Posts Tagged ‘Chimpanzees’

Book on the Evolution of the Human Brain

December 30, 2017

The Human Brain Evolving: Paleoneurological Studies in Honor of Ralph L. Holloway, edited by Douglas Broadfield, Michael Yuan, Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth. Stone Age Institute Press, Gosport Indiana and Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. 2010.

This is another book I got much cheaper than the cover prise through Oxbow Books’ bargain catalogue. The book is a collection of papers from a two day conference by the Stone Age Institute in April 2007 to celebrate the life and work of Ralph Holloway, one of the great founders of the field. Holloway as he explains in the first paper in which he gives his personal perspective, started out studying metallurgy at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia in the 1950s. He then moved to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he took courses in anthropology and geology. After this, he enrolled in the Ph.D. programme in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. There he became interested in exploring how evolution had shaped the development of primate brains. His interest in this area led him to do research in the brain casts from australopithecine skulls in South Africa, where his mentor was professor Phillip V. Tobias. In 1969 he settled down to study paleoneurology fulltime. His decision was partly made by the testicular trauma he suffered the previous year by the cops while in a student demonstration in New York. This gave him considerable with Prof. Tobias as the struggles he was having against apartheid and the fuzz in South Africa.

As Holloway himself explains, any study of the evolutionary development of the specialised structure of the human brain was very strongly discouraged when he was a student. The simple assumption was that humans got more intelligent as their brains got bigger. There was no investigation about how the particular areas of the brain, in which specific brain functions are located, developed. Indeed this was actively and vehemently discouraged. He says that his first mentor at Berkeley was Professor Sherwood Washburn, who kindly suggested that he take various courses in anatomy. When Holloway told him that he wanted to take the course in neuroanatomy, however, Washburn was horrified, and said that he would no longer be Holloway’s mentor if he did so, fearing that it would make him too specialised to be a physical anthropologist, an argument Holloway found unconvincing. He goes on to point out the paucity of material in physical anthropological textbooks from the 1950s to the present, pointing out that only one, published in 2008 actually does because its co-author, John Allen, is a neurologist.

The book’s contents include the following papers.

Chapter 1: The Human Brain Evolving: A Personal Retrospective, Ralph L. Holloway.

Chapter 2: The Maternal Energy Hypothesis of Brain Evolution: An Update, Robert D. Martin and Karen Isler.

Chapter 3: The Meaning of Brain Size: The Evolution of Conceptual Complexity, P. Tom Schoeneman.

Chapter 4: Human Brain Endocasts and the LB1 Hobbit Brain, Ralph L. Holloway.

Chapter 5: The Fossil Hominid Brains of Dmanisi: D 2280 and D2282, Dominique Grimaud-Herve and David Lordkipandze.

Chapter 6: The Evolution of the Parietal Cortical Areas in the Human Genus: Between Structure and Cognition, by Emiliano Bruner.

Chapter 8: Study of Human Brain Evolution at the Genetic Level, by Eric J. Vallender and Bruce T. Lahn.

Chapter 9: Brain Reorganisation in Humans and Apes, by Katerina Semendeferi, Nicole Barger and Natalie Schenker.

Chapter 10: Searching for Human Brain Specializations with Structural and Functional Neuroimaging, by James K. Rilling.

Chapter 11: Structural and Diffusion MRI of a Gorilla Brain Performed Ex Vivo at 9.4 Tesla, by Jason A. Kaufman, J. Michael Tyszka, Francine “Penny” Patterson, Joseph M. Erwin, Patrick R. Hof, and John M. Allman.

Chapter 12: The role of Vertical Organisation in the Encephalisation and Reorganisation of the Primate Cortex, Daniel P. Buxhoeveden.

Chapter 13: The Evolution of Cortical Neurotransmitter Systems Among Primates and their Relevance to Cognition, Mary Ann Raghanti, Patrick R. Hof, and Chet C. Sherwood.

Chapter 14: Sex Differences in the Corpus Callosum of Macaca fascicularis and Pan troglodytes, by Douglas C. Broadfield.

Chapter 15: Dental Maturation, Middle Childhood and the Pattern of Growth and Development in Earlier Hominins, by Janet Monge and Alan Mann.

Chapter 16: Perikymata Counts in Two Modern Human Sample Populations, by Michael Sheng-Tien Yuan.

Chapter 17: Mosaic Cognitive Evolution: The case of Imitation Learning, by Francys Subiaul.

Chapter 18: The Foundations of Primate Intelligence and Language Skills, by Duane M. Rumbaugh, E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, ,James E. King and Jared P. Taglialatella.

Chapter 19: Hominid Brain Reorganisation, Technological Change, and Cognitive Complexity, Nicholas Toth and Kathy Schick.

Clearly this is a written at an advanced, technical level for a specialist academic audience. I’ve done little but skim through it so far, but have found some fascinating facts. For example, Holloway’s paper on the brain of the Flores Hobbit recognises that it does share some features of modern microcephalics, but also others that are very different. This could mean that the creature could have been an archaic hominid suffering from a peculiar form of neurological defects that now no longer exists.

