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Is There Progress in Hominin Brain Evolution?

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JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

Goodreads

2700 words

Tl;dr: The ‘trend’ in the evolution of hominin brain size is only due to diet quality and abundance. If there is any scarcity of food or a decrease in nutritional quality, there will be a subsequent decrease in brain size, as seen with H. floresiensis. Brain size, contrary to popular belief, has been decreasing for the past 20,000 years and has accelerated in the past 10,000. This trend is noticed all over the world with multiple hypotheses put out to explain the phenomenon. Despite this, people still deny that a decrease is occurring. Is it? Yes, it is. It’s due to a decrease in diet quality along with higher population density. If the human diet were to decrease in quality and caloric amount, our brains—along with our bodies—would become smaller over time.

Is there progress in hominin brain evolution? Many people may say yes. Over the past 7 million years, the human brain has tripled in size with most of this change occurring within the past 2 million years. This perfectly coincides with the advent of bipedalism, tool-making, fire, cooking and meat eating. Knowing the causal mechanisms behind the increase in hominin (primate) brain size, is there ‘progress’ to brain size in hominin evolution?

Looking at the evolution of hominin brain size in the past 7 million years, one can rightfully make the case that there is an evolutionary trend with the brain size increase. I don’t deny there is an increase, but first, before one says there is ‘progress’ to this phenomenon, you must look at it from both sides.

Montgomeroy et al (2010) reconstructed the ‘ups and downs’ of primate brain size evolution, and of course, decreases in hominin brain size can’t be talked about without bringing up H. floresiensis and his small brain and body mass, which they discuss as well. They come to the conclusion that “brain expansion began early in primate evolution”, also showing that there have been brain size increases in all clades of primates. Humans only show a bigger increase in absolute mass, with rate of proportional change in mass and relative brain size “having greater episodes of expansion elsewhere on the primate phylogeny”. Decreases in brain size also occurred in all of the major primate clades studied, they conclude that “while selection has acted to enlarge primate brains, in some lineages this trend has been reversed.” The selection can only occur in the presence of adequate kcal, keeping everyone sated and nourished enough to provide for the family, ensuring a woman gets adequate kcal and nutrients during pregnancy and finally ensuring that the baby gets the proper amount of energy for growth during infancy and childhood.

Montgomery et al write:

The branch with the highest rate of change in absolute brain mass is the terminal human branch (140,000 mg/million years). However for rate of proportional change in absolute brain mass the human branch comes only fourth, below the branches between the last common ancestor of Macaques and other Papionini, and the last common ancestor of baboons, mangabeys and mandrills (48 to 49), the ancestral primate and ancestral haplorhine (38 to 39) and the branch between the last common ancestor of Cebinae, Aotinae and Callitrichidae, and the ancestral Cebinae (58 to 60). The rate of change in relative brain mass along the human branch (0.068/million years) is also exceeded by the branch between the last common ancestor of Alouatta, Ateles and Lagothrix with the last common ancestor of Ateles and Lagothrix (branch 55 to 56; 0.73), the branch connecting the last common ancestor of Cebinae, Aotinae and Callitrichidae, and the ancestral Cebinae (branch 58 to 60; 0.074/million years) and the branch connecting the last common ancestor of the Papionini with the last common ancestor of Papio, Mandrillus and Cercocebus (branch 48 to 49; 0.084). We therefore conclude that only in terms of absolute mass and the rate of change in absolute mass has the increase in brain size been exceptional along the terminal branch leading to humans. Once scaling effects with body mass have been accounted for the rate of increase in relative brain mass remains high but is not exceptional.

“Remains high but is not exceptional”, ie, expected for a primate of our size (Azevedo et al, 2009). Of course, since evolution is not progressive, then finding any so-called ‘anomalies’ that ‘deviate’ from the ‘progress’ in brain size evolution makes sense. They conclude that floresiensis’ brain size and body mass decrease fell within the expected range of Argue et al’s (2009) proposed phylogenetic scenario. Though, only if he evolved from habilis or Dmansi hominins if the insular dwarfism hypothesis was taken into account (which is a viable explanation for the decrease).

