Evolution of human intelligence

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The evolution of human intelligence is closely tied to the evolution of the human brain and to the origin of language. The timeline of human evolution spans approximately 7 million years,[1] from the separation of the Pan genus until the emergence of behavioral modernity by 50,000 years ago. The first 3 million years of this timeline concern Sahelanthropus, the following 2 million concern Australopithecus and the final 2 million span the history of the human genus in the Paleolithic era.

Many traits of human intelligence, such as empathy, theory of mind, mourning, ritual, and the use of symbols and tools, are apparent in great apes although in less sophisticated forms than found in humans, such as great ape language.



The great apes (hominidae) show considerable cognitive and empathic abilities. Chimpanzees make tools and use them to acquire foods and for social displays; they have sophisticated hunting strategies requiring cooperation, influence and rank; they are status conscious, manipulative and capable of deception; they can learn to use symbols and understand aspects of human language including some relational syntax, concepts of number and numerical sequence.[2]

In one study, young chimpanzees outperformed human college students in tasks requiring remembering numbers.[3] This claim was refuted in a later study after it was noted that the chimpanzees had received extensive practice with the task while the students were evaluated on their first attempt. When human subjects were given time to practice, they substantially outperformed the young chimps.[4]


Chimpanzee mother and baby

Around 10 million years ago, the Earth's climate entered a cooler and drier phase, which led eventually to the Quaternary glaciation beginning some 2.6 million years ago. One consequence of this was that the north African tropical forest began to retreat, being replaced first by open grasslands and eventually by desert (the modern Sahara). As their environment changed from continuous forest to patches of forest separated by expanses of grassland, some primates adapted to a partly or fully ground-dwelling life. Here they were exposed to predators, such as the big cats, from whom they had previously been safe.

These environmental pressures caused selection to favor bipedalism: walking on hind legs. This gave the Homininae's eyes greater elevation, the ability to see approaching danger further off, and a more efficient means of locomotion.[citation needed] It also freed the arms from the task of walking and made the hands available for tasks such as gathering food. At some point the bipedal primates developed handedness, giving them the ability to pick up sticks, bones and stones and use them as weapons, or as tools for tasks such as killing smaller animals, cracking nuts, or cutting up carcasses. In other words, these primates developed the use of primitive technology. Bipedal tool-using primates form the Hominina subtribe, of which the earliest species, such as Sahelanthropus tchadensis, date to about 7 to 5 million years ago.

From about 5 million years ago, the hominin brain began to develop rapidly in both size and differentiation of function.[why?]

There has been a gradual increase in brain volume as humans progressed along the timeline of evolution (see Homininae), starting from about 600 cm3 in Homo habilis up to 1500 cm3 in Homo neanderthalensis. Thus, in general there's a correlation between brain volume and intelligence.[citation needed] However, modern Homo sapiens have a brain volume slightly smaller (1250 cm3) than neanderthals, and the Flores hominids (Homo floresiensis), nicknamed hobbits, had a cranial capacity of about 380 cm3 (considered small for a chimpanzee) about a third of that of H. erectus. It is proposed that they evolved from H. erectus as a case of insular dwarfism. With their three times smaller brain the Flores hominids apparently used fire and made tools as sophisticated as those of their ancestor H.erectus. In this case, it seems that for intelligence, the structure of the brain is more important than its volume.


By 2.4 million years ago Homo habilis had appeared in East Africa: the first known human species, and the first known to make stone tools, yet the disputed findings of signs of tool use from even earlier age and from the vicinity as multiple Australopithecus fossils may put this to question its "greater intelligence when compared to earlier and more primitive Australopithecus genus".

The use of tools conferred a crucial evolutionary advantage, and required a larger and more sophisticated brain to co-ordinate the fine hand movements required for this task.[5] Our knowledge of the complexity of behaviour of Homo habilis is not limited to stone culture, they also had habitual therapic use of toothpicks.[6] The evolution of a larger brain created a problem for early humans, however. A larger brain requires a larger skull, and thus requires the female to have a wider birth canal for the newborn's larger skull to pass through. But if the female's birth canal grew too wide, her pelvis would be so wide that she would lose the ability to run, which was a necessary skill 2 million years ago.[citation needed]

The solution to this was to give birth at an early stage of fetal development, before the skull grew too large to pass through the birth canal. This adaptation enabled the human brain to continue to grow, but it imposed a new discipline. The need to care for helpless infants for long periods of time forced humans to become less mobile[citation needed]. Human bands increasingly stayed in one place for long periods, so that females could care for infants, while males hunted food and fought with other bands that competed for food sources[citation needed]. As a result, humans became even more dependent on tool-making to compete with other animals and other humans, and relied less on body size and strength[citation needed].

