People talk a lot about intelligence and brain size. Something that’s most always brought up is how the human brain increased in size the past 4 million years. According to PP, the trend for bigger brains in hominins is proof that evolution is “progressive”. However, people never talk about a major event in human history that caused our brains to suddenly increase: the advent of fire. When our ancestors mastered fire, it was then possible for the brain to get important nutrients that influenced growth. People say that “Intelligence is the precursor to tools”, but what if fire itself is the main cause for the increase in brain size in hominins the past 4 million or so years? If this is the case, then fire is, in effect, the ultimate cause of everything that occurred after its use.
The human brain consumes 20-25 percent of our daily caloric intake. How could such a metabolically expensive organ have evolved? The first hominin to master fire was H. erectus. There is evidence of this occurring 1-1.5 mya. Not coincidentally, brain size began to tick upward after the advent of fire by H. erectus. Erectus was now able to consume more kcal, which in turn led to a bigger brain and the beginnings of a decrease in body size. The mastery and use of fire drove our evolution as a species, keeping us warm and allowing us to cook our food, which made eating and digestion easier. Erectus’s ability to use fire allowed for the biggest, in my opinion, most important event in human history: cooking.
With control of fire, Erectus could now cook its foods. Along with pulverizing plants, it was possible for erectus to get better nutrition by ‘pre-digesting’ the food outside of the body so it’s easier to digest. The advent of cooking allowed for a bigger brain and with it, more neurons to power the brain and the body. However, looking at other primates you see that they either have brains that are bigger than their bodies, or bodies that are bigger than their brains, why is this? One reason: there is a trade-off between brain size and body size and the type of diet the primate consumes. Thinking about this from an evolutionary perspective along with what differing primates eat and how they prepare (if they do) their food will show whether or not they have big brains or big bodies. How big an organism’s brain gets is directly correlated with the amount and quality of the energy consumed.
There is a metabolic limitation that results from the number of hours available to feed and the low caloric yield of raw foods which then impose a trade-off between the body size and number of neurons which explains why great apes have small brains in comparison to their bodies. Metabolically speaking, a body can only handle one or the other: a big brain or a big body. This metabolic disadvantage is why great apes did increase their brain size, because their raw-food diet is not enough, nutritionally speaking, to cause an increase in brain size (Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel, 2016). Can you imagine spending what amounts to one work day eating just to power the brain you currently have? I can’t.
Energy availability and quality dictates brain size. A brain can only reach maximum size if adequate kcal and nutrients are available for it.
Total brain metabolism scales linearly with the number of neurons (Herculano-Houzel, 2011). The absolute number of neurons, not brain size, dictates a “metabolic constraint on human evolution”, since people with more neurons need to sustain them, which calls for eating more kcal. Mammals with more neurons need to eat more kcal per day just to power those brains. For instance, the human brain needs 519 kcal to run, which comes out to 6 kcal per neuron. The brain is hugely metabolically expensive, and only the highest quality nutrients can sustain such an organ. The advent of fire and along with it cooking is one of, if not the most important reason why our brains are large (compared to our bodies) and why we have so many neurons compared to other species. It allowed us to power the neurons we have, 86 billion in all (with 16 billion in the cerebral cortex which is why we are more intelligent than other animals, number of neurons, of course being lower for our ancestors) which power human thought.
The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis (ETA) explains the metabolic trade-off between brain and gut, showing that the stomach is dependent on body size as well as the quality of the diet (Aiello, 1996). As noted above, there is good evidence that erectus began cooking, which coincides with the increase in brain size. As Man began to consume meat around 1.5 million years ago, this allowed for the gut to get smaller in response. If you think about it, it makes sense. A large stomach would be needed if you’re eating a plant-based diet, but as a species begins to eat meat, they don’t need to eat as much to get the adequate amount of kcal to fuel bodily functions. This lead to the stomach getting smaller, and along with it so did our jaws.
So brain tissue is metabolically expensive but there is no significant correlation between brain size and BMR in humans or any other encephalized mammal, the metabolic requirements of relatively large brains are offset by a corresponding gut reduction (Aiello and Wheeler, 1995). This is the cause for the low, insignificant correlation between BMR and our (relatively large brains, which correlates to the amount of neurons we have since our brains are just linearly scaled-up primate brains).
