Humans are awesome. Our brains are gigantic, seven times larger than they should be for the size of our bodies. The human brain uses 25% of all the energy the body requires each day. And it became enormous in a very short amount of time in evolution, allowing us to leave our cousins, the great apes, behind.Read more...
Humans are awesome. Our brains are gigantic, seven times larger than they should be for the size of our bodies. The human brain uses 25% of all the energy the body requires each day. And it became enormous in a very short amount of time in evolution, allowing us to leave our cousins, the great apes, behind. So the human brain is special, right? Wrong, according to Suzana Herculano-Houzel. Humans have developed cognitive abilities that outstrip those of all other animals, but not because we are evolutionary outliers. The human brain was not singled out to become amazing in its own exclusive way, and it never stopped being a primate brain. If we are not an exception to the rules of evolution, then what is the source of the human advantage?
Herculano-Houzel shows that it is not the size of our brain that matters but the fact that we have more neurons in the cerebral cortex than any other animal, thanks to our ancestors' invention, some 1.5 million years ago, of a more efficient way to obtain calories: cooking. Because we are primates, ingesting more calories in less time made possible the rapid acquisition of a huge number of neurons in the still fairly small cerebral cortex -- the part of the brain responsible for finding patterns, reasoning, developing technology, and passing it on through culture.
Herculano-Houzel shows us how she came to these conclusions -- making "brain soup" to determine the number of neurons in the brain, for example, and bringing animal brains in a suitcase through customs. The Human Advantage is an engaging and original look at how we became remarkable without ever being special.
- ISBN-13: 9780262034258
- ISBN-10: 0262034255
- Publisher: Mit Press
- Publish Date: March 2016
- Page Count: 272
- Reading Level: Ages 18-UP
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-02-15
- Reviewer: Staff
In this engaging work, Herculano-Houzel, a biologist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, ponders whether human brains are extraordinary. Using data mostly collected in her own laboratory via a technique she devised for accurately counting the number of neurons in brains, she concludes that “our brain is remarkable, yes—but not special in the sense of being an exception to the rules of evolution.” She goes on to explain how primate brains are configured differently from non-primate brains, with the former having a much greater density of neurons than the latter, leading to greater cognitive capabilities. She also demonstrates that among primates, great apes are the outliers, not humans: great apes have smaller brains than expected based solely on body size, while humans possess the predicted size. In a relatively short but absolutely critical section, Herculano-Houzel draws on the work of others to explain that the human brain’s neuron density likely arose because humans learned how to cook food, which permits significantly more energy to be gained from a given amount of raw material. Herculano-Houzel puts her expertise as a science journalist to good use, though her heavy reliance on statistical patterns may put off some readers. (Apr.)