About 200,000 years ago Europe and the Middle East were colonized by Neanderthal man, extinct by 39,000 years ago following the appearance of modern humans in the region from 40,000–45,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens

"The Lion-man", found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave of Germany's Swabian Alb and dated to 40,000 years ago, is associated with the Aurignacian culture and is the oldest known anthropomorphic animal figurine in the world.
Dates approximate, consult articles for details
(From 2000000 BC till 2013 AD in (partial) exponential notation)
See also: Java Man (−1.75e+06), Yuanmou Man (−1.75e+06 : -0.73e+06),
Lantian Man (−1.7e+06), Nanjing Man (- 0.6e+06), Tautavel Man (- 0.5e+06),
Peking Man (- 0.4e+06), Solo Man (- 0.4e+06), and Peștera cu Oase (- 0.378e+05)

Homo sapiens intelligence

Around 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens first appeared in East Africa. It is unclear to what extent these early modern humans had developed language, music, religion etc. They spread throughout Africa over the following approximately 50,000 years.[citation needed]

According to proponents of the Toba catastrophe theory, the climate in non-tropical regions of the earth experienced a sudden freezing about 70,000 years ago, because of a huge explosion of the Toba volcano that filled the atmosphere with volcanic ash for several years. This reduced the human population to less than 10,000 breeding pairs in equatorial Africa, from which all modern humans are descended. Being unprepared for the sudden change in climate, the survivors were those intelligent enough to invent new tools and ways of keeping warm and finding new sources of food (for example, adapting to ocean fishing based on prior fishing skills used in lakes and streams that became frozen).[citation needed]

Around 80–100,000 years ago, three main lines of Homo sapiens diverged, bearers of mitochondrial haplogroup L1 (mtDNA) / A (Y-DNA) colonizing Southern Africa (the ancestors of the Khoisan/Capoid peoples), bearers of haplogroup L2 (mtDNA) / B (Y-DNA) settling Central and West Africa (the ancestors of Niger–Congo and Nilo-Saharan speaking peoples), while the bearers of haplogroup L3 remained in East Africa.[citation needed]

The "Great Leap Forward" leading to full behavioral modernity sets in only after this separation. Rapidly increasing sophistication in tool-making and behaviour is apparent from about 80,000 years ago, and the migration out of Africa follows towards the very end of the Middle Paleolithic, some 60,000 years ago. Fully modern behaviour, including figurative art, music, self-ornamentation, trade, burial rites etc. is evident by 30,000 years ago. The oldest unequivocal examples of prehistoric art date to this period, the Aurignacian and the Gravettian periods of prehistoric Europe, such as the Venus figurines and cave painting (Chauvet Cave) and the earliest musical instruments (the bone pipe of Geissenklösterle, Germany, dated to about 36,000 years ago).[7]


Social brain hypothesis

The social brain hypothesis was proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who argues that human intelligence did not evolve primarily as a means to solve ecological problems, but rather as a means of surviving and reproducing in large and complex social groups.[8][9] Some of the behaviors associated with living in large groups include reciprocal altruism, deception and coalition formation. These group dynamics relate to Theory of Mind or the ability to understand the thoughts and emotions of others, though Dunbar himself admits in the same book that it is not the flocking itself that causes intelligence to evolve (as shown by ruminants).[8]

Dunbar argues that when the size of a social group increases, the number of different relationships in the group may increase by orders of magnitude. Chimpanzees live in groups of about 50 individuals whereas humans typically have a social circle of about 150 people, which is also the typical size of social communities in small societies and personal social networks;[10] this number is now referred to as Dunbar's number. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that the success of groups is dependent on their size at foundation, with groupings of around 150 being particularly successful, potentially reflecting the fact that communities of this size strike a balance between the minimum size of effective functionality and the maximum size for creating a sense of commitment to the community.[11] According to the social brain hypothesis, when hominids started living in large groups, selection favored greater intelligence. As evidence, Dunbar cites a relationship between neocortex size and group size of various mammals.[8] However, meerkats have far more social relationships than their small brain capacity would suggest. Another hypothesis is that it is actually intelligence that causes social relationships to become more complex, because intelligent individuals are more difficult to learn to know.[12]

