August 7, 2020

How the geometry of ancient habitats may have influenced human brain evolution

How the geometry of ancient habitats may have influenced human brain evolution

Here is an article in Ars Technica where the author postulates that landscapes that are not too dense and not too sparse comprise a “Goldilocks zone” where evolution could maximize cognitive abilities.

In an earlier paper in 2017 the author, Malcom MacIver:

…and several colleagues published a paper advancing an unusual hypothesis: those ancient creatures who first crawled out of the water onto land may have done so because they figured out there was an “informational benefit” from seeing through air, as opposed to water. Eyes can see much farther in air, and that increased visual range could lead them to food sources near the shore. MacIver and his primary co-author, paleontologist Lars Schmitz of the Claremont Colleges, argued that this in turn drove the evolutionary selection of rudimentary limbs, enabling the first animals to move from the water onto land.

Recently, MacIver has theorized an even more provocative hypothesis: the geometry of certain habitats shapes evolutionary selection pressures in predator-prey contexts.  Dense habitats like rain forests or jungles maximize hiding in cover while wide-open plains maximize speed to escape.  Using a complexity measure, they show both of these habitats have low complexity.  The article states:

Okavango Delta landscape

The complexity “sweet spot,” according to MacIver, is a landscape like the one featured in The Hobbit chase scene, or like Botswana’s Okavango Delta, both of which feature an open grassland and moss zones dotted with clumps of trees and similar foliage. “In this zone, neither speed games nor running for cover maximizes survival rate,” said MacIver. “But planning—by which I mean imagining future paths and picking the best based on what you think your adversary will do—gives you a considerable advantage.” And that planning requires the kind of advanced neural circuitry typical of the human brain.

They built predator/prey simulations to test survival rates of the prey under two different strategies. The first was habit-based, akin to entering a memorized password when prompted; the second was plan-based, involving the ability to imagine several scenarios and select the one with the best chance for survival. They used a simple landscape with no visual barriers to simulate a water environment and added various objects, with varying density distributions, to simulate land.  The patchy landscape in the Goldilocks zone of complexity showed a huge increase in survival rates for prey that relied on the planning strategy, compared to the habit-based approach.  They even developed an online game to illustrate how different landscapes (coral reef, jungle, savanna, and open water) affect our ability to plan and evade a stalking predator. You can play it here https://maciver-lab.github.io/plangame/

The upshot is his hypothesis that the patchy landscape in the Goldilocks zone of complexity relates to the near-quadrupling in brain size that occurred in hominids after diverging from chimps.  Which leads him to say:

More speculatively, MacIver thinks this could prove relevant to the question of why human beings struggle so much with thinking about looming existential threats, particular those in the distant future—climate change, for instance, or antibiotic resistant bacteria (or a global pandemic). “Inasmuch as you believe that the ability to think about the future was driven by a need to plan, and that our ability to think about the past is derivative of this need, a lot of who we are may hinge on why we evolved the circuitry to plan in the first place,” he said. “The reason we are so bad about planning for the distant future may redound to limitations in this circuitry that we have not yet developed the cultural technology to circumvent.”

Kentucky strip mine

In other words, he is saying our ability to “plan our next move” is limited to short-term gains, i.e. escaping the predator, not long term gains like foreseeing the severe consequences of human’s cumulative effect on the planet’s ecosystem.  Our brains have evolved to escape the near term threats but can’t seem to handle the longer term threats that loom in the future.  So we have examples of slash-and-burn agriculture where humans deplete the sustaining capacity of a soil only to move on to the next area: but they can’t imagine running out of “the next area” to move to. Or strip mining mineral resources and leaving a barren moon-scape useless to any future human use.

In the July issue of National Geographic a villager in the upper reaches of the Indus River lamented his village was facing a water crisis from climate change caused by the actions of economies far removed from the simple farming and herding of his village. Would anyone care?