Emiliano Bruner’s paper argues from the study of Neanderthal and Early Modern Humans that modern humans’ parietal lobes are actually larger than would have been predicted by evolutionary theory for hominids of our size.

Anne Weaver’s paper argues that, in contrast to the standard view that this area of the brain has not evolved in the course of the development of modern humans, 30,000 years ago the size of the Cerebellum increased relative to the Cerebrum. The cerebellum is the part of the human brain dedicated to motor coordination and related tasks.

Douglas Broadfield’s paper on sex difference in chimp brains takes further Holloway’s and Kitty Lacoste’s 1982 paper, which controversially showed that that the corpus callosum in women was larger than those of men. His study of this part of the brain in chimps shows that this development is unique to humans.

Paleoneurology is still controversial, and Holloway holds some very controversial opinions. He’s an evolutionary reductionist, who considers culture to be the sole product of evolution, and religion and politics to be intrinsically evil. It’s an opinion he recognises is not held by the vast majority of people.

He also laments how the anthropology course at Columbia has abandoned physical anthropology, and been taken over completely by social anthropology, stating that the majority appear ‘postmodern, post colonialist, feminist and political’. This led to him being marginalised and isolated at the faculty.

He also states that it is stupid, for reasons of ‘political correctness’ not to consider that the same evolutionary processes that have shaped the different physical forms of the various human races, have not also affected their mental capacities and evolution too. He describes this research as intensely political and near-suicidal, and describes how he was accused of being a Nazi because of his investigation into it. He states that one critic described it as the kind of research that got his relatives put into concentration camps.

Professor Holloway is clearly a decent, humane man, who has in his day stood up for liberal values and protested against institutional racism. However, while he states that the neurological differences between male and female brains are ‘more or less accepted’ today, there are still women neurologists, who argue against them. More recently they’ve argued that sex difference in the brain are a continuum between the extremely male and extremely female, with most people lumped somewhere in between. In fact, the sex differences in the brain are so small that you simply can’t tell by looking whether a brain is male or female.

Furthermore, anthropological science was used in the period of full-blown European colonialism to justify White rule over their non-White subject peoples, and certainly has been used by Nazis and Fascists to justify their persecution of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and other ‘subhumans’. After the War, the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley cited scientific papers on the differences in intelligence between the races to argue for a form of apartheid that would lead to the complete separation of Blacks and Jews from White, gentile Brits. This would affect only those, who were allowed to remain in Britain, because their culture was compatible with White, gentile British civilisation. See the section 13, ‘The Colour Question in Britain, Immigration, the Racial Question’ in his wretched book, Mosley – Right or Wrong, published by Lion Books in 1961. And of course, like all Fascist after the War, Mosley denied that he was actually racist!

Holloway knows from personal experience just how touchy this subject is, and is aware that the lower IQ scores made by Black Americans is still a subject of intense and acrimonious debate. But he thinks it silly to rule out the question of racial differences in human brain structure because of current political dogma.

This is too complacent. My impression here is Prof. Holloway has this rather more tolerant view of the acceptability of this direction of neurological investigation, because he is a White man from a privileged background. After all, in the 1950s very few working or lower middle class Americans could afford to do a university or college degree. It simply has not affected him personally, although he has stood on the barricades to denounce racism and support other liberal causes during the student unrest of the late ’60s. The same applies to women. In the second edition of the BBC popular science programme QED in the ’80s, a female scientist presented a programme on how male scientists down the centuries had tried to argue that women were biologically inferior, before concluding that ‘the tables are turning’.

Racial neurology and the neurology of gender differences is particularly dangerous now with the rise of the Alt Right and real White supremacists and Nazis surrounding Donald Trump, and the whole milieu of the Republican party and Libertarians in America. These are intensely racist, despising Blacks, Asians and Latinos, and using scientific evidence like the highly controversial ‘Bell Curve’ to argue that Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites. I’ve also seen the islamophobes argue that Muslims also shouldn’t be allowed into Britain from the Middle East and Pakistan, as the average intelligence of the people from those regions is 75! Which to my mind is just ridiculous.

I’ve also heard from a friend, who keeps up with the latest neurological research by talking to some of the scientists involved, that recent studies of neuroplasticity have cast doubt on the amount of specialisation of brain function in specific brain regions. Moreover, everyone’s brain, male and female, is weird up differently. We may in fact know far less about the nature of the human brain, a point made by the neurologist and Humanist Professor Raymond Tallis in his book, Aping Mankind, written against precisely this kind of reductionism, which tries to reduce human cognition and culture by viewing it solely in terms of Darwinian theory in which humans are simply another species of ape.

This is a fascinating book, and offers many insights into the evolution of the human brain. But this is an area that is still developing, and intensely controversial. As such, other scientific opinions are available and should be read as well.

