Archive for the 'Brain evolution' Category

Mind and Brain

Amazing special volume in Cortex: The Evolution of the Mind and the Brain. The issue is edited by Michel Thiebaut de Schotten and Karl Zilles, and it includes reviews articles and research reports on neuroanatomy, primatology, ecology, social cognition, networks, cytoarchitecture, neuroimaging, handedness, brain size and cortical folding. A great collection of papers and authors, indeed!

Domesticated bodies

Humans are hypothesized to have undergone a process of self-domestication, associated with reduction of aggressive behavior and enhanced sociability. We have also undergone anatomical changes in our parietal cortex, which is crucial for body cognition and visuospatial integration. In a recent Opinion Paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, Ben Gleeson and I wonder whether these two factors, self-domestication and body cognition, may have reciprocal influences, or even share some evolutionary mechanisms. A first likely bridge is our heightened use of technology, which is strictly associated with our body-tool prosthetic capacity and with our special life-cycle (adolescence and creativity, longevity, post-reproductive stages, etc.). The concept of “tool” is considered, in this article, through functional and cognitive parameters. A second connection is the social system, because body cognition and the association cortex affect group size and social skills based on egocentric perspectives. Neural plasticity could represent an important organic link between these anatomical and behavioral aspects. The article is part of a volume dedicated to Self-Domestication and Human Evolution.

Humans, chimps, and brain size

Amélie Beaudet and colleagues have now published a new review on the evolution of the modern human brain. They introduce many traditional issues in paleoneurology, including frontal lobe evolution, asymmetries, lunate sulcus, brain growth, and brain shape. They also provide a detailed discussion of the information we have on the evolution of brain size. Studies on this topic are frequently biased by statistical or taxonomic problems, because of the intrinsic limitations of the fossil record. Actually, any model (gradual, random, punctuated, etc.) can be supported by the few and scattered data, generating disagreements and debates. Isaac Asimov said “Where any answer is possible, all answers are meaningless”. In this paper, they describe their own approach, trying to deal with such limitations. They support a gradualist perspective, although with some discontinuities within some clades. The review strictly deals with brain evolution, but I really appreciate the taxonomic considerations at the beginning of the article, defending their reasons to include humans and apes in one single family. I belong to the opposite faction, namely to the resisting supporters of two distinct families for this group, with the term hominids restricted to humans and (probably) australopiths. Firstly, because I think that taxonomy should not try to trace phylogeny too strictly, constrained and forced by cladistic schemes. The real phylogeny is unknown (we use genes as a proxy, which is but an estimation, with pros and cons), and the phylogenetic hypotheses are frequently changing. Instead, a taxonomy based on the whole biological model (that includes anatomy, physiology and so on) is more stable and, importantly, can add more information on the actual evolutionary, zoological and ecological organization and role of a group of species. Secondly, because I think that differences are the great value of evolution, and taxonomy should acknowledge such differences. In this case, we must admit that our lineage is particularly dissimilar from all the other apes. This does not mean that we are better, but surely much different, and taxonomy should take into account the importance of such outstanding changes. Many anthropologists give all these taxonomical issues for granted, using one label or another just by repeating or copy-pasting what they hear around, generally following a mainstream without a personal or competent opinion. But passively repeating statements is proper of dogmas and mantras, something that should be left out of science.  That’s why I really appreciate that, in this article, Amélie and her coauthors take a clear position, explaining their reasons.

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More on humans and chimps can be found in this other recent review on human paleoneurology. For Spanish readers, here a provocative dissemination article on humans and apes, and another one on the immense value of diversity.

Shaping cortical evolution

Happy 2019 to everybody! To begin with this new year, here a new review on human paleoneurology, published in Journal of Comparative Neurology. Some conceptual and methodological issues in functional craniology, digital anatomy and computed morphometrics are introduced and discussed. The case-study on parietal evolution is also briefly summarized, with special attention to connectivity. Nonetheless, more specifically, the review points to theoretical and practical limitations of the field. Living species can provide information on the product of evolution, while fossils are necessary to provide information on the process. In the former case (extant species) we can rely on more comprehensive biological analyses, but results concern the final result of the process, not the process itself. In the latter case (extinct species) we can investigate directly the process, but samples are generally not representative neither at biological nor at statistical level. This dual framework is often not properly acknowledged, confounding taxonomy (the product) with phylogeny (the process). When samples and information are analyzed without these cautions in mind, conclusions can generate misleading hybrid perspectives. From the one hand, living species (monkeys and apes in anthropology and evolutionary neuroscience) are still frequenlty misinterpreted as primitive human ancestors. At the same time, scattered and descriptive information on individual and fragmented fossils are generalized to propose broad and inclusive theories. Both aspects are, scientifically speaking, crucial weaknesses, generating instability and unreliability within the field.