But there are also counter-examples to the examples of despair.  In the US laws have been passed that require the reclamation of mined land.  Germany, once largely dependent on coal, is moving beyond it . With increased efficiency of sustainably farmed lands, advocates hold that sustainably farmed lands may be as productive as conventionally farmed ones.

The April 2020 issue of National Geographic was a split issue with half discussing “How We Lost the Planet” and the other half “How We Saved the World” with evidence for each discussed in this issue. As Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief wrote in the lead editorial:

It’s a fitting reminder this month as we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. For the occasion, we’ve created the first ever “flip” issue of National Geographic—essentially two magazines in one—to revisit environmental milestones of the past half century and to look ahead at the world our descendants will inhabit in 2070, on Earth Day’s 100th anniversary.

Two scenarios emerge.

On the magazine cover, there’s a verdant Earth. Welcome to the optimistic view of writer Emma Marris, who sees a world that is changed—we cannot undo some damage we have done—but one in which technologies will be harnessed to “feed a larger population, provide energy for all, begin to reverse climate change, and prevent most extinctions,” Marris writes. “The public desire for action is bursting forth on the streets … Just as in 1970, the electric crackle of cultural change is once again in the air. I believe we will build a good 2070.”

Elizabeth Kolbert looks to a new normal of “sunny-day flooding,” when high tide will send water gushing across low-lying U.S. coastal cities, and most atolls will be uninhabitable. This is the world of longer droughts, deadlier heat waves, fiercer storms, and more. “I could go on and on listing the dangerous impacts of climate change,” Kolbert writes, “but then you might stop reading.” She sees no evidence that we will address those and other threats fast enough to keep them from overwhelming us and the natural world.

It’s impossible to know who is right. The stories in this issue reflect divergent realities. When I read about the young people taking charge of the environmental movement, I feel buoyed. Then I see Pete Muller’s photos of a scarred landscape we will never get back. What I do know is that it is our job to provide a factual framework for what is happening, documentary photography about what is forever changed and what we can save, and information to help empower all of us to make a difference.

Goldberg is correct, it’s impossible to know who is right.  Can we as a species evolve beyond the short term goal seeking to find the combination of thinking that will avoid the doomsday scenario?  Can enough of us reach that evolved threshold to make the difference necessary to achieve a sustainable future?

What say you?

I say we’d better.

Comments

  1. David Greene says

    Can we as a species evolve beyond the short term goal seeking to find the combination of thinking that will avoid the doomsday scenario? Can enough of us reach that evolved threshold to make the difference necessary to achieve a sustainable future?

    Unfortunately, the pace of man-made environmental degradation outpaces our ability to evolve in a biological sense. As for social evolution, it will take severe discipline for our rational brain to overcome the limitations of the limbic system. It will be difficult to overcome the hyperbolic discounting of future outcomes based on present behavior. Any realistic efforts are likely to be resisted as assaults on freedom, capitalism and the god of short term gain.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Any realistic efforts are likely to be resisted as assaults on freedom, capitalism and the god of short term gain.

      Remember what happened with Masks, COVID, and MAGA.

  2. Christiane says

    ‘sustainable’ versus ‘short-term fixes’

    at some point, them what has ‘patience’ may be able to survive over them what has ‘settled’ for the ‘short-term fixes’;

    but we can’t judge because if we need ‘jobs’ to feed our children, would we not also seek the coal mines over the stewardship of the land ???

    but the ‘short-term fix’ leads to some devastating effects on the human spirit, and it is there that, for too many reasons, over generations, people are more vulnerable to modern ‘short-term’ and sometimes utterly fatal ‘fixes’ of the heroine drugs that are now infesting our Appalachian areas and our rust-belt towns, taking away the young who sought some kind of ‘relief’ from a seeming dead-end existence locally while also living in ‘the wealthiest country in the world’ where the telly offers views of life-styles of unimaginable luxury.

