Boksops -- Ancient Superintelligence?

post by MBlume · 2009-12-30T11:12:15.041Z · score: -2 (17 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 37 comments

[...] before long the skull came to the attention of S. H. Haughton, one of the country’s few formally trained paleontologists. He reported his findings at a 1915 meeting of the Royal Society of South Africa. “The cranial capacity must have been very large,” he said, and “calculation by the method of Broca gives a minimum figure of 1,832 cc [cubic centimeters].” The Boskop skull, it would seem, housed a brain perhaps 25 percent or more larger than our own.

The idea that giant-brained people were not so long ago walking the dusty plains of South Africa was sufficiently shocking to draw in the luminaries back in England. Two of the most prominent anatomists of the day, both experts in the reconstruction of skulls, weighed in with opinions generally supportive of Haughton’s conclusions.

The Scottish scientist Robert Broom reported that “we get for the corrected cranial capacity of the Boskop skull the very remarkable figure of 1,980 cc.” Remarkable indeed: These measures say that the distance from Boskop to humans is greater than the distance between humans and their Homo erectus predecessors.

What Happened to the Hominids who were Smarter than Us?

I'm strongly inclined to defy the data -- true superintelligence should have just dominated our ancestors -- but given the expense of large skull size (primarily in difficult birthing) it also seems profoundly unlikely that a lineage would see expansion like this that wasn't buying them something mentally.

37 comments

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comment by RobinHanson · 2009-12-31T02:42:49.865Z · score: 19 (19 votes) · LW · GW

Hawks says:

in fact, what happened is that a small set of large crania were taken from a much larger sample of varied crania, and given the name, "Boskopoid." This selection was initially done almost without any regard for archaeological or cultural associations -- any old, large skull was a "Boskop". Later, when a more systematic inventory of archaeological associations was entered into evidence, it became clear that the "Boskop race" was entirely a figment of anthropologists' imaginations.

Pretty damning.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-12-31T06:43:16.372Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for damning this!

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-30T15:12:56.595Z · score: 14 (18 votes) · LW · GW

"Superintelligence"? You are insulting the word!

comment by MrHen · 2009-12-30T16:20:07.877Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I had a lesser form of this reaction. Isn't superintelligence a keyword in AI discussion? I thought it meant more than, "Really, really smart species."

comment by wkvong · 2009-12-30T13:20:08.580Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I can tell, this article is pure journalistic flair. There seems to be little to almost no sufficient data for the authors of the article to make any of the assumptions they claim in the article.

Looking around Google, there seems to be at most a handful of these 'boskop' brains which were discovered at the start of the 20th century. I think the case for the existence of an entirely new 'superintelligent' species that lived tens of thousands of years ago does not seem plausible, given the lack of evidence for the boskops. There seems to be some evidence that larger-than-human brains did exist around that era, but even so, many of the authors claims regarding the properties of having bigger brains simply do not stand up to any scientific rigour. It is an absurd case of generalizing from one example.

For example, how do they determine that a brain which is 30% larger would have an average IQ of 149? IQ measures are only valid between humans, so assuming the boskops are a superintelligent-human-like species, the notion of administering it an IQ test like ours is a ludicrous proposition. Even now, with chimpanzees running around, we don't have a quantitative method of measuring their intelligence, nor can we compare it to our intelligence in a quantitative manner.

Some of the speculations the authors make are downright nonsense. They claim that 'With their perhaps astonishing insights, they may have become a species of dreamers with an internal mental life literally beyond anything we can imagine.' Where is the evidence for their rich mental life? Unfortunately, the discussion of the boskops 'better' cognitive abilities, seem to be pure speculation along the lines of 'like humans, but better'. They even posit that the boskops were able to see their own demise due to their big brains's abilities, which is simply more nonsense.

I would love to hear if anybody knows anymore about these boskop brains...

comment by jimrandomh · 2009-12-30T15:28:53.530Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Brain size sets an upper bound on intelligence, but it doesn't determine it. There are plenty of species with brains much larger than ours that are nevertheless very stupid, and there's little or no correlation between brain size and intelligence among humans. Since the Boskops appear to have not gone anywhere and not left behind any signs of writing or technology, the logical conclusion is that they weren't smart enough to have either.

