Jan 31st 2013

Big Brain Bravado

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

When it comes to our brains, we have it all wrong.

A little background: a study published recently in Current Biology and summarized in a HuffPost article seeks to understand why more animals do not have larger brains. In my field of neurobiology this has been a long-standing mystery: since big brains are assumed to be beneficial, why are they so rare in the animal kingdom? As the recent article explains, the most commonly proposed explanation is the "expensive tissue hypothesis." The idea is that the high metabolic cost of maintaining a complex central nervous system exceeds the benefits of flexible and adaptive behavior that comes with a big brain. In the case of humans the brain constitutes two percent of our body weight but consumes 20 percent of the energy. The Current Biology article indeed shows that as guppies grow larger brains their guts shrink in size, making them more metabolically inefficient compared to their smaller-brained brethren. This has serious consequences: The smarter fish had almost 20 percent fewer little guppies to call their own.

None of this is terribly surprising; evolution is an endless struggle between cost and benefit. A large brain is an energy hog. In addition, the bigger the brain the more important its protection becomes, requiring even more energy for thick skulls, protective tissue, specialized blood vessels, and host of other adaptations. Somewhere along the line this high cost has to be paid, as humans clearly show: fewer offspring, long periods of infant nurturing, and the demand for a constant source of calories to feed the central energy consumer.

Asking the Wrong Question

Sure, big brains extract a high cost. That line of reasoning is convincing, and I am confident this tells part of the story. But here is where I break from many of my colleagues: the high metabolic cost of a big brain is largely irrelevant to the big picture.

I propose that big brains are rare in nature not because they are an expensive tissue to maintain, but because the consequences of complex thought are not adaptive. Being smart is a dumb survival strategy. The study in Current Biology starts from the premise that big brains are beneficial; I believe that assumption to be fundamentally wrong. The question should not be why big brains are rare in nature but why they can persist at all; the answer is that they do not. Our little blip of existence for 100,000 or so years proves nothing other than a bad trend toward self-destruction.

As are all creatures, humans are a genetic experiment resulting from selective pressure, random mutations, and pure chance that our ancestors avoided extinction from catastrophic events, such as meteorite impacts. Our ancestors made it far enough to yield us, but the prospects for our future survival are not particularly bright. Extinction is the biological norm; so far at least the pattern of evolution for humans is no different from the rest of the earth's fauna.

Human Hubris

The unquestioned assumption that big brains are good comes from a deep-seated human arrogance that our species is special. We are taught that evolution reaches a pinnacle with our species, and that our intelligence sets us apart. Religion tells us only we are made in god's image. This perspective is deeply wrong. By understanding why, we can gain perspective on how having a big brain is not all it's cracked up to be.

Without a doubt, human beings possess a level of intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness greater by degree than is found in any other animal. But as with almost all aspects of comparative biology, intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness are elements of a continuum, rather than phenomena with sharp boundaries between species. Intelligence and self-awareness do not belong exclusively in the domain of humankind. No universal measure of intelligence can be meaningful, because animals have diverse adaptations that define the context of intelligence, making interspecies comparisons suspect. A cat under water would not look too intelligent, but a porpoise might. On the other hand, you would be severely challenged to teach a porpoise to climb a tree. You may well be able to solve math problems, but your dog will learn more quickly and more effectively than you ever could to sniff out the drugs in your colleague's suitcase, and to notify you of the contraband. An animal's intelligence, or more precisely, its ability to manifest its intelligence, is tightly correlated with its natural environment, and its evolutionary adaptations.

No matter how much we want to think ourselves special, intelligence is found by degrees across the animal kingdom, and not in some nice neat linear correlation with some other trait like the development of mammary glands. Being smart seems to be a trait unique to human beings only when we artificially designate our particular suite of characteristics as the definition of intelligence, proving that circular logic is not too intelligent.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Other animals, like elephants and dolphins, have big brains. Some bird species have proven to be extraordinarily intelligent. So how then can I claim that having a big brain is maladaptive? By having too much of a good thing: in the case of humans the endless evolutionary struggle between cost and benefit may well have tilted toward too great a cost in growing a big head. Some intelligence is good; too much is destructive. Somewhere along the continuum of intelligence in the animal kingdom the balance tilts: on one side the costs and benefits of intelligence balance favorably; on the other, the consequences of intelligence become too great to be outweighed by the many advantages.

