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Elliptical Brains I | Elliptical Brains II | Not Practical

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Elliptical Brains I
I have a few observations to make (that may be a bit naïve).

First is, that more intelligence (or more brains), could be solved by nature by making our heads longer, and not broader.
Evolution is a very efficient filter. If your suggestion would work, I think we would see an example, but there aren't any.

One explanation is that efficient brain geometry matters more than we realize. Because of the relatively slow speed of signals though the human brain, stretching the physical layout might result in unacceptably slow processing times.

The details of how the brain functions are poorly understood, but we know signals propagate along human nerve pathways at about 60 meters/second (very slow compared to an electronic computer), and the only reason we process information as quickly as we do is by circumventing this speed limit by one means or another, for example through massively parallel processing. But it's clear that doubling the distance brain signals must travel (within the brain itself) would very seriously degrade our ability to think and react quickly, and this would place us at a disadvantage if facing an adversary without this handicap.

Electronic computers transfer information internally at almost 300,000,000 meters/second, or fifty thousand times faster than the human brain. Yet, even with this speed advantage, computers cannot approach the processing ability of our brains. There are some very efficient, and unknown, methods at work to produce this result, but it's clear that geometry — the compact arrangement of the brain — is part of the reason.

As it turns out, a sphere covered with a massive interconnection network is the optimal geometry required to overcome slow nerve conduction speeds. Stretching the brain, elongating it, might prevent us from reacting to a poisonous snake as quickly as a similarly constructed hominid, and our present minimalist brain geometry may explain why we survived and Neanderthal Man did not.
So the birth canal could stay the way it is now. I think if this idea had merit, nature would have adopted it through evolution, and we roundheads would be part of the geological record of failed species, rather than being Earth's biggest problem. Anther way could be be just postponing brain growth until after birth. That's already true, but it means human babies are completely helpless at birth, to the degree that we have a difficult time protecting our young at birth compared to, say, antelopes. In an article named "Brain Development" I find this quote:

"At birth, baby's brain is remarkably unfinished. Most of its 100 billion neurons are not yet connected in networks. Some neurons are programmed for specific functions-breathing and heartbeat, but most are not yet designated for tasks and are waiting for the experiences in the environment to determine their function."

Compare this to an antelope, which at birth is within hours of being able to run across the prairie and away from hungry predators. We have to face the fact that nature has already adjusted to the problem of human birth canal size by delivering babies while they are very premature.
Second, I think that a reorganization in society could do more towards career possibilities for women (e.g. man caring more for their offspring, something some already do in western societies). Nature's answer to this problem is to require women to care for infants, while men have the interesting jobs, even though men and women have similar skills and intelligence. I am not agreeing with this choice, I am only saying this is how things naturally evolved.

But if things were organized differently, someone would still have to take care of the helpless infants, maybe an oppressed class of people in a class-organized society such as existed in England in the 19th century, when parents rarely saw their own children.

I think if we had an egalitarian society in which people shared child care responsibilities, we would have marginally happier children but no General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics.
Having said that, and as you have observed, not all women want equality. I would never get away with saying that. On the contrary, many of the women I've known personally described themselves as Feminists as they demanded more money — they believed equality is something men give women. But if someone gives it to you, it's not freedom, it's license, and licenses can be revoked. The sort of women who demand that men give them freedom never grasp this idea.

The secret to individual freedom is that you can't demand it from someone else, you must live as a free person and resist anyone who tries to take it away. If you expect someone else to give you freedom, you've already lost.
I've read an article about (I think) Somali women that are "good Muslims", and are rather radically opposed against a law to give women more freedom. That's very sad. I once met a misguided American woman who said something like this. My reply was that, if she lived in a country where her own values were enforced, she wouldn't have the right to speak, even to say what she had just said. I think most people who take positions like this are brainwashed active participants in their own oppression. And I'm not very optimistic about the disappearance of Islam (or any other religion for that matter) any [time] soon. I have to say I agree, and it's a big obstacle to gender equality. In many religious parts of the world, women aren't allowed to get an education, so they don't understand what they're being denied. On the contrary. Here in Europe, Islam seems firmly on the march, and it does scare me. This is an example where Western countries can show leadership by example. Many First World people don't understand the effect American TV shows have in the more oppressed corners of the world. As dreadful as American TV is, it's difficult to convey the effect among oppressed people of seeing a woman driving a car, making her own choices or raising her voice in conversation with a man.

