Heat: another reason humans have big brains

Humans have stupidly big brains. Which are also stupidly important, making all of our fancy technology possible. As such scientists have spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out just why we have big brains. And they have an answer! Several, actually. It

Humans have stupidly big brains. Which are also stupidly important, making all of our fancy technology possible. As such scientists have spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out just why we have big brains. And they have an answer! Several, actually. It turns out the evolution of our big brains wasn’t a simple thing; with multiple different factors driving it. Now researchers have identified another one: heat!

Or to be more precise: too much heat. Brains must be kept nice and warm. So our big brains require more heat than the average ape to keep toasty (since there’s more brain to heat). In fact, compared to a chimp-sized brain our big brains require more than double the amount of energy to heat. In a warm environment this would put us at a disadvantage relative to those chimps since we’re wasting all that extra energy on heat.

But what about in a cooler environment? Well, then animals will have to produce extra heat anyway in order to stay warm. Thus the extra heat we were already giving to our big brains isn’t “wasted”. Suddenly this disadvantage disappears and there’s no reason for humans not to evolve large noggins.

And that’s the gist of this new hypothesis. Over the course of human evolution the environment got colder. So animals had to spend more energy keeping warm. Thus spending more energy keeping a bigger brain warm didn’t put our ancestors at a disadvantage; allowing us to evolve larger brains (for one of the other reasons referenced in the introduction).

Now, some of you with a decent understanding of surface area and heat might think that a larger brain would need even more energy to heat in colder climates. Wouldn’t this nullify the thermal benefit? However, enlarging organs is how animals typically keep warm in colder environments. So the chimps would be keeping their brains warm by growing them bigger. So again, we’d all be on the same evolutionary page and our ancestors still wouldn’t be at a disadvantage for having large brains.

(Fortunately for us chimps never encountered cold climates so never had the chance to get big brains. However, Neanderthals lived in even colder environments than us and they had even bigger brains).


Human and Neanderthal skulls. See how the Neanderthals had a much bigger brain case

And when you examine the fossil data this idea does hold water (or retain heat; if you’re more pun inclined). As environmental temperature goes down larger brains become more viable and soon begin to evolve.

However, it doesn’t seem that heat is the single most important factor in the evolution of large brains. Other factors have a stronger correlation with brain size in our ancestors. But then, this hypothesis doesn’t claim heat is the single most important driving force. Rather, it made it viable for big brains to emerge and thus for other factors to make them evolve.

So, another variable in the evolution of big brains has been discovered. Our understanding of its evolution is now a bit better but – for people like me who have to learn all this stuff – sadly a bit more complicated.


Naya, D. E., Naya, H., & Lessa, E. P. (2015). Brain size and thermoregulation during the evolution of the genus Homo. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology.

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10 thoughts on “Heat: another reason humans have big brains”

  1. Peter Kvint says:

    Toucans have large beaks because ….
    Cattle and goats have large horns because ….
    Humans have large brains because ….

    1. Adam Benton says:

      That’s not an implausible suggestion. However, unlike most sexually selected characteristics the brain displays very little sexual dimorphsim.

      1. Peter Kvint says:

        If human mating behavior is that males and females dancing together. And talk together. This gives the impression of the partner’s physical abilities and intelligence.

        1. Adam Benton says:

          Would be interesting to see some cross-cultural comparisons to identify if that is a behaviour universal enough to have some potential evolutionary history

  2. Chris Reynolds says:

    Of course dolphins and whales have a big advantage, as they live in a cold environment (compared with body temperature). Because they need to burn energy to keep warm why not do it with a bigger brain rather than just burning more fat. In addition they don’t have to worry about the weight of the brain as it is very similar to that of water.

    Perhaps Douglas Adams was right and they are more intelligent than us – but have the disadvantage that as they don’t have hands they can’t make sophisticated tools.

  3. Marcel Williams says:

    Humans have big brains because they are a tool dependent species with an elaborate form of audio-vocal communications. This is clearly illustrated in the morphology of the motor and somatosensory areas of the human brain where a disproportional amount of brain area is dedicated to the hands, fingers, tongue, lips, and jaws of humans. Brain size– that is not directly related to intelligence– is usually related to muscle mass.

    Neandertals tended to have larger brains than other modern races because they tended to have more muscle mass.

    Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) have huge brains because most of their brain mass is dedicated to sonar and audio-vocal communications and also because of their large amount of muscle mass.


  4. Andre Salzmann. says:

    Does this mean that there is a correlation between an individual’s body mass and brain
    mass or body mass and brain mass in general ?
    This theory on the influence of temperature on brain mass, makes no sense. Erectus
    apparently survived for 2 million years with a identifiable skeleton ? So it experienced
    no climate change ?
    The second address attached here relates a little to what is being discovered in the
    natural health field of interest today. It seems gut microbes and brain function is
    directly related. Chimp’s gut’s setup seems very different to Sapien’s. I have a feeling
    gut bio development had a lot to do with brain development. Would be interesting to
    study dolphins and other fish from this perspective.



  5. philipcoggan says:

    The prime problem facing large-brained dolphins and whales is that inventing fire is fiendishly difficult, considering.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Also, opposoable thumbs aren’t a great help for swimming.

  6. Peter Kvint says:

    The two sexes mate with people who make them laugh. This requires a large brain.

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Heat: another reason humans have big brains

by Adam Benton
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