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RS 157 - Dr. Herculano-Houzel on "What made the human brain special?"

Release date: April 17th, 2016

Dr. Herculano-Houzel

For centuries, scientists have wondered what makes humans so much smarter than other species. Some proposed it was the size of our brain (though that didn't explain why whales weren't smarter than us); others thought it was the size of our brain relative to our body size (but there were problems with that explanation as well). In this episode, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel lays out the mystery of the "Human advantage," and explains how a new technique she invented several years ago has shed light on some of these longstanding mysteries.


Suzana's Book: "The Human Advantage"
Suzana's Pick: "Catching Fire" by Richard Wrangham

Podcast edited by Brent Silk


Full Transcripts 


Reader Comments (5)

"We would like to know how that compares to women. Younger and older. One of my main interests right now is actually figuring out how much variation you find across individuals."

Uh oh, venturing into politically incorrect territory. If the results fit certain stereotypes, say, paralleling Morton's skull measurements, the research will be killed.
April 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMax
How much of the energy boost came from cooking, and how much of it came from eating meat?

"Food For Thought: Meat-Based Diet Made Us Smarter," NPR Morning Edition, 2010

Our earliest ancestors ate their food raw — fruit, leaves, maybe some nuts. When they ventured down onto land, they added things like underground tubers, roots and berries. It wasn't a very high-calorie diet, so to get the energy you needed, you had to eat a lot and have a big gut to digest it all. But having a big gut has its drawbacks.
"You can't have a large brain and big guts at the same time," explains Leslie Aiello, an anthropologist and director of the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York City, which funds research on evolution. Digestion, she says, was the energy-hog of our primate ancestor's body. The brain was the poor stepsister who got the leftovers.
Until, that is, we discovered meat.
"What we think is that this dietary change around 2.3 million years ago was one of the major significant factors in the evolution of our own species," Aiello says.

The story continues with an interview with Wrangham about cooking.
But what did our early ancestors cook more, meat or plants?
April 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMax
That was a pretty amazing interview.

Well those questions would be really hard to answer.
"How much of the energy boost came from cooking, how much of it came from meat" seems like an unnecessary dichotomy, since you'd also cook meat. There'd definitely be synergistic effects, you'd hunt more, scavenge more, and eat more meat if you had the ability to cook them. They'd become a safer and higher quality source of food.

"But what did our early ancestors cook more, meat or plants?" might be more possible to answer. Hunter-gatherer was the dominant method of subsistence, and you can maybe guess at what our Homo ancestors ate by analyzing historic hunter-gatherer/pre-agriculture societies.

"Whenever and wherever it was ecologically possible, hunter gatherers would have consumed high amounts (45–65% of total energy) of animal food. Most (73%) hunter-gatherer societies worldwide derived > 50% (≥56–65%) of their subsistence from animal foods, whereas only 13.5% of these societies derived more than half (≥56–65%) of their subsistence from gathered plant foods. In turn, this high reliance on animal-based foods coupled with the relatively low carbohydrate content of wild plant foods produces universally characteristic macronutrient consumption ratios in which protein intakes are greater at the expense of carbohydrate." L. Cordain 2000
April 22, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterhipmanbro
People may start bragging about their "cerebral cortex neuron density" in the same way they brag about how much they can bench press. On that note, I must have really high cerebral cortex neuron density since I eat lots of chocolate and pizza to fuel my brain.
December 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Cool stuff brah. The Human brain may be special compared to other species but comparing it within our own species, it definitely can have its own flaws and disadvantages for sure. I hope we ain't done evolving ?
May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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