Ecology has determined the great development of the human brain

There is no scientific consensus on why the human brain has such a large relative size, compared to other living beings. Numerous evolutionary theories have tried to explain this singularity, but none has been able to discern whether its growth is a cause or an effect of other factors.

One of the best known hypotheses is that our brain grew to allow our ancestors to function better in an increasingly complex society. Another hypothesis is that this increase in size is related to the fact that our ancestors began to eat meat. The greater protein contribution would have allowed the reduction of the digestive system, in favor of an increase in brain mass.

A new study published this week in Nature rejects those hypotheses. "Our results indicate that ecology has been a determining factor in the evolution of the size of the human brain, and not social aspects such as cooperation or competition", explains Sinc Mauricio González-Forero, researcher at the Faculty of Biology at the University of Saint Andrews (United Kingdom).

Among these ecological factors are problems such as finding food, storing it, and processing it to consume it. "The hunter-gatherers who live in the African savanna solve these problems through animal tracking skills, construction of tools such as bottles and leather containers, and with the production and control of fire to cook food," explains the researcher.

The study concludes that when the environment is inhospitable and individuals can continue to learn how to solve problems long after childhood - for example, because they can learn difficult techniques from other individuals - that combination between ecology and knowledge accumulation produces brains of size human.

On the trail of a larger brain

With the help of a computational model, the authors have analyzed the energy costs and benefits provided by a larger brain. The larger the size, the more energy is consumed and the less energy available for other functions, such as the reproductive organs. However, a larger brain also tends to allow the individual to solve more complex problems.

"The model calculates how large the brain should be as a result of natural selection when individuals have evolved by finding problems of different types. We have considered ecological problems and three types of social problems (cooperation, competition between individuals, and competition between groups), "explains González-Forero.

In this way, 60% of the determining factors are of an ecological nature, 30% would be related to cooperation and only 10% would be based on competition between groups. The competition between individuals would not have been relevant for the evolution of the brain.

These percentages are consistent with the fact that human psychology is characterized by its tendency to cooperate. Cooperation among individuals plus competition between groups, which involves cooperation among individuals in the group, provides a high proportion of cooperation problems - 40% - that could have shaped human psychology.

"Our model refutes the hypothesis that the human brain expanded throughout evolution due to social demands. On the contrary, we found that such demands contribute to decrease the size of the brain ", explains González-Forero.

"That does not mean that we should diminish our social interactions to promote a bigger brain, because the consequences of something like that would take hundreds of thousands of years to have an effect and could involve negative consequences that the model does not anticipate," concludes the researcher.

A world of plastic

So I'm thinking a lot about this ecoliteracy and thinking about our evolved state in the world and what we need to do. My friend Patrick sent this article, "Plastic Ocean: Our Oceans Are Turning Into Plastic. Are We?" to me a little while back and it is one of the most frightening things I have read in a while. I want to share it with you.

It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.

How did all the plastic end up here? How did this trash tsunami begin? What did it mean? If the questions seemed overwhelming, Moore would soon learn that the answers were even more so, and that his discovery had dire implications for human—and planetary—health. As Alguita glided through the area that scientists now refer to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” Moore realized that the trail of plastic went on for hundreds of miles. Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris trapped in a purgatory of circling currents. To his horror, he had stumbled across the 21st-century Leviathan. It had no head, no tail. Just an endless body.

Leviathan. I'll say.
Humanity occupies an unprecedented niche in the living world. Our ability to adapt to new environments dwarfs all other “higher” taxa animals on planet earth. Though the humpback and bowhead whales sing elegant arias to one another over dozens of miles in a language of which we can only grasp the rudiments, they have no ability to make tools to change their environments. Last year researchers discovered that female chimpanzees in Africa were making and using spears to hunt; additionally, the females were teaching each other how to make the spears, thus creating a spear meme in their local culture. As fascinating as the unknown grammar and syntax of whale languages and “lower” order primate tool-making are, the human ability to speak, write, and read and use that language instinct to manipulate and adapt to its environment stand as both our greatest asset and our greatest weakness.
And here we see how it has become our greatest weakness. The ability to create plastic has naturally coupled itself with the human middle-world desire for convenience and the result? A massive swath of plastic twice the size of Texas. If I were religious, I'd start praying now. But that's not the point.
This is the kind of thing that requires action at every level - bottom-up and top-down. Our enormous evolved brains have gifted us with the most incredible abilities, including the collective delusion that garbage disappears. Out of sight. Out of mind. Here we are in middle world. Will we soon be walking on and swimming in our own trash?

