Posted in Science & Nature

Intelligent Life

One of the great questions in science is “could intelligent life develop on planets other than Earth?”. Even the general populace has heard of programmes such as SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life) and mathematical models such as the Drake equation that attempt to predict the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent civilisations. But an equally intriguing question we seem to neglect is: “could intelligent life develop on Earth?”.

The definition of “intelligent life” is hugely varying, but nonetheless attempts have been made to compare our intelligence level to other animals. From the pool of research throughout the decades, the most “intelligent” non-human animals appear to be chimpanzees, bonobos, great apes, dolphins, elephants, certain parrots, ravens and rats. There is much research on the intelligence of cephalopods (e.g. the octopus) that has shown promise. If we were to shift the focus from individual intelligence, we could also consider “civilised” animals such as ants, as they are capable of building vast cities with intricate societies. All of this shows that intelligence is not exclusive to our species. We have simply walked down the path of evolution where the trait of ever-increasing intelligence, knowledge and wisdom have allowed us to adapt to and survive our environment. Ergo, it is fair to consider the possibility that other animals are walking a similar path that may lead to the making of a species with intelligence comparable to us.

However, this only raises the theoretical possibility of intelligent life. What is the realistic, practical possibility of intelligent life developing on Earth in the near future? Put another way, could intelligent life develop in the presence of a higher intelligent life (e.g. humans)? The road that brought us to throne of “the most intelligent species on Earth” was not an easy one. We are but one of many other hominid (human-like) species that evolution produced while tinkering with the concept. For example, there was a time when we (Homo sapiens) shared the Earth with other intelligent hominids such as the Neanderthals. The Neanderthals are commonly pictured as simple, knuckle-dragging apes but in reality they were just as intelligent as Homo sapiens during that time. They had a culture similar to our own, developed stone tools just as complex and even made cave paintings in a display of art. The reason why we are not breaking bad with Neanderthal neighbours now is that (according to one theory) we successfully outcompeted them, driving them to extinction (there is debate whether genocide and cannibalism was involved).

Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense for an intelligent species to wipe out another species trying to compete with the ecological niche of intelligence. This has been discussed in many works of science fiction, such as Planet of the Apes where the emergence of intelligent apes leads to the destruction of human civilisation. Arthur C. Clarke discussed this as a side plot in his novel The Songs of Distant Earth. Upon discovering a species of sea scorpions that show signs of intelligence such as social hierarchy and metal collecting, the scientists suggest that they should allow it to develop, but ultimately the government decides to eradicate them as soon as they attempt to migrate to land.

Suffice to say, given our track record in history involving the countless times colonists wiped out other civilisations to serve their purpose, there is a good chance that any new intelligent life would immediately be removed by us if they had the misfortune of arising during our time.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Lizard People

What would the world be like if the dinosaurs had not gone extinct? In 1982, palaeontologist Dale Russell proposed a thought experiment regarding the possible evolutionary path of a species called Troodons. The Troodons were small, bird-like dinosaurs from the later periods of the reign of dinosaurs. They grew up to 2.4m in length and about 50kg in weight, standing on two slender hind legs. The most interesting feature of Troodons was their very large brain – six times larger than any other dinosaurs relative to their body weight. This would have most likely allowed the Troodons to be quite intelligent relative to other species, allowing it to utilise crude tools such as rolling a boulder off a cliff.

Russell believed that had the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event did not happen 65 million years ago (when a giant meteor struck Earth), the Troodons could have evolved in a path similar to humans, expanding their brain size and using intelligence as a tool of survival. Although its brain size was substantially lower than that of a human, he believes that through evolution, by the present its brain would be the size of a modern human’s. He also believed that evolution would have shaped the Troodons into a “dinosauroid” form, much closer to the shape of a human being. The Dinosauroid (nicknamed lizard people) would have had two fingers and a thumb, large eyes, no hair, internal genitalia (like reptiles), no breasts and a navel (the placenta is instrumental in giving birth to large-brained offspring). Their language would probably have sounded like a bird song.