During my around-the-world sail I once sat in a small Egyptian village, in a group of people gathered around the community TV set, hearing the local women gasp as they saw a woman raise her voice in anger against a man. Those people didn't have that right, but they could certainly imagine it. If I were a Third World religious tyrant, I would smash all the TV sets.

Thanks for writing.
Elliptical Brains II
My prior quotations are in italics.
One explanation is that efficient brain geometry matters more than we realize. Because of the relatively slow speed of signals though the human brain, stretching the physical layout might result in unacceptably slow processing times.
Well, we're hardly a finished product, so nature could surprise us yet.
With respect to brain shape, no matter how many species there are, they are all in competition, and processing speed will always matter. This is why there are no examples of elongated brains among large species. Futhermore, there are enough animals with larger brains than ours. Yes — but all roughly spherical. The larger brains are required to manage larger bodies, in a well-known relationship. All of them are roughly spherical and therefore geometrically efficient, regardless of overall size.

It's well-established that a spherical layout is the most efficient way to minimize propagation delays, and it applies to all sizes of spheres. A large spherical brain isn't an argument against a small spherical brain. They both show the advantage.
They seem to do fine (as long as they don't run into humans, that is). Mostly sea animals, but we also have elephants, who have a considerable larger brain than ours. You are confusing size with shape. All the brains under discussion have an optimal shape. Most compete with species that are roughly the same size. Those that don't, tend to perform poorly in the contests. Apparently, when we learn a new skill, we tend to use large parts of the brrain, but when the skill is mastered, we have created a processing centre somewhere, and don't seems to use the rest of the brain anymore. So if we process very locally then your argument doesn't stand. No, the processing-speed issue is always present. If two species are in competition, and if both of them adopt the same tactics, then nature will not have an evolutionary basis for preferring one over the other. Two species, both of which learn efficient ways to perform a particular act, will successfully compete unless one of them is too slow to react.

Adaptation to a new task only reduces the number of neurons involved, it doesn't change the basic requirements, and some processing is always required. Therefore propagation speed and efficient brain geometry are always factors.

Most I.Q. testing is based on how quickly a person can perform a defined task. I am not saying this is particularly sophisticated, but it works reliably for 90% of evaluations. Such a test requires the very processing speed that favors an optimally shaped brain.
And whether we have a brain with a lager dianmeter (like whales, dolphins, elephants, ... and assuming a half spherical brain), or wheter we develop a more cylindrical version isn't really relevant in that light. It is absolutely relevant if it degrades response times, and it does.
Electronic computers transfer information internally at almost 300,000,000 meters/second, or fifty thousand times faster than the human brain. Yet, even with this speed advantage, computers cannot approach the processing ability of our brains. There are some very ingenious, and unknown, methods at work to produce this result, but it's clear that geometry — the compact arrangement of the brain — is part of the reason.
I must beg to differ. It is not the speed of signals, but the processing speed that matters.
But the speed of a central processing unit critically depends on how fast signals can pass back and forth within the CPU. As processors became more complex, their designers have come to realize the route to faster processing is to stack processor segments rather than arranging them in a larger horizontal plane, in order to shorten the signal pathways and increase speed (a geometry called 3D IC). This geometry mimics that of the human brain.

