Our brains are huge, particularly if you take into consideration the relative size of our bodies. Generally, the proportion of brain to body is pretty tight among mammals. But the human brain is seven times bigger than what you’d predict from the size of our body. Six million years ago, hominid brains were about a third the size they are today, comparable to a chimp’s. So what accounts for the big boom? It would be flattering ourselves to say that the cause was something we are proud of–our ability to talk, or our gifts with tools. Certainly, our brains show signs of being adapted for these sorts of things (consider the language gene FOXP2). But those adaptations probably were little more than tinkerings with a brain that was already expanding thanks to other factors. And one of those factors may have been tricking our fellow hominid.

In the 1980s, some primatologists noticed that monkeys and apes–unlike other mammals–sometimes deceived members of their own species, in order to trick them out of food or sneak off for some furtive courtships. The primatologists got to thinking that deception involved some pretty sophisticated brain power. A primate needed to understand something about the mental state of other primates and have the ability to predict how a change in that mental state might change the way other primates behaved.

The primatologists then considered the fact that humans aren’t the only primates with oversized brains. In fact, monkeys and apes, on average, have brains twice the size you’d predict for mammals of their body size. Chimpanzees and other great apes have particularly big brains, and they seemed to be particularly adept at tricking each other. What’s more, primates don’t simply have magnified brains. Instead, certain regions of the brain have expanded, such as the neocortex, the outer husk of the brain which handles abstract associations. Activity in the neocortex is exactly the sort of thinking necessary for tricking your fellow ape.

Taking all this into consideration, the primatologists made a pretty gutsy hypothesis: that the challenges of social life–including deception–actually drive the expansion of the primate brain. Sometimes called the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis, it has now been put to its most rigorous test so far, and passed quite well. Richard Byrne and Nadia Corp of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland published a study today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. (The link’s not up yet, but here’s a New Scientist piece.) They found that in 18 species from all the major branches of primates, the size of the neocortex predicts how much deception the species practices. Bigger brains mean more trickery. They were able to statistically rule out a number of other factors that might have created a link where none existed. And they were able to show that deception is not just a side-effect of having a big brain or something that opportunistically emerges more often in big groups. Deception is probably just a good indicator of something bigger going on here–something psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence.” Primates don’t just deceive one another; they also cooperate and form alliances and bonds, which they can keep track of for years.

While deception isn’t just an opportunistic result of being in big groups, big groups may well be the ultimate source of deception (and by extension big brains). That’s the hypothesis of Robin Dunbar of Liverpool, as he detailed last fall in the Annual Review of Anthropology. Deception and other sorts of social intelligence can give a primate a reproductive edge in many different ways. It can trick its way to getting more food, for example; a female chimp can ward off an infanticidal male from her kids with the help of alliances. Certain factors make this social intelligence more demanding. If primates live under threat of a lot of predators, for example, they may get huddled up into big groups. Bigger groups mean more individuals to keep track of, which means more demands on the brain. Which, in turn, may lead to a bigger brain.

If that’s true, then the human brain may have begun to emerge as our ancestors huddled in bigger groups. It’s possible, for example, that early hominids living as bipeds in patchy forests became easier targets for leopards and other predators. Brain size increased modestly until about two million years ago. It may not have been able to grow any faster because of the diet of early hominids. They probably dined on nuts, fruits, and the occasional bit of meat, like chimpanzees do today. That may not have been enough fuel to support a really big brain; brain tissue is incredibly hungry, demanding 16 times more energy than muscle, pound for pound. It was only after hominids began making butchering tools out of stones and got a steady supply of meat from carcasses that the brain began to expand. And it was probably around this time (between 2 and 1.5 million years ago) that hominids began evolving the extraordinary powers of deception (and other sorts of social intelligence) that humans have. We don’t just learn how other people act–we develop a powerful instinct about what’s going on in their minds. (I wrote about the neuroscience behind this “mentalizing” last year in an article for Science.)

So next time you get played, temper your anger with a little evolutionary perspective. You’ve just come face to face with a force at work in our evolution for over 50 million years.

UPDATE 7/3/04: A skeptical reader doubted some of my statements about the brain and the energy it requires. Those who crave more information should check out Northwestern University anthropologist William Leonard’s article “Food for Thought” in Scientific American.

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