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Why Are Humans Cognitively Superior to Other Animals?

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The past few articles I have written touched on the fact that the human brain isn’t special and is just a scaled-up primate brain, bipedalism, tools, fire, cooking and meat eating had the largest effect on hominin brain evolution, and that, despite seeing a so-called ‘upward trend’ in the evolution of primate brain size, the reverse was occurring. So what makes us cognitively superior to other animals?

The most oft-cited reason why humans are cognitively superior to other animals is that we have the largest EQ compared to other animals. Ours is 7.5, meaning that we have a brain that’s 7.5 times larger than a mammal for our size but only 3.4 times as larger than expected for an anthropoid primate of its body mass (Azevedo et al, 2009). However, in stark contrast to the view of the people who view EQ as the reason why we are cognitively superior to other animals, what separates us in terms of cognitive ability is the difference in cortical neurons compared to other primates.

We humans have the most cortical neurons in our cerebral and prefrontal cortexes, relatively high neuron packing density (NPD), and much more cortical neurons of mammals of the same brain size (Roth and Dicke, 2012). Differences in intelligence across primate taxa best correlate with differences in number of cortical neurons, information processing speed, and synapses. Though, the human brain stands out having a “large cortical volume with a relatively NPD, high conduction velocity and high cortical parcellation.” This is why we are much more intelligent than other primates, due to the amount of cortical neurons we have as well as higher neuron packing density (keep this in mind for later). Encephalization quotient doesn’t explain intelligence differences within species, hence there being a problem with the use of encephalization to as the reason for human cognitive superiority, our Human Advantage, if you will.

Harry Jerison, the originator of the encephalization quotient, came to the conclusion that “human evolution … had been all about an advancement of encephalization quotients culminating in man.” (Herculano-Houzel, 2016: 15) What a conclusion. Just because EQ increased throughout hominin evolution, that means that it was all an advancement of EQs culminating to man. That’s circular logic.

Moreover, the “circular assumption” that higher EQ mean superior cognitive abilities in humans wasn’t founded on “tried-and-true correlations with actual measures of cognitive capacity.” (Herculano-Houzel, 2016: 15)

In second place on the EQ chart is the capuchin monkey coming in with an EQ of 2, which is more than double that of great apes who fall way below 1. That would imply that capuchin monkeys are more intelligent than great apes and outsmart great apes, right? Wrong. Great apes are. Total brain size predicts cognitive abilities in non-human primates better than EQ (Deaner et al, 2007).

Great apes significantly outperform other lineages. (Deaner, Schaik, and Johnson, 2006) Yet they have smaller EQs compared to other less intelligent primates. This is one of the largest problems with the EQ: total brain size is a better predictor of cognitive ability in non-human primates (Herculano-Houzel, 2011). She proposes that the absolute number of neurons, irrespective of brain size or body weight, is a better predictor of cognitive ability than is EQ.

Another problem with the EQ is that it assumes that all brains are made the same, and they aren’t. They scale differently between species. That’s one pretty huge flaw. Scaling is not the same across species, only within certain species. This one fatal flaw in EQ comparing different species of humans is why there is a problem with EQ in assessing cognitive abilities and why total brain size predicts cognitive abilities in non-human primates better than EQ.

Absolute brain size is a much better indicator of intelligence than the encephalization quotient.

So what exactly explains human cognitive superiority over other animals if the most often-used metric—the EQ—is flawed? An enlarged frontal cortex? No, the prefrontal areas in a human brain occupy 29 percent of the mass of the cerebral cortex. Moreover, the prefrontal cortex of humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans occupies the same 35-37 percent of all cortical volume (Semendeferei et al, 2002). (See also Herculano-Houzel, 2016: 119 and Gorillas Agree: Human Frontal Cortex is Nothing Special). Just because our frontal cortexes are all the same size, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a higher neuron packing density (NPD) than other primates. However, the human brain has the amount of neurons expected for its grey matter volume and total number of neurons remaining in the cerebral cortex; it has the white matter volume expected for amount of neurons; and the white matter volume and number of neurons expected for the number and volume of neurons in the “nonprefrontal subcortical white matter” (Herculano-Houzel, Watson, and Paxinos, 2013). The human prefrontal cortex is no larger than it ‘should’ be.