There are also studies that show that Dunbar's number is not the upper limit of the number of social relationships in humans either.[13][14]

The hypothesis that it is brain capacity that sets the upper limit for the number of social relationships is also contradicted by computer simulations that show simple unintelligent reactions to be sufficient to emulate "ape politics"[15] and by the fact that some social insects such as the paper wasp do have hierarchies in which each individual has its place (as opposed to herding without social structure) and maintains their hierarchies in groups of approximately 80 individuals with their brains smaller than that of any mammal.[16]

Social exchange theory

Other studies suggest that social exchange between individuals is a vital adaptation to the human brain, going as far to say that the human mind could be equipped with a neurocognitive system specialized for reasoning about social change. Social Exchange is a vital adaptation that evolved in social species and has become exceptionally specialized in humans.This adaption will develop by natural selection when two parties can make themselves better off than they were before by exchanging things one party values less for things the other party values for more. However, selection will only pressure social exchange when both parties are receiving mutual benefits from their relative situation; if one party cheats the other by receiving a benefit while the other is harmed, then selection will stop. Consequently, the existence of cheaters—those who fail to deliver fair benefits—threatens the evolution of exchange. Using evolutionary game theory, it has been shown that adaptations for social exchange can be favored and stably maintained by natural selection, but only if they include design features that enable them to detect cheaters, and cause them to channel future exchanges to reciprocators and away from cheaters. Thus, humans use social contracts to lay the benefits and losses each party will be receiving (if you accept benefit B from me, then you must satisfy my requirement R). Humans have evolved an advanced cheater detection system, equipped with proprietary problem-solving strategies that evolved to match the recurrent features of their corresponding problem domains. Not only do humans need to determine that the contract was violated, but also if the violation was intentionally done. Therefore, systems are specialized to detect contract violations that imply intentional cheating.[17]

One problem with the hypothesis that specific punishment for intentional deception could coevolve with intelligence is the fact that selective punishment of individuals with certain characteristics selects against the characteristics in question. For example, if only individuals capable of remembering what they had agreed to were punished for breaking agreements, evolution would have selected against the ability to remember what one had agreed to.[18][19][20]

Sexual selection

This model, which invokes sexual selection, is proposed by Geoffrey Miller who argues that human intelligence is unnecessarily sophisticated for the needs of hunter-gatherers to survive. He argues that the manifestations of intelligence such as language, music and art did not evolve because of their utilitarian value to the survival of ancient hominids. Rather, intelligence may have been a fitness indicator. Hominids would have been chosen for greater intelligence as an indicator of healthy genes and a Fisherian runaway positive feedback loop of sexual selection would have led to the evolution of human intelligence in a relatively short period.[21]

In many species, only males have impressive secondary sexual characteristics such as ornaments and show-off behavior, but sexual selection is also thought to be able to act on females as well in at least partially monogamous species.[22] With complete monogamy, there is assortative mating for sexually selected traits. This means that less attractive individuals will find other less attractive individuals to mate with. If attractive traits are good fitness indicators, this means that sexual selection increases the genetic load of the offspring of unattractive individuals. Without sexual selection, an unattractive individual might find a superior mate with few deleterious mutations, and have healthy children that are likely to survive. With sexual selection, an unattractive individual is more likely to have access only to an inferior mate who is likely to pass on many deleterious mutations to their joint offspring, who are then less likely to survive.[21]

Sexual selection is often thought to be a likely explanation for other female-specific human traits, for example breasts and buttocks far larger in proportion to total body size than those found in related species of ape.[21] It is often assumed that if breasts and buttocks of such large size were necessary for functions such as suckling infants, they would be found in other species. That human female breasts ( typical mammalian breast tissue is small)[23] are found sexually attractive by many men is in agreement with sexual selection acting on human females secondary sexual characteristics.

Sexual selection for intelligence and judging ability can act on indicators of success, such as highly visible displays of wealth. Growing human brains require more nutrition than brains of related species of ape. It is possible that for females to successfully judge male intelligence, they must be intelligent themselves. This could explain why despite the absence of clear differences in intelligence between males and females on average, there are clear differences between male and female propensities to display their intelligence in ostentatious forms.[21]

Intelligence as a disease-resistance sign

A 2008 study argues that human cleverness is simply selected within the context of sexual selection as an honest signal of genetic resistance against parasites and pathogens.[24] The number of people with severe cognitive impairment caused by childhood viral infections like meningitis, protists like Toxoplasma and Plasmodium, and animal parasites like intestinal worms and schistosomes is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.[25] Even more people live with moderate mental damages, such as inability to complete difficult tasks, that are not classified as ‘diseases’ by medical standards, may still be considered as inferior mates by potential sexual partners.

