Like many people, I have a weak grasp on long times. My family often visits a nearby pioneer reenactment village where the buildings and wooden gearworks of its water-powered corn mill are about two hundred years old; I feel awed. In Europe, some buildings are a thousand years old, which sounds incredible to me.
These are such small sips of evolutionary time.
Humans have roamed our world for hundreds of thousands of years. Large dinosaurs ruled our planet for hundreds of millions of years. Animals whom we’d recognize as Tyrannosaurus rex prowled for the final 2.5 million years of that, with their last descendants dying about 66 million years ago.
My mind struggles to comprehend these numbers.
I found myself reflecting on this after a stray remark in Oded Galor’s The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality: “Why is such a powerful brain so rare in nature, despite its apparent advantages?”
Galor’s question seems reasonable from the vantage of the present. We live on a planet where 96% of the mammalian biomass is either our own species or prey animals we’ve raised to eat. The total mass of all surviving wild dinosaurs – otherwise known as “birds” – is less than a thirtieth the mass of humans. We’ve clearly conquered this world. Our dominance is due to our brains.
And this moment – right now! – feels special because we’re living through it. From a geological or evolutionary perspective, though, the present is a time much like any other. If we represent the total lifespan of our sun as a 24-hour day (which is much more sensible than representations with the present moment at the end of the day), the current time would be 10:58 a.m., and our sun will become so hot that it boils away all our planet’s liquid water at 7:26 p.m. Between now and then, though, we have a whole workday’s time for life to continue its beautiful, chaotic evolutionary dance. Perhaps quite soon – maybe just a million years from now, or 10 million, which is less than two minutes of our total day – the descendants of contemporary parrots, crows, or octopuses could become as intelligent as contemporary Homo sapiens.
As a human, I’m biased toward thinking that parrots and crows would have a better chance than octopuses – after all, these birds face a similar evolutionary landscape to my own ancestors. They’re long-lived, social species that invest heavily in childcare, are anatomically well-suited for tool use, and face few risks from predators.
Or rather, parrots would face few risks if humans weren’t around. Unfortunately them, a voracious species of terrestrial ape is commandeering their homeland and kidnaps their young to raise as pets. But crows can thrive in a human-dominated landscape – some crows even use our cars as tools, cracking nuts by placing them in urban crosswalks then retrieving their snack after the light turns red.
Octopuses, however, are short-lived and antisocial. They’re negligent parents. Their brief lives are haunted by nightmarish predators. And yet. Some octopuses are already quite intelligent; their intelligence appears to confer a reproductive advantage (if only by virtue of survival); their bodies are well-suited for tool use. Certain types of tools, like flaked stone, would be more difficult to create underwater, but many octopuses are capable of brief sojourns into open air. So I wouldn’t rule them out. Sometimes evolution surprises us – after all, the world has a lot of time to wait.
Which means that powerful brains like ours might not be rare in the future. Especially if our species does something stupid – like engaging in nuclear war, succumbing to global pandemic, or ruining crop yields with climate change – and the animal kingdom’s future intelligentsia don’t have to compete with 8 billion Homo sapiens for space and resources.
Also, it’s surprisingly difficult to assess whether powerful brains like ours were rare in the past. Intelligent, tool-crafting, fire-wielding, language-using species have gone extinct before – consider the Neanderthal. Our own ancestors nearly went extinct during past episodes of climate change, like after a volcanic eruption 70,000 years ago. And even if some species during the age of dinosaurs had been as intelligent as modern humans, we might not recover much evidence of their brilliance.
Please note that I’m not arguing that Tyrannosaurus rex wove baskets, wielded fire, or built the Egyptian pyramids. For starters, the body morph of T-Rex is ill-suited for tool use (as depicted in Hugh Murphy’s T-Rex Trying comics). But simply as a thought experiment, I find it interesting to imagine what we’d see today if T-Rex had reached the same level of technological and cultural sophistication as humans had from 100,000 to 10,000 years ago.
If T-Rex made art, we wouldn’t find it. The Lascaux paintings persisted for about 20,000 years because they were in a protected cave, but as soon as we found them, our humid exhalations began to destroy them. Millions of years would crush clay figurines, would cause engraved bone to decompose.
If T-Rex crafted tools from wood or plant fibers, we wouldn’t find them. We can tell that ancient humans in the Pacific Northwest of North America caught an annual salmon harvest by analyzing radioactive isotopes, but we’ve never found evidence of the boats or nets these ancient people used. After a few more radioactive half-lives passed – much sooner than a million years – this would have become invisible to us.
If T-Rex crafted tools from stone, we’d find remnants, but they’d be difficult to recognize. Evidence for human tool use often comes in three types – sharp flakes (usually 1-3 inch blades used as knives or spear tips), a hammer (often just a big round stone), and a core (a hunk of good rock that will be hit with the hammer to knock knife-like flakes off its surface). We’re most likely to realize that a particular rock was a human tool if it’s near a human settlement or if it’s made from a type of sediment rare in the location where contemporary archaeologists found it (which is why we think that an ancient primate took particular interest in the Makapansgat pebble).
Still, time is a powerful force. 66,000,000 years can dull the edges of a flake, or produce sharp rocks through mindless geological processes. It’s been difficult for archaeologists studying submerged sites in ancient Beringia – a mere 30,000 years old! – to know for certain whether any particular rock was shaped by human hands or natural forces. Other stone tools used by ancient humans look a lot like regular rocks to me, for example this 7,000-year-old mortar from Australia or these 9,000-year-old obsidian knives from North America. Ten million more years of twisting, compressing, and chipping might deceive even a professional.
And then there’s the rarity of finding anything from that long ago. Several billion T-Rex have tromped across the land, but we’ve only found as much as a single bone from a hundred of them. 99.999996% of all T-Rex vanished without a trace.
From those rare fossils, we do know that T-Rex brains were rather small. But not all neurons are the same. Work from Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s research group has shown that the number of neurons in a brain is a much better proxy for intelligence than the brain’s total size – sometimes a bigger brain is just made from bigger neurons, with no additional processing power. And the brains of our world’s surviving dinosaurs are made quite efficiently – “Birds have primate-like numbers of neurons in the forebrain.” **
We humans are certainly intelligent. And with all the technologies we’ve made in the past 200 years – a mere millisecond of our sun’s twenty-four hour day – our presence will be quite visible to any future archaeologists, even if we were to vanish tomorrow. But we do ourselves no favors by posturing as more exceptional than we are.
Animals much like us could have come and gone; animals much like us could certainly evolve again. Our continued presence here has never been guaranteed.
** A NOTE ON NEURON COUNTS: many contemporary dinosaurs have brains with approximately 200 million neurons per gram of brain mass, compared to human brains with approximately 50 million neurons per gram of brain mass. A human brain has a much higher total neuron count, at about 80 billion neurons, than dinosaurs like African Gray Parrots or Ravens, which have about 2 billion neurons, but only because our brains are so much more massive. If the brain of a T-Rex had a similar composition to contemporary dinosaurs, it might have twice as many neurons as our own.
Of course, elephant brains also have three times as many neurons as our own — in this case, researchers then compare neuron counts in particular brain regions, finding that elephant brains have about a third as many neurons specifically in the cerebral cortex compared to human brains. For extinct species of dinosaurs, though, we can only measure the total size of the cranial cavity and guess how massive their brains would have been, with no indication of how these brains may have been partitioned into cerebellum, cerebral cortex, etc.
Header image: a photograph of Sue at Chicago’s Natural History Museum by Evolutionnumber9 on Wikipedia.