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-12-31T02:32:22.134Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Come on, this isn't some random other species; these are very near relatives living only 10-30K years ago. Just how much do you think brain architecture changed over that period? Clearly something went wrong with them, but I don't see why we should assume that would be lower intelligence.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2009-12-31T09:51:36.425Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

and there's little or no correlation between brain size and intelligence among humans.

Not exactly true. (Non-paywalled draft paper here). According to that meta-analysis, the correlation between brain volume and intelligence is 0.41 for female adults, 0.37 for female children, 0.38 for male adults and 0.22 for male children.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2009-12-30T17:00:26.984Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This was pretty much my response. I've read a bit about the issue, and my understanding is that the size of the brain compared to the body is somewhat useful as a rough guide to intelligence on a species level, and that the relative sizes of the different specialized regions of the brain are about as important as overall (relative) size. Neither of those factors could be extrapolated from skull fragments, as far as I know.

comment by SilasBarta · 2009-12-30T17:40:55.898Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

We've had this discussion before here: Neanderthals were, in all likelihood, smarter than Homo sapiens, had a higher average brain size, and coexisted with humans, yet still went extinct. I believe the prevailing theory is that humans were more social and reproduced faster, which outweighed the intelligence gap at the time.

For an analogy, think about the Psilons in Master of Orion 2: they're very intelligent, but are weak early in the game. Given enough time, they'll have much better technology than everyone else, but they have to live that long first.

Also, it's generally accepted that it's the brain mass ratio that matters (for some reason), not the absolute brain size. Presumably this has something to do with how a higher body mass means a higher "computational load" on the brain, so to get more intelligence, you need higher brain mass per unit body mass.

comment by timtyler · 2010-01-03T13:05:24.556Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Re: "Also, it's generally accepted that it's the brain mass ratio that matters (for some reason), not the absolute brain size."

Contrary citation:

"Overall Brain Size, and Not Encephalization Quotient, Best Predicts Cognitive Ability across Non-Human Primates"

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-30T23:10:43.452Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The focus on ratio seems to me to transparently be an effort to preserve the status-ordering that humans confidently believe in rather than ceding status to elephants and other large animals. You clearly don't need a huge computer to run a sauropod brain.

I suspect that abnormally costly brain size is a strong indicators of intelligence. If evolution increased brain size at such a large cost in order to increase intelligence it probably ALSO altered or narrowed other parameters in the brain in order to increase intelligence.

Regardless, 25% is twice the male-female brain size difference, hardly indicative of superintelligence. Within a gender, under modern conditions (which increase the heritability of g) such a size difference would predict a bit over a standard deviation increase to IQ (about 3SD above typical human brain size, 40% brain size correlation with IQ).

comment by SilasBarta · 2009-12-30T23:35:04.831Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

The focus on ratio seems to me to transparently be an effort to preserve the status-ordering that humans confidently believe in rather than ceding status to elephants and other large animals.

Yes, a lot can be explained by status-seeking. But here? Um, I think it's more due to the lack of elephant theoretical physicists.

You clearly don't need a huge computer to run a sauropod brain.

And you don't need to obey the constraints of biological natural selection to run a computer.

Protein computers work differently than silicon ones. Just because you can (theoretically) build a more efficient one, doesn't mean that actually-existing biological brains must have mass-independent efficiency.

comment by gwern · 2010-01-03T16:48:02.454Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, a lot can be explained by status-seeking. But here? Um, I think it's more due to the lack of elephant theoretical physicists.

What about the long history of phrenologists and other cranium measurers trying to show whites (and males) have bigger bigger brains than disfavored ethnicities? I hear J. Philippe Rushton is still doing that (with the slight change that East Asians are brainier still).

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-31T16:59:11.614Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sauorpods HAD biological brains. That's the point. Tiny ones in huge bodies.

Also, theoretical physics is clearly not where most of the general demands of human cognition come in. Humans have special strengths in symbolic reasoning. It wouldn't surprise me at all if elephants beat humans in some general measure of brain function, its just that reasoning is a very specialized part of brain function.

comment by SilasBarta · 2009-12-31T17:28:07.531Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sauorpods HAD biological brains. That's the point. Tiny ones in huge bodies.

Right, so under the theory that it's the brain mass/body mass ratio that matters, this makes perfect sense: the brains were able to handle the informational load coming from the nervous system, but not do much beyond that.

