Would dinosaurs have reached human-like intellect had the K-T extinction (an asteroid impact near the Yucatan peninsula) not occurred? One researcher believes so, and he believes that a dinosaur called the troodon would have evolved into a bipedal, human-like being. This is, of course, the old progressive evolution shtick. This assumes that a man-like being is an inevitability, and that sentience is a forgone conclusion.
This belief largely comes from Rushton’s citation of one Dale Russel, the discoverer of the dinosaur the troodon:
Paleontologist Dale Russell (1983,1989) quantified increasing neurological complexity through 700 million years of Earth history in invertebrates and vertebrates alike. The trend was increasing encephalization among the dinosaurs that existed for 140 million years and vanished 65 million years ago. Russell (1989) proposed that if they had not gone extinct, dinosaurs would have progressed to a large-brained, bipedal descendent. For living mammals he set the mean encephalization, the ratio of brain size to body size, at 1.00, and calculated that 65 million years ago it was only about 0.30. Encephalization quotients for living molluscs vary between 0.043 and 0.31, and for living insects between 0.008 and 0.045 but in these groups the less encephalized living species resemble forms that appeared relatively early in the geologic record, and the more encephalized species resemble those that appeared later. (Rushton, 1997: 294)
This argument is simple to rebut. What is being described is complexity. The simplest possible organism are bacteria, which reside at the left wall of complexity. The left wall “induces right-skewed distributions”, whereas the right wall induces “left-skewed distributions” (Gould, 1996: 55). Knowing this, biological complexity is a forgone conclusion, which exists at the extreme end of the right tail curve. I’ve covered this in my article Complexity, Walls, 0.400 Hitting and Evolutionary “Progress”
Talking about what Troodons may have looked like (highly, highly, doubtful. The anthropometric bias was pretty strong) is a waste of time. I’ve stated this a few times and I’ll state it yet again: without our primate body plan, our brains are pretty much useless. Our body needs our brain; our brain needs our body. Troodons would have stayed quadrupedal; they wouldn’t have gone bipedal.
He claims that some dinosaurs would have eventually reached an EQ of humans—specifically the troodon. They had EQs about 6 times higher than the average dinosaur, had fingers to grasp, had small teeth, ate meat, and appeared to be social. Dale Russel claims that had the K-T extinction not occurred, the troodon would look similar to us with a brain size around 1100 cc (the size of erectus before he went extinct). This is what he believes the dinosauroid troodon would look like had they not died out 65 mya:
When interviewed about the dinosauroid he imagined, he stated:
The “dinosauroid” was a thought experiment, based on an observable, general trend toward larger relative brain size in terrestrial vertebrates through geologic time, and the energetic efficiency of an upright posture in slow-moving, bipedal animals. It seems to me that such speculation remains acceptable, particularly if directed toward non-anthropoid anatomical configurations. However, I very nearly decided not to publish the exercise because of the damaging effects it might have had on the credibility of my work in general. Most people remained polite, although there were hostile reactions from those with “ultra-quantitative” and “ultra-intuitive” world views.
Why does it look so human? Why does he assume that the ‘ideal body plan’ is what we have? It seems to be extremely biased towards a humanoid morphology, just as other reconstructions are biased towards what we think about certain areas today and how the people may have looked in our evolutionary past. Anthropocentric bias permeates deep in evolutionary thinking, this is one such example.
Thinking of this thought experiment of a possible ‘bipedal dinosauroid’ we need to be realistic in terms of thinking of its anatomy and morphology.
Let’s accept Russel’s contention as true; that troodontids or other ‘highly encephalized species’ reached a human EQ, as he notes, of 9.4, with troodontids at .34 (the highest), archaeopteryx at .32, triconodonts (early extinct mammal of the cretaceous) with a .29 EQ, and the diademodon with an EQ of .20 (Russel, 1983). Russel found that the troodontids had EQs 6 times higher than the average dinosaur, so from here, he extrapolated that the troodon would have had a brain our size. However, Stephen Jay Gould argued the opposite in Wonderful Life writing:
If mammals had arisen late and helped to drive dinosaurs to their doom, then we could legitimately propose a scenario of expected progress. But dinosaurs remained dominant and probably became extinct only as a quirky result of the most unpredictable of all events—a mass dying triggered by extraterrestrial impact. If dinosaurs had not died in this event, they would probably still dominate the large-bodied vertebrates, as they had for so long with such conspicuous success, and mammals would still be small creatures in the interstices of their world. This situation prevailed for one hundred million years, why not sixty million more? Since dinosaurs were not moving towards markedly larger brains, and since such a prospect may lay outside the capability of reptilian design (Jerison, 1973; Hopson, 1977), we must assume that consciousness would not have evolved on our planet if a cosmic catastrophe had not claimed the dinosaurs as victims. In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars. (Gould, 1989: 318)
If a large brain was probably outside of reptilian design, then a dinosaur—or a descendant (troodon included)—would have never reached human-like intelligence. However, some people may say that dinosaur descendants may have evolved brains our size since birds have brains that lie outside of reptilian design (supposedly).