Evidence for the ETA can be seen in nature as well. Tsuboi et al (2015) tested the hypothesis in the cichlid fished of Lake Victoria. After they controlled for the effect of shared ancestry and other ecological variables, they noted that brain size was inversely correlated with gut size. Perhaps more interestingly, they also noticed that when the fish’s’ brain size increased, increased investment and paternal care occurred. Moreover, more evidence for the ETA was found by Liao et al (2015) who found a negative correlation between brain mass and the length of the digestive tract within 30 species of Anurans. They also found, just like Tsuboi et al (2015), that brain size increase accompanied an increase in female reproductive investment into egg size.
Moreover, another cause for the increase in brain size is our jaw size decreasing. This mutation occurred around 2.4 million years ago, right around the time frame that erectus discovered fire and began cooking. This is also consistent with, of course, the rapid increase in brain size which was occurring around that time. The room has to come from somewhere, and with the advent of cooking and meat eating, the jaw was, therefore, able to get smaller along with the stomach which increased brain size due to the trade-off between gut size and brain size. Morphological changes occurred exactly at the same time changes in brain size occurred which coincides with the advent of fire, cooking, and meat eating. Coincidence? I think the evidence strongly points that this is the case, the rapid increase in brain size was driven by fire, cooking, and meat eating.
The rise of bipedalism also coincided with the brain size increase and nutritional changes. Bipedalism freed the hands so tools could be made and used which eventually led to the control of fire. Lending more credence to the hypothesis of bipedalism/tools/brain size is the fact that there is evidence that the first signs of bipedalism occurred in Lucy, our Australopithecine ancestor who had pelvic architecture that showed she was clearly on the way to bipedalism. There is more evidence for bipedalism in fossilized footprints of australopithecines around 3 mya, coinciding with Lucy, tool use and eventually the advent and use of fire as a tool to cook and ward off predators. Ancient hominids could then better protect their kin, have higher quality food to eat and use the fire to scare off predators with.
The nutritional aspect of evolution and how it co-evolved with us driving our evolution in brain size which eventually led to us is extremely interesting. Without proper nutrients, it’s not metabolically viable to have such a large brain, as whatever kcal you do eat will need to go towards other bodily functions. Moreover, diet quality is highly correlated with brain size. Great apes can never get to the brain size that we humans have, and their diet is the main cause. The discovery and control of fire, the advent of cooking and then meat eating was what mainly drove the rapid increase of brain size starting 4 mya.
In a way, you can think of the passing down of the skill of fire-making to kin as one of the first acts of cultural transference to kin. It’s one of the first means of Lamarckian cultural transference in our history. Useful skills for survival will get passed down to the next generation, and fire is arguably the most useful skill we’ve ever come across since it’s had so many future implications for our evolution. The ability to create and control fire is one of the most important skills as it can ward off predators, cook meat, be used to keep warm, etc. When you think about how much time was freed up upon the advent of cooking, you can see the huge effect the control of fire first had for our species. Then think about how we could only control fire if our hands were freed. Then human evolution begins to make a lot more sense when put into this point of view.
When thinking about brain size evolution as well as the rapid expansion of brain size evolution, nutrition should be right up there with it. People may talk about things like the cold winter hypothesis and intelligence ad nauseam (which I don’t doubt plays a part, but I believe other factors are more important), but meat-eating along with a low waist-to-hip ratio, which bipedalism is needed for all are much more interesting when talking about the evolution of brain size than cold winters. All of this wouldn’t be possible without bipedalism, without it, we’d still be monkey-like eating plant-based diets. We’d have bigger bodies but smaller brains due to the metabolic cost of the plant-based diet since we wouldn’t have fire to cook and tools to use as we would have still been quadrupeds. The evolution of hominin intelligence is much more interesting from a musculoskeletal, physiological and nutritional point of view than any simplistic cold winter theory.
What caused human brain size to increase is simple: bipedalism, tools, fire, cooking, meat eating which then led to big brains. The first sign of big brains were noticed right around the time erectus had control of fire. This is no coincidence.
Bipedalism, cooking, and food drove the evolution of the human brain. Climate only has an effect on it insofar as certain foods will be available at certain latitudes. These three events in human history were the most important for the evolution of our brains. When thinking about what was happening physiologically and nutritionally around that time, the rebuttal to the statement of “Intelligence requires tools” is tools require bipedalism and further tools require bigger brains as human brains may have evolved to increase expertise capacity and not IQ (more on that in the future), which coincides with the three events outlined here. Whatever the case may be, the evolution of human intelligence is extremely interesting and is most definitely multifaceted.