Emil Kirkegaard left a short commentary on John Skoyles’ 1999 paper Human Evolution Expanded Brains to Increase Expertise Capacity, not IQ, in which Emil writes in his article Evolution and imperfect mediators:
If we condense the argument, it becomes a little clearer:
John Skoyles (1999) [Condensed argument from Emil; paragraph 2] Brain expansion causes problems. Thus, whatever selected for increased brain size must have offered compensating benefits. People can have below average size brains yet exhibit normal intelligence. Thus, the compensating benefit offered by large brains is unlikely to be intelligence. Why should evolution have increased brain size with its associated problems for something smaller sized brains could have without expansion?
I merely edited out the unnecessary parts. Now try substituting some other trait, say fighting ability and some mediator of it.
Muscle size increases causes problems. Thus, whatever selected for increased muscle size must have offered compensating benefits. People can have below average size muscles yet exhibit normal fighting ability. Thus, the compensating benefit offered by large muscles is unlikely to be fighting ability. Why should evolution have increased muscle size with its associated problems for something smaller sized muscles could have without increase?
See the issue? This argument works for any imperfect physical underpinning of a trait, which is to say, basically all of them. Longer legs didn’t evolve for running well for some people with short legs run well. Bigger/stronger hears didn’t evolve for better cardio, because some people smaller/weaker hearts have good cardio. Longer arms didn’t evolve for fighting because some short armed people fight well. Darker skin didn’t evolve as a protection against sun exposure for some relative light skinned people don’t get skin cancer or sunburns. Larger eyes didn’t evolve for seeing better for some people with smaller eyes see well. Bigger ears… Bigger noses… Stronger hands… …
I don’t agree. Our brains sap about 20 percent of our daily energy needs while being 2 percent of our overall body mass whereas, in other primates, their brains cost about 9 percent of their daily energy needs (Fonseca-Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel, 2012).
In regards to Emil’s counterarguments, I’ll address them one by one:
Long legs: People with longer legs were better runners and could escape from predators and chase prey. People with shorter legs were killed.
Bigger/stronger hearts: Those with a larger heart (sans cardiomegaly) could run for longer distance (remember, we are distance runners; Carrier, 1984; Skoyles and Sagan, 2002; Bramble and Lieberman, 2004; Mattson, 2012) and so long legs and bigger/stronger hearts tie in with each other.
Long arms: This, again, goes back to our morphology in Africa. Long limbs are more conducive to heat dissipation (Lieberman, 2015). So those who had the right body plan for distance running could survive better during our evolutionary history.
Dark skin: A light-skinned person who spends enough time without protection in a tropical climate will develop skin cancer. (It is hypothesized that skin cancer is what caused the evolution of dark skin; Greaves, 2014, though this was contested by Jablonksi and Chaplin, 2014.)
Large eyes: Bigger eyes don’t mean better eyesight in comparison to smaller ones.
All in all, the brain size argument is 100 percent different from these arguments: large brains come with large problems. Further, there is evidence (which will be reviewed below) that people can live long, normal lives with half of their brain missing
The brain-size/IQ puzzle
The oft-repeated wisdom is that our brains evolved to such a large size so we could become more intelligent. And looking at when our brains began to increase (starting with erectus, which had to do with the advent of cooking/fire use), we can see that that’s when our modern body plan appeared. We can ascertain this by looking at Nariokotome boy, an erectus that lived about 1.6 mya.
Further, in regards to brain size, there was a man named Daniel Lyon. What was so extraordinary about this man is that, at the time of his death, had a brain that weighed 1.5 pounds (see Wilder, 1911)! Skoyles and Sagan (2002: 239) write:
Upon examination, anatomists could find no difference between it [Lyon’s brain] and other human brains apart from its size with one exception: The part of his brain attached to the brainstem, the cerebellum, was near normal size. Thus, the total size of Lyon’s cerebral hemisphere was smaller than would be suggested by a total brain weight of 1.5 lb. We do not know how bright he was—being a watchman is not particularly intellectually demanding—but he clearly was not retarded. A pound and a half brain may not be enough to manage a career as an attorney, a professor of theology, or a composer, but it was sufficient to let Lyon survive for 20 years in New York City.
