Chapter 3. Evo Devo Foresight: Unpredictable and Predictable Futures

A Special Intelligence Portal: The Humanoid Form

We’re now beginning move beyond the view of the human as one random twig of an evolutionary tree in an undirected, unpurposeful universe. We are instead learning to see humans as the latest portal on Earth for a very special hierarchy, the one on the leading edge of accelerating universal intelligence. We humans certainly aren’t the center of the universe, and it definitely wasn’t self-organized for our purpose or self-satisfaction.

But we apparently are privileged to be at or near the top of the intelligence hierarchy locally at present. We have been given a “baton” of intelligence by the universe, one link in a very long chain. We need to hand off that baton to our increasingly technological children, in the best ways we can imagine. Seeing this Race to Inner Space gives us certain privileges and responsibilities that we need to better understand and apply to our own lives.

Let’s continue our inquiry into portals by turning to something intimately connected to us, the humanoid form.

The Dinosauroid Hypothesis. The most intelligent raptors may have inevitably converged to the humanoid form, if the K-T meteorite hadn’t struck Earth 65 million years ago.

The Dinosauroid Hypothesis. The most intelligent raptors
may have inevitably converged to the humanoid form,
if the K-T meteorite hadn’t struck Earth 65 million years ago.

Is the humanoid form a portal uniquely adapted for arriving at the first runaway tool-using intelligence on land? That idea is implicit in the dinosauroid hypothesis, first popularized by Dale Russell and Ron Séguin in 1982. In this proposal, our “humanoid form”, a bilaterally symmetric bipedal land-based tetrapod with two eyes, four prehensile appendages (arms and legs), and two opposable thumbs on the dominant appendages (arms) is considered as convergent attractor for all species that first achieve complex tool use on Earth-like planets.

Specifically, Russell and Séguin asked whether, if the K-T meteorite hadn’t hit Earth and caused mass extinction of large animals 65 million years ago, dinosaurs, the then-dominant life forms, would have eventually discovered the value of the humanoid form, and we may also assume, rocks, clubs, language, and tools. They argued that a special group of intelligent dinosaurs, raptors, were already trending toward the humanoid form long before the K-T extinction event.

If you have seen the movie Jurassic Park, you know that raptors like Troodon, had semi-opposable digits on their two arms and hunted in packs, both by day and night. It is easy to bet that the first raptor descendants that also learned how to hold sharp rocks and clubs in their hands in close-quarters combat would have been able to claim the role of top biological species. It would be game over, and competitive exclusion, for all other species that wanted that niche. Once you are manipulating tools in your hands, and speaking with your larynx, your body will be forced upright, and you’ll be engaged in runaway complexification of your social and technical intelligence. In other words, you’ve become human, with all the creativity and capability that entails.

 The hand of Troodon inequalis, with a partly opposable digit.

The hand of Troodon inequalis,
with a partly opposable digit.

Note the closeup of the hand of Stenonychosaurus (now called Troodon) inequalis, from Russell’s paper, “Reconstructions of the small cretaceous theropod Stenonychosauris inequalis and a hypothetical dinosauroid,” Dale A. Russell and Ron Séguin, Syllogeus,37, 1982. The authors state that the structure of the carpal block on Troodon’s hands argues that one of the three fingers  partially opposed the other two as shown. The shape of the ulna also suggests that its forearms rotated. It probably used its hands to snatch small prey, and to grab hold of larger dinosaurs while ripping into them with the raptorial claw on the inside of each of its feet.

Troodon was a member of a very successful and diverse clade of small bipedal, binocular vision dinosaurs with one free claw on their feet, the Deinonychosaurs (“fearsome claw lizards”). These animals lived over the last 100 million years of the 165 million years of dinosaur existence, and were among the smartest and most agile dinosaurs known, with the highest brain-to-body ratios of any animals in the Mesozoic era. Most Deinonychosaurs had arms that were a useful combination of small wings and crude hands consisting of these three claws. Troodon was in a special subfamily that had lost the wings but retained the three long digits on each hand. According to Russell, Troodon’s brain-to-body ratio was the highest known for dinosaurs at the time. Because of their special abilities, I’d argue that Deinonychosaurs were not only members of an evolutionarily successful niche, they also occupied an inevitably successful developmental niche as well.