    For a glimpse into this hell, take a look at the videos concerning ‘the wild and wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ where a family has for generations, borne a kind of weariness of spirit and sought some relief in ‘rebellion’, in celebrating the moment, in drugs, in the culture of music and dance and ‘family’ of that rural part of our land where there is a pathos seen in the effects of long-term depression borne over generations of defeated souls whose last stand is to try to find some freedom of their own even as it destroys them. And IF you watch these videos, DON’T judge what you may not understand. That would mean you didn’t ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the story underneath the story, that goes back to the days when ‘papa’ went to work in the mines and no one knew if he would come out of that pit alive at the end of his shift. ‘Short-term’? He!! yes. Survival one day at a time in some lives is the norm.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > She sees no evidence that we will address those and other threats fast enough to keep
    > them from overwhelming us and the natural world.

    Agree. The window has closed. All of what we did really amounts to nothing at all. Methane emissions are at record highs, and rising. CO2 emissions are still rising. Nothing being done comes even close to bending that curve downwards, only maybe tamping it a little. The window is closed; latest studies put the minimum temperature rise at 2.6F. We failed.

    > Can enough of us reach that evolved threshold to make the difference necessary to
    > achieve a sustainable future?

    The problem isn’t “enough”, but “which”. “Most” Americans support all kinds of things from a carbon tax to electrified mass transit (and, yeah, even gun control). Most don’t matter; Senates exist to ensure that. We have carefully constructed systems deliberately unable to respond to “Most”.

    > Can we as a species evolve beyond the short term goal seeking

    Yes, and we can still fail. Even if we evolve we still inhabit inherited systems possessed of powerful defenses. Enlightened peasants living in the realm of a lich are still peasants.

    It is no longer a question of avoidance – that window has closed – but of adaptation. Civilization can survive in a world much harsher than this one. Humans are clever – and even before “technology” – we were thriving everywhere from the sizzling deserts of Africa to the blizzard swept mountains of northern Europe.

    • Robert F says

      The problem isn’t “enough”, but “which”. “Most” Americans support all kinds of things from a carbon tax to electrified mass transit (and, yeah, even gun control). Most don’t matter; Senates exist to ensure that. We have carefully constructed systems deliberately unable to respond to “Most”.

      In the nutshell. “Senates exist to ensure that” what most of us support doesn’t matter. Re: reaching that evolved threshold: Senates = Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Devolution is the objective for Senates.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Devolution: the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially by central government to local or regional administration.

        > Devolution is the objective for Senates

        That would be better than current; today Senates do not devolve power, they hoard it, rendering almost nothing as possible.

        For example, Michigan is a Sovereign City state. Meaning The City has the power to legislate its own policies except when explicitly prohibited by The State. Cool, right? Devolution, yay!!! Except The State has explicitly prohibited City regulation of: wages, rents, taxation, …. down to street speed limits and plastic bags. Oh, and don’t expect any real direction or ‘help’ from The State; because, of course, Michigan is a Sovereign City, they believe in “Local Control” – it is in the State Constitution!

        America is broken.

      • History of the World Part I nailed it… (LANGUAGE WARNING)

        https://youtu.be/-ZptAlDBbPQ

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The window is closed; latest studies put the minimum temperature rise at 2.6F. We failed.

      And the Christians rejoice as they mark up their End Times Prophecy charts.
      “IT’S ALL GONNA BURN! IT’S PROPHESIED! IT’S PROPHESIED!”
      (Go into lurid Great Tribulation detail, then The Rapture, then cue the Altar Call…)

      • HUG, check out your news feed. You’ve been saying for weeks or months that Trump would refuse to leave office if he lost the election. Today he is talking openly on twitter about “delaying” the election.

        Sorry for diverging from topic, but this is an “I told you so” moment that can not be ignored.

    • David Greene says

      It is no longer a question of avoidance – that window has closed – but of adaptation. Civilization can survive in a world much harsher than this one. Humans are clever – and even before “technology” – we were thriving everywhere from the sizzling deserts of Africa to the blizzard swept mountains of northern Europe.

