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How Intelligent Were Our Hominin Ancestors?

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JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson


3000 words

Tl;dr: Two of our most recent ancestors have IQs, theoretically speaking, near ours. This suggests that there were beneficial effects of cultural accumulation and transference. This also lends credence to Gould’s work in Full House, where he writes that “cultural change can vastly outstrip the maximal rate of Darwinian evolution.” Brain size may not have increased for IQ, but for expertise capacity. This is seen in the !Kung, gamblers at the horse track, chess players and musicians. There is both theoretical and empirical evidence that expertise needs large amounts of brain to store “and actively process its informational chunks.” These two studies in combination, in my opinion, shows how important the advent of ‘culture’ was for humans. Tool use got passed down as it gave us fitness advantages, then when Erectus discovered fire, that’s when the game changed. One of the first instances of cultural transference then happened, which set the stage for the rest of human evolution. Looking at it from this perspective, the importance of cultural inheritance and transference cannot be understated. It was due to that ‘behavioral change’ that allowed us all of the advantages we have over our ancestors; we have them to thank for everything we see around us today. For if not for them passing down the beginnings of culture that increased our fitness, individuals would have had to learn things for themselves which would decrease fitness. It’s due to this transference that we are here today.

My recent articles have consisted of what caused our big brains, whether or not there is ‘progress’ in hominin brain evolution, why humans are cognitively superior to other animals, and that the human brain is a linearly scaled-up primate brain (Herculano-Houzel, 2009). Knowing what we know about the human brain and the cellular scaling rules for primates (Herculano-Houzel, 2007), we can infer the amount of neurons that our ancestors Erectus, Heidelbergensis, and Neanderthals had. How intelligent were they? Does the EQ predict intelligence better for non-human primates, or does overall brain weight matter most? If our immediate ancestors had the same amount of neurons as we do, what does that mean for our supposed cognitive superiority over them?

How many neurons did our ancestors have, and what did it mean for their intelligence levels? Herculano-Houzel (2013) estimated the amount of neurons that our ancestors had: Afarensis (35 b), Paranthropus (33 b), to close to 50-60 billion neurons in our species Homo from rudolfensis to antecessor, H. Erectus (62 b), Heidelbergensis (76 b), and Neanderthals (85 b), which is within the range for modern Sapiens. From our knowledge of the average human’s IQ (say, 100) and the total number of neurons the brain has (86 billion), what can we say about the IQs of Erectus, Afarensis, Paranthropus, rudolfensis, antecessor, Heidelbergensis, and Neanderthals?


(chart from Herculano-Houzel and Kaas, 2011)

Since Afarensis had about 35 billion neurons we can infer that his IQ was about 40. Paranthropus with about 33 billion neurons had an IQ of about 38. Homo habilis had 40 billion neurons, equating to IQ 46. Erectus with 62 billion neurons comes in at IQ 72., which differs with PP’s estimate by 22 points. (You can see the brain size increase [more on that later] and total neuron increase between habilis and erectus, with an almost 20 IQ point difference. The cause of this is the advent of cooking and the tool-use by habilis, named ‘Handy Man’.) Now we come to a problem. The total number of neurons in the brain of Heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, and humans are about the same.

Heidelbergensis had 76 billion neurons which equates to IQ 88. Neanderthals had about 85 billion neurons, equating to IQ 99. Our IQs are 100 with 86 billion neurons. As you can see, the leap from habilis (who may have eaten meat) to Erectus, a jump of 22 billion neurons and along with it 22. (The rise of bipedalism and tool use, fire, cooking, and meat eating led to the huge increase in neurons in our species Homo.) Then from Erectus to Heidelbergensis was a jump of 14 billion neurons along with an increase of 16 IQ points, then from Heidelbergensis to Neanderthal is an increase of 9 billion neurons, increasing IQ about 11 points. Neanderthals to us is about 1 billion neurons showing a difference of 1 IQ point.

