Friday, 19 June 2015

Why Are Humans Curious?



Our Ancestors

'Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings'
- Salvador Dali

It is an established scientific fact that humans and all living things have evolved, due to natural selection and other selection mechanisms, from organisms which roamed their environments before them. These organisms are their ancestors. The predecessors arise due to a change in the genome of the ancestor over huge periods of time, this change in genome occurs because some genes in the gene pool have done better than others. This change in genome results in a change of phenotype which we can see as a change in appearance or behaviour. 

Humans are by far the most sophisticated produce of evolution, even if that is slightly biased in favour of ourselves. I say this not due to our physical prowess or our ability to live long (a lot of animals do better than us in this department), I say this due to our ability to comprehend the world systematically and use this comprehension to manipulate it for our own desires. 


A lot of modern science, mathematics and even ancient mathematics was developed and explored for its own sake. Humans of the recent past and now express a desire to understand the workings of the universe or multiverses or even completely abstract ones without a direct reward for their selfish genes. This is an oddity, especially when we compare this with every other animal known to man whose every action is, directly or indirectly, to benefit a collection of genes or a single gene.

So how did this come about? How did humans acquire this 'desire' to understand?

One answer is to look at the gradual sophistication and efficiency of the ways our ancestors interacted with the environment and other organisms to enhance their survival. 


Evidence has been put forward that shows capuchin monkeys in Brazil using stones to forage for food, an early sign of tool use by a primate cousin. To use tools requires a complex brain, one that has a sort of software which realizes that the stone is impenetrable (well in the monkey's eyes) and that it can be used to dig out food etc. all this seems very simple to us... because we have that software programmed within out genetic code and it is probably much better than the capuchin monkey's one. This tool use requires a sort of understanding of physics, using objects in a three dimensional space and the concept of a force. However we obviously don't think monkeys study classical mechanics, however evolution has favoured this behaviour and consequently it resembles a sort of intuitive understanding of basic physics. 

Chimpanzees, other primates and some other animals exhibit an ability to recognize patterns. This has obvious benefits to the selfish genes that ride inside them. For example if I am a predator and day after day I see that large numbers of my prey come out at a certain time, it would be most beneficial to me and therefore to my selfish genes that I conserve my energy and only hunt around that time. This seems easy enough. Some organisms can change their behaviour to match this in their own lifetime and this requires a pre-ordained software to allow them to do that. Some organisms cannot and only mutations and tedious genetic selections favouring hunting at this time can move the species to benefit greatly from this prey behaviour. 

So it might be useful to have a pre-ordained ability to spot patterns, find the causes of them and use them to manipulate the environment to benefit the genes. We witness this gradual ability develop over evolutionary time throughout the animal kingdom. It just so happens that the strand on the evolutionary tree which led to human beings favoured extremely sophisticated pattern recognition filters.

So my guess is that the desire to understand is a sort of 'over doing it' by our genetic pattern recognition abilities. In other words evolution has developed this awesome ability to recognise patterns and then we started to use this outside the bounds of our immediate environment. 

It just so happens that a development of language was also important. It enabled us to classify objects and express the useful patterns that our brains saw to other human beings, this was probably because humans lived in close proximity to their family members which share a fraction of our genes so telling them useful things will lead to more of our genes surviving in the future.

These two monumental evolutionary inventions i.e. pattern recognition and language paved the way for the human civilisation that we see today. The ability to record language so as to preserve useful patterns was another huge leap forward for our ancestors.

Do we need to be curious?


'I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men'
― Charles Darwin

This question seems to grate me a bit. If by 'need' you mean do we have to be curious in order to survive I think no. There is plenty of evidence in our modern society of humans not being curious at all but surviving nonetheless albeit barely!  If by 'need' you mean to advance human's ability to comprehend the universe and use it to increase the quality of life, life expectancy and happiness of the human race I think yes, as merely doing things just to survive won't allow us to push beyond that. 

The fact is if we uncover patterns of the universe which help us to live better lives that's great but a lot of the motivations to find these patterns extends beyond helping humans to live better lives. Marie Curie wanted to understand and know about radioactivity and whether or not there was a separate element inside a uranium core, from this yes we can use this in medicine but Marie Curie didn't know that. 

We can be curious and if some humans want to know how the world works just because then go right ahead. It can only enrich us. 

A part of me thinks of the long time future for humans and how our destiny on this planet might not be a nice one either by natural forces creating an inhabitable planet or by our own actions leading to some despicable destruction. Maybe some scientific understanding that came about from scientists trying to know for knowing's sake will grant us the ability to avoid complete extinction and lead to our future survival. 

If this were true then our genes would surely benefit from this. Are our genes great prophets and evolution granted us with curiosity so as to maximise our genes survival far into the great future!? How great then are we? Or shall I say our genes....