      This is true but that kind of survival could be a “dog-eat-dog” world with the presently increasing population forced to fight for less arable land, water and resources. There have been some environmental avoidance semi-successes in the past, acid rain and ozone depletion have been mitigated in spite of opposition, but these seem to be small potatoes compared to current challenges.

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > The upshot is his hypothesis that the patchy landscape….

    There is interesting research related to built-form and street design that is somewhat parallel to this. Some scientists find particular environments (designs) influence base-line stress levels. Presence of things like street trees have a perceptible impact on many people’s stress-hormone levels. Something buried inside us is responding to particular aspects of the environment.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29871687/

    • Only 14 test subjects? *reaches for grain of sodium chloride*

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Yep, the studies tend to be small. And the results are slight. It’s a new field, we will have to see what happens.

  5. Robert F says

    We may be genetically predisposed to short term goals involving short term threats and needs, but there must be some wiggle room in that predisposition. For instance, the development of agriculture involves planning not just for what we will eat today or tomorrow or next week, but next year or several years from now when we store surplus and even plan on storing surplus for longer. I think there must be an ability to plan for goals at least as long as our lifespan, because we do that, or some do; and even for our children’s and grandchildren’s lives, because we do that, or some do. It is, however, true that even our longer term planning can wreak havoc to our environment, for instance as agriculture does, when it develops out of the the old short-term needs and fears but extends them into a longer term future. It’s not just the nearsightedness of planning that is a problem, but the goals themselves and the means we use to achieve them; longer term planning for destructive goals using destructive means are even worse than short term thinking and planning in terms of environmental impact.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > there must be an ability to plan for goals at least as long as our lifespan

      No doubt. Places like New York, Paris, London, exist. Such places run on systems designed far beyond a life-time.

      > it develops out of the the old short-term needs and fears

      Yes, designing around our fears nearly universally results in disastrous plans. Towards-A-Solution and Away-From-A-Bad produce very different plans and outcomes. There is also an issue that Prevention Plans tend to inspire much less active participation or sacrifice, inspire more grabbing, than Creation Plans.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Prevention Plans tend to inspire much less active participation or sacrifice, inspire more grabbing, than Creation Plans.

        It’s like the mantra of “WE MUST CONSERVE! CONSERVE! CONSERVE!” and nothing else. Jerry Pournelle used to say “Nobody has ever Conserved their way into prosperity” and Prof Gelertner contrasting the 1930s with the 1990s described today’s Zeitgeist as “we have become mere fusspot curators”. (Make that VIRTUE-SIGNALLING fusspot curators.)

        • “Jerry Pournelle used to say “Nobody has ever Conserved their way into prosperity””

          Actually, that was the ONLY way to prosperity back before massive fossil fuel use made exponential growth (temporarily) possible.

  6. Michael Z says

    The problem is that when we (or those around us) fail to think long-term and suffer the consequences, our response is generally not to say, “oops, I guess I need to get better at long-term thinking.” Instead we react by either looking for something or someone outside ourselves to blame, or for something to numb the pain and let us hide from our failures.

    Unfortunately I think the most likely future for the US is that the wealthier, more educated parts of the country where society is still healthy will do a better job of adapting to climate change and the other challenges of the 21st century, while parts of the country with less social capital drift farther and farther behind. And that also means that the barriers keeping someone from being able to migrate from a sick part of the US to a healthy one (housing costs, education level, social acceptance, etc.) will get higher and higher.

    The only way to avoid that outcome is if people start caring more about the health of the whole country (and the whole world!) instead of just our own communities. And that’s less likely to happen than it was four years ago, because now more and more people view those in rural America as immoral filth rather than just victims of a shifting economy. We’re not too far away from the Dust-bowl era trend where “Okies” got treated as less than human by many of those in more stable parts of the country.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > either looking for something or someone outside ourselves to blame

      In defense of people: often there is someone outside [or above] to blame.
      These are not problems that can be solved by individuals.

