So, since George and Martha led us down the path of cranial expansion and our brain capacity increased three fold, we’ve made a few notable achievements. If we start with ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, we can see the staggering and rapid development of these ancient civilizations. Replete with complex monetary and banking systems, judicial systems, libraries, staggering architectural feats, religion, culture, art, music, festivals, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, technology, philosophy, literature, etc.,
And even within a discipline such as math, the achievements are staggering. Consider that George may have had a rudimentary ability to count, whereas Babylonian mathematics used a sexagesimal (base 60) numeral system. Interestingly, this formed the basis of the 60-minute hour, 24-hour day, and seven day week, as well as the 360-degree circle. Ancient Babylonians even used this mathematical system for early map-making. While not entirely correct by our understanding today, the Babylonians pioneered geometry for use in technology and architecture.
Having a larger brain certainly appears to have given humans an advantage over other non-human primates and other species. But the special sauce is actually the cooperation within social groups. Civilizations have always benefited from the pooling of minds and skills. When we evaluate the achievements of early civilizations, we need to understand it in the context of knowledgeable and highly skilled individuals contributing to many ambitious projects. It takes a fairly audacious visionary to come up with the idea of building a five hundred foot pyramid or a three hundred foot hanging garden in the desert. The latter which included 80 kms of canals, dams, aqueducts, and water-raising screws used to irrigate the top levels of the structure. It also takes a dedicated team with considerable and varied skills to execute the project. And it takes a lot of engineering, documentation, and project management to make it happen.
The one recurring catalyst to advancement is the ability to share knowledge. With the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia, the groundwork was laid to share and impart knowledge far and wide. For instance, In the 2nd millennium BC, Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa wrote an extensive Medical Diagnostic Handbook which introduced concepts of diagnosis, prognosis, physical examination, and prescriptions. This text allowed ancient physicians to practice and contribute to medical science. They could draw from a list of medical symptoms and detailed empirical observations and then prescribe appropriate therapies including bandages, creams, and pills.
But as civilizations come to an end (frequently in less than desirable ways), often the knowledge is lost with them. Where the ability to comprehend a written language is lost, so to is the ability for others to learn and expand on the knowledge. It’s astonishing how many times in history a powerful military force has destroyed libraries and museums resulting in the profound loss of ancient knowledge. This trend continues even today. Not that military force is necessarily all bad. Supplying the military with new weapons has long had a profound and stimulating effect on knowledge.
From an historical perspective, knowledge sharing really got a shot in the arm with the printing press. Not coincidentally timed with the emergence of the Renaissance. Suddenly, information could be disseminated far and wide at fraction of the cost of handwritten manuscripts.
The trend continued with the age of enlightenment. More scholarly access to information allowed intellectuals to redefine society using reason. The culmination of the enlightenment was a different approach to thought, reasoning, scientific method, and sharing of knowledge. It largely paved the foundation for universal access to knowledge through universally accessible libraries. It also paved the way for universal education.
With more and more educated people, advances started to grow exponentially. However, much of the research was localized and where experts were concerned, people would travel to learn and participate in the research. But over the course of the 19th century, a network of trains provided every increasing ease to travel distances never imagined before. In the 20th century things start to get really interesting! George would be amazed with the invention of the radio and television and finally the personal computer. And then came the Internet!
It’s somewhat difficult to think that popular access to the Internet is only twenty years old. It’s also difficult to imagine that smartphones are only ten years old, or that tablet devices are only five years old! The ability to connect millions of people together and provide virtually limitless access to knowledge anywhere on the planet has spurned a rate of innovation that is unlike anything we’ve ever encountered.
But all of this begs the question, has the human brain evolved in the last ten thousand years? In an article “Is the human brain still evolving?”, Molly Edmonds cites the 2005 research of Dr. Bruce Lhan of the University of Chicago. His study focuses on two genes: ASPM and microcephalin. When mutations in these genes occur, brain size is affected.
“Lahn had noticed that these genes were changing slightly; these alternative forms of a gene are known as alleles. Lahn’s group tracked the alleles in the DNA of several populations, including individuals from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and East Asia, to ensure diversity… Lahn’s team deemed the variations common enough to suggest that their presence was evidence of natural selection as opposed to an accidental mutation, suggesting that the brain may still be evolving.”
Humans have a disproportionately large brain for our body size. The fact that in a relatively short period of time on the evolutionary scale we tripled the size of our brains does beg the question, why? In an article from The Guardian, Alok Jha, science correspondent quotes Dr. Lahn saying, “Our study offers the first genetic evidence that humans occupy a unique position in the tree of life… The making of the large human brain is not just the neurological equivalent of making a large antler. Rather, it required a level of selection that’s unprecedented.”
Jha adds, “In an increasingly social environment, greater cognitive abilities probably became more of an advantage.”
But brain size does have some physical limitations. In a 2011 Scientific America article, Douglas Fox examines the physical and biological limitations of brain size. In a nutshell, there are real physical limitations for brain size. As the brain increases in size there are diminishing returns based on the number of neurons, the ability for the neurons to establish connections between themselves, and the electrical impulses per second that can link the neurons together. Not to mention energy consumption and dissipation of heat. However, as was discovered in dissecting Albert Einsteins brain there is a possibility that things can be organized better to assist in brain function.
“The human mind, however, may have better ways of expanding without the need for further biological evolution. After all, honeybees and other social insects do it: acting in concert with their hive sisters, they form a collective entity that is smarter than the sum of its parts. Through social interaction we, too, have learned to pool our intelligence with others.”
It’s interesting to reflect on whether the evolution of our brains is based in part on the increased demands of a hyper-connected world? Does the greater social interaction provided by modern technology demand a more evolved brain? Is it stimulus enough to cause evolutionary mutations to occur?
Please join me for:
Part 3: Conflict and evolution