Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
Brains did not evolve a lot before before humans, that's true. Humans are clearly on a new line. Humanoid lines were near extinction for most of the ~1-5 million years. Most lines did go extinct (most of the fossil evidence can be firmly attributed to sidelines), except actually one. The result was a larger brain, hence it was our main tool of survival in the bottleneck times - we had no other viable option. Herewith, I do not deny the evidence (that Millman mentions below) that the brain grew even larger (for mating games, apparently) when better times arrived. That can be expected from evolution - attraction to new savior attributes can easily persist beyond previous necessity.

Generally, larger brains probably offer exceptional functionality beyond some critical mass - and the need for that kind of functionality should be desperate enough to overwhelm alternatives through all evolution path. In that sense, intelligence is a way too long shot for non-human species. Even for humans, collective intelligence had "overshot" downsides - the escalating ecological crisis is the result of our collective "intelligent" conclusion that greed is very ok, no matter what deep senses say.

But marginal intelligence gains could still be relevant in the Nature. Once weasel-you got genes for slightly bigger brain, you cannot exchange them for more efficient "investment". But you can still manage to survive and reproduce if the brain will help you with a few tricks, though probably less amply than your fellows. Still, that would be enough to keep a line of more philosophical weasels in existence. Smart weasels could have a valuable role within their community. It is hard to say what "minimal level" must be.

But maintaining it is even more energy intensive, to the extent that we're now edging up against the energy budget of the entire eco-system.

The energy overconsumption is obviously not for maintainance of (individual or collective) brains. We just consume more energy because we can.

by das monde on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 01:43:27 AM EST
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At some point we turned ourselves into a colony organism, where most of the evolution happens in the information exostructure that surrounds humans.

Maintaining that organism is very energy intensive - far more intensive than keeping an equivalent number of disconnected humans alive.

We could always devolve to something much simpler by running out of energy - and that may be what happens.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 09:58:09 AM EST
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... I think that the point where we evolved into an organism where most evolution happens in the information exostructure that surrounds humans would have to be on the order of 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, if not earlier.

In the Journey of Man (Wikipedia) thesisNote, in the original diaspora, we spread out along the sea coasts ... which is not clear from the fossil records, since the seacoasts of that time are currently underwater, but is argued from genetic evidence combined with the timing of humans first appearing in Australia.

The second diaspora, accounting for a much larger percentage of the world population, spread out as inland hunter-gatherers ... its not clear to me whether that diaspora started later, or started at a similar time and just took longer to break out of Africa due to the dispersion across a two-dimensional field rather than the linear field of a sea-coast niche.

In any event, in sending out the seacoast diaspora and the inland diaspora, humans populated the world by constantly developing the appropriate technologies to exploit the new bioregions that they came into, resulting in such massive differences in technologies as those of the Pacific Islander seafarers, those of the Inuit, and those of the nomadic horse peoples of the Mongolian steppes.

So this characteristic of most evolution happening in the information exostructure that surrounds humans appears to be at least half as old as modern humans, and plausibly as old as modern humans.

And of course, there certainly would appear to be no such thing as "disconnected humans" ... we are a social organism, evolved toward operating as a band in a territory in the neighborhood of other bands of humans.

It is not being a colony organism that can be reversed by running out of energy, but rather some level of density above the level of the nomadic territorial band. Its unlikely that the agricultural revolution will be reversed, but the fossil-fuel driven industrial revolution has only been around for a few centuries, so it is certainly unproven which elements will remain and which will be ditched. I am certainly more optimistic than Kunstler, but in terms of social evolution it is at least a fair question to pose.

(Note: The Journey of Man entry in Wikipedia is fairly weak ... it seems anyone with some expertise and who has worked through it could improve the entry.)

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 10:37:21 AM EST
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The first time I encountered this idea of evolution being transferred to the "information exostructure" was when reading Carl Sagan's Cosmos, specifically Chapter 11, The Persistence of Memory. Of course, when I read this 20 years ago I wasn't in the habit of reading the endnotes to see what original sources the chapter was based on.

We have met the enemy, and it is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 10:43:02 AM EST
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... evolution has been transferred, or whether biological and social evolution are simply proceeding on parallel tracks, and its just the dramatically different pace of social evolution that creates the optical illusion of biological evolution coming to a standstill.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 12:02:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The energy for objectively maintaining the information colony-organism (called Civilisation) is just a small fraction of the energy we waste. Say, recently there was a strong earthquake in Japan, and a nuclear plant was shut down. To ease stressful redistribution of energy, the local population was asked to conserve on air conditioning and other things. The energy demand dropped upon request, and there was no substantial redistribution needed at all!

Planetwide, we "consume" quite a few nuclear reactors just for keeping computers switched on overnight.

The can be attributed to the relatively young age of the evolution within information exostructure, as you call it. That evolution still has to prove its robustness. But more likely, modern humanity just stop worrying about its collective impact and functionality recently - everything is based on individual excitements, the libertarian philosophy is no less effective than a global religion. Even if humanity never worried much (a questionable if), the modern zealotry to consume everything is qualitatively new. That won't last for long...

I don't think that civilisation complexity is a particularly substantial reason to high energy demand. Rather, run-away complexity is a symptom of our futile "innovations" to cope with finite capacity and boundaries of the environment.

by das monde on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 04:46:54 AM EST
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Wasting resources builds status (as per the status thread) so keeping computers on all night makes perfect sense...

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 11:51:30 AM EST
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A small piece of software that switches off unattended PC's is saving us in the region of £40,000 a year at my place of employment.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 12:12:45 PM EST
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