I visited Café Scientifique in Leicester for the first time on Tuesday evening. Café Scientifique is a brand name for informal scientific seminars that are open to the public. It’s an idea I’ve been excited about for a while, but not so excited that I’ve actually gone to one. There isn’t one in Derby, so it means a trip out in the evening to visit Leicester or Sheffield. The reason I went along was that Jack Cohen was giving the talk, “Life Elsewhere”. The aim of the talk was rather like his recent book Evoloving the Alien. He’s interested in how much of the evolution of Earth’s life was inevitable and how much is down to historical contingency.
His approach is to divide biological innovations into ‘universals’ and ‘parochials’. Parochials only happened once in history so there’s evidence that you would expect them to appear if life started again, or was found on another planet. Universals are things that appear over and over again independently. Examples of universals would be things like eyes, flight, photosynthesis and sex. These are all solutions to problems that have occurred several times by differing routes in the past.
Parochials are things like the foodway crossing the airway, or genitals and waste emission being part of the same package. This initially looks weird. There are so many animals which breathe and eat through their mouths. How can this be parochial? The answer is that the innovation only happened once. It happened in the distant past in the creature that land based animals evolved from. So although this feature is everywhere it’s parochial because all these creatures inherited it, it wasn’t an innovation. Insects for instance took a different route, breathing through spiracles in their body. This wouldn’t scale very well, but it shows there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
This leaves the question is intelligence universal or parochial? Or rather is extelligence, the information we keep outside of our bodies, universal or parochial? Extelligence has only occurred once in Earth’s history, in humanity. That would suggest it’s parochial. However, breathing oxygen might also be a parochial. The shift from methane to oxygen atmosphere only happened once in Earth’s history. That would make it parochial. Except once this shift had occurred, the rules of the game had changed so it couldn’t happen again. Does this mean that oxygen is a parochial, or would have it have happened sooner or later anyway, which would make it universal?
This is a similar problem to extelligence. The first species to develop a good extelligence succeeded at the expense of others, either by conflict or out-competing other hominids. So is extelligence a one-off or was it a race to see who got it first Homo Sapiens or Homo Neanderthalensis?
Cohen is a good speaker, though I can see how he could be intimidating. He opened with a cartoon. A woman introduced a man at a party as an expert on crocodiles, and he replied, “Madam, you’re too kind, my speciality is crocodile eyelids.” That, Cohen said was one type of scientist, and he was the other sort. He doesn’t assume he’s right about everything, he noted in his talk the sensation of feeling sure and being right felt exactly the same as the sensation of feeling sure and being wrong. He does assume that he’s talking to someone of high intelligence and can leap from subject to subject. He’s perfectly polite in dealing with questions, but it can be intimidating stopping him while in full flow. A bit like stopping the performance of an opera to ask what a particular obscure word was.
The talk came in sections with questions following and regular breaks to get drinks. I thought some of the audience were a bit hung up on definitions like “What is a tool?” I suspect of we find extra-terrestrial life we won’t be examining them with a check-list and ignoring them if they don’t meet our pre-conceptions of what they should be. There was some philosophical wading into what sort of tool mathematics is. I was pleased to hear Ian Stewart in their new book will argue it’s a social construct. After reading Sundar Sarukkai’s stuff I’m inclined to think of mathematics as a peculiar form of language.
All-in-all it was a good night out. After this evening I’m not able to wander into the evolutionary biology section of the library and pencil in corrections to the textbooks, but at least I have an idea what the questions are.