Skoyles and Sagan (2002) review numerous lines of evidence of individuals with small brains/people with severe TBI living full lives, even having IQs in the average/above average range. They write (pg 238):
You would think that cutting out one-half of people’s brains would kill them, or at least leave them vegetables needing care for the rest of their lives. But it does not. Consider this striking story. A boy starts having seizures at 10 years of age when his right cerebral hemisphere atrophies. By the time he is 12, the left side of his body is paralyzed. When he is 19, surgeons decide to operate and remove the right side of his brain, as it is causing gits in his intact left one. You might think this would lower his IQ or leave him severely retarded, but no. His IQ shoots up 14 points, to 142! The mystery is not so great when you realize that the operation has gotten rid of the source of his fits, which had previously hampered his intelligence. When doctors saw him 15 years later, they described him as “having obtained a university doploma . . . [and now holding] a responsible administrative position with a local authority.” (18)
They also write about the story of an Argentinian boy who had a right hemispherectomy when he was 3-years-old who was notable for “the richness of his vocabulary and syntax” and also “attends English classes at school, in which he attains a high level of success (20; quote from Skoyles and Sagan, 2002: 238).
It is also a “medical myth that microcephaly (having a head smaller than two standard deviations (SD) below average circumference) is invariably linked to retardation.” (Skoyles and Sagan, 2002: 239).
There are some important things to be noted in regards to the study of Nariokotome boy’s skeleton and skull size. Skoyles and Sagan (2002: 240) write (emphasis mine):
So how well equipped was Homo erectus? To throw some figures at you (calculations shown in the notes), easily well enough. Of Nariokotome boy’s 673 cc of cortex, 164 cc would have been prefrontal cortex, roughly the same as half-brained people. Nariokotome boy did not need the mental competence required by cotemporary hunter-gatherers. … Compared to that of our distant ancestors, Upper Paleolithic technology is high tech. And the organizational skills used in hunts greatly improved 400,000 years ago to 20,000 years ago. These skills, in terms of our species, are recent, occurring by some estimates in less than the last 1 percent of our 2.5 million year existence as people. Before then, hunting skills would have required less brain power, as they were less mentally demanding. If you do not make detailed forward plans, then you do not need as much mental planning abilities as those who do. This suggests that the brains of Homo erectus did not arise for reasons of survival. For what they did, they could have gotten away with much smaller, Daniel Lyon-sized brains.
Lastly, I will touch on the fact that since we are running apes, that we need a narrow pelvis. As I stated above, our modern body plan came to be around 1.6 mya with the advent of erectus, which could be inferred from footprints (Steudel-Numbers, 2006; Bennett et al, 2009). Now the picture is beginning to become clearer: if people with brains the size of erectus could have intelligence in the modern range, and if our modern body plans evolved 1.6 mya (which is when our brains began to really increase in size due to metabolic constraints being unlocked due to erectus’ cooking ability), then you can see that it’d be perfectly possible for modern Homo sapiens to have brains the size of erectus while still having an IQ in the normal range.
Lastly, Skoyles and Sagan (2002: 245) write (emphasis mine):
Kanzi seems to do remarkably well with a chimp-sized brain. And while we tend to link retardation with small brains, we have seen that people can live completely normal lives while missing pieces of their brains. Brain size may enhance intelligence, but it seems we can get away without 3 pounders. Kanzi shows there is much potential in even 13 oz.
So Skoyles and Sagan do concede that brain size may enhance intelligence, however, as they have argued (and as Skoyles does in his 1999 paper), it is perfectly possible to live a normal life with half a brain, as well as have an average/above average IQ (as reviewed in Skoyles, 1999). So if people with erectus-sized brains can have IQs in the normal range and live normal lives, then brains must have increased for another reason, which Skoyles has argued is expertise capacity.
Large brains are, clearly, not needed for high IQs.
(Also search for this paper: Reiss, A. L., Abrams, M. T., Singer, H. S., Ross, J. L. & Denckla, M. B. (1996). Brain development, gender and IQ in children: A volumetric imaging study. Brain, 119, 1763-1774. where they show that there is a plateau, and a decrease in IQ in the largest brains; see table 2. I also reviewed some studies on TBI and IQ and how even those with severe TBI can have IQs in the normal range (Bigler, 1995; Wood and Rutterford, 2006; Crowe et al, 2012). Yet more evidence that people with half of their brains missing can lead normal lives and have IQs in the modern range.)