This leads us to a troubling question: did Neanderthals and Hheidelbergensis at least have the capacity to become as intelligent as us? Herculano-Houzel and Kaas (2011) write:

Given that cognitive abilities of non-human primates are directly correlated with absolute brain size [Deaner et al., 2007], and hence necessarily to the total number of neurons in the brain, it is interesting to consider that enlarged brain size, consequence of an increased number of neurons in the brain, may itself have contributed to shedding a dependence on body size for successful competition for resources and mates, besides contributing with larger cognitive abilities towards the success of our species [Herculano-Houzel, 2009]. In this regard, it is tempting to speculate on our prediction that the modern range of number of neurons observed in the human brain [Azevedo et al., 2009] was already found in H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis, raising the intriguing possibility that they had similar cognitive potential to our species. Compared to their societies, our outstanding accomplishments as individuals, as groups, and as a species, in this scenario, would be witnesses of the beneficial effects of cultural accumulation and transmission over the ages.

If true, this is a huge finding as it echoes what Stephen Jay Gould wrote 21 years ago in his book Full House, as I documented in my article Stephen Jay Gould and Anti-Hereditarianism:

“The most impressive contrast between natural evolution and cultural evolution lies embedded in the major fact of our history. We have no evidence that the modal form of human bodies or brains has changed at all in the past 100,000 years—a standard phenomenon of stasis for successful and widespread species, and not (as popularly misconceived) an odd exception to an expectation of continuous and progressive change. The Cro-Magnon people who painted the caves of the Lascaux and Altamira some fifteen thousand years ago are us—and one look at the incredible richness and beauty of this work convinces us, in the most immediate and visceral way, that Picasso held no edge in mental sophistication over these ancestors with identical brains. And yet, fifteen thousand years ago no human social grouping had produced anything that would conform with our standard definition of civilization. No society had yet invented agriculture; none had built permanent cities. Everything that we have accomplished in the unmeasurable geological moment of the last ten thousand years—from the origin of agriculture to the Sears building in Chicago, the entire panoply of human civilization for better or for worse—has been built upon the capacities of an unaltered brain. Clearly, cultural change can vastly outstrip the maximal rate of natural Darwinian evolution.” (Gould, 1996: 220)

But human cultural change is an entirely distinct process operating under radically different principals that do allow for the strong possibility of a driven trend for what we may legitamately call “progress” (at least in a technological sense, whether or not the changes ultimately do us any good in a practical or moral way). In this sense, I deeply regret that common usage refers to the history of our artifacts and social orginizations as “cultural evolution.” Using the same term—evolution—for both natural and cultural history obfuscates far more than it enlightens. Of course, some aspects of the two phenomena must be similar, for all processes of genealogically constrained historical change must share some features in common. But the differences far outweigh the similarities in this case. Unfortunately, when we speak of “cultural evolution,” we unwittingly imply that this process shares essential similarity with the phenomenon most widely described by the same name—natural, or Darwinian, change. The common designation of “evolution” then leads to one of the most frequent and portentious errors in our analysis of human life and history—the overly reductionist assumption that the Darwinian natural paradigm will fully encompass our social and technological history as well. I do wish that the term “cultural evolution” would drop from use. Why not speak of something more neutral and descriptive—“cultural change,” for example? (Gould, 1996: 219-220)

The implications of the findings of the neuron count in Heidelbergensis and Neanderthals, if true, is a huge finding. Because it implies, as Herculano-Houzel and Kaas say, that “our outstanding accomplishments as individuals, as groups, and as a species … would be witnesses of the beneficial effects of cultural accumulation and transmission through the ages.” I’ve been thinking about this one sentence all week, racking my brain on what it could mean, while thinking about alternate possibilities.