Thus, widespread, virulent, and archaic infections are greatly involved in natural selection for cognitive abilities. People infected with parasites may have brain damage and obvious maladaptive behavior in addition to visible signs of disease. Smarter people can more skillfully learn to distinguish safe non-polluted water and food from unsafe kinds and learn to distinguish mosquito infested areas from safe areas. Smarter people can more skillfully find and develop safe food sources and living environments. Given this situation, preference for smarter child-bearing/rearing partners increases the chance that their descendants will inherit the best resistance alleles, not only for immune system resistance to disease, but also smarter brains for learning skills in avoiding disease and selecting nutritious food. When people search for mates based on their success, wealth, reputation, disease-free body appearance, or psychological traits such as benevolence or confidence; the effect is to select for superior intelligence that results in superior disease resistance.

Ecological dominance-social competition model

A predominant model describing the evolution of human intelligence is ecological dominance-social competition (EDSC),[26] explained by Mark V. Flinn, David C. Geary and Carol V. Ward based mainly on work by Richard D. Alexander. According to the model, human intelligence was able to evolve to significant levels because of the combination of increasing domination over habitat and increasing importance of social interactions. As a result, the primary selective pressure for increasing human intelligence shifted from learning to master the natural world to competition for dominance among members or groups of its own species.

As advancement, survival and reproduction within an increasing complex social structure favored ever more advanced social skills, communication of concepts through increasingly complex language patterns ensued. Since competition had shifted bit by bit from controlling "nature" to influencing other humans, it became of relevance to outmaneuver other members of the group seeking leadership or acceptance, by means of more advanced social skills. A more social and communicative person would be more easily selected.

Intelligence dependent on brain size

Human intelligence is developed to an extreme level that is not necessarily adaptive in an evolutionary sense. Firstly, larger-headed babies are more difficult to give birth to and large brains are costly in terms of nutrient and oxygen requirements.[27] Thus the direct adaptive benefit of human intelligence is questionable at least in modern societies, while it is difficult to study in prehistoric societies. Since 2005, scientists have been evaluating genomic data on gene variants thought to influence head size, and have found no evidence that those genes are under strong selective pressure in current human populations.[28] The trait of head size has become generally fixed in modern human beings.[29]

Group selection

Group selection theory contends that organism characteristics that provide benefits to a group (clan, tribe, or larger population) can evolve despite individual disadvantages such as those cited above. The group benefits of intelligence (including language, the ability to communicate between individuals, the ability to teach others, and other cooperative aspects) have apparent utility in increasing the survival potential of a group.

Nutritional status

Higher cognitive functioning develops better in an environment with adequate nutrition,[30] and diets deficient in iron, zinc, protein, iodine, B vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids, magnesium and other nutrients can result in lower intelligence[31][32] either in the mother during pregnancy or in the child during development. While these inputs did not have an effect on the evolution of intelligence they do govern its expression. A higher intelligence could be a signal that an individual comes from and lives in a physical and social environment where nutrition levels are high, whereas a lower intelligence could imply a child, its mother, or both, come from a physical and social environment where nutritional levels are low. Previc emphasizes the contribution of nutritional factors, especially meat and shellfish consumption, to elevations of dopaminergic activity in the brain, which may have been responsible for the evolution of human intelligence since dopamine is crucial to working memory, cognitive shifting, abstract, distant concepts, and other hallmarks of advanced intelligence.[33]

See also


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  29. Klug, William S.; Cummings, Michael R.; Spencer, Charlotte A.; Palladino, Michael A. (2012). Concepts of Genetics (Tenth ed.). Pearson. p. 669. ISBN 978-0-321-75435-6. h² values vary, but heritability tends to be low for quantitative traits that are essential to an organism's survival. Remember, this does not indicate the absence of a genetic contribution to the observed phenotypes for such traits. Instead, the low h² values show that natural selection has already largely optimized the genetic component of these traits during evolution. Unknown parameter |laysummary= ignored (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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Further reading