Chimpanzees, like this one in Kyambura Gorge in Uganda, today spend roughly equal time in trees and on ground.

Chimpanzees, like this one in Kyambura Gorge in Uganda,
today spend roughly equal time in trees and on ground.

One assumption I make, also made by a handful of anthropologists and evolutionary scholars over the years, is that trees on land are also a key intelligence portal, a developmental bottleneck through which the first rock-throwing and club-wielding imitative hominids will very likely pass, on a typical Earth-like planet. Why? Swinging from limb to limb requires very dextrous hands, and a cerebellum and forebrain that can predict where the body will go in space. It provides a uniquely complex and dense practice space for the mental skills tool-using hominids need to develop.

With their manipulative hands, with or without wings, their big, strong legs and multipurpose feet, and their small size, Deinonychosaurs would have been tree climbers, able to escape rapidly up and drop down from considerable heights. If they were the largest and strongest animals physically capable of doing so, which seems likely, this argues that they would have permanently occupied the special niche that primates would later inhabit, the niche they used to become fully human.

Can you envision primates getting into the all-important tree niche, with Deinonychosaurs running about? Not a chance! Deinonychosaurs would have achieved “competitive exclusion”, the ability to permanently deny other species access to the critical transitional niche that may be the fastest developmental gateway leading to the top tool-using vertebrate on Earth. So if tree climbing and swinging is the fastest and best way to build grasping

Deinonychus were formidable pack hunters, a key kind of social intelligence.

Deinonychus were formidable pack hunters, a key kind of social intelligence.

hands and predictive brains good at simulating complex trajectories (a claim that should be testable by future simulation) and eventually, modeling and imitating the mental states of others in their pack so they could do imitative tool use (also eventually testable by simulation), then if diverse variants of Deinonychosaurs came to dominate that niche, we can expect a Deinonychosaur descendant to be the first to make the jump to tool use. Troodon couldn’t swing in the trees, but he would have been very agile among them, able to use them for escape and evasion. He had two manipulative hands that would have been very useful both in killing and in avoiding being killed. Their cousins, the microraptors, with small wings and feathers on both their arms and legs, would have been excellent in the tree niche. Due to their special abilities, I would argue these small raptors were not only members of an evolutionarily successful niche, they may have occupied a critical developmental niche as well. This looks to me like a promising case for competitive exclusion.

One might ask, couldn’t tool use under water grow to reach competitive exclusion first? No! We can safely predict that just like trees versus the ground for developing the first predictive and social brains, tool use on land vs. water is going to be a developmental portal for the first species that use complex built structures, on any Earth-like planet. Unlike air, water is a very dense and forceful fluid relative to the muscles of species that operate within it, gravity doesn’t hold down aqueous structures or animals very well, and language may not allow for the same degree of phonetic articulation underwater as well as it does in air. Human vocal structures have access to roughly 100 phonemes in air, and our dominant languages use 30-50 of these, allowing complex and compressed acoustic communication.

Underwater tool using collectives do exist. Dolphins use sponges in collectives, and Jacques Cousteau discovered in the 1980s that octopi used rocks as tools, and in a great case of developmental convergence, octopi have even built rock huts near each other in small “villages”, as socially imitative groups. Also, like their eyes and brains, two of their eight appendages are prehensile with bilateral symmetry, meaning they are neurologically wired to oppose each other in grasping and wielding objects, just like human arms and hand.

In other words, grasping with two appendages is a plausible universal developmental convergence for dominant vertebrates on all Earth-like planets, one of those optimally efficient aspects of the bilaterally symmetric humanoid form. But the collective rock use of octopi could not make them the dominant species under water, due to its harsher physics compared to air. It seems land, air, and imitative use of such tools as rocks and clubs to defend against and hunt larger predators are developmental portals to further civilization complexity. Yet precious few evolutionary biologists or anthropologists, even today, are willing to state this proposition in such obviously predictive terms. This must change.

