Recently, geologist Casey Luskin interviewed Eric Cassell, author of Animal Algorithms: Evolution and the Mysterious Origin of Ingenious Instincts (2021) on one of the central mysteries of biology: How do animals “know” things that they can’t have figured out on their own? This is the third and final part. Here’s the first part, with transcript and notes and here’s the second. Below is the third part, the audience questions, with notes and partial transcript:
Eric Cassell is an expert in navigation systems, including GPS whose experience includes more than four decades of experience in systems engineering related to aircraft, navigation and safety. He has long had an interest in animal navigation. His model for animal navigation is the natural algorithm: The animal’s brain is “programmed” to enable navigation.
“Animal Algorithms Webinar: One of Nature’s Biggest Mysteries,” Part III (January 20, 2022). A partial transcript and notes follow:
Casey Luskin: We have a first question from Jim who has asked, “Have there been any attempts to find the location of behavior algorithm in the DNA of a creature?” So can they actually pinpoint, you know, the gene or the place in the genome where these algorithms are encoded in your, in your knowledge? (37:57)
Eric Cassell: Not that I’m aware of. The only thing I will say is that there has been some research in the, some fairly simple behaviors where they can explain that there’s, for example, a genetic switch. So there’s a gene, or maybe a couple of genes that control a switch that in turn controls a behavior. But that’s a very simple instantiation, and I wouldn’t even call it an algorithm, it’s just basically an on-or-off kind of change. (38:21)
Note: Experimental physicist Rob Sheldon wrote to remind us that “On a side note, we are thinking of neurons as a transistor or a relay, when in actuality each neuron has ~10,000 synapses and each synapse has its own local memory. So a “`neuron” is really equivalent to an embedded controller, a big embedded controller, and one should not say “only 1000 neurons” but “only 1000 embedded controllers.” This makes it more obvious what sort of algorithms are being discussed.
So the animal behavior that Eric Cassell is discussing is usually well beyond the capacities of an on-off switch.
Casey Luskin: We have a question from Robert, “Do animals use pheromones [chemicals whose scent influences the social behavior of other members of the group] as a component of their navigation?” (39:21)
Eric Cassell: Yes. There’s a couple of different ways that chemicals are used. One is for chemotaxis: For example, ants can lay down a trail with chemicals to follow. But pheromones are also very important in the social insects because they can sense the condition of the colony, various aspects of it. Based on the pheromones that are being output from other insects in the colony, they change their own behavior. So pheromones are very important. (39:30)
Casey Luskin: Here’s an interesting question from James. He asks, “Are such things as goals, intentions, or complimentary intuitions, really accountable through genetic algorithms?” I think you talked about this a little bit in your book, Eric: Biologists talking about whether purpose is real or teleology is real in biology and them not wanting to see teleology. And yet they’re confronted with these behaviors that seem to be very, very goal directed.
I mean, even if they evolved, it’s very goal directed where you have an Arctic tern that’s flying from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year. Are these goals real, or are we just imagining that there are goals there? (40:55)
Eric Cassell: Well, I think from a common sense point of view, they’re real. For example, the goal in migration is fairly obvious. And then another example is the social, behavior of insects. There’s a higher level goal, right? I think of it as different levels. (41:46)
The higher level goal for a social colony is just for the colony to continue to exist. In order to do that, a number of tasks have to be performed by the insects in that colony. Those are all very purposeful and goal-oriented. But like you said, a lot of scientists for a long time now have tried to avoid even talking about goals and teleology. I used a phrase “teleophobia.” I think a lot of these scientists are teleophobic about even talking about it. (42:12)
Casey Luskin: That’s a great word. I’m going to borrow that word. I’ll try to remember to give you credit for that, Eric.
I see papers are actually written, saying, “We cannot talk in biology about systems having goals. The goal of a bacterial flagellum is not to help a bacteria swim to find food.” Okay. There are no goals, it’s all unguided. And it really kind of gives them cognitive dissonance, trying to understand how these highly goal-directed behaviors and systems, don’t actually have any purpose. (42:46)
And I just thought, you know, wow. I mean, it’s just, it’s just absurd when you, when you refuse to believe that there’s any goal or purpose or design in biology, you really struggle to understand what’s going on. (43:15)
Eric Cassell: Whether they can isolate a particular gene to a particular behavior… there are some cases where they’ve been able to do that, but in general, what they have found is that new genes that appear in the genome of a social insect and are involved in the different kinds of behaviors. (00:33):
Casey Luskin: We have a question from John, talking about the bar-tailed godwit. It was found to make a world record of flying 7,500 miles nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand, out of sight of land, flying day and night for about eight days. Wow. Any comments? Are you familiar with this example or, anything you can share about this?
