Big Brains and the Irish Elk

human brain sizeHave you ever questioned why we have such large brains?

The modern human brain is approx 1500 cubic centimeters, three/four times the current size of our closest ape ancestors. Two million years ago, our brains were roughly ape size, around 400cc, but in our transition from Australopithecus to Homo Sapien some evolutionary factor drove the expansion of this one organ to extreme proportions.

Biologically, our brains are hugely over-sized for our bodies. They are swollen organs, much larger and more sophisticated than we have ever required to satisfy purely biological needs. In Darwinian terms, our over-sized brains are actually a selective disadvantage, not just because of the mess of stimuli they create to distract us, but also because they require so much energy to support, energy that would be better devoted to, say, running away from predators. They are also dangerous to develop; just ask anyone who has ever given birth which part of the infant was the hard bit to squeeze out.

To quote Stephen Pinker, “Why would evolution ever have selected for sheer bigness of brain, that bulbous, metabolically greedy organ? … Any selection on brain size itself would surely have favoured the pinhead.”

But we seem to have done alright with them. We have adapted to our excess of cognition, and invented things like computer games, art galleries and shopping channels to keep them busy. We can’t simply switch these brains off, so we have developed our tendency to over-think everything into a series of complicated games to make our basic anthropological processes of eating, fucking and breathing stupidly challenging, just to make the most of our fine cognitive skills.

Clearly this hyper-demanding swollen mass we balance atop our slender necks is not acting in the interests of furthering the species. No other species have found the need to invent a Michelin Restaurant Rating System in order to eat, nor to develop hideously complicated systems of money, status, fame and haircuts in order to determine which members of the opposite sex are attractive to them. No other species thinks about their lives so deeply that some members of it decide upon suicide, not bothering to wait for predators or harsh natural conditions to determine their survival, but to do the job themselves. This is how “smart” we are. The survival of our species has not been because of our big brains, but despite it.

All the indications seem to point to the fact that, despite how pleased we are with ourselves at our ability to build bridges, fly aeroplanes, play football, invent religions and then fight wars over them, in the grand sweep of geological history, we are very likely going to be one of the flash-in-the-pan species. The “civilisation” our big brains have built around us has protected us from nature, but has weakened us physically. Over time we have lost the ability to survive in the natural world. In England, it only takes a few inches of snow to grind us to a standstill and make us unable to leave our homes. So it’s not going to take much of a natural disaster to finish us off.

And if we were to be wiped out tomorrow, it is probably unlikely we would even appear in the fossil record, simply because we’ve only been around 30,000 years or so, which is nothing. The entire history of homo-sapien is the final millimeter in the million mile marathon of life on earth. There’s a very good chance we would be gone and, after our bridges and aeroplanes have crumbled back to dust, leave no trace of our ever having been here.

the irish elk

But don’t lose heart, it may not be that bad. We aren’t the first freaky creatures to have survived long enough to leave a mark.

The Irish Elk, or Megaloceros Giganteus, was neither Irish, nor an Elk. It lived on our planet during the Late Pleistocene era. It sported the most ridiculous headgear ever seen in the history of the planet.

The antlers of the Irish Elk were around 12 feet wide, the size of a small car, a spread larger even than the body that supported them. They were hugely inappropriate appendages – large, heavy and awkward. They severely limited the areas the animal could move in. They were unable to seek food in forests, wetland, or heavy bush. They could only live on ground hard enough to support their weight in an environment open enough to permit them to move. To predators the antlers were a gift; too unwieldy for fighting or self-defence, too heavy to allow the animal to move with any speed, and so prominent that hiding or camouflage were impossible. The antlers were so big that just staying upright was the animal’s most immediate challenge. The “Irish” of the name comes from the peat bogs of Ireland where the majority of their fossilised remains were found. It is thought that the weight of the antlers caused the animals to sink into the bog to their deaths, which explains why so many of their remains have been discovered.

Yet still, despite this ridiculous handicap, the Irish Elk were awarded around 400,000 years on this planet. Nature demonstrated remarkable tolerance to the Irish Elk’s monstrous mutation. Who knows, perhaps she might be accommodating to Homo-Sapien’s monstrous mutation too.

Interesting though, it is now thought that the eventual demise of the Irish Elk was probably down to being hunted to extinction by the rise of Man. The beast had successfully survived half a million years of predators, climate change and natural disasters. But then no saber-toothed tiger ever needed a hat-rack, whereas mankind now has a pressing need to keep his swollen brain warm.

Large comedy antlers are probably not half as dangerous a mutation as an organ that can encourage the animal to engage in extreme sports, or build nuclear weapons though. While I’d like to believe we are no more freaky than the Irish Elk, we’d probably have been able to survive a pair of big antlers for a few hundred thousand years without too great an issue. But the big brain is likely to be a much shorter lived biological mistake.

posted January 13th, 2008

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