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Posted By Patrick

Why do humans have such big brains, relative to our body size? According to Gary Lynch and Richard Granger in Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence (Palgrave Macmillan 2008), the answer might have something to do with us walking upright. According to their argument, in order for us to become bipeds, hominid hips and lower back had to change from those sported by our primate predecessors. They got wider to support the load, which meant that it was possible for babies with larger heads to be born. The big brain is thus an evolutionary side effect – once the brains were out there, they became useful, but they appeared because there was simply more pelvic space to do so, meaning more babies with freakishly (for the time) big heads could be born. So thanks to bipedalism, our brains are now about 2.3 times larger than that of a comparably sized chimpanzee (take that, chimp!).

We tend to think of homo sapiens – the name means “wise” or “intelligent” man, after all – as being the biggest-brained of all the hominids, too. After all, intelligence is our ace-in-the-hole, evolutionarily speaking. We’re more endowed upstairs than homo habilis (who was 1.5 times as large as that comparable chimp) and homo erectus (twice as large as this chimp, who must be getting a bit of a complex by now). But we may be kidding ourselves: we weren’t necessarily the brightest-burning logs on the cave-fire. Neanderthals, for instance, had brains 10% bigger than ours, proportionate to their body; and Boskops (named for the site in South Africa where their remains were first found) were a whopping 25% bigger-brained. So we’ve been unfairly slagging the Neanderthals when we put people down as behaving like them – they produced art, lived in communities that supported their elderly, and no doubt hosted dinner parties that were a whole lot more refined than ours back in the day. But where are the Neanderthals and Boskops today? That’s right – they’re all gone. Their big brains – accompanied by superior intelligence, Lynch and Granger argue – may have been of little help when they were kicking around this earth. It’s hard to say why homo sapiens prevailed, but regardless of who was smartest, we’re here now. And to the victor goes the sapientia.

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