Friday, May 9, 2008

GENERAL STUFF: What's so great about being smart?

I was reading the hometown paper -- Charleston's Post & Courier -- and came across the following editorial.

Really smart people don't overestimate the value of being smart. Or, as an enlightening question of uncertain origin puts it: "If you're so smart, why
aren't you rich?"

Just as being "smart" doesn't guarantee wealth for homo sapiens, it doesn't guarantee longevity for other creatures. Tuesday's New York Times reported that a group of scientists at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) have discovered that "being smart can be bad for an animal's health," and that forming the neuron connections needed to learn — a fundamental task to becoming smart — "may cause harmful side effects."

Consider the case of fruit flies clever enough to catch on more quickly than most of their kind. The offspring of those that learn how to avoid quinine samples injected into particular fruits in an experiment "pay a price for fast learning," according to biologist Tadeusz Kawecki, one of the project's leaders. When the offspring of the smart flies and the offspring of the non-smart flies had to compete for a "meager supply of yeast" in a follow-up experiment, only half of the smart flies survived while four-fifths of the "ordinary" flies did.

Evidently, to borrow another maxim, slow and steady still often wins the race. The research documented a 15 percent shorter life span for the more intelligent flies,
leading Prof. Kawecki to ask this leading question: "If it's so great to be
smart, why have most animals remained dumb?"

That same question could be applied to our species.

First of all, it seems to be saying two different things. At the first, it seems like it's making an argument for intelligence, but then it closes off saying that smart people die quickly -- but then seems to call everyone dumb. Second off, is it seriously making an argument that learning, and the capability to do so, is bad? Or, are you just being completely asinine and implying that ignorance truly is bliss.

I don't like the way the article was written and I'm 99% sure I disagree with the overall purpose. Education is not bad. Learning is not bad. In the interest of not taking an editorial as the word of god, I searched the original work:
We have shown that genetically-based improvement in learning ability can readily evolve under an ecologically relevant selection regime. Under the selection regime flies that learned to associate a potential oviposition medium with an aversive chemical (quinine), remembered this association, and continued to avoid this medium after the chemical has been removed, contributed more genes to the next generation. Within 20 generations these flies became able to learn substantially faster and remember much longer than their ancestors (Mery and Kawecki 2002, PNAS 99:14274-14279). This response generalizes to other stimuli and other olfactory aversive learning tasks, suggesting that evolution has acted on a "general" learning ability. However, the "smart" flies paid for their improved learning ability with reduced survival when food is scarce, presumably due to pleiotropic side-effects of genes that improve learning (Mery and Kawecki 2003, Proc. R. Soc. B 270:2465-2469, see also a comment by New Scientist). This indicates an evolutionary trade-off between learning ability and other aspects of performance. We have also shown that learning has operational costs: flies repeatedly forced to learn within their lifetime show a decline in fecundity (Mery and Kawecki 2004, Anim. Behav. 68:589-598). Finally, we have shown that long-term memory formation makes flies more vulnerable to environmental stress (Mery and Kawecki 2005, Science 308 p.1148).

In another set of experiments we tested the old idea that the ability to learn may facilitate genetically-based evolutionary change (known as the Baldwin effect). We could show that populations selected to prefer to oviposit on a pineapple substrate evolved a stronger genetically-based preference for pinapple if they were also given an opportunity to learn which medium should be preferred. However, the opposite effect of observed in populations selected for oviposition on another substrate (orange). These results indicate that the fact that a species learns can substantially affect its evolutionary change in a novel environment (Mery and Kawecki 2004, Evolution 58:757-767.). In collaboration with Honda Research Institute we are orking on mathematical and computer models of this effect.

The point of the study, I might point out is not the effect of learning on lifespan, but the effect of learning on the evolutionary process. This is like corporate America -- ie, the doing something because it's always been done that way situation (here, the Baldwin effect, where learning equals genetic selection of those who learn certain traits faster, and slowly leading "learning" to become instinct, may apply). Does this study necessarily say that "the ability to learn" = "shorter life span" or "lower fecundity?" No, because there are variables that may affect that that may not be part of this study. Again, this is science being taken out of context. All this experiment proves is that fruit flies can develop instinct-like behavior by increasing their learning abilities.

And besides, I ain't no fucking fruit fly. The experiment doesn't take into account logical thinking/reasoning (which does not equal learning), innovation (which is not learning), nor the fact that fruit flies were not designed, naturally, to learn in this method. Our genetic "advantage" over other creatures is to think. We were "selected" because we can think and reason. You can't detach humanity from the ability to learn; you can, it seems, turn on and off fruit flies ability to learn. This experiment is testing a Pavlovian response, it seems, matched up with this Baldwin effect.

Besides, our life span is around 75 in this country and most of the developed world -- up from the 40s and 50s of the not-so-distant past -- doesn't it seem to counter this argument?

Am I completely off base with this one?

And being a C student that becomes president means that you become the president with highest disapproval rating ever.

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