Eco-Realism Part II

"When an opponent declares, 'I will not come over to your side.' I calmly say, 'Your child belongs to us already…What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.'"
- Adolf Hitler

David Orr recognizes in Ecological Literacy (if you're going to buy the book though, get it locally) that in order for children, especially American children we must presume, to become ecologically literate, that a great transformation must occur. Where traditional American education has focused on our developing students’ abilities to recognize and generate semantically meaningful language and become fluent with arithmetic and mathematics so that they might learn and master (at least partially) other scholastic disciplines, Orr believes that we must expand those scholastic disciplines and the application of linguistic and mathematical literacy to develop ecological literacy. “By failing to include ecological perspectives in any number of subjects, students are taught that ecology is unimportant for history, politics, economics, society, and so forth.”
Orr believes that children are the foundation on whom we are to build this brave new world. In order for this to happen, they must be instilled with both a sense of wonder and be given integrative thinking skills.
But some things must first be overcome. First, students need to think broadly about topics. American students are taught in an educational system that presents them with discrete topics where things do not overlap; they are boxed. But good thinking draws connections and presents us with the opportunity to “think at right angles.” Second, we are schooled inside. How are we to realize ourselves as mammals that are a part of the nature of things if we are so constantly shielded from much of the environment? Our schooling places blinders on how our culture shapes the biotic world. Third, and in no small part because we are shielded from nature by our cultural machines and machinations, we do not learn to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of nature. How do we appreciate the beauty of the Great Horned Owl in the knot of the Willow tree if we are cloistered indoors or staring at shopping malls and car lots? We will never see the owl. This is like the world in Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the movie of which was Bladerunner. In its world of technological advancement, animals are all but figments. Yet there is still some vestigial appreciation for their beauty and necessity. So they are engineered. Even worse, given the degree to which American homo sapiens sapiens spends on computers (look where I am now), we could end up in The Matrix or the world of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops wherein human beings are fully integrated into machines that come to own them. You are not only what you eat, but you are what you use. These science fiction stories give us dystopic visions of how our attempt to separate ourselves from nature dooms us not even to forget nature outside of our own creations, but to not even know much of its existence at all.
To avoid this world, we must reeducate ourselves and our children by showing them and ourselves that all education is environmental education. From there, we have to integrate the lion’s share of disciplines and departments into the formal understanding of and dissemination of our gathered information on the environment. This education should take place in patient dialogues wherein we develop respect and understanding whose pace is “governed by cycles of day and night, the seasons, the pace of procreation, and by the larger rhythm of evolutionary and geologic time.” This pacing should lead us to develop experiential means that become, in some ways, the content and initiate a more conversational pedagogy between student and teacher as facilitator. Experiential environmental learning will also develop good thinking which, in turn, develops the learner’s competence with natural systems.
Orr hopes that our new educational culture will create people who realize that they are integrated in the world, part of the great chain of being. Orr, in a marvelous assault, contrasts his philosophy of education with Allan Bloom whose Great Books philosophy was set in stone in his 1987 tract, Closing of the American Mind, a book of such self-congratulatory narcissism that one feels trapped in a hall of mirrors that reflect only Bloom’s face.
However, Bloom does set down a vision of the liberal education, but one that ensconces a philosophy that sets man apart from nature. Bloom writes in his chapter, “Culture” that “[t]his Rousseauan-Kantian vision is in essential agreement with the Enlightenment view of what is natural in man. But for the first time within philosophy, something other and higher that nature is found in man (emphasis mine).” Bloom believes that the American student has lost his (he is thoroughly androcentric and patriarchal) way by losing his connection to the Enlightenment. In many ways, Bloom is right. Some of our best codifications of rational thought come from the Enlightenment and Locke, Kant, Newton, Leibniz, Voltaire, Hume, D’Holbach, Paine, and their intellectual ancestors like John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Bertrand Russell give us great tools for thought. But they are not the end.
In steps Orr, who hopes to reconstruct the liberal arts education “to develop balanced, whole persons who have connected minds and feelings.” He cites Alfred North Whitehead a fair bit. To go beyond Orr’s citations, we read in the preface of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, “We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation.” To use this in Orr’s terms, we should consider that Bloom’s Great Books ideal and the modern world’s scientism (which could now be renamed technologism) has been temporally provincial and myopic and must now shift to a new Kuhnsian paradigm of ecologically realistic science and humanities that would help learners become whole – integrated into their communities, including their campuses.
The quotation with which I opened this essay serves us as a reminder. I don’t just mean to be an alarmist or suggest that Orr and Hitler are somehow morally equivalent. It is pure caution on my part so that we approach the endeavor skeptically and compassionately. Children’s biobehavioral clay is molded by their cultural environments and we, the cultural occupants, shape that culture. We shape it for our own ends and by our own means and we form kinds of learners who become kinds of actors. Anyone who watches Triumph of the Will sees the young German learner believing in the realism of the Reich wherein Aryan science and Aryan humanities were developed. Consider the millions sent to the Gulag because they had violated the doctrines of Socialist Realism. Children are raised to believe in the moral efficacy of misogyny, filicide, patricide, homicide, and genocide by the world’s dominant religions. What we believe and how we believe it profoundly affect our behavior.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn said that a man with a gun in hand can kill one, five, or even twenty people. But a man armed with an ideology can kill millions. Ideas have consequences. While I agree with Orr that we need, desperately need, to realize ourselves as part of the biosphere, we must always guard ourselves against the tyrant within us who believes s/he knows what is best for others and will dominate others to see it through.
First, do no harm. Second, love others.