I came across a paper by Dr. John Skoyles titled Human Evolution Expanded Brains to Increase Expertise, Not IQ (saying that around this part of the internet is the equivalent of heresy), in which he reviews studies of people living with microcephaly, showing that a lot of people who have the average brain size of Erectus have average, and even sometimes above average/genius IQs. Yes, microcephaly is correlated with retardation and low IQ, but a significant percentage of individuals inflicted with the disease showed average IQ scores (7 percent overall, 22 percent in 1 subgroup) (Skoyles, 1999). As I’ve documented in the past few days, Erectus was the hominin that learned how to control fire and kicked off the huge spurt in our brain growth. When this increase occurred, brain growth still had to happen outside of the brain, making the baby a fetus for one year after it is born. To achieve its larger brain size, the fetus must have a larger brain before birth, with it increasing postnatally.

The solution to this was to widen the hips of women. This would allow the birth canal to be ‘just right’ in terms of size so the baby could just barely make the squeeze. Physiological differences like this are why there are such huge sex differences in sports. Skoyles (1999) writes:

Research of three kinds suggests that small brained people can have normal IQs: (i) a recent MRI survey on brain size (Giedd et al. 1996), (ii) data on individuals born with microcephaly (head circumference 2 SD below the mean; Dorman, 1991); and (iii) data on early hemispherectomy (the removal of a dysfunctional cerebral hemisphere; Smith & Sugar, 1975; Griffith & Davidson, 1966; Vining et al., 1993).

He also writes that in a sample of  1006 school children, 2 percent (19 students) were found to be microcephalic. Of the 19 microcephalics, only 12 were in districts that did intelligence testing. Of the 12, 7 of them had an average IQ, with one having an IQ of 129. Skoyler even cites a study where a woman’s cranial capacity may have possibly been 760 cc (one the lower end of the range of Erectus brains)!! Her employment was described as ‘semi-skilled’, which Skoyler notes is normal for her ability level. Skoyler also says that Medline shows 21 other studies showing that microcephalic individuals have average IQs.

There is also one incidence of a man having a smaller brain than erectus while having a normal intelligence level, showing no peculiarities or mental retardation. Upon his death, his brain was weighed and they discovered that it weighed 624 grams!

Now, of course, the studies that Skoyler brings up are outliers, but they raise very interesting questions when you think about the supposed link with IQ and brain size. More interestingly, even sudden brain damage will leave a small change, if any, in IQ (Bigler, 1995). Finally, the .35 brain size-IQ correlation needs to be talked about. Let’s be generous and say the correlation is .5, 74 percent of the variance in IQ would still be unexplained (Skoyler, 1999: 8).

Skoyler then says that IQ tests “show very moderate to zero correlations with people’s ability to acquire expertise (Ackerman, 1996; Ceci & Liker, 1986; Doll & Mayr, 1987; Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996; Shuter-Dyson & Gabriel, 1981).” So he says that one’s capacity for expertise isn’t necessarily predicated on their IQ as measured by IQ tests. Skoyler writes:

Hence, whereas nonexpert players see only chess pieces, chess masters see possible future moves and potential strategies. Such in depth perception arises from acquiring and being able to actively use a larger numbers of informational “chunks” in analyzing a problem. The number of such chunks in chess masters has been estimated at 50,000 (Gobet & Simon, 1996). Such information processing chunks take many years to acquire. After reviewing performance in sport, medicine, chess and music, Ericsson and Lehmann (1996) propose that before people can show expertise in any domain they must have performed several hours of practice a day for a minimum of 10-years

So, this ‘expertise capacity’ seems to be a trained—not inherited—trait. He then cites a study on people who’ve spent decades at the daily race track betting on horse races. Cece and Liker (1986) measured the IQs of 12 of the experts, and found that they ranged between IQ 81 and 128 (“four were between 80 and 90, three between 90 and 100, two between 100 and 110 and only three above 120 Table 6”). The authors write: “whatever it is that an IQ test measures, it is not the ability to engage in cognitively complex forms of multivariate reasoning.” Moreover, Skoyler writes, expertise in chess (see Erickson, 2000) and music (see Deutsch, 1982: 404-405) “correlates poorly, or not at all with IQ.”

Now that we know that the capacity to develop expertise isn’t needed in the modern world, what did it mean for our hunter-gatherer ancestors? Looking at some of the few hunter-gatherer tribes left today, we can make some inferences.