Given the history of Homo sapiens and our competition and ultimate demise of similar sapient species, it is unclear whether we would have won the survival war against the Dinosauroids, or whether we would have even had the chance to evolve to our stage, as mammals rapidly filled the niche after dinosaurs were wiped out. There is much criticism of Russell’s thought experiment of the Dinosauroid being “too anthropomorphic” (too human-looking), but as suggested in the book K-PAX by Prot, perhaps the humanoid form is the most efficient natural design for an intelligent life form. Realistic or not, it is a fascinating projection of a world that could have been.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Metal

Next to the discovery of fire and the wheel, the discovery of metals and the mastery of metalworking was arguably one of the most important advances for prehistoric humanity. Metal was far superior to rock, clay, wood or any other natural resource known to man in terms of strength and sharpness. Because of these properties, metal soon became a valuable commodity. It can be seen how much impact metal had on humanity’s history, considering that the stages of human prehistory were named after the type of metal (or lack thereof) that was mastered then: Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

The discovery of metal came in two ways.

One was through mining, where prehistoric people discovered that shiny, hard objects were buried in the ground. They later discovered that with enough heat, they could melt the metal out of ores (copper and tin were the first metals to be gathered this way) and mould them into any shape. After smelting technologies developed, our ancestors found that mixing copper and tin produced bronze – a much stiffer and more durable metal than either of its components. A mixture of metals is called an alloy. This was the start of the Bronze Age. Bronze was extremely useful and people quickly came up with innovative ways of using it, such as farming equipment and weapons.

Some other metals used during this age were: gold, silver, lead and mercury. It is likely that gold was one of the earliest metals used as it comes in pure nuggets and is easily workable thanks to its chemistry. However, given that gold is rather soft and was treated more as jewellery than a practical metal, it was not used as much to advance technology.

The second way mankind came upon metals was in the form of “gifts from the gods”. A prime example is iron. Although the Iron Age began around 1200BC at the earliest, there are iron objects (mainly jewelleries) that have been dated back to 5000BC. How could this be? This was before mankind had the technology to smelt iron ores (which is more difficult and needs much higher temperatures than copper or tin ores), so the iron could not have been gathered through mining. The answer to this conundrum lies in meteorites. About 6% of meteorites contain iron and nickel, which prehistoric civilisations may have stumbled onto and taken the shiny pieces back to their tribe. The people would have considered the gathered iron a “gift from the gods”, as it had crashed down from the “heavens”. Because of this reason, iron was considered more valuable than gold or silver and was frequently used for jewellery. This is reflected in Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction short story, The Songs of Distant Earth, where sentient sea scorpions hoard metal objects stolen from the humans and wear it proudly as a badge of honour.

The history of iron and how it was believed to be a gift from the heavens relates to a common superstition of how finding a penny (or any coin) represents good luck. As “metal” (mainly iron) was considered a holy gift bestowed unto mankind, finding a piece of metal was believed to be a blessing and some form of protection against evil. This is also represented in various traditions such as hanging horseshoes over doorways and wearing charm bracelets with metal on it.

Although it sounds like a silly superstition, it clearly shows how metals have been an integral part of the development of civilisation.

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Posted in Philosophy

Fundamental Benevolence

Mencius, a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, proposed a thesis that diametrically opposes Xunzi’s theory of fundamental malevolence. He claimed that human beings are fundamentally good. According to Mencius, people are inherently altruistic and courteous, wanting to help a fellow man. He stated that people are born with all the qualities needed to build virtue: compassion, humility, modesty and ethics. Through mental training and discipline, these traits respectively develop into: humanity (yin, 인, 仁), righteousness (eui, 의, 義), courtesy (ye, 예, 禮) and wisdom (ji, 지, 智). Mencius believed that as every man and woman are born with all the qualities needed to become a saint (seung yin, 성인, 聖人), anyone could become a “good person” through disciplining one’s mind. According to this theory, evil is only a product of bad environments and people inherently act benevolently when matured in a good environment with adequate teaching in etiquettes and social order. Thus, the act of harming others and murdering are because the person’s fundamental nature was corrupted by a harsh life and environment and because they lack virtue and discipline. A person who strives to perfect their morality is a gentleman (gun ja, 군자, 君子), a person who does not is a petty person (so yin, 소인, 小人). In Confucianism, gentlemen are highly respected while petty people are shunned.