Eric Cassell: It’s just an amazing feat of navigation that these birds are able to do this. I’ll comment on two aspects of this. One is the fact that they can even sustain themselves for such a period of time, outputting so many calories as it takes to fly. These long-distance migrants build up their fat reserves for weeks prior to, leaving on migration. So they havethe energy reserves. (00:58)
The other things, and you touched on this earlier, about navigation, birds that do these long distance migrations are actually flying what we call great circle routes. A simple example is, if you’re going to fly from New York to Tokyo, they’re roughly on the same latitude. So if you just looked at a flat map, you would say, just fly due west.
Well, that’s not the shortest route. When you look at it on a globe, you want to fly basically near or over the North Pole. That’s the shortest route from New York to Tokyo. Well, many of these long distance migrant birds are able to do the same thing. So they they’re actually able to compute these great circle routes. And when we do it, we have to use spherical geometry. How they do it, we have no idea. (02:33)
Casey Luskin: I want to get back to something you mentioned earlier, Eric, about insects that have complex behaviors that seemed designed to benefit the whole hive or population or group [eusociality]. And you also mentioned convergent evolution.
You talk about how eusociality is found in a number of different insect groups but they’re not necessarily closely related to each other. They’re not nested in sort of a nice, neat monophyletic group, these eusocial insects. And in Chapter 6 you talk a lot about how animal traits show convergence. So I’m wondering, what, in your mind, is one of the most striking examples of convergence in animal behaviors that you have encountered in your studies? And do you see this sort of non-monophyletic distribution of eusociality and other complex behaviors as posing a challenge, not just to Darwin evolution, but also to common ancestry?
Note: How exactly the algorithms for navigation evolved is unclear:
Animals — from mammals to sea turtles to ants with pinhead sized brains — possess the minimal requirements for the algorithm to work. If the trail has olfactory cues, follow it. If olfactory cues are lost, refer to a memory map of the trail. If there is no memory, slow down and start casting. If all else fails, go back to the last known point and start a new search. This shows that navigation requires more than just sensors and strategies, but the ability to prioritize and optimize them with calculations.Evolution News, “Navigation Ability Crosses Phylum Lines — And That’s a Problem for Evolution” at Evolution News and Science Today (January 27, 2022)
Eric Cassell: These eusocial insects that exhibit these behaviors in very large social colonies — most of them are completely unrelated biogenetically. So that means that this behavior developed somehow completely independently in several different animal groups. They have the same kinds of social behaviors and the way that the colonies function. (03:41)
And then the other one I would cite is navigation, where a lot of animals that are completely unrelated, use similar kinds of navigation methods. And so there’s a question there about how could that have happened a number of times completely independently.
Casey Luskin: Here’s sort of a philosophical question for you, Eric. Tom is asking, “I wonder whether our thinking of animals as algorithmic is a way of thinking that Descartes spoke of long ago. Does this thought process get rid of the possibility that animals have free will? What about human beings? Any thoughts on these big picture questions? If animals are just programmed, is there such a thing as free will in these animals?” (04:46)
Eric Cassell: The types of animals that are discussed in the book are not really that intelligent. Not intelligent in the sense that we think of humans… These animals, basically all of their behaviors are programmed in, in one way or another. Whenever they are faced with a certain circumstance, they’re going to behave in a pre-programmed type of way. Now, they do learn. Some of them… many of them do learn, to some extent. But, but the basic behaviors are really pre-programmed. (05:38)
Casey Luskin: I don’t think anybody’s going to get too worked up if it turns out that ants don’t have free will. Or if it turns out that a spider is just acting on instinct when it spins a web. On the other hand, those of us who have had pet birds… I had a pet bird growing up. That bird, it was very interactive. I had a friendship with this little pet parakeet when I was eight years old. And so we’d like to think that some of these animals maybe so have some human-like ability to relate, free will, whatever you want to call it. I don’t know. I mean, these are very complicated questions. (06:36)
Casey Luskin: We have a question from Geoff Simmons, who is a Discovery Institute, fellow. And this is a question that… I’ve wondered about for many years, Eric, because of my interest in paleomagnetism, and the earth’s magnetic field, and also plate tectonics.
And the question is: Magnetic poles can shift. We can suddenly have north become south and south become north. The continents can drift. So can these animal behaviors accommodate changes in earth’s magnetic field or its geography in order to allow animals to continue to migrate?
