TOPIC – Smaller, smarter

“A new study questions the assumption that bigger brains is a sign of intelligence.”

Humans pride themselves on being the blue-eyed children of evolution. Not only does the homo sapiens have opposable thumbs and the ability to walk upright, we have big brains relative to our size. Bigger brains are not only seen as a sign of cleverness, but as proof that natural selection incentivises the intelligent human. A new study published in the journal Science Advances has called that common sense into question. Researchers who examined brain and body size of 1,400 living and extinct mammal species over the last 150 million years now argue that it is possible that mammal species evolved not to have bigger brains — but smaller body sizes because it helped to adapt to environmental changes. That is to say, evolution isn’t rooting for increased cognition levels in the human species. But humans, of course, have sold themselves the story of being the most exceptional creatures on the planet. From the Enlightenment onwards, intelligence and reason were used as a justification for humans’ appropriation of nature, the creation of wealth and colonisation of nations. But the study flags a bias in this logic. Humans, secure in the knowledge of their higher wisdom, have interpreted big brains as evidence of better selection. Evolutionary logic, however, might care two hoots about intelligence — indeed, the tenacity of the cockroach or the persistence of microbes might help them more in the battle of survival of the fittest. In contrast, the unchecked plunder of the planet’s resources, all aided and enabled by human intelligence, has accelerated climate change and put all life on the planet to risk. In the middle of this raging pandemic, as millions of Sars-Cov-2 viruses use human bodies to multiply and propagate their genetic code, their immense damage to human life is a reminder: In the big stakes of evolution, an organism smaller than the tiniest speck might have the last laugh. That’s a no-brainer.