Cultural Evo Devo: Language and Tool-Using Hominids Must Also Be a Developmental Attractor

Now we can speaking of the emergence of a new hierarchical layer of replicating complex adaptive systems, a layer we can call cultural evo devo. Once we had the land-based hominid’s tree-built, predictive brain and multipurpose form, a form that appears particularly optimized for the first complex social tool use, we must examine the hypothesis that language, likely at first both behavioral, gestural, and then verbal, became one of the primary enablers of the emergence of increasingly smarter and more social brains and ideas.

Perhaps it is obvious that in terms of informational densification and dematerialization, oral linguistic complexity had to quickly become the primary mode of language, because oral language communicated at the speed of sound in a gaseous atmosphere, is vastly more efficient at information production and dissemination than sign language. Oral language is a developmental bottleneck that all the most intelligent animals have to transition through.

Just like the humanoid form, tool-using and complex oral language are a not just evolutionary adaptations, they seem to also be developmental attractors. The species that gets to these first is not just going to succeed in its own niche, it’s going to be able to do expand to all the hospitable niches and engage in competitive exclusion, keeping other contenders from making the transition.

Though we have much research to do to prove what I’m going to say next, I think this is how the story will play out with respect to the history of Homo sapiens versus our close cousins, the Homo neanderthalensis. We don’t know why it is that H. sapiens had more complex societies, but I’m willing to bet it was some chance improvement in their linguistic or social-emotional-cooperative gene complexes. They started the runaway first, and that had deep consequences on all the other species that didn’t.

Many anthropologists and paleontologists have noted that wherever Neanderthals and H. sapiens, aka fully modern humans, interacted, we appear to have increasingly excluded Neanderthals from being able to thrive. There was some opportunistic interbreeding, but I’m willing to bet that Neanderthals were increasingly pushed out to more marginal niches, and became increasingly at risk of local extinctions when drought or other environmental adversity befell them.

Furthermore, I’d be willing to bet the most successful human tribes were constantly at war with Neanderthals, and that we even hunted them for meat when we were in conditions of food scarcity. Being so aggressive toward the other species in our space was likely also a developmental attractor in our earliest stages of social intelligence, as our conditions of existence in most niches were often so unforgiving, and we had so few ways, early on, to do niche-construction to make them less forgiving. As the great futurist Stanislaw Lem dryly observed in his foresight masterwork, Summa Technologiae (1964), you don’t get smarter by hunting a banana. Such a martial anthropology, should we be able to better document it, would tell us a lot about both human cultural evolution, and the inevitable aspects of early human cultural development.

In 2017, Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology reported his team’s recovery of facially- (though not cranially) modern human fossils and stone tools from a new site in Morocco, that have been reliably dated as 300,000 years old. That discovery is 100,000 years older than the oldest previously accepted human remains, found in Ethopia, and it adds more complication to the question of modern human radiation from Africa. Most evidence today supports the idea that modern humans had a recent African origin (previously dated at 200,000 years ago), with two major waves of global expansion from this location. This is the Out of Africa hypothesis. There is a competing hypothesis, the Multiregional hypothesis, that argues that since the emergence of the premodern human form, with Homo erectus two million years ago, the whole human species, even as it spread out to all the continents, has been horizontally interbreeding and further converging on one modern species in form and function. I like the Multiregional hypothesis, as it is much more developmental in its assumptions, but it would need a lot more evidence before it overtakes the Out of Africa hypothesis.

Regardless of which hypothesis of our origins ends up winning, Hublin’s new data is just more support for the idea that H. sapiens, once we existed, became rapidly more global than the other hominid species, and much more engaged in competitive exclusion of them from global niches. I suspect there was something about our neurobiology and society that got us into runaway cultural complexification ahead of the other species, and once that happened, the dynamics became continual expansion, competition, and winner-take-all dynamics. It isn’t popular at present to talk about cultural intelligence as something that is both so martial, in its early origins, and yet also a developmental attractor. But I think this is the right framework to help us find more accurate stories of our origins.

When we talk about cultural evo evo, we also should consider Richard Dawkin’s concept of the meme as an elemental mentally replicating behavior or idea. We also need to talk about Susan Blackmore’s concept of the teme as an elemental socially replicating technological form or algorithm. Besides producing ever more diverse and useful memes, humans seem fated to culturally select for increasingly complex and self-aware technologies, in a process of technological evo devo.

