Animal minds Evolution

A theory on how land animals came to be smart

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African savanna (stock | Credit: © Grispb / stock.adobe.com
African savanna (stock image).
Credit: © Grispb / stock.adobe.com

As usual, it is about something that is supposed to have accidentally happened to the brain. This time, savanna landscapes:

Compared to the vast emptiness of open water, land is rife with obstacles and occlusions. By providing prey with spaces to hide and predators with cover for sneak attacks, the habitats possible on land may have helped give rise to planning strategies — rather than those based on habit — for many of those animals.

But the researchers found that planning did not give our ancestors the upper hand in all landscapes. The researchers’ simulations show there is a Goldilocks level of barriers — not too few and not too many — to a predator’s perception, in which the advantage of planning really shines. In simple landscapes like open ground or packed landscapes like dense jungle, there was no advantage.

“All animals — on land or in water — had the same amount of time to evolve, so why do land animals have most of the smarts?” asked Northwestern’s Malcolm MacIver, who led the study. “Our work shows that it’s not just about what’s in the head but also about what’s in the environment.”

Northwestern University, “Hunting in savanna-like landscapes may have poured jet fuel on brain evolution” at ScienceDaily

Paper. (open access)

But the new savanna theory doesn’t explain much of anything because the question is not why it might be beneficial to be smarter but how exactly it happens.

Incidentally, the theory doesn’t seem to cover squid. See, for example, Is the octopus a second genesis of intelligence? The hardware “has little in common with the mammalian design.” And this from an animal related to oysters. Also: Scientists clash over why octopuses are smart.

6 Replies to “A theory on how land animals came to be smart

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    But the new savanna theory doesn’t explain much of anything because the question is not why it might be beneficial to be smarter but how exactly it happens.

    Maybe it has something to do with a mysterious black monolith…

  2. 2
    ET says:

    Has the author never watched Jacques Cousteau? Underwater, where the aquatic life lives, is rife with obstacles and occlusions.

  3. 3
    AaronS1978 says:

    Oh this is just a bad study just google smart sea life and that proves this wrong, octopi to whales and many more.
    Let’s not forget the great dangers of open waters and needing to survive that, plus the many areas like trenches to barrier reefs that provide the same opportunities for hiding and sneak attacks that land does.

  4. 4
    AaronS1978 says:

    Yes Seversky it was a black monolith surrounded by apes tossing bones around, cracking work there, good add

    Do you criticize for the sake of criticizing, especially if it’s somebody or a group that you don’t like or agree with?

    I mean this is obviously a bad study
    Like it’s straight bad

    So I don’t see why you had to be sarcastic about that

  5. 5
    AaronS1978 says:

    And I think being endothermic versus exothermic has a lot more to do with why there seems to be a difference in intelligence

    That’s my guess but in general mammals just have better metabolism’s because they’re endothermic and that’s a huge part for a developing the brain

  6. 6
    polistra says:

    Another new example of Savannah Sabertooth:

    https://sciencenorway.no/aging-exercise-the-brain/your-brain-may-be-the-organ-strengthened-the-most-by-physical-exercise-says-neuroscientist/1692000

    The first part of the article is a well-written and clear summary of current knowledge on exercise forming new neurons. The obvious conclusion is that we are meant to exercise, meant to work from birth to death.

    Then in the second part of the article, the authors visit the Savannah and claim we’re designed to be lazy. They aren’t even listening to their own writing!

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