Arms races have been a big engine of evolutionary progress, both in biological evolution and in the evolution of human societies. Another big driver has been improvements in the fidelity of inheritance. We see this in the evolution of genetic systems, including the evolution of life itself, and of the eukaryotic chromosome. And we’ll see it in human social evolution, including the evolution of language, of writing, of the alphabet, and printing.
Both arms races and improved information transmission may have been factors in the evolution of braininess.
The figure above is from the classic work of Harry Jerison, one of the pioneers in studying the evolution of brain size. It’s several steps away from the raw data, but what it shows is how mammalian Encephalization Quotients (EQs), a measure of brain size relative to body size, evolved over the Cenozoic. The figure might be read as the record of a brainy arms race between prey and predators, leading to increased variance in the EQ bell curve for both.
Primates of course are particularly brainy mammals. One popular explanation for this is a series of arms races within species, with bright monkeys and apes outwitting dimmer ones. This has been called the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis (or, in the case of macaques, macachiavellian intelligence).
This hypothesis may not hold up too well, however. One complication is that, contrary to what a lot of modularist evolutionary psychology might suggest, social intelligence in primates is not separate from other sorts of intelligence. The same primate species that are good at solving social problem (e.g. tricking other group members) are also clever about things like tool use and other complex foraging skills. Variation in intelligence across primate species mostly boils down to a single general factor, rather than a bunch of domain-specific aptitudes.
Also, the latest research suggests that variation in diet and ecology, such as the distinction between fruit eaters (brainy) and leaf eaters (not-so-much), accounts a lot of variation in brain size, while differences in social complexity (measured by group size) don’t seem to matter.
An alternative to the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis is the cultural intelligence hypothesis, with brainier animals more likely to innovate and more likely to learn others’ innovations. The first part pf this equation holds up: across various groups of organisms, including birds and primates, brainy animals are more flexible in their behavior, more likely to discover new adaptive behaviors, and more successful in colonizing novel environments. The second part is trickier. In recent years we’ve learned that learning useful information by observing others (go ahead, call it culture, if you want to annoy cultural anthropologists) is extremely widespread, and found in organisms like guppies and honeybees that no one thinks are terribly bright. So learning from others doesn’t take special smarts.
Where bigger brained animals may excel is not in how much social learning they do, but in how accurately they do it – in copying fidelity. Theoretical models of the evolution of copying suggest that accurate copying makes a big difference. Small changes in copying fidelity can lead to large changes in the persistence of cultural traits. Of course this will crucially important for human evolution: more on this in days to come.
For a wide-ranging introduction to this rapidly advancing area of research, written by a leader in the field, try Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.