Are human beings good-natured? The theory of fundamental malevolence states that human beings, like all other animals, are selfish beings who only care about their own needs and will willingly harm others to fulfil their greed. Contrary to this, the theory of fundamental benevolence (성선설, sung sun sul) teaches that people are altruistic animals who will support and help each other. We proved the validity of fundamental malevolence from an evolutionary perspective with the example of a hungry lion. An animal case scenario that supports the theory of fundamental benevolence is the ant.

By observing an ant colony, we can learn that altruism can assist in survival. An ant by itself is quite powerless, but when millions of ants come together to form a colony, they can build great cities to protect themselves, they can farm to feed everyone and they can easily overcome any foe of all sizes. Ants do not become jealous of another ant who has more food. Instead, when they are full, they will store excess food in a social stomach so that they can share it with another hungry ant they come across. Through cooperation, understanding and connection – that is, the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3 – ants are able to compete and survive in nature. In fact, ants thrive anywhere in the world and can easily adapt to almost any environmental change. When comparing the two ultimate species that dominated nature, human beings and ants, the commonality is that both build societies. To build a society, individuals must get along with each another, and the key to building relationships is goodwill.

Thus, we have proven that fundamental benevolence can also be supported by evidence from nature. If so, are human beings fundamentally good or evil? The more you study people, the less credibility there is for fundamental benevolence. Of course there are plenty of stories of altruistic people, but “generally” people are still selfish animals who prioritise their own gain. No matter how much you say “I care for other people and wish everyone in the world happiness”, the reality is that you will only really care and love for people within your monkeysphere, while not caring nearly as much for the starving child on the other side of the world.

This is not to say that “good” does not exist on this world. It is just that the fundamental nature of human beings is likely to be evil, as Xunzi posited. However, as we grow, we learn social order, etiquettes and morality and we try to suppress our basal instincts as much as possible. Although our efforts are usually successful, we still slip up every now and then. On the contrary, some people do not even make the effort to hide their true nature and we label these people as “evil”.

Whether we are fundamentally good or evil, the truth is that we have both the potential and ability to develop our own character and sense of morality. Whether you will be an ant, who builds great cities and strive for a society where everyone helps each other stay well-fed, or a lion, who stalks prey all alone to feed itself day-to-day; that is your choice.

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Posted in Philosophy

Fundamental Malevolence

Human beings are fundamentally evil. This was a theory concerning human nature put forward by Xunzi – a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, along with Confucius and Mencius. Xunzi stated that human beings naturally seek out only their own interests and greed, envying and hating each other so much that they are bound to fight if left alone. He suggested that people needed to learn etiquette and culture themselves to correct this.

Xunzi’s philosophies are on a background of the chaotic setting of the Warring States Period. The Warring States Period was a period when China was split into many different countries, all warring with each other to gain dominance over each other’s lands. During these wars, Xunzi saw countless cases of people looting and killing each other, which led him to the conclusion that people are naturally selfish beings. He believed that human beings focus on their greed and self-preservation from the moment of birth. He also believed that leaving people without order would indubitably lead to social chaos. Thus, to effectively rule over the people, a leader must place limits such as laws, ethics, etiquette and culture.

From an evolutionary point of view, the theory of fundamental malevolence (성악설, sung ak sul) makes sense. Would a starving lion mourn the death of a baby zebra? Protecting one’s own interests is a great way to increase your chance of survival and propagating your genes.

The more you carefully observe people’s behaviour, the more credibility the theory seems to gain. Human beings are selfish beings who become jealous of others for having more than themselves, kill someone because they tried to take away their love and engage in fratricidal war because others do not share their beliefs. You as the reader may state that you cannot imagine hurting anyone, let alone taking a life. In that case, let us examine the following thought experiment.