      > I think the most likely future for the US is that the wealthier, more
      > educated parts of the country where society is still healthy will do
      > a better job of adapting

      I would argue that is the present, not the future.

      If one is in that sphere one can see many cities busy as bee hives adapting flood control and water rentenion systems, seperate storm and sewer systems, building out more local energy grids, etc… Support for doing all those things is pervasive.

      > while parts of the country with less social capital drift farther

      Yep. I am in Michigan, where 80+% of the populaiton lives long the I-94/I-96 corridors (the CSX, CN, & state-owned rail lines). When I take the bus north from that corridor across the rest of the penninsula many of the little towns one passes through look like a war swept through them.

      > the barriers keeping someone from being able to migrate from a sick
      > part of the US to a healthy one (housing costs, education level, social
      > acceptance, etc.) will get higher and higher.

      Without a doubt. My own city anticipates seeing a ~30% increase in househoulds at 120%+ AMI (area median income) in the next five years; resulting in a displacement of 15% of lower income households. And there isn’t much that can be done about that; the institution barriers that have been erected are intimidating.

      > The only way to avoid that outcome is if people start caring more about
      > the health of the whole country instead of just our own communities.

      I think that is real, and where I find some hope. Most people are at least uneasy with what is happening with thier “own communities”. We’ll see. It takes time to accumulate the energy needed to blast down institutional barriers.

      > And that’s less likely to happen than it was four years ago,

      I percieve the complete opposite. I see more and more people not willing to be dismissed. Recent City Commission meetings, which start at 7pm, have run past midnight; people are fed up, and they are willing to stay on hold for hours to tell officials that.

      > more and more people view those in rural America as immoral filth
      > rather than just victims of a shifting economy

      This is a trope, and false. I’ve sat “in the room”, Many of those from “rural America” do not want to particpate, their asnwer is “No”; almost no one is dismissing them, they are optiing-out.

      Also regarding this trope a realith check is in order: less than 1 in 5 Americans live in “rural America”. Nearly 70% of Americans – ~7 in 10 – are urban. America is not a nation of villages and home-steads. Yet power-wise Rural America holds the reigns thanks to the Senate. Nobody can dismiss them if they wanted to.

      Rural America needs to find itself much better leadership. And there is some hope for that.
      (1) Boomers, who have tightly held the reigns in those communities for way too long are finally fading out.
      (2) At some point there is just no choice. The economics get bad enough that the fantasy of getting-back-to-the-old-days wears out and people are forced to look forward.

      Very recently one of the adjacent blood-red townships, comprised mostly of quasi-rural and sprawl-blight, decided to issue a moratorium on single-floor commercial construction. That council of conservative white guys actually said ‘we realize this is not sustainable, so we are hitting pause to give us time to reimagine our future. We need to look beyond Parking lots’. That is small, but a big deal.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      They say that during the Dust Bowl Era, the Los Angeles PD and KKK (there was some overlap in those days) closed the California borders (primarily with Arizona/Route 66) with armed checkpoints and patrols to make SURE no Okies (or other Undesirables) got in.

    • “We’re not too far away from the Dust-bowl era trend where “Okies” got treated as less than human by many of those in more stable parts of the country.”

      Here’s a fictional glimpse of how that might work out right here in America (hint NOT A HAPPY STORY)

      https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/04/24/135741/a-full-life/

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        “””Rue tried to remember a time when something in her life hadn’t been on fire, or underwater, or falling apart, and realized she couldn’t.”””

        Yep. I feel sorry for Gen-Z.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    …landscapes that are not too dense and not too sparse comprise a “Goldilocks zone” where evolution could maximize cognitive abilities.

    Isn’t that called an “edge environment”?

  8. BTW, Letter from Brazil: Mutation Time is a good read.