A geomagnetic reversal, when the earth’s magnetic field flips, is thought to occur potentially in less than 1,000 years. It might even be 500 year or less. We don’t know for sure. But it could be a very short period of time. So can Darwinian evolution keep up with those kinds of shifts, so that you don’t have geese migrating north for the winter instead of south and then freezing to death? Or is it possible that animals are actually pre-programmed to be able to adapt quickly to these magnetic reversals, which have happened many times throughout earth’s history? (07:09)
Eric Cassell: Yeah, that’s one of the things that I’ve thought about a lot, trying to figure out how animals adapt to that. Like you say, these pole reversals happen in a relatively short period of time. Typical Darwinian evolution is too slow to adapt that quickly to something like that, you would think. So maybe there’s some other mechanism that allows an adaption. We really don’t know, but it’s a great question. (08:36)
Note: From a report on a recent study: The team analyzed data from nearly 18,000 reed warblers to investigate whether the birds used the Earth’s magnetic field when finding their breeding site. Reed warblers are tiny songbirds that fly across the Sahara Desert each year to spend the summer in Europe.
They found that, as the magnetic field of Earth moved slightly, the sites to which birds returned moved with it, suggesting that birds homed to a moving magnetic target. Birds appeared to use magnetic information as a ‘stop sign’, with magnetic inclination in particular telling birds that they had arrived at their breeding location University of Oldenburg,“Magnetic navigation: Songbirds use the Earth’s magnetic field as a stop sign during migration” at Phys.org (January 28, 2022) The paper requires a subscription.
Casey Luskin: It is a really great question. I think that Darwinian evolution moves very slowly. And it’s difficult to imagine it being able to keep up because, obviously, if you get the migration wrong, you might not be able to survive. If you’re migrating north for the winter, you’re going to freeze to death. Or if you can’t find that island out in the ocean where you want to go back and, and spawn, and reproduce, you’re not going to be able to leave offspring. So these are, these are pretty important things. (09:27)
Robert asked the question, “Do you use the term instinct?” He says, “I never liked that term because it seemed like a placeholder for ignorance. So is instinct a real thing or is an instinct just a programmed behavior? Can you maybe give us a new paradigm for understanding what an instinct is as an algorithmic programmed behavior?” (10:23)
Eric Cassell: Well, that’s an interesting question because, in researching the book, I realized that within the scientific community, particularly the animal behaviorists, they had kind of moved away from the word “instinct” to describe behaviors such as this. They really don’t like that, that term. But basically they’ve used other terms that are functionally equivalent, such as “innate” or “pre-programmed.” (10:47)
You could use several different terms which really mean the same thing: That it’s a behavior that does not require any learning. The animal exhibits the behavior almost from the moment it’s born. And you can use whatever term you want to describe that but previously, people would have called it “instinct.”
Casey Luskin: We have a question from Michaela who says, “Do you see this becoming a growing field of research in the future?”
And I want to add to this a little bit. I help to direct the ID 3.0 Research Program here at Discovery Institute and one of the exciting things is to see ID research breaking into new fields that it’s never gone into before. Population genetics, biomedicine, therapies, all kinds of different new fields. So I think animal behavior would be a wonderful field for ID to be able to break into. So do you see this becoming a field of ID research in the future? And if so, do you have any words of wisdom you could give people who who are interested in animal behavior and want to try to apply ID to understanding animal behavior? (11:42)
Eric Cassell: I’ve really just kind of scratched the surface, basically just by reviewing the literature that’s out there. There is a lot of research that has been done on a number of these types of behaviors but obviously not from an ID perspective. And there’s a lot more research that could be done to determine where these behaviors come from, how they develop, what controls them, and in particular… how do these behaviors actually get programmed into the brain in some way? There’s an area of neuroscience here that is, ripe for a lot of research. (12:34)
Here are the earlier portions of the episode, with transcript and notes.
Part I: Neuroscience mystery: How do tiny brains enable complex behavior? Eric Cassell notes that insects with brains of only a million neurons exhibit principles found only in the most advanced manmade navigation systems. How? Cassell argues in his recent book that an algorithm model is best suited to understanding the insect mind — and that of many animals.
Part II: Can animal behavior simply be transferred into the genome? For example, how do Monarch butterflies from Canada get to the same trees in Mexico as their great-grandparents landed in?
Navigator Eric Cassell thinks that the hundreds of thousands of genetic changes that turn solitary insects into social ones cannot be random mutations.
You may also wish to read: A navigator asks animals: How do you find your way? The results are amazing. Many life forms do math they know nothing about. The question Eric Cassell: asks is, how, exactly, is so much information packed into simple brain with so few neurons?