by actual scientists in (IIRC) Discover magazine some years ago. They think we're *Still* getting smarter, too.


Kim said...

Every time I witness a raccoon or oppossum on my back porch with a little pillage from the knocked over trash cans, I think that though they don't have opposable thumbs, they sure can grip those scraps of food really well. And then I wonder if they might figure out a way into the house and then I lock the door. Living with wildlife can be disconcerting.

John McVey said...


Polydactyl cats are common in the Florida Keys, I understand (AKA Hemingway cats). Apparently the extra claws are not always a hindrance, to the point that many polydactyl cats have even greater dexterity than normal cats. They are far more able to catch things or open latches etc single-pawedly than normally-pawed cats. Perhaps they have one half of what is needed as Myrhaf suggests?

Anyway, I recall catching some program on Discovery halfway through saying that the most commonly held candidate for the next set of creatures to evolve intelligence is cephalopods (octopi and the like). I don't know how common a conjecture that actually is, though.