One day, you are kidnapped. When you come about, you find that you are trapped in a pitch-black room, tied to a pole. The room appears to be completely empty and you cannot see or hear anything. Suddenly, you hear a voice coming from the other side of the room. The voice talks about how it will murder you in a violent, excruciating way, over and over. The voice continues to threaten you in a macabre way for three days. Just when you are near your breaking point from the overwhelming fear of imminent death, another voice appears. The voice says: “If you nominate someone you are close to that I can kill in your stead, I will let you go and not harm you in any way”. Would you have the courage to not give a name?

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Posted in Science & Nature

History Of The Earth

The Earth has been around for a good 4.6 billion years. Let us compress the long time from the Earth’s birth to today (2012) into one year to put everything in perspective.

The Earth’s history starts on January 1, 00:00:00. The Earth is a hard sphere, barren as any other planet. Incessant wind and rain erode away the barren mountains and tectonic forces create new ones. Nothing much happens for the next three months. Then, around the start of April, life begins in the form of bacteria. Over the course of the next few months, the bacteria divide and mutate, slowly forming new life forms that are multicellular. However, all life on Earth are still in the oceans.

Life on land only starts in the end of November, when plants begin to settle on land. Plants expertly take the abundant carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen. By early December, the oceans are teeming with fish, some of which adapt to living on land by developing lungs. These become the first amphibians. Insects also populate the land and become one of the most diverse types of life.

In December 12, reptiles evolve and the land is ruled by dinosaurs, but only for 9 days until they are wiped off the face of the Earth by a meteorite on December 20. Mammals quickly take the niche left by dinosaurs, populating the entire world. Even at this late time, there are no signs of humans.

December 31, humans have still not arrived on Earth. They only appear around 8pm, where the first hominids venture on to the plains of Africa. At 10pm, the Ice Age begins and the Earth is covered by a thick white sheet of ice. The ice comes and goes three more times. At 11:59pm, human civilisation begins as cities begin to rise. 22 seconds before the end of the year, the Egyptians build their pyramids. More monuments arise within seconds. At 11:59:47pm, Jesus teaches the people to love one another, until he is killed a millisecond later. In the last second of the year (about 150 years), humanity: has two major world wars, take to the skies, create the nuclear bomb that can wipe out all life on Earth and even step foot on the Moon.

We may like to think that we have made a significant impact in the history of the Earth, but we have only existed for an infinitesimally small fraction of the history. We are but a dot on the grand scheme of natural history.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Slavemaker Ant

Slavery is considered one of the most inhumane acts in humanity’s history, where a group of people enslave another group of people to do their bidding in harsh conditions. Slavery is an interesting concept as at the cost of other members of your species, you can greatly increase the productivity of your own society. Some may argue that only humans are evil enough to enslave their own kind, but there is one other species that enslaves other animals: ants.

Certain species of ants, known as slavemaker ants, are known to enslave entire ant colonies to do the bidding of their own colony. The way slavemaker ants enslave colonies is as follows. First, a pregnant queen ant lies in front of an enemy nest after mating and feigns death. Scouts from the nest carry the “body” back to their queen so that she may devour the fallen enemy. When the two queens are left in the same room, the queen slavemaker ant springs back to life and proceeds to eviscerate the other queen ant. She then rolls around in her remains to coat herself in pheromones – the substance through which ants identify each other. The ants of the colony now believe the queen to be their own queen and serve her and her eggs. When the brood fully matures (only soldier ants), they swiftly overrun the nest and completely enslave the colony, forcing them to fill the role of the worker ants, which the slavemaker ants lack.

Eventually, the original slaves die out and the colony becomes short on worker ants (as the queen only produces soldier ants). To overcome this issue, the colony sends out massive raiding parties to attack other colonies, after which the ants steal the eggs and larvae of the captured colony to breed them into new slaves. Interestingly, it has been observed that slavemaker ants tend to attack the most defended nests, knowing that they contain the most eggs and larvae. There are variations on how the army attacks and raids a colony depending on the species. Some choose to launch a full-on assault, decimating the colony and leaving only the eggs and larvae. Some secrete chemical gases that force the colony to evacuate, leaving their young behind in the rush. In some cases, a fertilised queen ant will sneak into a raid and kill the queen ant in the midst of the battle, commandeering whatever is left of the colony following the raid.

