Tag Archives: intelligence

The Two Main Theories of Brain Evolution

brain evolution

Fossil records (skull size) and archeology (tools) show a clear evolution in our species’ cognitive abilities.

But, when you think about it, our current level of intelligence is far from being necessary for survival. Hunter-gathers could easily get by without abstraction, reasoning and even language.

So where does human intelligence come from? Why has our brain size tripled in the course of our journey?

Two main reasons can account for this spectacular brain expansion. In other words, humans have developed larger brains to deal with either one of the following elements or a combination of both:

  1. Their physical environment
  2. Their fellow humans

In turn, this has led to two sets of hypotheses, namely

  1. Ecological theories
  2. Social theories

Ecological theorists argue that learning to master the environment gradually caused human intelligence to evolve. Without getting into specific theories, here are four factors that might have played a role in this increase.

  1. Food: A positive correlation exits between diet quality and brain size in primates.
  2. Foraging: The increase of food sources required a better memory.
  3. Bipedalism: Tool use increased the demands on cognitive abilities.
  4. Climate: The challenges of climate change called for better problem-solving skills.

The problem with ecological theories is that these factors aren’t unique to humans, which may explain why social theories have become more popular.

Social theorists, on the other hand, argue that living in complex social grouping is what provoked cognitive development in our species. Here again, instead of going over different theories, let’s look at three important (and interrelated) factors.

  1. Social complexity: The wide range of social rules required high-level cognitive skills.
  2. Sexual selection: The choice of intelligent mates created a positive feedback loop.
  3. Language: A symbolic system fosters conceptualization and inference skills.

At the moment, the predominant model explaining the emergence of human intelligence is the ecological dominance-social competition (EDSC) theory, which is a mix of ecological and social theories.

In short, it says that an initial growth of intelligence was enough to overcome ecological pressures, which caused population to increase. This, in turn, forced humans to compete and collaborate with each other, which led to larger brains and higher intelligence.

So humans became peak learners through collaboration and competition.

Here there may be an interesting parallel with knowledge workers, whose success in the organization often comes from their high level of emotional intelligence.

You Want To Be a Peak Learner? Find Where You’re Stupid

what is stupidity

“That was stupid of me!” If you aren’t saying that to yourself at least once a week, you’re not getting as smart as you could.

When do I feel stupid?

Whenever I don’t operate optimally. Either due to a failure to plan correctly, to think effectively, or to find an obvious solution.

It’s cliché to say that you learn from your mistakes, but this is different. Most people don’t even register their own stupidity, and when they do, they quickly sweep it under the rug.

What is stupidity anyway? 

Einstein said it best when he defined it as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So doing something stupid doesn’t mean you have a low IQ; it means you’re not learning from experience (yes, I’m an incremental theorist).

Stupidity is a failure to change, to adapt.

As the paleoanthropologist Rick Potts explains, what has taken us from caves to rocket science is our gradual ability to adapt to variation itself. In other words, we became increasingly allergic to inflexibility (read: stupidity).

Feeling stupid is a signal.

Don’t shy away from noticing your own stupidity, and welcome the unpleasant feeling it creates like a straight-shooting messenger. Receptiveness (self-awareness) is indeed the prerequisite first step of any learning.

So whenever you act stupid or fail to act smart, don’t shake your head in disbelief and rush to forget about it. Rather, grab that info and course correct. This is the be-all and end-all of learning.

What Is the Origin of Learning?

learning in human evolution

« We are here to learn. » This is what one of my friends says when he relapses and commits another alcohol-related blunder (don’t worry; he doesn’t read this blog).

That remark has always puzzled me. What exactly do we need to learn and for what purpose? But when you think about it, his assertion has a second meaning. Maybe my friend means that learning is the purpose itself, that we are born to learn.

According to brain scientists, such a view is dead on the money. The human brain comes pre-packaged with a level of flexibility that impels learning.

All living beings follow their genetic code. For example, moths are drawn to candle flames because they’re hardwired to navigate by the light of the moon; they’re unable to change with experience.

But a few species have been able to detach themselves from that programming, and rely on experience to survive and reproduce. We can say that learning was born the day an organism managed to override the primal instructions of its DNA, and respond to its environment on the fly.

How have humans become expert learners?

Essentially by being born prematurely, before their brain is ready. As Doctor Medina explains, if the brain completed its development inside the womb as expected, the baby’s head would be too big.

So our species have become peak learners because after birth our neurons, instead of slowing down, continue to multiply like crazy. Did you know that a 3-year-old’s brain is twice as active as a normal adult’s?

All and all, my friend is totally right. We’re biologically built to learn. The brain has the incredible chance to test drive its environment while under construction. That cerebral flexibility gives us the opportunity to map the world in real time and adjust to circumstances on the spot.

Knowing how to quickly detect opportunities and dangers, and adapt accordingly is what a peak learner is all about, isn’t it?