Michael Shermer is perhaps the world’s only professional skeptic. As the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and executive director of the Skeptics Society, Shermer has turned his innate skepticism into a full-time job. In our recent podcast “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?” Stephen Dubner talks to Shermer about the evolutionary basis for our tendency toward “magical thinking” and why humans are conditioned to see threats often where none exist. Here’s an excerpt:
This is a Freakonomics guest post by Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist, and Director of Human Cognition at 2AI. His new book Harnessedexplores the evolutionary origins of language and music. Rise of the Apes via Miracle Grow
By Mark Changizi
Add Miracle Grow to your tomato plants and you get tomatoes. Big tomatoes, but still tomatoes. What you don’t get are mobile, blood-thirsty tomatoes with a deep distaste for the classic tune, “Puberty Love.” That would require serious evolutionary design, something far more complex than Miracle Grow can handle.
Yet something very much like Miracle Grow works for giving chimps and gorillas human-level intelligence. Or, at least, that’s what you’d have to believe to accept the premise of the summer movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where a grow-more-neurons drug aimed for Alzheimers is given to apes, who thereby become the cognitive equal of humans, replete with language.
Obviously, that can’t happen. Our human brain is not simply a bigger version of the same fundamental ape design. Rather, it possesses essential new software forged over millions of years of natural selection. Some believe there is new language software, a language instinct; while others believe, in contrast, that what’s new are general-purpose algorithms of the kind artificial intelligence researchers seek. A simple give-‘em-more-neurons mechanism can’t reproduce these sorts of designs.
New research suggests that female mosquitofish can count, but only up to four with any precision. No word on how high male mosquitofish can count. The research design is quite clever: When males bother females, the females try to flee to the biggest group of nearby females. When given the choice between two groups — one with three other fish . . .