Why did human ancestors evolve such large brains? While humans have an unusual array of characteristics that distinguish us from other species, it is our cognitive abilities and open-ended thinking that are most remarkable. University of Missouri-Columbia researchers found that the ability to excel at social problem solving led human brains to surpass other species in size, developing ecological dominance 1.5 to 2 million years ago.
Mark Flinn and Carol Ward, associate professors of anthropology, along with psychology professor David Geary have integrated this new theory of human intelligence evolution with recent developments in the fields of paleoanthropology, cognitive psychology and neurobiology. Through testing fossils for brain size, body size and archaeological evidence of behavior, along with recent comparisons of our mental abilities to those of apes, the researchers have found support for a theory proposed by zoologist Richard Alexander that humans evolved large brains to negotiate and manipulate complex social relationships.
“Most traditional theories, including that of Charles Darwin, suggested some combination of tool use and hunting were the key selective pressures favoring big brains, but increasing evidence of hunting and tool use in other species such as chimpanzees indicates our ancestors were not unique in that regard,” Flinn said. “The most exceptional of our mental gifts involves understanding what is going on in other people’s minds by using skills such as empathy and self-awareness.”
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