The effects of food scarcity and its effect on hominin brain size is hardly ever spoken about. However, as I’ve been documenting here recently, caloric quality and amount dictate brain size. Montgomeory et al (2010) write:

Although many studies have investigated the possible selective advantages and disadvantages of increased brain size in primates [5, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21], few consider how frequently brain size has reduced. Periods of primate evolution which show decreases in brain size are of great interest as they may yield insights into the selective pressures and developmental constraints acting on brain size. Bauchot & Stephan [22] noted the evolution of reduced brain size in the dwarf Old World monkey Miopithecus talapoin and Martin [23] suggested relative brain size in great apes may have undergone a reduction based on the cranial capacity of the extinct hominoid Proconsul africanus. Taylor & van Schaik [24]reported a reduced cranial capacity in Pongo pygmaeus morio compared to other Orang-utan populations and hypothesise this reduction is selected for as a result of scarcity of food. Finally, Henneberg [25] has shown that during the late Pleistocene human absolute brain size has decreased by 10%, accompanied by a parallel decrease in body size.

[…]

These authors suggest this reduction is associated with an increase in periods of food scarcity resulting in selection to minimise brain tissue which is metabolically expensive [17]. Food scarcity is also believed to have played a role in the decrease in brain size in the island bovid Myotragus [12]. Taylor & van Schaik [24] therefore propose that H. floresiensis may have experienced similar selective pressures as Myotragus and Pongo p. morio.

Nice empirical vindication for me, if I don’t say so myself. This lends further credence to my scenario of an asteroid impact on earth halting food production leading to a scarcity in food. It’s hypothesized that floresiensis went from eating (if evolved from erectus) 1800 kcal per day and 2500 while nursing to 1200 per day and 1400 while nursing (Lieberman, 2013: 125). This, again, is proof that big brains need adequate energy and that cooking meat was what specifically drove this facet of our evolution.

Montgomeroy et al (2010) conclude:

Finally, our analyses add to the growing number of studies that conclude that the evolution of the human brain size has not been anomalous when compared to general primate brain evolution [59, 61, 91, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94].

In other words, humans are not ‘special’ in terms of brain size. While there is a ‘trend’ in the increase in brain size, this ‘trend’ is only possible with the advent of fire, cooking, and meat eating. Without that causal mechanism, big brains would not be metabolically viable.

A big brain (large amounts of neurons) can only evolve with enough energy, mainly the advent of cooking meat (Herculano-Houzel, 2009). Primates have much higher neuronal densities than other mammals (Herculano-Houzel, Manger, and Kaas, 2014). Since the amount of energy the brain needs per day depends on how many total neurons it has (Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel, 2012), quality calories are needed to power such a metabolically expensive organ. Only with the advent of fire could we consume enough high-quality energy to evolve such big brains.

Mammalian brains that have 100 million neurons require .6 kcal, brains with 1 billion neurons use 6 kcal per day, and brains with 100 billion neurons use 600 kcal per day (humans with 86 billion neurons use 519 kcal, coming out to 6 kcal per neuron) regardless of the volumes of the brains (Herculano-Houzel, 2011). Knowing that the amount of neurons a brain has is directly related to how much energy it needs, it doesn’t seem so crazy now that, like with the example of floresiensis, a brain could decrease in size even when noticing this ‘upward trend’ in hominin brain size. This is simply because how big a brain is directly related to amount of energy available in an area as well as the most important variable: quality of the food.

If floresiensis is descended from habilis (and there is evidence that habilis was a meat eater, so along with a low amount of energy for floresiensis on Flora as well as there being no large predators on the island, a smaller size would have been advantageous to floresiensis), then this shows that what I’ve been saying for a few months is true: the diet quality as well as amount of energy dictates whether an organism evolves to be big or small. Energy is what ‘drives’ evolution in a sense and energy comes from kcal. The highest quality energy is from meat, and that fuels our ‘big brains’ with our high neuron count.

Imagine this scenario: an asteroid hits the earth and destroys the world power grid. All throughout the world, people cannot consume enough food. The sun is blocked by dust clouds for, say, 5000 years. The humans that survive this asteroid collision would evolve a smaller brain and body as well as better eyesight to see in an environment with low light, among other traits. Natural selection can only occur on the heritable variants already in the population, so whatever traits that would increase fitness in this scenario would multiply and flourish in the population, leading to a different, smaller-brained and smaller-bodied human due to the effects of the environment.

While on the subject of the decrease in human brain size, something that’s troubling to those who champion the ‘increase in hominin brain size’ as the ‘pinnacle of evolution’: our brains have been decreasing in size for at least the past 20,000 years according to John Hawks associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Keep in mind, this is someone that Pumpkin Person brings up saying that our brains have been increasing for the past 10,000 years. He has also said that the increase in better nutrition has allowed us to gain back the brain size of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (with no reference), which is not true. Because what John Hawks actually wrote on his blog about this says a different story:

The available skeletal samples show a reduction in endocranial volume or vault dimensions in Europe, southern Africa, China, and Australia during the Holocene. This reduction cannot be explained as an allometric consequence of reductions of body mass or stature in these populations. The large population numbers in these Holocene populations, particularly in post-agricultural Europe and China, rule out genetic drift as an explanation for smaller endocranial volume. This is likely to be true of African and Australian populations also, although the demographic information is less secure. Therefore, smaller endocranial volume was correlated with higher fitness during the recent evolution of these populations. Several hypotheses may explain the reduction of brain size in Holocene populations, and further work will be necessary to uncover the developmental and functional consequences of smaller brains.

