Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Smaller Gut, Bigger Brain

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Smaller Gut, Bigger Brain

Article excerpt

Humans are hard-wired to believe themselves, collectively and individually, the greatest. And they like to celebrate their braininess. Even cerebral scientists aspire to spin themselves some mass recognition.

At the University of Chicago, the geneticist Bruce Lahn has been working on the reason why humans' brains became so much bigger than those of their near-primate relatives. Measuring mutations in genes to assess the pressures of natural selection, he discovered anew that human brains evolved at an astonishingly fast rate. Well, we knew that. He has since (in the journal Cell last month and as widely reported elsewhere over the Christmas/New Year break) used moral-superior language to conclude that there was a different, privileged, unique order of evolutionary process in human brains. It sounds perilously close to the words used by John Paul II in 1996, trying to theorise how God injected a soul into an animal lineage to create humans, a new sub-divine species.

The large human brain is probably the cause of our gender wars. Women and children have borne the costs: the former in the enormous hazard of giving birth, the latter in being born too soon, dependent and vulnerable, before vital neurological connections are established. Another downside is the metabolic expense: an organ that weighs only 2 per cent of body weight yet requires 18 per cent of the energy budget. These costs must have been matched by huge benefits--otherwise, Homo sapiens would have hit the extinction buffers long since.

The selective advantages to our species in being clever are obvious, and they ensure that few other animals can compete and co-evolve. …

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