However, there seems to be a problem with Herculano-Houzel’s (2011) theory that absolute number of neurons predicts cognitive superiority (Mortenson et al, 2014). The long-finned pilot whale has 37,200,000 neurons in its cerebral cortex, more than double that of humans (16 billion). Does this call into question Herculano-Houzel’s (2011) theory on absolute number of neurons being the best case of human cognitive superiority over other animals?

In short, no. Neuron density is higher in humans than in the pilot whale. We have more neurons packed into our cerebral cortex. Their higher cell count is due only to their larger brains. And where it matters: pilot whales have a higher than expected amount of neocortical neurons relative to body weight, although not higher than humans. Herculano-Houzel’s (2011) theory is still in play here. They have big brains and in turn large amounts of glial cells to counter heat loss. So even then, this doesn’t counter Herculano-Houzel’s theory that the absolute amount of neurons dictates overall cognitive superiority.

Moreover, there is the same amount of cortical neurons in mice brains and human brains, with both mice and humans housing 8 percent of their total neurons in the prefrontal cortex. So what accounts for human cognitive superiority in humans compared to other primates? Most likely, the connectivity of the brain.

The connectivity in the brain of humans is not different from other species. The density of gray matter within species is fairly constant within mammalian species (Herculano-Houzel, 2016: 122). If true, then human prefrontal cortex, being nowhere near the largest, wouldn’t have the most synapses in our prefrontal cortex or anywhere else in the brain, and thus these wouldn’t be the largest. So, what does explain the cognitive superiority of humans over other animals in the animal kingdom?

All though all mammals use 8 percent of their total neurons in their prefrontal cortex, there is a differing distribution due to the amount of total neurons in each brain (remember, all brains aren’t made the same. It doesn’t hold for humans, and it especially doesn’t hold across phyla). We have 1.3 billion cortical neurons in our prefrontal cortex, baboons have 230 million, the macaque has 137 million and the marmoset has 20 million (Herculano-Houzel, 2016: 122). Prefrontal neurons are able to add complexity and flexibility, among other associative functions, to behavior while making planning for the future possible. All of these capabilities would increase with the more neurons a prefrontal cortex has (remember back to my article that the seat of intelligence (g) is the prefrontal cortex). So this seems to confirm the past studies showing the seat of intelligence to be the frontal cortex, due to the large amount of cortical neurons it has.

Herculano-Houzel writes the best definition of intelligence she’s ever heard, from MIT physicist Alex Wissner-Gross, which I believe is a great definition of intelligence:

The ability to plan for the future, a significant function of prefrontal regions of the cortex, may be key indeed. According to the best definition I have come across so far, put forward by MIT physicist Alex Wissner-Gross, intelligence is the ability to make decisions that maximize future freedom of action—that is, decisions that keep most doors open for the future. (Herculano-Houzel, 2016: 122-123)

All of the above are the direct result of more neurons in our frontal cortexes compared to other primates, which is why she finds it is the best definition of intelligence she’s ever heard.

Our ‘Human Advantage’ over other species comes down to the number of cortical neurons we have in our prefrontal cortex compared to other primates as well as the most neurons along with the highest NPD in the animal kingdom—which will be matched by no animal. The encephalization quotient has a lot of problems, with overall brain weight being a much better predictor of intelligence (Herculano-Houzel, 2011). Human cognitive superiority comes down to the total amount of neurons in our frontal cortex (1.3 billion neurons—where we will not be beaten) and our cerebral cortexes (16 billion neurons [long-finned pilot whales beat us out by more than double the amount, but we have more neurons packed into our cerebral cortex signifying our higher cognitive abilities). Within primates, total brain size predicts cognitive abilities better than EQ (Deaner et al, 2007).

Human cognitive superiority, contrary to popular belief, is not due to the EQ. It’s due to our NPD and amount of neurons in our frontal and cerebral cortexes that no other animal has–and we will not find another animal like this. This only would have been possible with the advent of bipedalism, tool-making, fire, cooking and meat eating. That’s what drives the evolution of brain size—and our evolution as a whole. Energy. Energy to reproduce, which then produce mutations which eventually coalesce new species.



    • RaceRealist says:

      Good article. Home Erectus did have a longer gait. So since they could cover more ground in a shorter period of time they could acquire more kcal. He also controlled fire, which the kcal quality allowed us to acquire more kcal in a shorter period of time.

      We also develop slower than great apes. Our brains are big when we are born, but small enough so that we can grow into them slowly and mature with them. That’s another thing that sets us apart from other primates.


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