Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Maybe Homer Had it Right

My final exams are nigh. That's why, when I saw the title of this article today in the Science Times "Lots of Animals Learn, But Smarter Isn't Better," I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Carl Zimmer's article describes the experiments of a lab at the University of Fribourg which involve flies who are conditioned not to like one kind of jelly:

It takes just 15 generations under these conditions for the flies to become genetically programmed to learn better. At the beginning of the experiment, the flies take many hours to learn the difference between the normal and the quinine-spiked jellies. The fast-learning strain of flies needs less than an hour...but the flies pay a price for fast learning...About half the smart flies survived; 80 percent of the ordinary flies did.

Dr. Kawecki suspects that each species evolves until it reaches an equilibrium between the costs and benefits of learning. His experiments demonstrate that flies have the genetic potential to become significantly smarter in the wild. But only under his lab conditions does evolution actually move in that direction. In nature, any improvement in learning would cost too much...

"Humans have gone to the extreme," said Dr. Dukas, both in the ability of our species to learn and in the cost for that ability."

Neurosis come to mind as a cost of brain power combined with the cost of leisure (which seems to be the goal of so many developed brains). Do I really need a PhD - especially one to study brains? I don't know... maybe I'm smart enough.

(I'm realizing from TJ's comment that that last sentence sounds conceited. I meant more that I was worried about the liabilities of adding any brain power (whatever my baseline) given the fate of the flies, not that I think I'm smart.)


Anonymous said...

What fun! Thanks. And good luck with your tests! I'm quite sure you are smart enough, but one doesn't always go for the Ph.D. because it's a needful thing. :) Best, TJ

P.S FYI: Sometime this week or next I'm going to add a page to my blog devoted entirely to Iris Murdoch. I'm not sure where I'm going with it, but I'm feeling "the call"

Ted said...

TJ - I'm realizing from your comment that my last sentence sounds conceited. I meant more that I was worried about the liabilities of adding any brain power (whatever my baseline) given the fate of the flies, not that I think I'm smart per se. Is that enough justification for you?

Whenever you get around to that Murdoch page, I'll be there. Have you read that very lengthy biography of her that came out about ten or 15 years ago? I haven't but am curious about it.

Anonymous said...

Good luck on the exams. :)

Anonymous said...

Ted--I didn't take your comment in a conceited way at all --- but I did like your explanation.

No I have not read the Murdoch study you mention. Alas, all of my more serious study of Murdoch (some quite formal) took place over 20 years ago. And I've not kept up on the scholarship or bios. But I have continued to be a devotee and to read and re-read her own work voraciously. I could not bring myself to read her husband's account of her succumbing to Alzheimers, nor did I see the movie about it. For such an incisive, lively mind to come to such an end...well, it was totally unthinkable. And I didn't want those images of her to be the ones I was left with.

In any case, now that I've a bit more leisure, I'm planning to devote myself to some serious study of her work. I'm sure I'll get to the bio you mention. The other book I'm sure I'll pick up is called Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her by A.N. Wilson (200?). It was written after Bailey's memoir in an attempt to refocus on Murdoch's lifetime of brilliance rather than her last years in decline.

Sorry to go on and on. I'm serious about the Murdoch page. I might even make it a separate blog. In either case, anything you'd like to contribute would be most welcome. TJ