Also, theoretical physics is clearly not where most of the general demands of human cognition come in. Humans have special strengths in symbolic reasoning. It wouldn't surprise me at all if elephants beat humans in some general measure of brain function, its just that reasoning is a very specialized part of brain function.

Sure, elephants probably do beat humans by some measures of brain function (at the very least, the metric "absolute number of neuron firings per second"). It's just that those brain functions aren't the things we associate with intelligence, which makes sense if the brain is all tied up sending signals to the nerves throughout the massive tissue.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-31T18:58:30.836Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Huh? My point was that tiny brains are enough to control bodies much larger than those of elephants so large bodies simply can't need large brains in order to walk.

I was thinking more along the lines of some fairly general learning metrics such as number of patterns of sound that can be retained for 10 years.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-01T01:30:40.176Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Huh? My point was that tiny brains are enough to control bodies much larger than those of elephants so large bodies simply can't need large brains in order to walk.

But you do need a bigger brain to handle all your body systems AND do "intelligent" things on top of the walking and mating and ...

I was thinking more along the lines of some fairly general learning metrics such as number of patterns of sound that can be retained for 10 years.

So, because elephants can store more sounds over longer periods, that means they're really more intelligent than humans, and we're just pandering to our own status-hungry egos when we say they're not (because it's the ratio that matters)?

That doesn't work. Raw storage capacity isn't what we think of as intelligence, at least not the interesting kind we're trying to develop. Is my 300 Gig hard drive, which can store a LOT more patterns of sound over 10 years, intelligent? No. So why would this be a relevant metric for gauging animal intelligence?

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-01-03T15:43:13.394Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why would the sizes of the systems to do intelligent things and to control the body not just add up linearly?

Among humans, recognition of lots of words is a predictor of ability to do math well. A very good predictor even controlling for environment.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-30T21:55:51.004Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

We've had this discussion before here: Neanderthals were, in all likelihood, smarter than Homo sapiens

When we had that discussion, I asked for the evidence they were smarter, and you said all you really knew was that they had bigger brains. This is becoming a circular argument here...

Beyond that, even if these boskops did have big brains, that only means that had potential intelligence, not actual intelligence.

Take humans for example: our intelligence crucially depends on language and culture - a child literally raised by wolves won't be intelligent. Our language has a biological basis: chimps can't learn it, and we have genes which if knocked out preclude language skills from developing.

But that doesn't explain how language first evolved in the first human community to evolve all the necessary genes. It's theoretically possible that "boskops", or other completely unremarkable hominid lineages, had had "intelligence potential" that was never actualized because the right culture didn't develop to take advantage of it.

comment by SilasBarta · 2009-12-30T23:31:27.419Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

When we had that discussion, I asked for the evidence they were smarter, and you said all you really knew was that they had bigger brains. This is becoming a circular argument here...

No, I also knew of the predominant theory in the field, that Neanderthals were likely more intelligent, based on brain size plus paleoanthropological evidence found in their remains. However, I am not versed in the intricacies of the case for this position, so I can only defer to experts on this.

I really only posted to make others aware of the non-trivial probability that a species in contact with humans and more intelligent went extinct, and you seem to want me to keep offering more. But I don't have a dog in that race: if you are skeptical, great -- find the holes in the case. Why is this a failing on my part? What does this have to do with me?

But that doesn't explain how language first evolved in the first human community to evolve all the necessary genes. It's theoretically possible that "boskops", or other completely unremarkable hominid lineages, had had "intelligence potential" that was never actualized because the right culture didn't develop to take advantage of it.

Right, basically what I suspect (based on the prevaling theories) happened with the Neanderthals as well.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-31T00:34:55.153Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But I don't have a dog in that race: if you are skeptical, great -- find the holes in the case. Why is this a failing on my part? What does this have to do with me?

I'm not out after holes. I'm interested and I want to learn more about this. But I haven't found anyone arguing for this theory that you say exists. I keep asking for evidence because I haven't seen any. All the paleoanthropological evidence that I've heard of shows that Neanderthals may well have had customs, abilities, or understanding comparable to those of humans, so they weren't any less intelligent. I haven't been able to find any suggestions that they were more intelligent than humans.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-12-30T21:16:00.123Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This (other disadvantages outweighed) would be my guess as well. The facial neoteny makes me suspect some kind of global growth disruption, with harmful effects on the rest of the body.