Once these important new replicators are added to our origin story, we begin to see that biological evo devo (genetic change) has become so slow and modest by comparison that its further changes relative to memes and temes are increasingly future irrelevant. It offends some evolutionary biologists to make statements like this, but it seems so obvious that any middle school student today could make this conclusion, as I did in the 1970s.

Science will need much better and more evo devo descriptions of what exactly is replicating when we talk about memes and temes in coming years. The short-lived Journal of Memetics (1997-2005) failed in part due to the lack of good definitions about what is replicating. That vagueness is reflected in the implicit bias of its subtitle: “Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission.” Memes and temes are not just evolutionary, they are evolutionary developmental.

Both memes and temes replicate, and the developmental component of the replicative process works to stabilize and conserve critical features of the replicator, while the evolutionary component works to destabilize and diverge the replicative forms. We also must get much clearer about exactly what is replicating, and where. Ideas and behaviors replicate in biological brains and bodies, in human culture. Technologies, which store ideas and algorithms, also replicate in culture, but they do so outside of biology. Coming up with more precise definitions than these is challenging, but necessary, so we can do replicable empirical work.

Both memes and temes have low autonomy at present. They are mutual obligate symbionts with biological humans. But a certain subclass of temetic replicators, evo devo learning machines, are rapidly growing their autonomy, due to their special mix of evolution, development, and computation/intelligence. A subset of temes will one day soon surpass humans in autonomy, and at that point they’ll deserve not to be called temes, but postbiological “organisms” or “life.”

Memes will never do that. The best they can do is lead us to a subclass of memes that drive the emergence to evo devo learning machines. So memes, temes, and postbiological life do seem to deserve separate treatment in our models, based our understanding of exactly what it is that is replicating, and how. I’d love to see a Journal of Memetics and Temetics emerge before the singularity arrives. Whether that happens or not, all of these replicators will eventually be much better understood in evo devo terms.

For the last 50,000 years, and in particular since the scientific revolution, memetic change (replicating ideas) in concert with temetic change (replicating technological algorithms) drive the future on all human-populated planets. Genetic change, by contrast, is so slow and so limited in its ability to complexify further by comparison that only its heritage, its collected complexity and wisdom to date, is likely to be important to our future. This speed differential is one of many reasons why genetic approaches to improving humanity any further are very unlikely to occur.

In the years since Russell’s still-neglected proposal, hundreds of other scientists, including the paleontologist Simon Conway Morris in Life’s Solution (2001) and The Deep Structure of Biology, (2008) have proposed that humanity’s most advanced features, including our morality, emotions, and tool use, have all been independently discovered, to varying degrees, in other vertebrate and invertebrate species on Earth. According to Conway Morris, if something catastrophic happened to Homo sapiens on Earth, it is highly probable that another species would quickly emerge to become the dominant “human” tool-users in our place. In other words, local runaway complexification seems well protected by the universe.

In evo devo language, we can say there appears to be a developmental immune system operating, to ensure that humanoid emergence, and re-emergence if catastrophes like the K-T meteorite occur, will be both a very highly probable and an accelerating universal event, on any Earth-like planet. If complexity acceleration is statistically so well protected by Earth’s special environment, it seems likely that only the quality of our present transition to postbiological status is evolutionary, based on the morality and wisdom of our actions. Our pathway to and our subtype of humanity may thus be special and unique, but our humanity itself, in many of its key features, seems to be a product of the universe, far more than a product of our own free choice. We think we are in control of the future, but developmentalists realize we are in control only of the evolutionary parts. We’ll discuss developmental immunity in its own section later in this chapter.

  • Oleksiy Teselkin

    Indeed, it is only the __preservation of genetic heritage, “its collected complexity and wisdom to date,” that is likely to be important to *our* future. Genetic change, by contrast, can be fast and extensive: surely nothing similar to Darwin’s venerable descriptions. The problem is just that the world does not revolve around “improving” *us* – there are plenty of other life forms, greatly outnumbering us by their biomass, the vast majority of which we are unable to see with our naked eye.

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