Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 187-194 ( 13 May )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/barash.html
What's A Brain For?
David P. Barash, Professor of Psychology, University of Washington (Seattle),
A Brain For All Seasons
By William H. Calvin
341 pp, University of Chicago Press (2002)
The Mating Mind
By Geoffrey Miller
503 pp, Doubleday (2000; in paper Anchor Books: 2002)
I recall an old joke - of the type known generically in the US as a "shaggy-dog
story" - that involved a "potfer." After several minutes of lengthy and
irrelevant narration, the joke's victim is led to ask, "What's a potfer?"
whereupon the joke-teller triumphantly announces the punch-line: "Cooking." So,
what's a brainfer? Most people would answer "Thinking." Most evolutionary
biologists, however, are likely to disagree, pointing out that the adaptive
significance of brains isn't thought but rather, promoting the fitness of
bodies within which they reside . or, more precisely, the fitness of those
genes that are responsible for producing the brains in question.
Brains may or may not be good at making sense of the world, or thinking great
thoughts, or providing vivid subjective experiences to its possessors, or
adroitly controlling their bodies. It is even possible, one can imagine, to be
too brainy for one's own good, which brings up another story, this one told by
the late Ian McHarg: It was the aftermath of World War III and our planet had
been reduced to radioactive cinders. In the deepest recesses of the ocean, the
few exiguous survivors - a motley group of primitive, amoeboid creatures - have
just decided they are going to try once again, but before they separated, ready
to initiate, once again, that old evolutionary process, they take a solemn vow:
"This time, no brains!"
Brains, in short, can be a problem. For evolutionary biologists, they
definitely are. The question is "Why did our brains become so large, so
quickly?" which often boils down to "How do/did they contribute to fitness?"
The answers have not been easy to obtain. Or rather, they have been too
forthcoming. Just as Mark Twain once pointed out that it was easy to stop
smoking - he had done it hundreds of times! - it is easy to identify the
adaptive significance of the extraordinarily large human brain: it has been
done dozens of times.
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