Selection for smaller brains in Holocene human evolution

In fact, from the Discover article on decreasing brain size, John Hawks says:

Hawks spent last summer measuring skulls of Europeans dating from the Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago, to medieval times. Over that period the land became even more densely packed with people and, just as the Missouri team’s model predicts, the brain shrank more quickly than did overall body size, causing EQ values to fall. In short, Hawks documented the same trend as Geary and Bailey did in their older sample of fossils; in fact, the pattern he detected is even more pronounced. “Since the Bronze Age, the brain shrank a lot more than you would expect based on the decrease in body size,” Hawks reports. “For a brain as small as that found in the average European male today, the body would have to shrink to the size of a pygmy” to maintain proportional scaling.

This is in stark contrast to what PP claims he says about the evolution of human brain size over the past 10,000 years, especially Europeans who he claims Hawks has said there has been an increase in European brain size. An increase in brain size over the past 100 years doesn’t mean a trend is occurring upward, since all other data on human brain size says otherwise.

Our brains have begun to decrease in size, which is due to the effects of overnutrition and diseases of civilization brought on by processed foods and the agricultural revolution. Another proposed cause for this is that population density tracks with brain size, with brain size increasing with a smaller population and decreasing with a bigger population. In a way, this makes sense. A bigger brain should have more neurons than a smaller brain, which would aid in cognitive tasks and have that one hominin survive better giving it a better chance to pass on its genes, so if you think about it, when the population increases when social trust forms, you can piggyback off of others and they wouldn’t have to do things on their own. As population size increased from sparse to dense, brain size decreased with it.

On this notion of ‘progress’ in brain size, some people may assume that this puts us at the ‘pinnacle’ of evolution due to our superior cognitive ability (which is due to the remarkably large amount of neurons in our cerebral cortex [Hercualno-Houzel, 2016: 102]), Herculano-Houzel writes on page 91 of her book The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brains Became Remarkable:

We have long deemed ourselves to be at the pinnacle of cognitive abilities among animals. But that is different than being at the pinnacle of evolution in a number of important ways. As Mark Twain pointed out in 1903, to presume that evolution has been a long path leading to humans as its crowning achievement is just as preposterous as presuming that the whole purpose of building the Eiffel Tower was to put the final coat of paint on its tip. Moreover, evolution is not synonmous with progress, but simply change over time. And humans aren’t even the youngest, most recently evolved species. For example, more than 500 new species of cichlid fish in Lake Victoria, the youngest of the great African Lakes, have appeared since it filled with water some 14,500 years ago.

Using PP’s logic, the cichlid fishes of Lake Victoria are ‘more highly evolved’ than we are since they’re a ‘newer species’. Using that line of logic makes no sense now, putting it in that way.

Looking at the ‘trend’ in human brain size over the past 7 million years, and its acceleration in the past 2 million, without thinking about what jumpstarted it (bipedalism, tools, fire, meat eating) is foolish. Moreover, any change to our environment that decreases our energy input would, over time, lead to a decrease in our overall brain size perhaps more rapidly, showing that this ‘trend’ in the increase in brain size is directly related to the quality and amount of food in the area. This is why floresiensis’ brain and body shrunk, and why certain primate lineages show increases in brain size: because they have a higher-quality diet. But it comes at a cost. Since primates largely eat a plant-based diet, they have to eat upwards of 10 hours a day to get enough energy to power either their brains or their bodies. If their bodies are large, their brains are small and vice versa. A plant-based diet cannot power a large brain with a high neuron count like we have, it’s only possible with meat eating (Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel, 2012). This is one reason why floresiensis’ brain shrunk along with not enough kcal to sustain their larger brain and body mass that their ancestor they evolved from previously had.

Our brains are not particularly special, and in a way, you can thank fire and cooking meat for everything that’s occurred since erectus first controlled fire. For without a quality diet in our evolution, this so-called ‘trend’ (which is based on the environment due to food quality and scarcity/abundance which fluctuate) would not have occurred. In sum, this ‘progress’ will halt and ‘reverse’ if the amount of energy consumed decreases or diet quality decreases.

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