However, one of the most famous fossils ever found, archaeopteryx, was within reptilian design, having feathers and along with wings which would have been used for gliding (whether or not they flew is debated). Birds descend from therapods. Anchiornis, and other older species are thought to be the first birds. Most of birds’ traits, such as bipedal posture, hinged ankles, hollow bones and S-shaped neck in birds are derived features from their ancestors.
If we didn’t exist, then if any organism were to come close to our intelligence, I would bet that some corvids would, seeing as they have a higher packing density and interconnections compared to the “layered mammalian brain” (Olkowicz et al, 2016). Nick Lane, biochemist and author of the book The Vital Question: Evolution and the Origins of Complex Life believes a type of intelligent ocotopi may have evolved, writing:
Wind back the clock to Cambrian times, half a billion years ago, when mammals first exploded into the fossil record, and let it play forwards again. Would that parallel be similar to our own? Perhaps the hills would be crawling with giant terrestrial octopuses. (Lane, 2015: 21)
We exist because we are primates. Our brains are scaled-up primate brains (Herculano-Houzel, 2009). Our primate morphology—along with our diet, sociality, and culture—is also why we came to take over the world. Our body plan—which, as far as we know, only evolved once—is why we have the ability to manipulate our environment and use our superior intelligence—which is due to the number of neurons in our cerebral cortex, the highest in the animal kingdom, 16 billion in all (Herculano-Houzel, 2009). Why postulate that a dinosaur could have looked even anywhere close to us?
This is also ignoring the fact that decimation and diversification also ‘decide the fates’ so to speak, of the species on earth. Survival during an extinction event is strongly predicated by chance (and size). The smaller an organism is, the more likely it will survive an extinction event. Who’s to say that the troodon doesn’t go extinct due to an act of contingency, say, 50 mya if the K-T extinction never occurred?
In conclusion, the supposed ‘trend’ in brain size evolution is just random fluctuations—inevitabilities since life began at the left wall of complexity. Gould wrote about a drunkard’s walk in his book Full House (Gould, 1996) in which he illustrates an example of a drunkard walking away from a bar with the bar wall being the left wall of complexity and the gutter being the right wall. The gutter will always be reached; and if he hits the wall, he will lean against the wall “until a subsequent stagger propels him in the other direction. In other words, only one direction of movement remains open for continuous advance—toward the gutter” (Gould, 1996: 150).
I bring up this old example to illustrate but one salient point: In a system of linear motion structurally constrained by a wall at one end, random movement, with no preferred directionality whatever, will inevitably propel the average position away from a starting point at the wall. The drunkard falls into the gutter every time, but his motion includes no trend whatever toward this form of perdition. Similarly, some average or extreme measure of life might move in a particular direction even if no evolutionary advantage, and no inherent trend, favor that pathway (Gould, 1996: 151).
We humans are lucky we are here. Contingencies of ‘just history’ are why we are here, and if we were not here—if the K-T extinction never occurred—and the troodon or another dinosaur species survived to the present day, they would not have reached our ‘level’ of intelligence. To believe so is to believe in teleological evolution—which certainly is not true. Anthropometric bias runs deep in evolutionary biology and paleontology. People assume that since we are—according to some—the ‘pinnacle’ of evolution, that us, or something like us, would eventually have evolved.
Any ‘trends’ can be explained as life moving away from the left wall of complexity, with the left wall—the mode of life, the modal bacter-–being unchanged. We are at the extreme tail of the distribution of complexity while bacteria are at the left wall. Complex life was inevitable since bacteria, the most simple life, began at the left wall. And so, these ‘trends’ in brain size are just that, increasing complexity, not any type of ‘progressive evolution’. Evolution just happens, natural selection occurs based on the local environment, not any inherent or intrinsic ‘progress’.
Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful life: the burgess Shale and the nature of history. New York: Norton.
Gould, S. J. (1996). Full house: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York: Harmony Books.
Herculano-Houzel, S. (2009). The human brain in numbers: a linearly scaled-up primate brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,3. doi:10.3389/neuro.09.031.2009
Lane, N. (2015). The vital question: energy, evolution, and the origins of complex life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Olkowicz, S., Kocourek, M., Lučan, R. K., Porteš, M., Fitch, W. T., Herculano-Houzel, S., & Němec, P. (2016). Birds have primate-like numbers of neurons in the forebrain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,113(26), 7255-7260. doi:10.1073/pnas.1517131113
Rushton J P (1997). Race, Evolution, and Behavior. A Life History Perspective (Transaction, New Brunswick, London).
Russell, D. A. (1983). Exponential evolution: Implications for intelligent extraterrestrial life. Advances in Space Research,3(9), 95-103. doi:10.1016/0273-1177(83)90045-5