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

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
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."