Also, to the (probably substantial, though I haven't read much about the question) extent that intelligence in the EEA was about within-group competition, Boskop wouldn't have had an advantage over H. sapiens.

comment by whpearson · 2009-12-30T18:46:51.620Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think the reason it keeps coming up is that Eliezer used recent evolutionary history as an example that intelligence is easily improved by evolution.

He makes the assumption that we are more intelligent than our forebears (erectus etc). However I think it is hard to control for culture, which has a big impact on what we can do and was developing from that time.

comment by cabalamat · 2010-01-05T07:39:12.469Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Neanderthals were, in all likelihood, smarter than Homo sapiens

We're here and they're not, which suggests to me they weren't smarter than us.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-05T13:36:08.339Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think it's that simple; we could have out-competed them in a different way - perhaps by maturing faster (highly plausible given the relationship between extended childhoods and intelligence) so that we were better able to 'bounce back' after losing tribe members to conflicts, or by being able to adapt more easily to different types of terrain, allowing us to more easily survive poor weather and climate change. (If humanity were to be wiped out by a plague, would that imply that the relevant virus was smarter than we are?)

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-05T17:05:44.723Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What AdeleneDawner said. Again, Psilon analogy.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-01-01T17:16:36.309Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It may be that Neanderthals were over-engineered, and so needed more food.

comment by timtyler · 2009-12-30T14:58:26.514Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Check the "type J" and "type M" skulls - on:

http://www.ufodisclosure.com/skulls.shtml

"The cranial capacity can be estimated safely above 3000 ccm mark."

As the article notes, very large brains can result in mental problems.

comment by MichaelBishop · 2010-01-03T06:34:11.588Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can you say anything about the credibility of the source?

comment by MatthewB · 2010-01-03T07:03:43.647Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The source is not credible at all. Every one of those skulls is either the result of cranial binding (such as the Huns, but also practiced by most Meso-American and South American natives), or is a product of a hydrocephalic disorder.

If you look at the date of the documented link in question, it comes from a period of time very early in the history of the web (from the link)

The photos first appeared a year ago on CompuServe

Also, the name of the link (ufo-disclosure) should be a dead giveaway.

Have a look at their main page:

http://www.ufodisclosure.com/main.html

comment by timtyler · 2010-01-03T11:07:37.206Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The ufo site is pretty irrelevant - since these photos are on hundreds of sites all over the internet. For more pictures, perhaps see:

http://google.com/images?q=elongated+skulls

comment by MatthewB · 2010-01-03T12:38:09.261Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was referring to the site's explanation for the skulls. So, the site only got right that the skulls are real. Their explanation for them (aliens) was rather far-fetched.

I am well aware of the prolific nature of deformed skulls (cranial deformation) across the world (and on the internet). I've done a bit of body modification myself, although mine is not nearly so apparent.

comment by timtyler · 2010-01-03T11:04:01.762Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The source of the photos is Robert Connolly.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1885582234/worldmyster07-20/

Most of the skulls are generally thought to be genuine. Here's a video about the phenomenon:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oo71OarSgyQ

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-12-31T02:28:45.145Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Wow.

comment by tut · 2009-12-30T12:43:49.468Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

They never were anything but us. And the original spelling is Boskop man

TL;DR: 80 years ago there was a hypothesis similar to what MBlume writes above. It was based on some skull fragments. The generally accepted theory now (and the latest 60 years at least) is that those skulls just were unusually large skulls from ordinary humans (Homo sapience sapience).

comment by whpearson · 2009-12-30T13:00:53.130Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting quote from that link

To be sure, there has been a reduction in the average brain size in South Africa during the last 10,000 years, and there have been parallel reductions in Europe and China -- pretty much everywhere we have decent samples of skeletons, it looks like brains have been shrinking. This is something I've done quite a bit of research on, and will continue to do so, because it's interesting. But it is hardly a sign that ancient humans had mysterious mental powers -- it is probably a matter of energetic efficiency (brains are expensive), developmental time (brains take a long time to mature) and diet (brains require high protein and fat consumption, less and less available to Holocene populations).

This still requires some explanation although not to the level of the 150 IQ lineage.