Saturday, September 17, 2005

We're Getting Smarter

Researchers from the University of Chicago have found new evidence that the human brain is continuing to evolve -- and has undergone substantial changes in the last 60,000 years. They have studied just two genes involved in determining the size of the brain, and have found that new versions of those genes have been spreading because they enhance brain functions. Controversy surrounds the findings because the researchers also note that the new genes are more common in certain populations -- although it has been highlighted that the genes do not necessarily confer any enhanced cognitive abilities.

I expect that many will want such research findings to be buried because it could be misinterpreted -- or misused. This censoring of science however, simply highlights the ignorance surrounding the research. First -- intelligence is a result of more than just genetics -- and having the necessary genes doesn't necessarily mean an individual or a population can claim smarts over another. You may have the genetics to make you a great athlete, but with no practice or training, there's no way you could exploit your innate abilities. Having a natural advantage over another with artistic, logic or different skills doesn't imply intelligence. All it means is that you may have a leg up. Secondly -- there's no evidence that a larger brain leads to greater intelligence. Men and women have different sizes of brains, but in general, the sexes have equal intelligence. Thirdly: we haven't started to understand how the brain works yet. Are we even exploiting what is at our disposal today? Turn on the TV for evidence. Fourthly: the shrinking of the world is leading to the end of diverse population groups. We're all becoming the same, even as we remain quite different as individuals. What does it all mean? Not a whole lot, except that we're gaining new understanding of how we're evolving and new insights into the brain. None of which is entirely bad.

Related reading:
  • Adaptive evolution of ASPM, a major determinant of cerebral cortical size in humans. [PDF]

  • Reconstructing the evolutionary history of microcephalin, a gene controlling human brain size. [PDF]

  • Accelerated Evolution of Nervous System Genes in the Origin of Homo sapiens [PDF]

  • Bruce Lahn -- interview from The Scientist.

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