Another issue concerns the Homo-centric perspective that still contaminates evolutionary neuroanatomy and evolutionary anthropology. Apart from generating a deformed evolutionary scenario, anthropocentric views demote attention towards the other primates. Apes are generally used to “shed light on human evolution”. But living apes are not ancestral to humans. They could be bad models to understand our evolution, as we humans are probably bad models to understand their own one. They have their own specialized traits, which merit attention. In fact, apes are themselves an exceptional zoological case study. Anthropology is interesting, but apeology is interesting too. In cognitive terms, for example, apes could have capacities that we have never evolved. Finally, it can be also worth nothing that, charmed in searching for “what makes us humans”, we are neglecting “what makes us primates”. Because these latter features are associated with instincts, emotions, and cognitive constraints, they seriously deserve attention. Mostly when recognizing that they often deal with our social aspects, and with their consequences.

Little Foot

The endocast of the australopith StW 573 is pretty complete, and now Amélie Beaudet and colleagues have published a very detailed and comprehensive anatomical analysis of its features. For many paleoneurological traits we still miss a reliable knowledge on intra- and inter-specific variation but, according to what we can currently see in Australopithecus, Paranthropus and chimpanzees, StW 573 does not display derived sulcal patterns in the frontal and parietal regions. Its overall endocranial form resembles the morphology of some Paranthropus specimens, although in this case there are still some issues on deformation and possible taphonomic effects (specially at the frontal bone). The study supplies a careful description of the vascular patterns, in particular for the middle meningeal artery. In humans, only our species has generally a complex vascular network, while vessels are more scarce and less connected in extinct human taxa. Nonetheless, these same vessels (or, at least, their analogous networks) are more developed in apes. Therefore, australopiths are a key group to understand what happened with these traits, and to assess the polarity of these features in the evolution of distinct hominoid branches.

Globularity genes

Today, Philipp Gunz and colleagues have published a real milestone for paleoneurology: a comprehensive analysis integrating brain anatomy and paleogenetics to identify the genes involved in brain form differences between modern humans and Neanderthals. They compute an individual globularization index for a very large modern human sample size, and then look for the effect of supposedly introgressed Neanderthal genes. They found correlations between our individual brain globularity and genes involved in neurogenesis and myelination, most of all in putamen and cerebellum. Interestingly, they don’t find morphometric signals for parietal changes, even if there is evidence of actual parietal cortical differences among humans, between modern and extinct humans, and most of all between humans and apes. Furthermore, putamen and cerebellum are seriously involved in motor circuitry (including tool use?), something which is crucially coordinated by the parietal cortex, at physical (body) and virtual (visual imaging) level. As usually, caution is required when such complex methods are employed (in this case, the many assumptions in shape analysis, the many assumptions in brain imaging, and the many assumptions in paleogenetics). These results should be probably intended more to support hypotheses than to supply conclusive answers. Although these results point to individual brain shape differences among modern humans associated with neurogenesis and myelination, the study does not provide specific comments about possible functional or cognitive aspects, naming only some very general behavioral issues. Some relevant cogntive effects are, indeed, expected. The issue is definitely thorny (Neanderthal introgressed genes into our own species associated with consequences in individual brain form and development!), but should have probably deserved a more courageous interpretation. After all, also in science one must take into account that old and wise adage: if you don’t like the answer, don’t ask the question. In the supplementary information there is an amazing comparison (S1) between CT endocasts and MRI brains. This supplementary analysis is, in my opinion, a real jewel for this field, and I really hope that more future papers will be dedicated to what is here a single figure. Here an article from the New York Times.

Human brain variation

One year ago Croxson and colleagues published a survey on human and macaques brain variation, a paper which has been issued this month in Cerebral Cortex. They considered variation in white and grey matter, comparing inter and intra-specific patterns, and discussing similarities between the evolutionary and individual degree of variability. This study evidences the importance of variation as a source of evolutionary possibilities and constraints. The survey was based on only 10-20 individuals and, despite any statistical reassurance, we have to recognize that this is an unusual sample size for a study targeted to describe and quantify intra-specific diversity. Furthermore, in these kinds of analyses one has constantly the sensation that phylogenetic differences (macaque-human) are still interpreted as evolutionary differences (ancestral-descendant), which is definitely an inappropriate perspective when dealing with extant species. Also, the fact that we keep on using the term “monkey” when referring to one single species of hundreds of living, independent and diverse ones, denotes a still-alive linear approach to the evolutionary schemes (the old fashion progression monkey -> ape -> human). This paper was then commented by Aida Gómez-Robles, who discussed the pros and cons of this study. Some months later, Reardon and colleagues published a similar analysis, but on a huge sample. In her review, Aida Gómez-Robles pointed to endocasts as a potential source of additional information on intra-specific brain variation. Definitely a good point, and a valiant position to be presented in a mainstream journal on cognition. Endocasts and macroanatomy are issues which are often neglected in neuroscience. Nonetheless, two aspects must be taken into account. First, macroanatomy and morphology still hide many issues which suffer a dramatic lack of information, and that can reveal unexpected suprises. This is also true taking into account traditional neuroanatomy and, for example, in our last survey on human brain variation (on 265 individuals) the precuneus still stands as a major source of gross morphological human diversity. Second, although endocasts can’t provide a comprehensive information on brain biology, they can remarkably help to increase the sample size when dealing with primates and especially hominoids, because of the many collections available as dry or digital skulls. A recent study on the degree of endocranial metric variation in apes, humans, and hominids can be found here.


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