The !Kung bushmen use in-depth expert knowledge and reasoning. Just by looking at a few tracks in the dirt, a bushman can infer whether the animal that made the track is sick, whether it was alone, its age and sex. They are able to do this by reading the shape and depth of the track in the dirt. Such skill, obviously, is learned, and those who didn’t have the capacity for expertise would have died out. Further, expertise in hunting is more important than physical ability, with the best hunters being over the age of 39 and not those in their 20s. This can further be seen when the young men go out for hunting. The young men do the physical work while the elder reads tracks, a learned ability.

This, Skoyler writes, suggests that those who had the highest capacity for expertise would have had the best chance for survival. Expertise in hunting is not the only thing that we need expertise for, obviously. The skill of ‘expertise’ translates to most all facets of human life. And over time, the advantages conferred by success with these activities “would result in the natural selection of brains with increased capacity for expertise.” So, even possibly, the success of our expertise could have selected for bigger brains which would have further increased the capacity for our expertise.

Since expertise is linked to the number of brain chunks that a brain can “hold and actively process”, that capacity for expertise “may be related to the number of cortical columns able to specialise neural networks in representing and processing them, and through this to cerebral mass Jerison (1991).” And, in brain scans of expert violinists, they have two to three times as much of their cortical area devoted to their left fingers as nonviolinists. ” This suggests that a strong connection should exist between the capacity for acquiring expertise skills and brain mass.”

I’m, of course, not denying the usefulness of IQ tests. What I’m saying, is that IQ tests don’t test a person’s capacity to learn a skill and become an expert in something. IQ tests, as shown, do not measure expertise capacity. IQ tests, then, don’t test for what was central to our evolution as hominins: expertise capacity. Of course, it’s not only expertise in hunting that led to the selection for bigger brains, and along with it expertise capacity. Obviously, this would hold for other things in our evolution that we can become experts in, from scavenging, to gathering, to language, social relationships, tool-making, and passing on useful skills that would infer an increase in fitness.

IQs for hominins are as follows: Paranthropus: IQ 38 (33 billion neurons); Afarensis: IQ 40 (35 billion neurons); Habilis: IQ 46 (40 billion neurons); Erectus: IQ 72 (62 billion neurons); Heidelbergensis: IQ 88 (76 billion neurons); Neanderthals: IQ 99 (85 billion neurons) and Sapiens: IQ 100 (85 billion neurons). So if Heidelbergensis and Neanderthals had IQs around ours (theoretically speaking), and Erectus had an IQ around modern-day Africans today, what explains our achievements over our hominin ancestors if we have around the same IQs?

Lamarckian cultural inheritance. If you think about when brain size began to increase, it was around the time that bipedalism occurred in the fossil record, along with tool use, fire, cooking, and meat eating. I’m suggesting here today that the beginnings of cultural transference happened with Afaraensis, Habilis, and Erectus. Passing down culture (useful traits for survival back then) would have been paramount in hominin survival. One wouldn’t have to learn how to do things on their own, and could learn from and elder the crucial survival skills they needed. This would have selected for a bigger brain due to the need for a higher expertise capacity, as with a bigger brain there is more room for cortical columns and neurons which would better facilitate expertise in that hominin.

I’m still thinking about what this all means, so I haven’t taken a side on this yet. This is an extremely interesting look into hominin brain size evolution, which shows that big brains didn’t evolve for IQ, but to increase expertise capacity. Though there is an extremely strong possibility that we gained over 20 billion neurons from Erectus due to his cooking, which then capped out our intelligence in our lineage. That would then mean that Neanderthals and Heidelbergensis would have had the capacity for the same IQ as us. One thing I can think of that set us apart 70 kya was the advent of art. That was a new way of transferring information from our hugely metabolically expensive neurons. This was also, yet another way of cultural transference. But what this means in terms of Neanderthal and Heidelbergensis IQ and what it means for our accomplishments since them is another story, which I will return to in the future.


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