Neuron Culture


Early homind skulls, from A Kansan’s Guide to Science (seriously)

A couple weeks ago, the Guardian ran an article in which Oxford neurobiologist Colin Blakemore described “how the human got bigger by accident and not through evolution.” Though I didn’t get to it at the time, I thought that an odd headline, since evolution actually occurs when genetic accidents — those mutation things — grant an advantage. Now John Hawks has written a post addressing what he says is a pretty big muckup by Blakemore:

Thanks to Jerry Coyne, I encountered an interview in the Guardian with Colin Blakemore: “Colin Blakemore: How the human brain got bigger by accident and not through evolution.”

The headline is a misnomer, as Blakemore is not denying evolution, he is denying selection. But Blakemore’s argument is based completely on a false presentation of the facts. Consider:

The question is: why is it so big compared to the brains of our predecessors, such as Homo erectus? Until 200,000 years ago, there had been a gradual increase in brain size among hominins, starting three million years ago. Then, abruptly, there was a remarkable increase of about 30% or so.

That’s Blakemore. Now, here’s a chart of endocranial volumes of Pleistocene human fossils:

Endocranial volumes of Pleistocene human fossils


Endocranial volume against time for fossil Homo.

Time is in thousands of years before present, running left to right.

As you can see, there’s no sudden jump 200,000 years ago, or at any other time. The data, such as they are, are consistent with a single pattern of increase over time, as pointed out by Sang-Hee Lee and Milford Wolpoff (2003).

Heck, it’s the lack of a sudden jump that has gotten all the attention. Because if “modern” humans suddenly showed up in Africa 200,000 years ago, and all of a sudden had vastly larger brains than any other hominins, wouldn’t that be a simple and tidy story? Don’t you think we’d all be talking about the sudden origin of modern humans as reflected by their larger brains?

It just didn’t happen.

There’s more. It’s a nice post, correcting the error in a way that makes clear some basic evolutionary dynamics and clarifies the arc of human (brain) development.


  1. #1 Ken
    March 29, 2010

    So that obvious jump in the last 200k years is just an illusion?

    A best fit line before 200k only grazes the lower data of the last 200k.

    Is the debate that it is a bend up rather than a jump?

  2. #2 Phoenix Woman
    March 29, 2010

    Ken: It’s only a jump if you ignore the data you don’t like.

  3. #3 utopia27
    March 30, 2010

    So who said linear? or even piecewise linear?

    There’s lots and lots of smooth, differentiable curves that’d fit that data beautifully. I’d lay money on a pair of S-curves. I bet if you go back farther back past homo and australopithicus you can see a very shallow S-curve, then the first half of a steeper S-curve into homo.

    And I’ll bet you can model each one of those curves nicely with a network-effect model, showing that an individual’s brainpower is synergistic with the brainpower of others. Limiting factors are a cost/benefit, that only pays off when the mutation/modification reaches a level of population penetration.

    Moral of the story – nerds are uncool in homo erectus society, at least until there are enough nerds to build the internet.

  4. #4 Larry Pendarvis
    April 1, 2010

    You wrote, “nerds are uncool in homo erectus society, at least until there are enough nerds to build the internet.”

    Very perceptive! I can imagine a future time when there are whole countries where Aspergians are in control.
    Up until now, AS as a Minority have been disadvantaged, considered attention-deficient or psychopathic, unable to endure a job interview for lack of eye contact, poor used car salesmen because of lack of desire to lie or use euphemisms, etc.
    But in this mythical future land, NTs will be disadvantaged, considered Attention-deficient because they are unable to stick to a video game / computer simulation for more than 18 hours, easily deceived by anyone who can fake eye contact and body language, etc. Those who hire an NT based on his golf game, rather than an AS based on Job Skills, will soon find their companies bankrupt.