One of the most prevalent conventions of human thought is “Bigger is Better”, whether that’s referring to buildings, cars, bank accounts, etc.
And the same concept applied to brains, too. For a long time it was thought, the bigger the brain, the more intelligent the creature.
But, new studies show that the correlation between brain size and intelligence isn’t really much of a correlation at all, and the age-old idea that increased size = increased [insert variable here] has been blown out of the water.
A team of 22 international experts in human and animal biology have studied approximately 1,400 brains of extinct mammals. The idea was to compare information about their brain masses with the rest of the body in each sample.
Latest Science News Says: Big Brains Aren’t Big Enough
All this biology news looks like science fiction, but it is not. The study, published in April 2021 in Science Advances, is the result of years of research on brain size and intelligence.
The species known to be the smartest on our planet have very different proportions:
- Elephants amaze us with their size, but their brain development is much greater
- Dolphins tend to shrink their body size over the years and mutations across the species, but the brain grows larger with each generation
- Monkeys have a wide range of sizes and seem to follow a pattern when it comes to body and brain
- Humanity follows a trend similar to dolphins, where we become smaller and with greater intellect.
Kamran Safi, a lead researcher from Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, said that “Using relative brain size as a proxy for cognitive capacity must be set against an animal’s evolutionary history and the nuances in the way the brain and body have changed over the tree of life.”
Studying the Past
The researchers discovered that the biggest evolutionary changes to brain size occurred after cataclysmic events in the earth’s history. Think events like meteor strikes and massive climate shifts.
The first point analyzed was the mass extinction 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretatian era. During this period, dramatic changes were found in rodents, bats, carnivores, and some animals recognized as direct survivors of dinosaurs.
Likewise, between 23 to 33 million years ago, at the end of the Paleonege era, profound changes in the structure of seals, bears, whales, and other primates were also found due to a brutal change in the planet’s climate.
Humans Cognition and Their Developed Brains
Talking about evolution concerning our own species in this aspect needs the support that the research from the University of Vienna carried out in 2015.
After more than 8,000 individuals were studied nearly 90 times, the result says that it is not the size but the structure of our brain that gives us greater intelligence.
Although the result is not 100% compatible because they have tested IQs, it is accepted that what makes someone more or less intelligent than others is their ability to rationally understand the world around them, their memory, resolutions, and logical capacity.
Another project, published in the Royal Society Open Science in 2016, supports the thesis that brain stucture, not size, is indicative of intelligence.
An experiment used to test brain function has subjects collect food in a container that has two entrances. Once the specimen learns both entrances, a transparent block is added, and if it remembers the alternate path to the food and does so, it is considered to be more intelligent than another species that insists on the shortest path.
Many of the test subjects (which varied in size and species) demonstrated the same performance, which again shows subjects with different brain sizes are capable of reaching the same end goal. It’s all about structure.
All of this research leads to the question: have humans evolved to unlock the full potential of our brains? Or will cataclysmic events in the future lead to evolutionary changes in the human brain?
It also raises the question: what does this new science mean for non-earth species?
Alien Science Meets Earth Science
A common stereotype about aliens is that their hyper-intelligence comes from their massive brains, which is reflected in the oblong-shaped heads.
But, if alien biology follows the new developments in Earth biology, it’d be more likely that aliens have slighter frames and smaller heads. It’s all about brain structure, not size, so the massive heads common in depictions of the green men don’t seem as realistic.
What do you think? Have cataclysmic events altered evolutionary patterns for non-Earth lifeforms, just like they have influenced human and animal brain size/structure? And what’s next for the human evolutionary pattern? Let us know in the comments!