Models in paleoneurology

Pithsight 2013 (EBruner)Paleoneurology gets new tools. By using living species, Eiluned Pearce and colleagues look for correlations between neural and non-neural anatomical elements, and then apply their results to fossils. This approach opens up an incredibly large set of new research lines. They find a correlation between orbit size and visual cortex which, after a delicate series of normalization processes, suggests that Neandertals had larger visual areas of the brain. At the expense of the parietal ones. This new information seems to provide further support for the hypothesis of relative dilation of the parietal lobes in our species. The long chain of numerical transformations the authors applied to control any possible scaling factor is really efficient and successful. Evidently it also introduces many assumptions and estimations which call for caution when dealing with strict interpretations of the final outputs. Also, we know that only in modern humans and Neandertals the prefrontal brain areas lie on the orbital roof, generating complex constraints between brain and eyes that may produce departures from the schemes of other species. Nonetheless, with these limits in mind, we must recognize that this study supplies new and fresh ideas to our field, and relevant new information on Neandertals. It is also useful in reminding us once more that different lineages may undergo different cognitive evolution, which in the case of the brain means improving or demoting different behavioural skills. This recalculation of the different cortical areas in fossil hominids also supplies new estimations of parameters associated with primates’ biology and social structure, such as the average group size.

Many people are warning against “paleo-phrenology”, but this should not be the case. This is a correlation study. A theory can explain a correlation or fail to do it, but the correlation is there, and it can reveal underlying information. Caution is recommended, but this is always recommended in science. It is strange how we are critic against a lots of details for complex models in evolution, yet we accept overly simplistic alternatives like those associating cognition with a single molecule or gene …

A comment on National Geographic.

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