A Bad Outcome

Every species exploits the environment to the maximum extent possible, until competition, predation, resource depletion, disease or other constraints limit growth and expansion. Social animals, from insects to mammals, find equilibrium between cooperation and competition. Human survival strategies are no different from those pursued by other species, except that we have a huge technological advantage (a consequence of our big brains). In struggling to survive, humans have successfully co-opted a significant percentage of the planet's available resources. We have waged war at a scale only possible in a species with a brain big enough to contemplate such actions. Our reliance on technology to exploit resources, and each other, has had global effects over a short time period, unlike other species similarly striving to survive. Having a big brain has extracted disastrous costs. As a result, our efforts to survive and prosper may have the paradoxical consequence of causing our extinction, either directly through the use of weapons of mass destruction, or through the degradation of the resources on which we depend.

Short History

In spite of our hubris, humans are nothing but a short-lived biological aberration, with no legitimate claim to superiority. As a minor branch on a vast evolutionary bush, modern humans have been roaming the earth for no more than a few hundred thousand years of the earth's 4.5 billion-year history. Ours has been a brief presence, with too little time to demonstrate if the evolution of large brains is a successful strategy for long-term survival of the species. Our self-anointed position to exalted status has blinded us to the reality that our big brains might not be our savior but the potential source of our demise. We claim we are special, but there is a loss of credibility when you choose yourself for an award.

If evolution had a pinnacle, bacteria would rest on top. While it hurts our ego, we live in the Age of Bugs, not the Age of Humans. These single-celled germs are the most successful of all life forms, and have been dividing away for more than 3 billion years. Bacteria have been found to live in virtually every conceivable environment at extremes of pressure, temperature, salinity, radiation, alkalinity and acidity. A spoonful of good quality soil may contain ten trillion bacteria representing more than ten thousand different species. More than 1 million bacteria are found in 1 milliliter of seawater, and these constitute most of the ocean's biomass. Our self-promotion to the image of god is simply embarrassing in the face of this biological reality on the ground. When the human species is a distant memory, bacteria will be dividing merrily away, oblivious to the odd bipedal mammal that once roamed the earth for such a brief moment in time.

And so we come full circle to the question about brain size. In life's history on Earth, only a few animals have developed large brains, and only one species the largest. In elephants and dolphins we are probably witnessing the upper limit of adaptive growth of big brains, the point where cost and benefit roughly balance; beyond that we are likely observing the odd reality that brains too complex lead to behaviors resulting in extinction. The answer to the mystery of the paucity of large brains is found in behavior, not metabolism.

Of course on Earth we have just a sample size of one; so my idea about big brain rarity is difficult to test. A few million years from now the answer will be clear, even if we might not be around to appreciate it. Or perhaps sooner than that we'll discover an abundance of life elsewhere and we'll have a great sample for comparison. In the meantime we can surmise that any brain smart enough to develop a weapon capable of destroying itself, or depleting its sustaining resources, is not too smart.



Book Introduction:

Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World

by Jeff Schweitzer and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara 

June 22, 2009
"Beyond Cosmic Dice" offers a new perspective on the purpose and meaning of life free from any divine influence. By rejecting the false premises of religion, readers are free to pave their own road for a better life.


Jeff Schweitzer
 spent much of his youth underwater pursuing his lifelong fascination with marine life. He obtained his doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography through his neurobehavioral studies of sharks and rays. He has published in an eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology, marine science, international development, environmental protection and aviation. Jeff and his wife live in central Texas, moving there after retiring from the White House as Assistant Director for International Science and Technology.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara is an evolutionary biologist with a doctorate from the University of California. He serves as a marine policy advisor to various national and international bodies, and has recently represented Italy in multilateral environmental negotiations. Through appearances on television and radio, and the publication of articles and books, he has been striving to increase public awareness of marine conservation. Giuseppe lives with his family in Northern Italy.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "