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At Mind Matters News: Source of most animal intelligence still a mystery


Eric Cassell, author of Animal Algorithms: Evolution and the Mysterious Origin of Ingenious Instincts (2021), takes questions. Questions range from “Do animals have free will?” through “How do migratory animals adapt to magnetic poll reversals” which may come every 1000 years or so?:

Casey Luskin: We have a question from Geoff Simmons, who is a Discovery Institute, fellow. And this is a question that… I’ve wondered about for many years, Eric, because of my interest in paleomagnetism, and the earth’s magnetic field, and also plate tectonics.

And the question is: Magnetic poles can shift. We can suddenly have north become south and south become north. The continents can drift. So can these animal behaviors accommodate changes in earth’s magnetic field or its geography in order to allow animals to continue to migrate?

A geomagnetic reversal, when the earth’s magnetic field flips, is thought to occur potentially in less than 1,000 years. It might even be 500 year or less. We don’t know for sure. But it could be a very short period of time. So can Darwinian evolution keep up with those kinds of shifts, so that you don’t have geese migrating north for the winter instead of south and then freezing to death? Or is it possible that animals are actually pre-programmed to be able to adapt quickly to these magnetic reversals, which have happened many times throughout earth’s history? (07:09)

Eric Cassell: Yeah, that’s one of the things that I’ve thought about a lot, trying to figure out how animals adapt to that. Like you say, these pole reversals happen in a relatively short period of time. Typical Darwinian evolution is too slow to adapt that quickly to something like that, you would think. So maybe there’s some other mechanism that allows an adaption. We really don’t know, but it’s a great question. (08:36)

Note: From a report on a recent study: The team analyzed data from nearly 18,000 reed warblers to investigate whether the birds used the Earth’s magnetic field when finding their breeding site. Reed warblers are tiny songbirds that fly across the Sahara Desert each year to spend the summer in Europe.

They found that, as the magnetic field of Earth moved slightly, the sites to which birds returned moved with it, suggesting that birds homed to a moving magnetic target. Birds appeared to use magnetic information as a ‘stop sign’, with magnetic inclination in particular telling birds that they had arrived at their breeding location 


Casey Luskin: It is a really great question. I think that Darwinian evolution moves very slowly. And it’s difficult to imagine it being able to keep up because, obviously, if you get the migration wrong, you might not be able to survive. If you’re migrating north for the winter, you’re going to freeze to death. Or if you can’t find that island out in the ocean where you want to go back and, and spawn, and reproduce, you’re not going to be able to leave offspring. So these are, these are pretty important things. (09:27)

News, “Source of most animal intelligence still a mystery” at Mind Matters News (February 4, 2022)

Takehome: If life forms are born or hatched knowing this stuff, it isn’t learned. But if it’s in the genes, where is it?

Here are the earlier portions of the episode, with transcript and notes.

Part I: Neuroscience mystery: How do tiny brains enable complex behavior? Eric Cassell notes that insects with brains of only a million neurons exhibit principles found only in the most advanced manmade navigation systems. How? Cassell argues in his recent book that an algorithm model is best suited to understanding the insect mind — and that of many animals.

Part II: Can animal behavior simply be transferred into the genome? For example, how do Monarch butterflies from Canada get to the same trees in Mexico as their great-grandparents landed in?
Navigator Eric Cassell thinks that the hundreds of thousands of genetic changes that turn solitary insects into social ones cannot be random mutations.

You may also wish to read: A navigator asks animals: How do you find your way? The results are amazing. Many life forms do math they know nothing about. The question Eric Cassell: asks is, how, exactly, is so much information packed into simple brain with so few neurons?

I can say from personal observation that my cats are pretty smart. Seversky
Aside from the total shifts, the magnetic pattern is changing all the time. The declination in any one place changes significantly in one or two generations, so the adjustments have to be FAST. A memory map has different categories of attention for unchanging things, gradually changing things, and constantly moving things. For an animal that sees the field, it would probably fit the slow-changing category like leaves on trees or the color of grass. When it changes suddenly before an earthquake, it would set off an alarm bell. The migration map must be passed to the next generation in a 'relative vector' form, as distances and angles wrt the field and landmarks at the time of birth, plus an indication of which relative vectors are constant and which will need to be adjusted. polistra

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