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Frans de Waal Goes in Search of Atheist Chimps

May 18, 2013

Looking through Waterstone’s last week, I found in the popular science section Frans de Waal’s latest work, The Atheist Amongst the Bonobos, with a subtitle about Humanism in our nearest relatives. De Waal is a primatologist with an interest in using ape behaviour to try to explain human nature and society. One of his previous books had the title Ape Politics. I don’t think it’s entirely accidental that his latest book is about Bonobos, rather than the chimpanzees that usually comprise the subjects of primate research. Unlike chimps, Bonobos are matriarchal, with the females holding considerable social power. They are also very promiscuous with sex used to counteract social tensions and prevent the formation of alliances amongst the male bonobos, which lead to violence in chimpanzees. It seems to reflect the hopes and expectations of ’60s radicalism that if women had more freedom and power, in politics and business and the Judeo-Christian taboos against sex were abolished, society would become much less violent and wars would cease.

Now it may be that if women had more power, there would be less violence and war. There have been numerous feminist movements throughout history that have attempted to end conflict. One of the latest was a group of mother’s in Northern Ireland from both sides of the sectarian divide. They had lost their children to the paramilitary violence, and so were campaigning for its end. On the other hand, the BBC’s veteran reporter, Kate Adie, in her book on women and war, noted that women could be just as belligerent and pro-war as men. She cited the women, who stood on street corners handing out feathers to men, who had not joined up during the First World War. As for the issue of sex and violence, the rise of the permissive society in Europe has effectively removed much of Judeo-Christian morality concerning sex. Sex before marriage appears to have become the norm, and there is more explicit depiction of sex and sexual relations than was usually permitted when society was governed by Judeo-Christian notions of sexual restraint. It’s arguable, however, whether society is less violent. Critics of the view that freer sex would mean less war and violence have pointed out that many of the most violent societies in the ancient world had far more permissive attitudes to sex than in later, Judeo-Christian societies. Babylonian religion, for example, featured fertility cults and sacred prostitution, which were strongly condemned by the Hebrew prophets.

De Waal’s book also seems to partake of a romantic view of primitive life that goes back to ancient Rome, and even found occasional expression in medieval culture. The Romans believed that the people of the Golden Age lived without tools, agriculture and civilisation in a state of paradaisical innocence, free of disease and war. Thte archaeologist, Stephanie Moser, in her book Ancestral Images shows a depiction of a family of hairy wild men from a medieval book illustration. The image of the Wild Man first appears in the 13th century or so. They are shown naked, with a club, and usually represent primitive violence set against European civilisation and chivalry. This particular picture, however, shows a Wild Man, with his wife, a Wild Woman, nursing their baby. An accompanying poem records how they live according to nature, eating wild plants, drinking water – but only when they’re thirsty – and sleeping out on the grass. Each stanza ends with the refrain, ‘And so I have, thank God, enough’. The Wild People of the picture are therefore held up as pursuing a natural, frugal, godly life, free of the luxuries and vices of human civilisation. A similar attitude appears to be behind de Waal’s books.

The use of chimpanzees and other primates as ideal models of basic human cognitive and social traits and behaviour has also been criticised, notable by the neurologist Raymond Tallis and and the BBC science journalist, Jeremy Taylor. Tallis in his book, Aping Mankind, and Taylor in Not a Chimp both argue that human culture makes us profoundly different from chimpanzees. Taylor in particular points out that we are not as close to chimpanzees as has been frequently suggested. Instead of the genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees being a mere 1 or two per cent, it’s more likely to be four per cent. And this is merely genetic difference. In these different genes lie the whole world of human culture and civilisation. Taylor notes that the last common ancestor between human and chimpanzees was six million years ago. And just as humans have been evolving in those six million years, so have chimpanzees. The total evolutionary difference between people and chimps is therefore 12 million years. Tallis points out that even the most basic, biological activities, like eating and going to the toilet, in humans takes place within a network of thought and symbolic culture that simply is not present in apes. Taylor aos points out that in humans, politics takes place within a network of rights, obligations and responsibilities of which chimpanzees simply aren’t aware. Both Taylor and Tallis find intensely distasteful and factually wrong the attempts to reduce humanity to another type of ape. Taylor is also extremely critical of the accompanying anthropomorphism of chimpanzees into another type of humans. He draws a parallel with the adverts for PG Tips tea which ran for years on British television. These featured a group of costumed chimps in humorous situations, trying to perform human tasks, like moving pianos, before settling down to a nice cup of tea. They were degrading spectacles, which are now mercifully discredited and taken off the air. Yet the attempt to gain specifically human rights for chimps and other apes is also degrading in its anthropomorphism. Rather than attempt to assimilate them legally to us, we should, in Taylor’s view, recognise their difference. Only through properly appreciating and providing for that, can we see that they and other wild animals receive the proper ecological protection they need and deserve.

As for atheism, nearly ten years or so now primatologists noticed chimps gazing into the distance. They suggested that this indicated that chimps also had a vague sense of the transcendance that forms the heart of religious experience. Now this is a long way from claiming that chimps or other primates are religious, but it does indicate that there is a beginning of the ‘sensus divinitatis’ – the sense of the divine in these related primates.

Taken together, bonobos, chimps and the other apes cannot be taken as models for human nature and society. Doing so mistakenly idealises and anthropormises them. Primatology can contribute much to our understanding of these creatures as well as humans, but the differences between apes and humans must also be respected. Between us and our nearest relatives there is a whole world of culture.