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Essay on Altruism and the Fluctuation of Intelect

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Altruism and the Fluctuation of Intelect


"So I raise this question, although there is nobody around to answer it: Can it be doubted that three kilogram brains were once nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human race?" - Kurt Vonnegut, Galapagos

On reading the text What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr, one single fact among all that upheaval of information and opinion has stuck with me and continued to occupy my own big brain: that "the human brain seems not to have changed one single bit since the first appearance of Homo sapiens, some 150,000 years ago". In contrast, the two million years before that was a period of rapid brain growth for our forbearers: the approximate volume occupied by the brains of our forbearers effectively tripled in this period of time which is, in terms of evolution, relatively short. (214) Although body mass at this time was also increasing, the rate at which our brains were increasing in size far outstripped that of the body.

Why then, some 150,00 years ago, did that process suddenly halt? As is evidenced by the fossil record, there was apparently some selective pressure towards bigger brains size that eventually leveled off and stopped. Why do we no longer have natural selection in favor of that bigger brain size? Two logical explanations present themselves: either the circumstances that caused our brains to begin increasing were satisfied, or some other circumstances occurred that effected brain size in the opposite direction. One hypothesis that has presented itself to me is that the latter has occurred, but as a side effect of our own evolving intelligence; that we, in effect, became "too smart for our own good". What byproduct of our intelligence could be so powerful as to provide...


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...lity that we have in fact become too smart for our own good, and that our intellect is now producing some emotions which will in turn counteract the drive towards more intellect. All the advances that humankind has made since the age of the Neanderthals 150,000 years ago have been a product of our creation of cultural knowledge rather than a result of any increase in our brain size. It is perhaps because of this evolution of culture, and the ideals inherent in it, that our brain size has not selectively increased in the past 150,000 years.

Works Cited

Cartwright, John H. Evolutionary Explanations of Human Behaviour. Routledge: New York, NY, 2001.

Eccles, John C. Evolution of the brain. Routledge: London, England, 1989.

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. Basic Books: New York, NY, 2001.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Galapagos. Dell Publishing Co.: New York, NY 1985.


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