The drawback to stacking the segments is that it concentrates heat and makes cooling more difficult, but the advantage of fast propagation time outweighs the drawbacks. Our brains have the same basic design, and the same problem — the risk of heat buildup. If geometry wasn't so important, we would have a brain shape that allowed heat to be removed more efficiently, and "heat stroke" would be an unknown condition. Evolution has selected a spherical shape because it's the best overall.
In computers, we are now typically talking nanoseconds (and even picoseconds), while the brain seems to process in microseconds. No, the microsecond domain is too fast for a biological processor, unless 800 microseconds is what you had in mind. There are examples where we get around this speed limit (auditory direction-finding as one example), but we don't yet know how these methods work in detail. Most likely it's another example of using parallel processing to overcome slow communication speeds. But as you say, we process a lot more efficiëntly. While the nanoseconds is the time needed per signal, the brain (and even individual cells) process more then just one bit a time. Humans never process on the nanosecond scale — that is way too fast for a biological processor. And even with massive parallel processing, it's more efficient if the signal pathways are short. A single biological processor that must send a signal from one side of the brain to the other (across, say, 12 cm) cannot send that signal faster than about 800 microseconds — that's just transit time, it doesn't take processing into account. And as there are some rather succesfull animals around with a very large brain, You're missing the point that a large-brained animal competes with other large-brained animals, and all such animals benefit from optimal brain geometries. A brain that must be larger to control a large animal has a spherical shape for the same reason that a small animal's brain has a spherical shape.
"At birth, baby's brain is remarkably unfinished. Most of its 100 billion neurons are not yet connected in networks. Some neurons are programmed for specific functions-breathing and heartbeat, but most are not yet designated for tasks and are waiting for the experiences in the environment to determine their function." [from Brain Development]
Yes, I knew about that. Part of the reason for this seems to be that a lot of braincells don't survive birth, apparently.
No, that's not the reason. It's because a larger brain can't pass through the birth canal, and nature as a rule doesn't waste anything. There's no reason this could go further than we have it now... I don't see why we couldn't grow a larger brain while we're growing. I do — the birth canal. After that, there's no practical limit to brain size except usefulness. But the birth canal poses an insurmountable obstacle and explains why human infants are so completely helpless at birth.
Compare this to an antelope, which at birth is within hours of being able to run across the prairie and away from hungry predators. We have to face the fact that nature has already adjusted to the problem of human birth canal size by delivering babies while they are very premature.
Agreed, but it apparently isn't a very big problem for our species.
But it is a very big problem. We deal with it by actively protecting our young against predators. Antelopes can rely on their young to run away on their own, but we cannot do that — we have to intervene to protect our completely helpless infants, pick them up and carry them away from the threat. This is more complex and requires more energy and teamwork than what the antelope does, which is why evolutionary biologists think there must be a compensating payoff for our large brains. In science, an advantage for large brains cannot be assumed, it must be based on evidence. We're rather succesfull in procreating (unfortunatly). And it is not because we already have this adjustment, that this has to be the final word on the matter. In evolution, there is never a final word on anything. That's the single most important thing to learn about evolution. We seem to be very successful, and intelligence seems to be part of the reason, and processing speed seems to be part of that. And, like all species, we are a transitory form.
... if someone gives it to you, it's not freedom, it's license, and licenses can be revoked. The sort of women who demand that men give them freedom never grasp this idea.

The secret to individual freedom is that you can't demand it from someone else, you must live as a free person and resist anyone who tries to take it away. If you expect someone else to give you freedom, you've already lost.
Very true, but you seem to assume people are logical and sensible beings :-)
In the long term, we are, because nature rewards efficient thinking. Large, efficient brains help the process along. There are plenty of counterexamples — times and places where people act stupidly, but this doesn't contradict the general rule. Species survive because of group statistics and averaging, not because of the particular acts of individuals.
Not Practical
I read your piece about the Artificial Womb. I do not see an artificial womb becoming reality because there are other alternatives available to women. The alternatives you describe only prove there is a demand for an artificial womb, which is something we don't know how to build today. And if we could build it, it would be way too expensive ... today. My article is about the future. Take for example the situation in my home country Belgium, or other European countries with a social health care system. The majority of women keep working until near-childbirth (sometimes up till 38 weeks). After childbirth, the new mother is granted maternity leave, which is equally profitable for the mother as well as the company she works for, because these costs are paid for by a sustainable national health care system. "Profitable"? Social programs can't be described as profitable unless one ignores the funding source. You're speaking as though the national health care system is funded magically. But in fact everyone pays for it — all taxpayers contribute to it, and all share the burden of maternity leave. In such a system, a practical artificial womb would represent an improvement in efficiency, not unlike riding a bicycle to work instead of walking.

This is not to disparage social programs like national health care systems, it is only to say they can't be described as profitable, because this ignores the fact that they're supported by taxes.
Maternity leave usually lasts a couple of weeks. Also, more and more men are willing to fully assist their partners in raising children, which (according to my experience) alleviates the heavy toll of having children for women. In your description, the cost and effort of child-rearing is shared between men and women. That's admirable, but it doesn't argue against an artificial womb, indeed it supports the idea, because the artificial womb has the effect of equalizing the burden of child-bearing between men and women. I realize this healthcare alternative makes women dependent on the existence of certain political circumstances that may not always be there (like in the United States) but I think the development costs of an artificial womb are inherently higher than the payment of these maternity leaves. Well, yes — at the moment, an artificial womb is quite impossible, because we don't know enough. In the future, it will become practical because we will know enough. Then it will become economical because we will mass-produce it. As with the personal computer, the bicycle, and the solar panel, what is now impractical will eventually become an obvious solution to a longstanding problem.

The point is that the artificial womb won't happen unless and until it's better than the alternatives. And your point is quite correct — an artificial womb is utterly impractical right now. My article is not meant to discuss the present, but the future.
 

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