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).

45894-skulls

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.

Reference

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 Comments

Peter Kvint · 3rd November 2015 at 6:13 pm

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

    Adam Benton · 4th November 2015 at 7:51 pm

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

      Peter Kvint · 5th November 2015 at 8:52 am

      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.

        Adam Benton · 5th November 2015 at 3:20 pm

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

Chris Reynolds · 3rd November 2015 at 9:01 pm

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.

Marcel Williams · 3rd November 2015 at 11:03 pm

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.

Marcel

Andre Salzmann. · 4th November 2015 at 5:33 am

Marcel,
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.

http://www.livescience.com/41048-facts-about-homo-erectus.html

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-tantalizing-links-between-gut-microbes-and-the-brain/?WT.mc_id=SA_DD_20151026

philipcoggan · 4th November 2015 at 9:02 am

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

    Adam Benton · 5th November 2015 at 3:19 pm

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

Peter Kvint · 8th November 2015 at 6:45 pm

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

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