One difference between human and ant slavery is that slave ants are not aware they are slaves. Since they have been brought up since birth to work for the colony, they simply believe that they are worker ants birthed by the queen. Thus, they have no objections to serving the colony as to them they are merely fulfiling their objectives. 

This type of interaction between species is known as social parasitism, where one group benefits and survives at the cost of another group. Interestingly, “parasitism” also suggests that slavemaker ants cannot survive without their host. The reason being, slavemaker ants are so specialised in infiltrating and raiding other colonies that they cannot feed themselves or construct a colony by themselves. Even their mandibles are evolved into perfect killing machines, so much that they cannot use it to feed (slave ants have to feed them). In some cases, it has even been observed that slave ants had to carry their masters from one colony to another.

Slavemaker ants enslave not because they are tough or superior, but because they are desperate and have adapted to this unique form of surviving. Thus, if there was an Abraham Lincoln ant, he would certainly kill his colony within one generation.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Fortune Telling

A “good fortune teller” is not an “accurate” fortune teller. A “good fortune teller” is a fortune teller who “says good things”. A fortune teller who tells fortunes that are too real, despite warning people of the dangers to come in the future, tends to be ignored and hated on just like Cassandra from ancient Greek mythology. Human beings say they fear uncertainty in the future and want some certainty, but they do not want to hear about an unhappy future. This is a normal response. Who would want to hear that they will soon be diagnosed with a terminal illness, or that they will break up with their lover? However, people are fascinating in that they still try to know the future. We go to fortune tellers and read horoscopes to try figure out what will happen to us. But if they receive bad news such as “you will fail your next exam”, instead of studying even more they curse at the fortune teller for giving them a bad prediction. Thus, human beings live among curiosity about their life and fear of the unknown future, while celebrating good fortunes and actively denying bad ones.

The reason why we like to have our fortunes read is similar to why we watch previews of television shows: we are curious about what will happen. But if you ponder this deeply, you soon come to a great epiphany. The further you look out into the future, the clearer this becomes. Everyone eventually dies. A person’s life span is typically not much longer than a hundred years, with everyone meeting the same fate some day.

A fortune teller predicts the ups and downs of a person’s life. If you think about it, life is composed of a series of peaks and troughs that eventually result in death. No matter what misfortune comes your way, it will pass just as seasons come and go. A person who passed an exam is happy and leads a good life, but even if the person fails, they somehow make it through. Unless you give up, a person will continue to live on. C’est la vie. Life is as simple as that.

If the best fortune teller in the history of mankind told your fortune, they would say the following: “nothing matters, live the way you want”. Whether your fortune for the week is good or bad, you will eventually die. There is no point scaring yourself with fortunes, live every day as if it was your last. An uncertain future may be scary, but it also represents infinite possibilities. Just like Schrödinger’s cat, our tomorrows are both alive and dead at the same time. Until tomorrow comes and the box is open, we can never know what the future holds.

So as long as it does not harm you or anyone else, do whatever the hell you want.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Nostril

What would happen if your nostrils were facing up instead of down? Rain would fall into your nose and when you were sad or with a cold, mucus would fill up in the nose instead of draining, creating quite a problem. Then why do we have two nostrils? The reason being, if one is blocked, we can breathe through the other (unless you have bad hay fever or a cold and both are blocked). This shows how (almost) every part of the human body has a purpose, including its shape and characteristics.

Another fun fact about nostrils is that at one moment, only one nostril is used for breathing. In other words, you can breathe easily through one side of your nose but the other side will feel stuffy and blocked. This phenomenon alternates sides on a periodic cycle (where the blocked side becomes clear and vice versa). This mechanism is most likely to protect the inside of your nose (nasal cavity) from drying out.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Three Laws Of Robotics

The Three Laws of Robotics are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov regarding the functioning of robots as discussed in his novels about robots.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

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